GARDONE VAL TROMPIA, Italy — James Bond, the British secret agent 007 of books and movies, preferred a Beretta pistol to any other weapon in his vast arsenal.
In choosing his favorite weapon, the elegant Bond showed his usual good taste.
Beretta, a family-owned company founded in 1526, first gained international fame when its rifles were used by the Venetian fleet at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, when the European powers defeated Turkey.
Last month, the U.S. Army, which had been trying to find a replacement for the .45-caliber Colt, announced that Beretta had won a three-year contest to provide a new handgun for all branches of the U.S. military.
The Italian firm beat seven other bidders to become the first foreign firm selected to supply handguns to American forces.
Expected to Boost Sales
Officials of Fabbrica D'Armi Pietro Beretta, one of the world's oldest arms manufacturers, say their recent contract award by the Army to replace the venerable Colt .45 with the lighter, 9-millimeter Beretta will boost the arms maker's fame and sales.
"No doubt our contract has stirred worldwide sensation and we expect a return, in terms of publicity and new contracts, in the short and longer term," Ugo Gussalli Beretta, managing director of the company, said recently in an interview at the company headquarters in this north Italian town at the foot of the Alps.
The contract calls for the company to supply 315,930 pistols for a price of $70 million.
Beretta will begin production of the model for the U.S. military in its ancient factory in this northern region that has been the stronghold of Italy's arms industry since Roman slaves began working on metals and arms.
Some sections of the Beretta factory in Gardone Val Trompia, a highly industrialized area north of Brescia, date back to the 17th Century. It employs 1,300 workers, all residents of this town of 9,000.
After two years, production will be taken over by Beretta U.S.A. Corp., a subsidiary of the Italian company based in Accokeek, Md., where the work force will be boosted from 125 to 400 to produce 6,000 pistols a month.
"We will invest about $10 million in high-technology machines for the U.S. factory," said Carlo Peroni, head of Beretta's marketing research division.
Two companies that lost the competition--the Smith & Wesson unit of the Bangor Punta Corp. and Heckler & Koch Inc.--have complained to the General Accounting Office about the Army's testing system. In addition, Smith & Wesson has also filed suit in a federal court in Massachusetts.
For Smith & Wesson, it was the second time Beretta had outmaneuvered it in its own country. In 1982, the Connecticut State Police exchanged their Smith & Wesson revolvers for 9-millimeter pistols provided by Beretta at no charge in exchange for advertising endorsements.
"We can say that our pistols went through extensive tests and that they proved the best. The fact that our 15-round weapon is widely used by other NATO member countries possibly played a role in the final choice," Peroni said.
The Beretta was cited by the Army for its greater reliability, better performance and lighter weight than the Colt. The 9-millimeter model, whose high muzzle velocity makes it more accurate than the Colt, will cost the Pentagon about $200 apiece, including spare parts.
In addition, the American adoption of a 9-millimeter handgun means the U.S. military will be using the same caliber weapon as its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, which should result in a savings on ammunition, the Army said.
Colt Used Since 1911
The Colt, which weighs almost three pounds and has a strong recoil, was first used by the U.S. military in 1911 and is the oldest weapon in the U.S. arsenal. It holds eight rounds, is used by officers, tank and truck drivers and many military police.
Beretta has a wide market outside its military sales, which make up only 20% of its output.
Its reputation rests on its high-quality production of rifles and pistols.
Owners of Beretta rifles have included members of the British royal family, the late Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev and the late Yugoslav leader Marshal Tito.
The rifle barrels and high-precision parts are made by robot-run machines while artisans, who have been handing down the art of line-engraving from father to son for generations, make rifle stocks from Turkish walnut trees and engraved metal parts.
Each rifle costs at least $300. Luxury models for collectors can cost as much as $10,500.