With over 400 years of history under its belt, Zoli is a success story built on passion and excellence that shows no signs of slowing down. By Selena Barr.

It’s not surprising that Zoli of Italy has built an excellent reputation. The company has a 400-year history of gunmaking in Brescia and its 40 staff show a passion and enthusiasm for their work that helps their employer and its products stand out from an increasingly crowded market.

The company’s history shows Zoli’s ancestors were building locks for guns back in 1490, going on to manufacture complete firearms shortly after. Although records after this are hazy, a flintlock pistol was designed and produced in 1850, with this gun still held in Zoli’s treasured private family collection.

Zoli’s shotgun manufacturing expertise began in earnest in the early part of the 20th century when it started making hammer side-by-side shotguns such as the AVI and Santa Barbara. These were followed by Anson-type over-unders including the Ariete, Empire and Silver Fox, and Holland & Holland-type side-by-sides such as the prestigious Vulcano.

The next move was into the production of replica black powder guns for America, which created a new market for replica firearms reminiscent of the American Civil War era, such as the Mississippi, Harper’s Ferry and Sharps. Over 200,000 replica guns were produced before Zoli ceased production of these firearms in the late 1970s to focus on creating shotguns and rifles of its own design.

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The Zoli Game Gun, released in 2014, is a hybrid between a technical sporter and a classic game gun

The company’s Delfino line of shotguns went on to give Zoli increased recognition around the world but it was its production of shotgun/rifle combination guns and express rifles that really enabled it to take a step up onto the international stage. Zoli soon became renowned for producing firearms that could give better-known European manufacturers a run for their money.

Innovative and modern

With its reputation continuing to grow, Zoli became ever more innovative, modernising its Delfino over-under line by moving away from the top fastener to a more traditional under-bolt locking system. It also introduced the Ritmo range of smooth-bore barrel shotguns, shotgun/ rifle combination guns and express double rifles, as well as the highly regarded AZ 1900 bolt-action rifle.

Following the success of this, Zoli decided to design and engineer the MG-92 drilling model, which is still in production today and is the only three-barrel (two smooth barrel and one rifled) drilling model ever to be manufactured in Italy.

Towards the end of the 20th century, under the management of Paolo Zoli, the company’s energetic managing director, Zoli began one of its most challenging over-under design projects. Called Revolution 4, this led to the creation of the Corona combination rifle and shotgun, the Focus over-under double rifle, the Columbus smooth-bore game over-under shotgun and the Kronos sporting over-under. Recently added to the company’s broad range are the Z-Expedition game gun and highly regarded competition shotguns. All of these are made in-house at the company’s modern 3,500sqm production facilities.

The latest model from Zoli, whose products are distributed in the UK by Edgar Brothers, is the elegant Pernice Round-Body 20 bore shotgun designed for game shots wanting something light and fast. The notable feature of the Zoli Pernice is its round-body receiver, which not only gives it strikingly sleek looks but is usually normally only featured on far more expensive guns.

It also incorporates fine engraving and a fore-end release catch on the end of the fore-end rather than in the usual position, which is in keeping with the design of the gun and available in two grades of wood, the Grand Lux and Ambassador.

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Becky McKenzie understands the benefit of custom-made shotguns

So what exactly goes into designing a new shotgun?

As Paolo Zoli explains, it is a complex procedure that needs to take into account three key factors: aesthetics, technology and what the market wants. “Successfully designing and bringing a new shotgun to the market is the culmination of many integrated factors and processes and is not an occupation for those looking for a quick result. First concept to commercial production of a completely new shotgun can take five years, the first three to design and create the prototype alone, and the following two to bring the product into industrialised production.”

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The Game Gun was developed in collaboration between Paolo Zoli, brand ambassador Becky McKenzie and Edgar Brothers

A businessman through and through but with a passion for his job, Paolo explains that the first step in designing a new gun is to ascertain what the market requires. “The very first thing we do is identify exactly what the market wants in terms of a new gun, whether it is a traditionally designed game shooting gun, or an all-new high-end competition gun. It is vital for us to produce guns that shooters actually want rather than guns we think we would like to make.”

