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The Future Face of Firearms

The Benelli factory is a true feat of modern engineering. Workers assemble guns alongside sophisticated robotic arms that operate inside enormous steel cages. The room smells of strange chemicals and the roar of machinery is deafening. Benelli clearly runs a tight ship — the factory is spotlessly clean and runs like clockwork.

Based in Urbino, a walled city in the Marche region of Italy, the Benelli Armi factory was founded in 1967 as an offshoot of the highly respected Benelli motorcycle brand. In the past few years, the company has spent 70million Euro in development, equipping its factory with the latest gadgetry and machinery. Twenty-first century gunmaking on a large scale requires high-tech factories and complex robots to ensure accuracy and speed of production, which Benelli can certainly boast. Recently,key UK distributors were invited to visit its state-of-the-art factory to discover how its inertia-driven shotguns are made.

There are 10 fully-automated robots in the factory, costing 300,000 Euro each. The factory workers have personified each of the robots and assigned nicknames to them such as Bertoldo and Cirillo the Juggler (because it has two arms). The robots are similar to the highprecision machines found in Toyota’s car factories. They are all multi-functional and can be used to machine the main gun components, drill grooves and polish to exact standards.

“The machines do the work of dozens of men,” explained Roberto Massarotto, Benelli’s marketing and communications manager. “The products that are created by a machine are uniform and predictable. The 170 factory workers are tasked only with the assembly of the guns. We endeavour to minimise human
error on our production line.”

To ensure each gun meets European safety and accuracy standards, they are independently tested by the Italian government’s proofing house at a cost of 7 Euro per gun. “The process of testing each gun used to be much more laborious. They had to be sent away to northern Italy to be certified before, but now that we have the facilities in-house it is much more cost-effective and our production line is even more streamlined. In fact, Benelli is the only gun manufacturer in Italy to have this service under its factory roof,” Mauro Della Costanza, Benelli’s export area manager, told us.

The factory operates 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. The workers stick to rotating eight-hour shifts, but the machines are never switched off. Each robot is designed automatically to stop production if a fault occurs. “This feature means that when we arrive at the factory for the first shift at 6am, we are not confronted with hundreds of faulty parts if a problem occurred
at 1am when no-one was in the factory,” Mauro explained. “Many of the 90 components that make up a Benelli gun are interchangeable between the different models, which makes the production process more efficient. To be honest, the Benelli gun range has almost reached its peak of evolution, so we are looking to develop new models, such as the new 28-bore, which was launched in March.”

The company has one of the largest ranges of guns on the market, from semi-automatics and pump-action shotguns to rifl es, handguns and compressed-air pistols. In 2007, Benelli celebrated 40 years of production and produced its two-millionth gun. In 2008, Benelli produced 190,000 guns. “Our target for this year is 200,000,” said Mauro. The company not only
manufactures guns for hunters, but also for military use. In 1998, Benelli won the contract to equip the US Marine Corps with a new combat rifle — the M4 — a gas operated, semi-automatic shotgun. The company also holds the distinction of being the official supplier to the Tongan army.

It takes five days to make a gun from start to finish, with 78 per cent of the gun being manufactured in-house. “Only the wood and plastic for the stocks are imported. The barrels on a Benelli are made by Beretta, but every other component is made here,” said Mauro, as he pointed to a pile of black stocks that were awaiting assembly.

The factory is so finely tuned that if Benelli’s sales director, Lucio Porreca, needs to adjust his sales forecast, it takes 60 days to switch production to a different model to avoid a build-up of stock. “It is a real point of weakness in the system and the disadvantage of automation. The number of guns produced is governed by my sales forecasts, so it is essential I get it right,” explained Lucio.

As well as the sophisticated machinery, Benelli has adopted space-age production techniques,such as using cryogenic treatment on its gun barrels once they have been received from Beretta. Used mainly in highly specialist sectors such as the aerospace and medical fields, cryogenic treatment consists of a gradual cooling of steel to temperatures well below -100˚C. It is a process that Benelli believes stalibises the internal structure of the metal, removing the residual tensions and improving mechanical characteristics. “The result is a reduction in the friction, greater surface hardness and increased resilience,” claimed Lucio. “This means the gun is less sensitive to the high temperatures reached during firing and the consequent elimination of deformation and friction, giving optimum ballistic results. The advantages in terms of performance are exceptional: a prolonged working life of the barrel and improved resistance to erosion and corrosion. Most importantly, the treatment translates to a four to six per cent improvement in performance,” he said.

“Modern gun manufacturers are constantly developing new ways to better the traditional design of a shotgun,” explained Lucio. Benelli recently started using a new gel to sit in the stock of the gun to help to reduce recoil.

The German pharmaceutical company Bayer HealthCare originally developed the gel for surgical use, but Benelli bought the exclusive rights to it for the light firearms sector. Are these new features not a little gimmicky? Lucio explained that the answer is in the statistics. “This new technology significantly absorbs the vibrations caused when firing the gun. In fact, testing has shown that it reduces recoil by 47 per cent and helps to reduce muzzle kick. For a novice shooter it can improve performance by up to 15 per cent,” said Lucio.

Everyone at the Benelli factory is eager to highlight the fact that each part of the production process is carried out using the most advanced equipment and technology. The creation of new prototypes takes place within the technical department, making use of the most advanced computeraided software programmes for design, engineering — for structural calculations of the finished elements — and manufacturing — to simulate the mechanical processes. All the processes are carried out under the supervision of the quality assurance department, which ensures that functions and processes comply with the company quality system and strictly conform to European safety standards.

Undoubtedly, the modern way of manufacturing guns on a mass scale has meant that some of the romance from the time when shotguns typically were crafted by skilled workmen in small, backroom gunsmiths has been lost. However, the slick design of modern-day guns and the level of performance that is demanded by 21st century shooters means that gunmakers must streamline and
fine-tune their manufacturing to satisfy customers. The factory might lack soul, but the end product is the result of years of technological advances of which Benelli is rightly proud.

Members of the public are able to tour the factory. For contact details, visit