Italian designed, American made, Iraq deployed

Dec. 13, 2005
M9, a world-class traveler put into service.

Beretta Holding remains under the ownership and direction of Ugo Gussalli Beretta (center) and his two sons, Pietro Gussalli Beretta (left) and Franco Gussalli Beretta (right).

Built in 1963 for Garcia Corporation, a rifle manufacturer that went out of business in 1977, the facility was initially purchased by Beretta for distribution and order entry.

Raw aluminum frame stock.

The Fastems elevator transfer system used for loading pallets into the CNC machines.

Inside the Mitsui Seiki where the aluminum M9 frames are machined.

An M9 aluminum frame being checked for tolerances on a coordinate measuring machine (CMM).

M9 barrel, slide and frame before and after machining.

A steel slide being checked for tolerances on a CMM.

Driving down an unassuming road in Accokeek, Maryland, leads to an equally unassuming facility. A person would never guess that one of the world's leading defense sidearms is manufactured there. The entrance has an open wrought iron gate, an outdoor pagoda for employees who smoke, and a small entry building with a metal detector and wand-carrying guards.

The lobby of Beretta U.S.A. Corp. ( has a coat rack, and a reception desk with vases and a few plants, but the wall is decked out with more than 1,000 framed badges from the international law enforcement agencies that use Beretta firearms. The U.S. Navy S.E.A.L.s, the Texas Rangers, the U.S. Border Patrol, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Italian Carabinieri and French Gendarmes are among them.

Fabbrica D'Armi Pietro Beretta S.p.A., founded in 1526 by Bartolomeo Beretta as a maker of firearms barrels for the Venetian Republic, claims to be the world's oldest industrial dynasty. It has been in continuous family ownership for 16 generations in Gardone, Italy.

Beretta came to the United States in 1985 when it wrested a $56-million U.S. Armed Forces contract from competitor Colt Industries for production of the Model 92FS (M9) 9-mm pistol as the standard sidearm for all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. The Navy S.E.A.L.s were the first to adopt the gun. The contract was for 315,930 pistols but was later increased to 321,260. In 2005, Beretta U.S.A. received two separate contracts for 18,744 M9 semiautomatic pistols for the U.S. Air Force with the option to purchase an additional 5,190 pistols and for 70,000 M9 pistols for the U.S. Army contracting authority at Rock Island Arsenal. Since being awarded the contract in 1985, more than 500,000 pistols have been supplied to the U.S. military, making Beretta U.S.A. one of the most sophisticated users of machine tools in the U.S. firearms-manufacturing industry.

Originally employing about 20 people in the late 1970s, Beretta U.S.A.'s workforce swelled to 500 employees by the late 1980s as its factory doubled in size to duplicate the capability of the Italian plant and to begin manufacturing hundreds of thousands of 9-mm pistols for American soldiers, sailors and pilots. Beretta U.S.A. soon became the second largest private employer in southern Maryland. During the buildup to the first Iraq War in the early 1990s, the factory ran on three shifts, 24 hours per day, with Beretta pistols leaving the loading dock in Maryland and arriving in Saudi Arabia for deployment to troops 10 days later.

Its pistols have been used in every major U.S. military engagement since the late 1980s, including both Iraq campaigns, in Bosnia, Panama and Afghanistan. The M9 pistol is a defensive weapon, meant for use at short distances and in emergency situations where combat is unavoidable. Due to the nature of recent wars, servicemen are using their sidearms more often than in the past due to the close-quarter combat situations they encounter.

Two controversies surrounding the adoption of the M9 by the U.S. military included the move from a .45 automatic to a smaller caliber weapon under NATO standards for uniformity and a 1987 problem with 14 slide fractures. Beretta claims that both concerns were due to the ammunition being used in the weapons. Through the Geneva Convention, the military is required to use jacketed ammunition rather than dum-dum or hollow-point ammunition, which would deliver greater knockdown power. However, the gun holds 15 rounds when fully charged plus one round in the chamber, offering higher capacity to compensate for the lost power of a heavier, slower bullet.

