The Beretta SO
In the first of new series, Richard Rawlingson looks at the story behind one of the most influential guns of the 20th century.
The Italian gun trade today is without doubt the most progressive and innovative in the world. For more than a generation Italian makers have been at the forefront of new design and production techniques, using everything from computers to lasers to change the way guns are made and how they look. While most makers plough on with steel and walnut, Italian firms have experimented with lightweight alloys and modern composite materials to produce a range of guns in all price brackets that no other country can match. From the novice shooter with £500 to spend, to collectors who think nothing of spending £50,000, the Italians have it covered.
It was not always so. Look back to the early years of the 20th century and you will be struck by how very conservative the offerings of the Italian makers were. Not only did the side-by-side format still rule, but every maker still had a full selection of hammer models, long after they had been declared passé in most of Western Europe. Indeed even Beretta did not discontinue hammer gun production until 1964 and they would still happily build you a pin fire gun as late as 1938!
On the surface it was not a climate conducive to the development of a gun as innovative as the Beretta SO over-under, or Sovrapposto. But Beretta in the years after the First World War was changing. Under the leadership of Pietro Beretta, who had taken over the reins in 1903, the company was becoming an outward looking international operation, not just a leader in its domestic market. He took the company in several new directions, not least into the production of small arms for the military and law enforcement markets which would become central to the Beretta organisation we know today.
But Pietro Beretta did not ignore the 'long guns' that had been the company's traditional strength. He would have been acutely aware of changes happening in Britain or Belgium and that would have included the emergence of the over-under shotgun, first in England from Boss and Woodward and then Browning's Superposed built by Fabrique Nationale of Herstal in Belgium.
The Browning would have been of far greater interest. The English guns were low volume, high price, technically superb but of little interest to a man with a large factory to sustain. The Superposed however was intended to sell in a different market sector entirely to the hand made London guns, one that Beretta saw as a legitimate target. Although considerably cheaper than the English guns, however, the complexity of the new over-unders would still make them expensive compared to mass produced boxlock side-by-sides.
The development work began in Gardone soon after the Browning was unveiled and was entrusted to Beretta's in-house designer Tullio Marengoni. Marengoni worked at the Gardone factory all his life, starting as an apprentice in 1894 and becoming chief designer in 1904, a post he held until his death in 1965. So important was he to the company that he lived in an apartment provided by his employers just a few yards from the factory and his contribution to the development of the modern Beretta empire was vast, if largely unsung. He spent much of his early career designing and refining Beretta's pistol range, culminating in the Model 34 that was made in hundreds of thousands and remained in production for over 40 years, but he was equally adept in the design of sporting rifles and shotguns. His partnership with Pietro Beretta was at the heart of the company's expansion, providing the technical brilliance that was the essential foil to Pietro's commercial drive and energy.
Marengoni was not impressed by Browning's design, finding its under-slung lumps clumsy and inelegant. In a thinly veiled side swipe at the rival gun the Browning is described in an early Beretta catalogue as 'very high, heavy and ugly', an insult that the Italian trade continued to use against the Browning for the next 70 years! To reduce the height on his design Marengoni rejected conventional lumps and instead turned to a locking system widely used on side-by-side guns, mounting the barrels low in the action body on stub pins and locking them by means of a cross bolt that emerged from the upper left side of the receiver. Further security was provided by trapezoidal barrel shoulders that engage cut outs in the action walls, a feature that has become a Beretta signature.
His idea was considered radical and risky, but he rightly believed that it would hold the gun securely together because it dealt directly with the two main directional forces that must be resisted when a gun is fired - the forward movement away from the breech face and the rotational force around the barrel axis - and did not require any additional lock up. We can of course see the system still in use today, not only in the current SO models but also the company's very latest competition gun, the DT10 Trident, proof indeed of its effectiveness.
The other key element of the design was the use of 'monobloc' barrels, a system pioneered by Beretta in 1913 and now used almost universally for all but the most expensive shotguns. In the monobloc system, the barrel tubes are made separately from the breech, which is machined from a solid block of steel and incorporates the ejector guides and pivot lugs. The tubes are soldered in place in the bloc, reducing barrel distortion and giving very precise alignment.
