Last April I traveled to Italy for the launch of the Beretta’s new SL3 Over Under shotgun. Here’s an article I wrote about the trip for Shooting Sportsman magazine. Pics are from Project Upland’s A.J. DeRosa.
The Italian Way
Give me a ‘friggin break, Italy. It was a Sunday, almost 7 pm. After an overnight flight into Milan and a couple of hours on trains, I was in Brescia, sitting at the edge of a square called Piazzale Arnaldo, jet-lagged, cranky, and hungry enough to eat a gunstock.
I had booked a hotel in the part of town known for dining and nightlife, so I had charged out of it an hour earlier expecting to find crowds of people and bustling restaurants everywhere. I had imagined laughter, palmed glasses of red wine, and plates of Risotto alla Milanese and Tortelli di Zucca. But instead of walking into a scene from La Dolce Vita, I walked into ghost town out of a spaghetti western.
Everywhere I went, the streets were deserted: Via Tosio, Via S. Faustino, Via Crispi. Windows were shuttered; shops were closed; restaurants were empty. Nothing was open. I was looking to EAT, and my outfit, a dark shirt topped with a darker jacket, was ready to mask some spilled sauce. But there was no risotto or tortelli to be found anywhere. I couldn’t even get pizza. In Italy. Defeated and fading, I considered my situation. Room service at my hotel? Vending machines in the lobby? Did my hotel have vending machines? Ugh.
As I wondered, bells in towers throughout the city started to ring-in 7 pm. Dong, dong, dong. By the time they finished, the Piazzale Arnaldo had come to life. Couples appeared from around the corner and strolled by hand in hand. The Osteria Vecchio restaurant flicked on its lights and a waiter lined up tables on the stone walkway front. An old man with a cane tapped past. Within an hour or so, everything I had hoped to find earlier had appeared: Chatting people, open restaurants, and, finally, dinner: Casoncelli alla Bresciana (raviolis stuffed with meat, showered with sage butter, guanciale, and parmesan cheese). My shirt did not stay clean.
So what had happened? Basically, Italians do things their own way. On Sundays, that means spending the afternoon with family. Instead of going out around 5 pm (like an American expected them to do), they waited until later. As I would find out, the Italians also do things their own way when it comes to building firearms, and this is what made Beretta’s newest over-under so worthy of attention.
Confusingly, Brescia is both una citta and una provincia in northern Italy. The second contains the first, and both are nudged against the Italian Alps, closer to Geneva than to Rome. The Provincia di Brescia is the industrial capital of Europe. Along with being a top producer of everything from automobile wheels to pipe fittings, the provincia builds 40% of the sporting guns sold throughout the world. In 2016, the province of Brescia sent more than 395,000 sporting guns to the U.S. alone. Most were built in Gardone Val Trompia, a town 30 miles north of the città di Brescia.
Gardone Val Trompia is squeezed into a valley (il Val Trompia) between mountain and peaks with wonderfully euphonic names like Monte Rodondone, Punta Almana, and Corni di Sonclivo. Unfortunately, the views of them from town aren’t worth seeing. This and Gardone Val Trompia industrial-park vibe keeps the area off of most tourists’ lists. Chances are, anyone traveling there isn’t looking for scenery; they’re looking for guns. Dozens of gunmakers and gun-related business are stacked into Val Trompia, from Zoli and F.lli Rizzini to the famous Creative Art engraving studio. The king of all them all is Fabbrica d’Armi Pietro Beretta S.p.A. I was in Gardone Val Trompia to learn more Beretta’s new SL3, an over-under shotgun the company introduced to the U.S. at the 2018 Safari Club International Convention in Las Vegas. Compared to all the other OUs already on the market, I wanted to see if the SL3 was worth paying attention to at all.
“With the SL3, we took all our experience in ballistics, all our experience in manufacturing premium guns, and all our experience in designing beautiful guns, and we put all of this together.” That’s Roberto Zarrillo, Marketing Manager at Beretta. If you know much about his employer, you realize Mr. Zarrillo’s saying a whole lot when he refers to “all our experience.”