Beretta also settled out of court with the military surrounding their investigation into the fractured slides. Accused of low metal toughness in the slides due to the use of tellurium in the manufacturing process, Beretta found the problem not in the manufacturing process but in the use of government-supplied ammunition that created 50,000 psi of pressure, which is well above the standard 35,000 psi. In response, the company also designed a slide-capture device that would prevent the slide from hitting the shooter and causing injury should a future slide fracture occur.

When troops in Afghanistan and Iraq reported reliability issues traceable to the magazines, which were sensitive to dirt and sand, Beretta responded by redesigning the magazine for desert use to eliminate the occurrence of sand jams.

Beretta's concern with manufacturing, technology, improvement and modernization are at the forefront of its management's priorities. E. Scott Blackwell, vice president law enforcement-defense group, continues to investigate other industries, such as orthopedics, and to apply that technology to the manufacture of firearms. Jeffrey K. Reh, general counsel and vice-general manager, says, "We are gun makers and an industrial manufacturer, and proud of it." Franco Beretta professes that, "Machine operation is our core activity." To reinforce the company's motto, "If it bears the Beretta name, it will be the best", he believes in dedicating the financial resources to the machines that make a quality product.

To that end, the company invested $8 million over the last 2.5 years to upgrade its equipment. When they began production, Beretta U.S.A. used Italian Mi-Val machines, a company owned by Beretta Holding. The most recent acquisition involves 10 new Mitsui Seiki HU40A horizontal machining centers to replace 60-70 older numerical and manual machines purchased in the 1950s and 1980s. Beretta sought a total turnkey application for automation and high throughput via a competitive bid process, and Mitsui Seiki Koygo Co., Ltd. of Tokyo, Japan, had the best supply, fixturing, process, versatility, service and partsavailability package. The new machines allow flexibility and adaptation to changing products. The machining cells are linked by a Fastems elevator transfer system, and control software moves the pallets from one machining cell to the next. The company has the ability to machine 12 parts in 10 minutes. It uses Haas EC 300 systems for its .22 caliber weapons. Coordinate measuring machines are used during the entire process. For the M9 the company uses a 15,000-rpm spindle when machining aluminum and an 8,000-rpm spindle speed to machine steel.

Due to the competitive nature of the industry, Beretta U.S.A. is unable to release their process sheets, but according to the HU40A machine specifications, a 28 percent larger work volume and 50 percent faster speeds are achieved compared to previous models to reduce noncut time and improve productivity. Five spindle configurations, ranging from 8,000 rpm to 40,000 rpm, are available. The manufacturer promises a 99.73 percent turn-boring accuracy under tight tolerances. The three-point bed support maintains machine stability to eliminate potential distortion. A four-point taper-cone design is used for repeatability at maximum Z-axis thrust force loads. Oil and air cooling/lubrication on the ballscrews enables the 1,400-ipm rapid-transverse rate. All axes and way surfaces are hand scraped with each slideway surface straight within 0.0000001 of an inch for machine positioning accuracy. A cam-driven, highspeed ATC changes tools in 1.5 seconds and an automatic rotating pallet changer exchanges loaded pallets in 5 seconds.

Beretta machines its own steel barrels, steel slides and aluminum frames from materials sourced in the United States through companies such as Kaiser Aluminum Corp. and Mueller Industries Inc., a supplier of copper and brass. Beretta purchases forged carbon steel bar stock and saws it for barrel machining. The bar shape creates less waste than round steel rods. Machinists drill a blank then rifle it using the cut broach method on a Varinelli machine. For the frame, three pieces of rough forged steel are milled on both sides in a Mgerle creepfeed grinder in one minute, machined on three sides in the Mitsui Seiki machines and returned for cosmetic finish grinding. No stamped components or welds are required.

