With a history dating back to the early 16th century, Beretta is unquestionably the oldest firearms manufacturer extant, and today it is renowned for its extensive selection of world-class auto pistols.
It seems curious, then, that with such a lineage the company took so long to enter the handgun market, not coming out with its premier offering until 1915, well after many types of semiautos produced by Mauser, DWM, Colt and Fabrique Nationale had become commonly accepted by the military, police and civilians.
Herewith we present a sommario of a century of autos made by Beretta, a company that, during that period, has turned out more different models of semis than any other firearms company, ever. Needless to say, the sheer scope of its product line over the decades, plus the limited amount of space afforded in this article, means that every model can't be dealt with in detail, so with your indulgence, we'll highlight favorites we believe to be a representative selection of some of the most significant milestones in a very impressive portfolio. The product line is so large and lineage sometimes so byzantine, a strict recitation of chronology is not appropriate unless one can dedicate time for a novel. As well, some guns were sold in the United States with different designations than were seen in other parts of the world, adding to the confusion. With these considerations in mind, we'll continue.
Until the 19th century, Beretta's principal endeavor had been producing high-quality military and civilian barrels, which were mated to components turned out by other contractors and gunsmiths. During that period, under the inspired leadership of Giuseppe Beretta, the company began producing entire firearms. Despite the obvious ascendancy of auto pistols, it took another Beretta — Giuseppe's son Pietro — and a World War to move the company to build its first self-loader.
Assuming the reins of the company in 1903, Pietro enlarged the manufacturing facilities in Brescia, Italy. Abetted by innovative designs of Tullio Marengoni, the product line was also expanded. After joining the Allies against Germany in 1915, the Italians began casting about for more arms to supply a burgeoning military force.
When the Great War began in 1914, the issued Italian handgun was the 1910 Glisenti semiauto, a somewhat flawed design that chambered a 9x19mm cartridge of similar dimensions to Germany's 9mm Parabellum. However, because of the Glisenti's relatively weak action, it was only 75 percent as potent. Huge quantities of the 10.35mm Type I and Type II Model 1889 Bodeo double-action revolvers were also in service.
It was recognized that the quantities available or that could be immediately produced would not be adequate for the demand, so other arms were pressed into service, including some Spanish autos and a new Italian pistol designed largely by Marengoni, the Beretta Model 1915.
Actually, the fairly simple blowback 1915 was in effect two pistols, one chambered in 7.65mm (.32 ACP) and the other in 9mm Glisenti. The guns looked similar, and both featured a formative version of the open-top slide that would become a Beretta trademark.
The mechanisms, however, were slightly different, the 7.65mm having no ejector and cartridge cases being expelled by means of the firing pin in the breechblock, which was pushed forward when the slide reached full recoil. The 9mm, on the other hand, was fitted with an ejector and had a stronger recoil spring and buffer spring to accommodate the more powerful round.
Of unprepossessing lines and not of the fine fit and finish one normally associates with Beretta products today, the 1915 proved to be a hardy, reliable military pistol, important if for nothing else than it launched Beretta into the handgun market.
In 1919, the Model 1915 was slightly improved, the main changes being a longer cutout on the top of the slide and a different system of attaching the barrel to the frame. Termed the Model 1915/1919, the gun was offered commercially and renamed the Model 1919. As well as a safety catch, the 1919 had a grip safety.
From this point on the die was cast, and Beretta entered into the lucrative semiauto handgun market with momentum, refining design and improving finish to reflect the tastes of a peacetime market. In short order, the company introduced the Model 1923, a variant of the 1919 but with an external hammer, and the Model 1931, a 7.65mm with a more streamlined appearance, which found considerable favor with the Italian navy.
Pocket Pistols and "007"
Following the earlier lead of American, British and Continental makers after World War I, a line of 6.35mm (.25 ACP) pocket pistols began to emerge, starting with the Model 1920 built on a 1919 patent and transitioning into the Models 1926, 1926-31, 1934, Model 318 and Model 418, which made its final appearance in 1959. Just prior to that date, the highly popular line of 950 pocket models in calibers ranging from .22 Short to .25 ACP, with handy tip-up barrels that allowed the guns to be loaded and unloaded without racking the slide came on the scene.