Beretta is the world’s oldest gunmaker. It was established in 1526 by Bartolomeo Beretta. That was during the reign of England’s King Henry VIII and hundreds of years before James Purdey or Charles Parker were born. Over the last 492 years, Beretta has made everything from arquebus barrels to the M9 pistol used by today’s U.S. Armed Forces. Of course, Beretta has also made all types of shotguns.
In 1933, the company created its first breechloading OU: The Model S1. With sidelocks and a Woodward-style low-profile action, the Mod. S1 looked like a best-quality British OU. What set it apart was how Beretta built it–and its price. Using high-precision industrial techniques they perfected when building guns like their Model 1915 semiautomatic pistol, they updated traditional gunmaking techniques and turned out a world-class shotgun. Price wise, in the ‘50s, Beretta’s top-of-the-line SO3 cost $750, and a Purdey OU was $2,300. This combination of high-quality and affordability made the Mod. S1 and the sidelock Beretta OUs that followed revolutionary. It also made them the first successful Italian over-unders of the twentieth century and the foundation for all the over-unders Beretta builds today, including the new SL3.
“Il Maestro” is a tough title to pull off, but with the just the right mix of sophistication and flair, Il Maestro Ferdinando Belleri, Beretta’s master gunmaker, nails it. When I met him, I didn’t know if I should shake his hand–or kiss it. We were in Beretta Due, home of the company’s Premium Division and where Maestro Belleri oversees the gunmakers who hand fit, stock, engrave, and finish Beretta’s finest firearms. As Il Maestro prepared to introduce me to his team’s new OU, I flipped through a brochure about this gun and read “The SL3 heralds a new era of Beretta premium shotguns, combining the finest Beretta technology available from our various product families.” Interesting, I thought. But that’s just ad copy. Let’s see what you’ve got.
What they had impressed.
Like Il Maestro, the Beretta SL3 has plenty of sophistication and flair. It’s a sideplated, over-under game gun available in 12 and 20 gauge, and it features a triggerplate-style action with V-springs, ejectors, and a single, selective trigger. The steel-shot approved barrels use screw-in Optima HP chokes, and right now they come in 28” and 30”. The pistol grip stocks are made of rich Turkish walnut, hand checkered (or not checkered, as an option) and dressed in a matte oil finish. Priced at $20,000, the SL3 is far from cheap. But it is more affordable than Beretta’s sidelock, SO-series over-unders which start at $27,500 and run to $90,000, and it’s less than other OUs aimed at the same market, like the sideplated Boxall & Edmiston (£25,200) and the James Purdey & Sons Trigger Plate (£55,000).
While the SL3 retains the classic features I’m used to seeing on Beretta OUs –trapezoidal locking shoulders on the barrels, pronounced hinge pins on the sides of the action, monoblocked barrels–the rest of the gun is unlike any other Beretta I’ve seen before. It’s slimmer than an SO10 and far rounder than a Beretta Giubileo. With its low profile, lack of sharp edges, and sweeping lines, it looks like it was designed in a wind tunnel. The stock is trim and minimalistic through the head and into the hand. There are no raised panels around the sideplates and there are no drop points. The forend iron, action, toplever and triggerguard complement one another with curves, sweeps, and sculpted layers finished in a mix of engraved, polished, and matte surfaces.
While the overall design of the SL3 is very futuristic, the engraving patterns it’s offered in ground the gun in very 19th-century styles. Each pattern–floral scroll, gamescene, and fine English scroll–is cut with a five-axis laser system. While the first two patterns have their strengths, the gamebirds and rose bouquets look a bit flat and cumbersome. The floral scroll pattern doesn’t have either of these problems, and that’s one reason it’s the most impressive. It has a gorgeous Renaissance style with cross-hatch accents, and mesmerizing, three-dimensional look. The SL3 also comes in a stunning, unengraved, mirror-polished finish. Unengraved finishes are like Speedo bathing suits for firearms, and any gun wearing one better be flawless to avoid embarrassing itself. With subtle sculpting on the action and superb metalwork and fitting all around, the mirror-polished SL3s looks great. Even if they could blush, they wouldn’t have to.