The SO gun as it became known was first seen around 1932, but not commercially available until the 1935 year catalogue. It was, trumpeted the copywriter, "a carefully studied gun, strong, well balanced and elegant, certainly superior to the dearest 'superposes' of any well known foreign make."
The SO's other distinguishing feature is that it was designed from the outset as a true sidelock. Recognising early on that this would be an expensive gun to build, Beretta opted for a premium specification. A boxlock based on the same locking system, the Model ASE, was finally introduced in 1949, but it would be several more years after that before Beretta found a way of getting production costs down sufficiently to make the dream of a truly affordable over-and-under a reality. That though is a story for another time...
The SO was intended from the very beginning to be a gun for both hunting and competition use, Italy's passion for trapshooting being firmly established by this stage. The 1935 catalogue lists a competition model called the S.03 Super Tiro, in 12-gauge only, with double triggers and automatic ejectors. Further details of the pre-war period are sketchy and production is likely to have been limited as war clouds gathered over Europe. The guns reappear after the war largely unchanged, but with the addition of a higher grade EL (Extra Lusso), to be joined later by even more lavish EELL grades.
Model descriptions and numbering for SO series guns can get complicated. The original gun was given the retrospective title SO1 and was joined by the SO2 'Super Caccia' in the 1960s, while the SO3 designation has always indicated a competition model. The SO4 joined the range in 1968 and the SO4 Trap was introduced in 1971 and was described as "derived from the SO3 EL". It featured hand detachable locks, a new and improved single trigger and Monte Carlo stock. A specialist Skeet gun was also launched at the same time.
Sporting clays guns began to appear in the early 1980s, largely for sale in Britain, France and Belgium where the sporting disciplines were most popular. In 1989 the SO5 became the standard competition grade and this has remained the case ever since, with trap, skeet and sporting models continuing in production to the current time. Sporting models have also been produced in the highly decorated SO6 and SO6EELL grades during the last decade. As with all hand made guns however there are lots of unique specifications to be found, with many guns made to special order, so any SO has to be appraised individually.
Another chapter of the SO story opened in 1990, with the introduction of the SO9, the first to be offered in small gauges. These exquisite guns can be ordered in 20 and 28 bore and .410 gauge and have always been sold at a considerable premium to their big brothers and they remain the rarest of the SOs. To these that we must now also add the SO10, an entirely new design introduced in 2004. Although it bears the famous SO prefix, this is a quite different gun to the original, designed to put Beretta among the elite of the Italian trade. Gone is the distinctive cross bolt locking system and in its place is a design that borrows elements from other Berettas such as the famous barrel shoulders and also from outside in the form of Boss-style slots in the breech face. The 21st century is represented by a titanium trigger blade, while the hand-detachable locks can be removed by lifting the heads of concealed pins. Until the advent of the SO9, the SO range has always been expensive but attainable; these latest models however are destined for wealthy collectors and will always be a distant dream for the average shooting man.
I mentioned that the Sovrapposto was always intended to be a competition gun. The Beretta family were heavily involved in the sport, with Pietro Beretta's nephew Carlo a regular at major tournaments. He played a key role in the development of the competition guns, bringing back to the factory the first hand experience of using them in the heat of competition. For Italian gunmakers the Olympics have always been considered the pinnacle of the sport and medals the fuel that powers sales. The first medal - a gold - to fall to a Beretta SO shooter came in Melbourne in 1956 when Liano Rossini won the Trap competition with his SO3EELL. The guns continued to be the focus of Beretta's Olympic activities until the emergence of the 680 series guns in the 1980s. The SO5 has however continued to win medals, most recently in the hands of top Australian shooter Russell Mark, although the bulk of Beretta's support in this sector now focuses on the DT10 range.
The SO has been equally successful in the field, doing much to overcome the lingering prejudice against the superposed format amongst game shooters. The lockplates have provided a canvas for some of the greatest engravers in Italy, both from within Beretta's own studio and outside. As the accompanying photographs show, they have risen to the challenge.
Judging the impact of the Beretta SO is not however all about numbers of guns sold or medals won, it is about its influence both inside and outside Italy. The success of the range changed the focus within Beretta and set them on the path to developing the range of over-under guns for all tastes and budgets we see today. Where Beretta leads, the rest of Italy follows and the Italian trade embraced the format while gunmakers in Britain and Spain clung Canute-like to the side-by-side configuration. There is no doubt who backed the right horse.