The pieces are sent to a marking area where Rofin laser-marking equipment and roll-marking machines create the logo, serial number and model number, and travel to the polishing department where sandpaper belts are used to make the outside diameter smooth. Ceramic media is used in deburring machines to remove burrs and round the corners. The metal parts are heat treated and finished. A clear or black anodized surface or chrome plating is given to aluminum, and black oxide ("bluing") of the steel barrel and small parts occurs.

Thomas L. Valorose, vice president of manufacturing, says, "Bluing is rust, it's controlled oxidation." The slide on largeframed pistols, such as the M9, is phosphated then painted because that finish lasts longer than bluing and is more rugged in a heavy-use, military environment.

An oven is used to bake the parts at 250 C for 40 minutes to harden the paint for durability and long life. Though not all firearms manufacturers do this, even parts provided by outside vendors are heat treated in a separate oven at different temperatures, depending on the heat required to change the chemical composition of the metal being treated since it is critical to the performance of the weapon.

The components are moved to assembly lines. Since M9 parts are interchangeable due to the tolerances required, no drilling, milling or fitting is necessary. After assembly, each weapon is put through a running machine, which dry fires the gun without ammunition for 300 cycles to break it in and to guarantee it works mechanically. Valorose says, "It's just masturbating the cycle of shooting." The gun moves from the assembly department to the quality department that puts the weapon on a force gage to straight pull the trigger with minimum (light pull) and maximum (heavy pull) weight to make the gun shoot. The amount of force used differs for each model tested.

If the weapon passes, it moves to the production firing range where a high-pressure proof round, which provides 1.3 times the pressure of a standard round, is chambered and shot into a gun trap through a hole in the wall. The weapon is disassembled and given a magparticle inspection for cracks or flaws. If none are found, it is function tested in a black-box machine with a full round and given a mounted and scoped targeting and accuracy test with three-to five-shot groups. Valorose says, "You could test them to death but what good would that do? If you can't hit in three shots, you'll know in three shots." Finally, the gun is packaged.

Military specifications call for the M9 to be fired once with a proving round, 15 times with functional rounds and 10 times for targeting and accuracy. According to Reh, out of each delivery lot, ranging from 500 to 3,000 firearms per lot, manufactured and delivered during 1985-1995, three pistols failed at 5,000 rounds each and one malfunctioned every 17,500 rounds. Reh says, "The 92 is the most reliable semi-automatic made." He also says it is cheaper to send out a good gun than to get it back and test it to find the problem. Reputation increases sales so there are incentives in place to make a good product before it leaves the door. When questioned about weapons that are sent back after purchase due to some damage, he says that many firearms are damaged in transit, by the dealer or are used under conditions the manufacturer cannot control.

The company uses almost every kind and brand of cutting tool available and a Walters cutter-grinding machine to sharpen the tools, and it repairs its own cutting tools in-house. It does not have any application that necessitates ceramics and only uses diamond tips for regrinds. Though Beretta uses different generations of machines, the tools are interchangeable.

Looking toward the future, and with hopes of making leading firearms for another 500 years, Beretta has designed the new PX-4 handgun, made with a polymer frame, to compete with those designed by Glock. Special military forces are currently testing the PX-4.

Reh says the company's philosophy is to continue family ownership, while maintaining longevity and its profitability and reputation for centuries to come. The Beretta family intends to put money back into the company by investing in equipment. He says, "Tolerances and reliability start with good design made in a precise manner and tested extensively." Although Beretta's guns tend to be more expensive than its competitors' guns, he believes the expense translates into higher quality with better aesthetics, features and performance.

Franco Beretta believes in making an investment in machines and training to increase efficiency. He says that purchasing machines is the easiest part of his job but a change in culture and the way people think necessitates teaching his employees — from accounting, scheduling and programming to the machine operator and supervisor — to think in a different way. More companies are moving toward being marketing organizations and so he wants to know his customers better.

As Franco turns toward the future his biggest challenge is polymer composites because, as he puts it, "We are metal mechanics." As he studies the application and understanding of the composites process, he wonders if it is better to adopt the knowledge internally or to contract it out. But he insists on keeping manufacturing, and R&D in the United States. As the company expands its holdings, including a newly acquired Turkish manufacturer of less-expensive quality firearms, Franco wants to buy companies that manufacture something, not just acquire a name to market.

