Piotti - a family affair
Gunmaking at Piotti is very much a family affair, as Richard Rawlingson discovered. A tradition which was once a cornerstone of English gunmaking is alive and well in Val Trompia
It is ten o'clock in the morning when we arrive at the Piotti workshop and a birthday party is in full swing. It is a company tradition that every worker's birthday is celebrated with a mid-morning break and all 15 employees have gathered round. It feels like a family occasion and it is: six of those present have the Piotti surname and most of the rest are described as 'cousins' in that loose Italian sense of being vaguely related.
There is no rush to get back to the benches and the relaxed and unhurried atmosphere is a feature of our time there. "There's no hurry," says Manuel Piotti, my guide. "If the workers are happy, the guns are good. It is more important that they are right than on time."
Those with long dealings with the Italian trade might find such a casual approach to timekeeping typical, but in fact, as importer Tony Kennedy tells me, Piotti's reputation for sticking to delivery dates is rather better than their peers and there is no denying that the guns are good.
"As good as any in Italy today," is Kennedy's assessment and as a man who has sold more high-end Italian guns than anyone, his views carry significant weight. In particular, he continued, none of their rivals can match Piotti for the elegance of their side-by-sides. "Up there with anything made in London in the 1930s," is his considered view.
Such quality comes when you are producing guns at a rate of around one per week. "With our staff and equipment we could perhaps double that production", says Manuel Piotti, "but we prefer to work at a pace that allows us to keep the quality at the highest level."
A full order book and a place in the Italian premier league allows the company the luxury of such a policy now, but it is a luxury that has been hard earned. Fratelli Piotti was founded by brothers Fausto and Araldo in the early sixties when times were tough for aspiring gunmakers. Early Piotti guns followed the traditional route - a collection of components sourced from the legion of industrial suppliers in and around the Val Trompia, north of Brescia, where every other business seems to be connected in some way to the gun trade. In between, the brothers did repair and refurbishment work to pay the bills. Araldo in particular had many mouths to feed, with four sons - Emanuele, Rudi, Fabio and Sergio - who would all become key players in the Piotti story.
Attention to detail always marked Piotti guns out as above average compared to other artisan makers. At the peak of production, 400 guns a year left the small workshop. It was a mixed bag, centred on boxlock side-by-sides and even copies of over-under designs such as the Browning and Merkel. The turning point in terms of quality was the first Monaco series sidelock, the gun that established Piotti as a maker of fine guns, which remains at the heart of the current catalogue.
Stylistically, the Monaco did not break new ground; it was an elegant side-by-side on the Holland & Holland action, the favourite template for the Italian trade. More importantly, it marked the beginning of total in-house production and the control of quality that comes with it. Today, every single part of a Piotti is made under the same roof. Each piece, large or small, is machined from a solid block of steel. The process has evolved, from shaping entirely by hand, through milling machines to today's computer controlled marvels, but the principle is the same and the hours of hand finishing are still the most important.
These are the details that separate 'best' from the rest - largely unseen but vital. The top strap for example is always made integral with the action frame as a single piece. It means removing much more waste metal but will always be stronger. Minor parts too are made in the same way: ejector guide pins are not soldered on afterwards, but made as one so nothing can work loose. The ejectors themselves, often made from split halves on lesser guns, are hewn from the solid. The result is a perfectly circular cross section, not an oval. Many of the details are unique to Piotti, such as the patented lump profile on their over-under models. This doubles the space available for boring the spring holes giving much greater strength in a key area. Others are the product of nothing more than hard graft. Ten hours alone, for example, go into the internal polishing of the barrels and chokes on a machine totally designed and made in-house, using a mixture of lead dust and olive oil applied with a wooden rod. The barrels are struck up externally by hand in the traditional way, a process that takes two days using handmade tools to a design handed down through generations of gunmakers in the valley. Between each process the barrels are straightened on the traditional wheel, an art now known only to a handful of craftsmen. Chokes are cut to a gentle 80mm taper, not the more normal 45mm, claimed to reduce felt recoil and improve patterns by minimising pellet distortion.
Most of this effort is out of sight unless the gun is completely stripped down, but out of sight does not mean out of mind. Every single part is polished to a perfect finish, no matter how deeply buried it will be inside the action. Clearly though, it rankles that all this effort goes largely unappreciated.
