The Beretta Serpentina 490 is a true masterpiece of craftmanship and, prior to its auction for charity, Camilla Swift spoke to Franco Beretta to discover the story behind this unique collector’s item.
Past meets future
What does a company like Beretta do to celebrate its 490th birthday? After some thought, the current president, Franco, decided to create a gun that combined Beretta’s highly technical components with the traditional artistry and advanced design work that they are famous for.
The result of his work is the Serpentina 490 – a commemorative side-by-side shotgun with a Colour Case Hardened receiver, a ‘serpentina’ opening mechanism, and an innovative ‘wood bridge’ that allows the tail of the receiver to be housed beneath the wood, leaving a seamless area between the receiver and the safety mechanism.
Beretta are obviously excellent at filing their most important paperwork, and still own the original bill of sale between Bartolomeo Beretta and the Arsenal of Venice from 1526. This document has been engraved in gold inlay on the left side of the receiver; a beautiful touch which epitomises Beretta’s attention to detail when it comes to design work.
“Every time we talk about a new product,” says Franco, “we talk about what is good from the past, and what is good from the future. The Serpentina is a great example of this combination; the side-by-side is a typical, traditional gun. But as far as we know, Beretta had never really made a gun with a Serpentina-style locking system; so this was traditional, but also innovative for Beretta.”
Even though the company makes over a million firearms a year, Franco Beretta is determined that the company maintains the traditional gun-making skills that many other firearms manufacturers might think of as old-fashioned or defunct. He tells the story of how, when he joined the company in his early twenties, one of the first assignments his great-uncle gave him involved working in the premium gun department. His uncle warned him that he’d never again have the opportunity to work in a similar environment, as the skilled staff who made Beretta’s Custom Grade guns were ready to retire, and no one expected that younger generations would want to learn how to do things with their hands.
When Franco’s father took over the company however, he and his son decided to continue the hand-making traditions that are part of Beretta’s DNA, and started up a training programme that could teach young Italians the skills needed for things such as the hand-engraving, wood parts and metal fittings that can be seen on the Serpentina 490. This is something that he is very proud of, and without people like him to encourage them, these skills could easily disappear entirely. It’s perhaps the long family line that makes the traditional ways so important for Beretta: “I need to pay respect to what has been past,” he says, “part of the DNA of Beretta is to respect the traditions themselves.”
At the same time, these guns are made to be used. For Franco Beretta, a ‘quality’ shotgun is defined by two things: its aesthetic, and its reliability. “It has to be a nice product, but it also has to be really reliable – whether we are talking about a hunter in the field, or a competition shooter,” he says.
When it came to creating the anniversary Serpentina shotgun, Franco made the decision to restrict production to just four pieces. “We wanted to have exclusivity,” he explains. “We thought that was much more interesting and appealing, to have a gun which was made in such small quantities… we are so proud of this product that we wanted to make just a few of them, both to demonstrate our capabilities, and to celebrate the 490 years.” From start to finish, the production process took about a year as since there are just four of them in existence – each of which is unique – the prototype and the finished product are one and the same.
If this is what happens when Beretta turns 490, it’s hard to imagine what they might have up their sleeve for their 500th birthday.
The Countryside Alliance were lucky enough to get their hands on one these four guns; of the other three, one was auctioned off in New York, while two will stay within the Beretta family. The Countryside Alliance gun, the only Beretta 490 Serpentina Colour Case Hardened shotgun in existence, was entered into a prize draw of just 490 tickets. Being such a unique product – and one that would be hugely in-demand on the open market – this was a fantastic opportunity for keen shots. Beretta were keen to use their anniversary gun as a means of supporting a shooting charity, and the Countryside Alliance’s Campaign for Shooting fitted the bill perfectly.