With regard to manufacturing, he says, "It's a passion that we have." He proves this with a discussion of how no one else in the world is developing the new metallurgy of drilling a hole. He had been using his great grandfather's equipment for barrel drilling on a slow machine. He spent two years of research to develop a new barreldrilling machine in-house. Though it is not less expensive, he says "it reduces the time in a dramatic way and changes the process so Beretta can be the most modern and efficient barrel manufacturer in the world." Although Italy is the center of Beretta's R&D, it looks for applications or talent in the United States that are not available in Italy. An example of such use and application is in the stainless steel market. U.S. machinists are better than their Italian counterparts, claims Franko, because "Italians are not able to work stainless steel. They don't work with it enough to be proficient. The United States is better at the technology because they have American know how."


1364: First recorded use of a firearm.
Handguns are known across Europe.
Matchlock guns appear.
1498: Rifling principle is discovered.
Beretta provides 185 arquebus barrels to the Senate of the Republic of Venice.
1540: Rifling appears in firearms.
The first true flintlock appears.
Napoleon requisitions muskets from Beretta for his Grande Armee.
The Damascus barrel is introduced. The method involves pounding and wrapping strips of steel from the foundry around a mandrel or guide rod.
Late 1880s:
Beretta Arms Collection (Great Armory) is built in Italy, and now houses the Beretta Museum.
1892: Joseph Laumann creates the first automatic pistol.
Early 1900s: John Moses Browning invents the first fully automatic machine gun, which uses expanding gases for cycling.
Mid 1930s:
Beretta advertises its own laboratory facilities for materials testing, heat treatment and metallurgy.
1937: Ugo Gussalli Beretta, current Beretta president and fourteenth generation of gun makers, is born.
1955: At the age of 18, Ugo Gussalli Beretta visits the United States for the first time as a birthday gift from his uncle.
Beretta establishes its first advanced postwar heat-treatment department.
Pietro Gussalli Beretta, the fifteenth generation of gun makers, is born.
Franco Gussalli Beretta, brother to Pietro, is born.
Beretta U.S.A. is formally established.
Beretta receives the contract for the manufacture of the M9 for the U.S. Army.
Beretta U.S.A. begins manufacturing parts for the M9 pistol.
1990: All M9 pistols are produced, tested and accepted at the Beretta U.S.A. factory.
The Beretta School of Arms Engraving opens in Italy and Carlo Alberto Gussalli Beretta, the sixteenth generation of Beretta gun makers, is born.

Firearms Trivia

  • In the 1500s, Beretta made and sold only barrels. They were prevented by law from making all components since the gun company could be taken over by another government or declare its independence and have the ability to make enough weapons to take over the city-state. In the late 1600s it illegally began to make not only the barrel of the rifle but the stock and locking mechanism as well. Hence, the origin of the saying "lock, stock and barrel" came into being.
  • Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, also manufactured firearms and contributed to the principle of standardization or interchangeability in manufacture.
  • Author Ian Fleming wrote that a Beretta pistol was James Bond's favorite sidearm in the early James Bond books. Now a Hollywood favorite, Beretta's guns appear in the James Bond series and are featured in numerous action-adventure movies, including "Die Hard", "Mission Impossible II" and "Lethal Weapon".
  • Beretta employs artisans who hand make and engrave every part on a custom-made shotgun or rifle over the course of two years at a cost to the consumer of $250,000.
  • Although the numerical designation in most firearms indicates the year in which the weapon was introduced, Beretta does not adhere to this naming device. The 92FS civilian version was so named due to its being the third model made in the 90's series, which actually began production in the 1970s. "FS" designates that the pistol is a "federal" version and has the "slide" capture feature. M9, the military version of the same weapon, indicates that the pistol is "military" or army initiated and is a "9" mm. The U.S. Army, not Beretta U.S.A., selected the "M9" name.

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