“When we create a new gun at Zoli we start completely from the beginning”

Following this, the brainstorming starts as the Zoli team begins to outline the performance characteristics and technical specifications the gun must feature, including dimensions, tolerances, engagement between components, calibre, ballistics, felt recoil and so on. “When we create a new gun at Zoli we start completely from the beginning,” says Paolo. “We never, ever try to modify what we already have and that is why it is very important to define all the technical aspects that will go into the new gun. Only when that has been done will the design process be started on our Computer Aided Design system.”

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Zoli believes its barrels, like those seen on the Kronos competition gun, “yield the best ballistic performance and comfort, generating the lowest ever possible recoil.”

The next step is to analyse the resulting design and implement any necessary modifications before a first prototype is produced for in-house testing. “A new shotgun could not even come into being without having a solid technical basis,” emphasises Paolo. “So the cosmetic side – the art if you like – comes as a second step and we do not believe in compromising the quality and performance of a gun with aesthetics. After all, it is the functional side that produces the performance, while the design is more to do with perception. The most important thing is how the gun performs when it is used: the ballistics must be good, the recoil must be soft and smooth, the gun must be perfectly balanced so the shooter only needs to concentrate on their shooting.”

Safety testing follows and comprises putting the gun under large stresses with loads far greater than those found in commercial cartridges. Performance testing is undertaken by Zoli staff and competition shooters closely connected to the company.

“Of course this type of testing results in many subjective opinions,” explains Paolo. “However, it is important for us to receive feedback and understand how shooters perceive the gun and then compare this to what is actually happening, which can be measured by instruments.”

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Edgar Brothers’ managing director Derek Edgar (left) with Paolo Zoli

The benefits to customisation

Key to the design process for Zoli is the incorporation of sciences such as biomechanics, many of which are defined by research and development in the sphere of modern sports medicine. Paolo says: “Zoli is definitely ahead in this area and we take account of all new sciences in the designs of our new guns. But we always remember we are designing for humans who come in all shapes and sizes, and while many of our off-the-shelf shotguns are close to what a shooter needs thanks to their adjustable comb heights, stock lengths and triggers, we also produce bespoke guns that appeal to serious competition shooters who want the absolute best in terms of function and fit.”

According to Paolo Zoli, the most important elements of customising a gun are related to the stock dimensions, the length of the barrels and the adjustment of the trigger mechanism in terms of crispness and pressure. “There is an almost endless list of variables for someone who wants a highly customised gun. For example, we will take into account barrel weight and bore diameter, the customer’s height, weight and build, the length of their arms and neck, the angles between their hand, wrist and elbow when they shoot, their posture and how they move, how they shoot at a target, and how they handle the gun. We also have to ensure that the stock weight meets the needs of the shooter in terms of balance, swing, stance and so on. It is a very personal thing.”

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Zoli has been sponsoring teenage champion clay shot Taylor Hedgecock since 2014

Popular with world champions

For Becky McKenzie, world champion clay shooter and Zoli brand ambassador at Edgar Brothers, having a custom-fit Zoli Z Sport High Rib with 291⁄2” barrels has contributed to her performance. “Not all Zolis come with adjustable stocks and ribs but having one custom fitted has allowed me to achieve the best performance possible,” says Becky. “My Zoli is superbly balanced, which is crucial: it is balanced at the hinge pin so it’s neither barrel- heavy nor stock-heavy.”

For Paolo, combining the technical aspects of gun performance with design excellence has led to Zoli becoming recognised around the world. “But this hasn’t come about by chance,” he explains. “It is the result of many years of hard work and understanding how the performance of a gun affects the performance of a shooter, and appreciating how vital the technical aspects of the gun are from the start. Everything to do with the manufacture of a gun has to be aimed at creating the best performance possible and I enjoy my involvement in the design process. To sell such high performance guns means I have to more or less know everything about the gun and while I don’t have a design background, my 35 years at Zoli has taught me a great deal about production, technology, distribution and consumers, all of which are integral to launching a new gun.

“Product development is very exciting for me. We like to see our products being used rather than just seen and we want to continue offering guns that are pleasant to shoot, that support the shooter and give them confidence in their shooting. That is easy to say but hard to do.”

A career in gun design can certainly be rewarding but while understanding about technology is important, Paolo is emphatic that gun designers and gunsmiths must love what they do: “To know how to use technology is not enough. You must not be afraid to get your hands dirty and must be willing to learn from the ground up. Most importantly, you must have a passion for the job and put something of yourself into the end product by being creative, thinking boldly and by understanding your market as we do here at Zoli.”