"People buy on looks but the real quality is in the action and the barrels," says Manuel. "They pick up the gun and say 'nice wood, fabulous engraving' - and then stop! If you have a passion for what you do, then yes, it hurts if people don't appreciate it."
One part of the gun action that is likely to be seen and appreciated is the lockwork, whether on the classic Monaco, Boss-style over-under or Express rifle. Piotti guns are often specified with hand-detachable lock, which allows the owner to inspect the exquisite workmanship at leisure. Locks are the sole responsibility of Fabio Piotti and each one bears his signature. He builds both conventional and pinless locks and the individual parts may be polished, blued or gilded according to the buyer's wishes. Each is a miniature work of art in its own right.
Indeed, miniature is the right word for the smallest guns in the Piotti catalogue. The main models are all available in every standard bore size from 12-bore down to .410; each one is built on a correctly scaled action and the .410 over-under is a marvel of packaging and a real gunmaking tour de force.
The second generation Piotti brothers have become much more specialised in their work than their father and uncle. Of the founding duo, Fausto was the all-rounder in the early days, finishing, testing and doing most of the repair work. Araldo was the actioner - in Italian 'montatore' - bringing together all the components into the complete gun. Son Rudi has followed him, setting up his work station at the adjacent bench when he joined the company. Fabio, we have seen, is the lockmaker, while Sergio controls the heavy construction end of the business, operating the milling machines and other equipment that produces the raw parts.
Piotti has a much more diverse catalogue than many of its Brescia rivals and this could create logistical problems matching orders with production. Sergio overcomes this by making major components such as action frames in batches of 20, allowing most orders to be fulfilled in sequence and avoiding the long lead times that can be a feature of ordering a bespoke gun.
As well as his marketing responsibilities, co-ordinating production and liasing with engravers, Manuel Piotti's speciality is wood. In less hazardous times this would have included travelling Eastern Europe and Central Asia to places such as the tribal areas of Turkestan and Kazakhstan in search of the ever more elusive supplies of highly figured walnut demanded by today's buyers. These days this is mostly bandit country and Manuel decided it was time to stop travelling after a shipment was hijacked and a ransom of $50,000 demanded for the release of the truck! Now whole trees are shipped and cut in Italy, a much safer option. Like most prestige gunmakers, Piotti stockpiles prime blanks to ensure a continuous supply of properly seasoned wood.
Two in-house stockers shape the blanks and carry out the painstaking heading up to the action and inletting of the lockplates. Once complete, the stocks and fore ends return to Manuel for finishing, using the obligatory 'secret' blend of oils. He didn't actually say that recipe was locked away in the company vault and known only to him and his father, but the implication was there... It can take up to a month to finish a stock, the process particularly difficult during the high humidity of a Lombardy summer.
The future of Piotti is now firmly in the hands of the second generation of brothers (with a third in the shape of Manuel's son Luca already putting in time at the bench when schoolwork allows) but the founders can still be found hard at work. Fausto has already retired once officially - for just three days. The call of the workshop from his apartment on the top floor of the building was too much. Declaring himself bored of a life of leisure he was back at his bench by the end of the week! Living above the shop is far from unusual in the valley. The Piotti factory is a modest three-storey building in a residential street just off Gardone's main drag, just one of many familiar names you will find alongside shops, apartment blocks and restaurants in Italy's gunmaking capital.
The Piotti brothers, young and old, seem to have things worked out very nicely. They are doing a job that they love, surrounded by family, producing objects of rare style and beauty. Add in the region's fabulous food and the local Franciacorta wine and you truly have a lifestyle to be envied.
PIOTTI GUNS TODAY
Although the Monaco sidelock side-by-side established the Piotti reputation and remains central to the company's range today, output has followed market trends with the over-under guns taking an ever-increasing share of total sales. Piotti is unusual however in maintaining an eclectic selection of styles, including modern day rarities such as their hammer gun and side lever models.
Best quality boxlocks are also hard to find in the current market but Piotti bucks the trend by offering not only a conventional Anson & Deeley side-by-side, but also the recently introduced over-under. This latest model will increase the o/u share of production still further while bringing Piotti quality to a new audience, with a price less than half that of the much more complex Boss-style sidelocks.
This versatility is one of the qualities that makes Piotti among the most interesting of Italy's boutique gunmakers.
For more information on the complete range of Piotti guns, contact Kennedy Gunmakers on 01566 865535 or visit www.piotti.com