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Beretta's Rinascimento series is gunsmithing at its finest

A shot rings out. The suave Brit with the beautiful, if untrustworthy, blonde in tow reaches into the jacket of his Savile Row evening jacket. When his hand reappears, in it is his favorite weapon, a Beretta, the pistol of choice for Agent 007.

And for most James Bond fans, that name is the extent of their knowledge of the family-owned business that claims it is the oldest industrial firm in the world. Fabbrica d'Armi P. Beretta, S.p.A., was founded in 1526, and as Dr. No, Ernst Blofeld, Goldfinger and any number of baddies dealt with by the redoubtable Mr. Bond could attest, it is still doing business in Gardone Val Trompia in northern Italy.

But when you are the oldest firearms maker in the world, what can you do that is new? Here's what: You can produce a set of five matched shotguns that rank with the best, and certainly the most beautiful, guns ever made. The series has been named the Rinascimento ("Renaissance") Set because it combines classical style with technological innovation.

Managing director Ugo Gussalli-Beretta, a 13th-generation member of the family-owned firm, personally unveiled the guns at Manhattan's Explorers Club last March before the set was sent on a nationwide tour of trade shows and firearms museums. From March 1 through Nov. 1 the shotguns will be on display at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo.

The fact that the tour is taking place in the U.S. is more than a pleasant coincidence for American gun fanciers. The tour is intended to promote a new line of Beretta premium grade firearms that will be sold in this country. Beretta dominates the quality, noncustom shotgun market everywhere except in the U.S., and the company hopes that the Rinascimento Set will help boost sales here.

Pier Giuseppe Beretta, the company chairman, commissioned the presentation set in 1987 and entrusted its completion to his nephew Ugo. It consists of a pair of 12-gauges, a pair of 20-gauges and a single 28-gauge, all over-and-unders. The burled wood for the stocks came from a blank of exquisite nut briar that company buyers purchased three decades ago and set aside for the proper moment. Under Beretta's "monobloc" manufacturing procedure, the breeches, barrel lump and rib extension for each gun were machined from single blocks of steel. Jim Rod, a shotgun fancier, was on hand as the guns were unveiled for the first time to an American audience. He said that the difficult and intricate procedures required to machine a single-steel billet yield "an exceptionally strong gun without requiring the precise hand-fitting of separate parts needed in most other designs."

What make the set extra special, even to a nonexpert's eye, are le incisioni made by Beretta's master engraver, Angelo Galeazzi. He spent years depicting individual themes on each of the five shotguns. The subjects range from the evolution of firearms to hunting customs to Greek mythology. The engravings are not confined to the sides of the receiver of a gun; they encompass the frames, locks, trigger guards and even the screw heads. In describing the engravings, the lavish brochure provided by Beretta announces with operatic flourish: "The Master declares that, after two years of emotional vicissitudes that the creation of these works has wrought, he has arrived at a feeling of proud serenity. For him, the 'Rinascimento' Set of Five is the pinnacle of his creative and artistic experience." They are indeed magnificent.

Beretta values the set at "over $600,000," but has yet to decide if it will be sold. If so, it is unlikely the buyer would ever use the guns in the field, though the essential differences between these guns and standard Beretta shotguns are cosmetic. Presentation sets such as this are meant to be oohed and ahhed over, not shot. But even if a buyer wanted to use the guns, he might not feel comfortable with them. The chunky, 5'7" Gussalli-Beretta had the five shotguns fitted to his dimensions.

One demurrer: Instead of using walnut for the cabinet that houses the set, wood-carver Giuseppe Rivadossi turned to olive wood because it suggested the Italian and Mediterranean roots of the project. Sorry, Giuseppe, but your creation looks like one of those ice-cube machines you find in motel hallways. It's like trying to imagine James Bond checking into a Motel 6. It just doesn't work.



The magnificent shotguns feature engraving that illustrates five different themes.