In Italy, certain family names command a great deal of respect. Agnelli, Olivetti, Pirelli, Armani ? these are the names of the industrial élite who, throughout the 20th century, amassed vast empires through the production of such everyday items as cars, typewriters, rubber and clothing. But their ascendancy is a recent phenomenon. There is one that trumps them all in terms of its longevity ? Beretta.

There are few names as synonymous with the world of gunmaking, and for good reason. Fabbrica d?Armi Pietro Beretta has the distinction of being both the world?s oldest gunmaker and one of the world?s oldest family firms. It has been under the stewardship of the founding family since records from 1526 detailed the purchase of 185 arquebus barrels from Mastro Bartolomeo Beretta of Gardone by the Arsenal of Venice. In comparison, almost every family-owned business globally looks decidedly nouveau riche.

Together with his brother, Pietro, Dr Franco Gussalli Beretta represents the 15th generation in the family business. Unsurprisingly well dressed, with an easy smile and enthusiastic laugh, the executive vice-president of the company recently came over to London, to the opulent and impressive Beretta Gallery, which he opened five years ago. This time he was back in town to launch the Beretta SO10 12-bore ? the latest custom-made shotgun to highlight the firm?s superiority at blending technical excellence with handbuilt craftsmanship.

Inevitably, a son born into such a distinguished gunmaking family would have little choice but to pick up one of the company?s products at some point but, as Dr Beretta explains, it was his great-uncle Pier Carlo Beretta, a former president of the company, who was the guiding influence. ?He was very important in our childhood ? a very passionate pheasant shooter, he used to love going out with the dogs. He never married but he loved young people ? he also used to coach the Brescia football team. So my brother and I, when we visited, used to go shooting with him or often to the factory to see whatever was in development. He was the key person in introducing us to the family business.?

Passing this love of shooting on is something Dr Beretta clearly relishes: he has recently started to involve his son in the sport, and finds that his own outings typically fall into one of two distinct categories ? business and pleasure. On business days, he can be found testing out the company?s latest product, but at other times he is out encouraging his 13-year-old son in the same sporting tradition. ?It?s important to me that he understands that shooting is about the whole experience,? says Franco. But what does a Beretta shoot with? ?Naturally, my son uses an over-and-under ? a 28-bore, since you don?t want to start youngsters with anything too big ? but, personally, I use whatever is in development. My father and brother, however, are far more conservative and take out only one or two guns. But my involvement in the company is with new products. I have to take out the latest.?

If shooting is about the whole experience and not just pulling the trigger, what does an Italian make of the British shooting scene? Dr Beretta becomes excitedly complimentary: ?English shooting is the most sophisticated style of shooting. Naturally, it is challenging, but the way people approach it over here is incredible. Of course, time seems to stand still and tradition is crucial, but it is shooting for real people too; there?s nothing fake about it. Rain, cold, whatever the weather, shooters in this country seem to be out for hours. Shooting here is an experience everyone should try ? I always tell my friends to come over.?

English shooting has influenced the Italian firm in other ways, too, and this in part explains the character of the SO series of guns. ?My great-grandfather and great-uncle studied English guns extensively when they established the SO family of guns,? Dr Beretta says, adding that, when they came to look at the best in English gunmaking, they turned to Holland & Holland?s guns for their inspiration. ?In gunmaking, you can?t really start from scratch, but you canmake better,? he explains. ?There?s a lot of space for optimisation. You can economise, you can make a gun more reliable and more sophisticated, and this is what they tried to do. My family understood that the reliability of their products was crucial.?

Reliability and optimisation are clearly characteristics that help to explain the success of guns in the 687 series of field guns, such as the hugely popular Silver Pigeon, but how does this fit with the creation of the SO10 range, with prices starting at £57,000? Dr Beretta is clear about the need for premium models in the Beretta range. ?The difference between our company and other gunmakers is that our family is agreed that we need to be industrially capable of producing a reliable over-and-under,? he says. ?Yet at the same time we need to be able to retain the ability to make guns at the highest level of craftsmanship.?

The retention of traditional gunmaking skills at the firm?s factory in Brescia is something that Dr Beretta has actively contributed to. ?When I started at the company [in 1990], my father and my great-uncle were concerned about losing these skills. They said the level of work now found on the SO10 range would be phased out within five years. As a result, we started to employ people based on their talent, so we invested in young people,? he explains. ?Now if you go down the different lines ? the stockmaking, steel and engraving lines ? most people are younger than me. The new generation, fortunately, understands that there are people who love to work on sophisticated machinery, but on the other side there are also people who love to see what they can do with their hands.?

In 2000, the company decided to channel its energy into a project to create a top-of-the-line shotgun to showcase these abilities. The SO10 was created to combine the best manufacturing processes and handmade skills in one gun featuring cold-hammer-forged demibloc barrels, handdetachable sidelocks and a blank canvas on which to showcase the engraver?s art. ?We worked for a few years until we brought out the 20-bore,? explains Franco. ?Now we have just launched a 12-bore version and we?re working on the .410. I hope we?ll have some customers who will ask us to make the full set, including a 28-bore. That would be special for us, not so much for the sale, but because somebody would appreciate the work that goes into these guns.?

Clearly, Dr Beretta is passionate about the family firm and its products but, for many shooters, heading up a company such as Beretta may not sound like a particularly hard task. Is there any risk that he?ll ever get tired of the job, tired of shooting? ?I don?t think so,? he says quickly. ?Yes, the sport and guns are part of my job, but I love my job. It?s so varied. On one day, I take care of an industrial problem, the next I?m solving something in our custom-made section, and the following day it may be something in the law enforcement and handgun section. Everything is interconnected, but it?s also so diverse that I enjoy it enormously. Maybe too much. Maybe my wife and son have reason to complain??