Centuries from now, after artificial intelligence has taken over the world, our robot overlords may look back with fondness on their ancestors building shotgun components in Beretta Uno, the factory next to Maestro Belleri’s Beretta Due. Beretta Uno is home to the company’s cutting-edge gunmaking equipment. This is where the tubes that become the barrels are cold-hammer-forged into shape and then laser-welded together and the actions and other metal parts are milled out of bars of steel. The machines that do it do more than just run on their own, day in and day out without a break: they maintain themselves and, whenever needed, contact humans for assistance. That need doesn’t arise very often.
But even with all these high-tech techniques, the SL3 still requires at least a month of hand fitting by Beretta’s most skilled gunmakers to assemble and then stock, checker, fine tune, and complete. A good chunk of this time is spent “jointing” an SL3, gunmaking slang for fitting the barrels to the action and a skill machines are still far from mastering.
The SL3 unique three-point locking system secures the barrels to the action and displaces the forces released by firing the gun. The first of its three points is the hinge pins at the front of the action. Then there are the “lower hooks.” These are on the underside of the barrels, and they match up with blocks in the floor of the action. While the hinge pins and the lower hooks are designed to displace and spread out force, the third point in the locking system—the bolt and locking pins–keep the gun closed upon firing. The way the bolt and locking pins are built into the action is one of the most innovative aspects of the Beretta SL3.
On most Italian OUs, the locking pins (aka “bites”) fit flush against the face of the action. The bolt slides horizontally forward to engage with them and lock things down. Borrowing from their DT11 competitions guns, Beretta made a small modification to the SL3: Its locking pins slip into vertical grooves machined into the face of action and on either side of the firing pins. By moving these locking pins back from the hinge pin, Beretta increased their ability to keep the barrels from pivoting on the hinge. It’s a little detail that makes huge sense, and another example of how Beretta always looks to improve its guns.
In testing, the robustness of the SL3’s entire three-point locking system proved itself when it withstood the pounding of 11,500 magnum cartridges with no issues. Something else that’s special about the SL3 three-point locking system: All aspects of it–the hinge pins, lower hooks, and locking pins–are easy to replace. When any of them wear, new ones are easy to fit and the gun can be back to new—and back in the field—in no time.
When it heads to the field, the SL3 shows off its Premium-gun lineage with the case it comes in. Handmade by Beretta’s in-house Custom Gun Case Atelier, it’s an upgraded version of the canvas-and-leather cases British shotguns used to come in. On the outside, it’s covered in blue cotton, with Italian leather straps and corner bumpers, and a Beretta-crested locking clasp. On the inside, it’s lined with quilted wool and features a removable leather pouch for chokes tubes and cleaning accessories. Very classy. And speaking of heading to the field, the SL3 shoots as good as it looks when it gets there. The 12 gauge I used on a five-stand course had a dynamic, weight-forward balance that made it easy to get on a target and swing through. Right off, I was dusting clays coming in, going away, dropping down, and crisscrossing. While the gun wasn’t lightweight, it didn’t feel clunky, and it did a great job of managing felt recoil.
The day after meeting Maestro Belleri and seeing his team’s new SL3, I was back in Brescia, eating pizza in the famous Piazza della Loggia, and thinking about Beretta and their contributions to gunmaking. Why had this company succeeded for almost five hundred years? And why are they still on cutting edge at the beginning of the 21st century? From what I could see, it was because Beretta did things their way, and that “way” included having the foresight to embrace technology and change. The SL3 is the most recent culmination of this vision. From what I saw, it’s an awesome shotgun that does a great job of updating classic shotgun aesthetics with the latest innovations in design and engineering. I would be proud to own one, and I’m sure anyone who purchases and SL3 will feel the same way, too.