This tip-up design also provided an easy way to tell if a round was chambered. It was a Beretta .25 that was mentioned by author Ian Fleming as being the gun of choice of his fictional super-spy, James Bond. In the 1962 film "Dr. No," in cinema-fashion, Bond's .25 transmogrified into a Model 34 (see below) in .380. Ordered by his boss, "M," to turn it in in favor of a Walther PPK (while an assistant inaccurately extols the virtues of the less powerful 7.65 round), Bond appropriately and reluctantly complied.
Introduced in 1934, the Model 34, considered by many to be one of the best pocket autos of all time, was a small blowback like its predecessors. Primary orders came from the Italian army, followed by air force purchases. The gun became so popular, it was eventually declared standard issue.
The Model 34, chambered in "9mm Corto" (.380 ACP), was simply a great gun. Along with its associate Model 35 in 7.65, exhibiting typical Beretta quality (even in late-war versions), it was easy to operate, not difficult to take down and very reliable. Grips were black plastic emblazoned with the Pietro Beretta (PB) monogram. Finish was a combination of a blued frame and plum-colored slide. The safety, which also served as a slide hold-open, was located on the left side of the frame, where it could easily be manipulated with the thumb of the right hand.
I've heard some people complain that rotating the lever 180 degrees to put the gun on and off Safe is a bit cumbersome, but I must admit I have never found it so.
Like so many European pistols of the time, the magazine had a heel release. When the final round was expended, the slide locked open and closed when the magazine was removed. The gun featured an external hammer. Sights involved a simple blade milled out of the top of the forward portion of the slide and a notch rear that could be drift-adjusted for windage. Capacity of the M34 was seven rounds in the magazine, plus one in the chamber, so while potere was somewhat lacking in the .380 round, at least overall capacity was not. The Model 35 could handle an extra cartridge in the mag.
Markings on the M34 are interesting and just a little bit different. The left side of the slide exhibits the Beretta address, model and date of manufacture — in the Gregorian calendar in Arabic numerals and in the Fascist calendar, which started in 1922, in Roman numerals. Thus the pistol shown here is dated both "1940" and "XVIII." Military pistols are also stamped either "RE" for Regia Esercito (Royal Army) or "RM" for Regia Marina (Royal Navy.)
The M34 and M35 proved to be very popular with returning GIs, and even though thousands were brought back to the States as war trophies, Beretta recognized that there was still a market for this popular little pistol and continued making it commercially until 1958.
Along with other medium-frame and vest-pocket pistols in carry configuration, because of the company hierarchy's dedication to competitive shooting, a selection of target pistols began in the late 1940s. With such monikers as "Model 80 Olimponica, Sable model 102, et alia," most guns — but not all — were offered in both .22 Short and .22 Long Rifle (LR) chamberings. As usual, quality and attention to detail were top notch, and Beretta competition semis were no strangers to the winner's circle.
The Explosion of Beretta
Throughout the years, the product line burgeoned with a dizzying selection of subvariants. One of the best examples was the highly popular Model 70 series, which appeared in 1958 and was marketed for 30 years. Based on the 1934/35 but with a more streamlined silhouette as well as a plethora of number designations, its avatars were also sold with such monikers as New Puma, Jaguar and Cougar. Calibers were .22LR, .32 and .380. Another popular run was the double-action 80 series, manufactured from 1976 to 2013, again with a large subset of names and designations.
Enter the 92
Without question, the best-known and most widely disseminated handgun ever produced by Beretta was the Model 92 and its variants. This 9x19mm Parabellum double-action auto was officially introduced in 1976, though a few had been produced the previous year. As an aside, in 1977, with anticipation of increased military, civilian and police sales in the New World, a manufacturing facility, Beretta U.S.A., was established in the United States in Accokeek, Maryland.
Like many other Beretta autos, the 92 — designed by Carlo Beretta, Giuseppe Mazzetti and Vittorio Valle — relied on some features of earlier pistols, such as the Model 1922 and Model 84. Featuring a double-action, short-recoil mechanism and large magazine capacity, this reliable pistol with open-top slide and distinctive grip could never be mistaken for anything other than a Beretta.
Quickly gaining a reputation for ruggedness and reliability, this pistol emerged victorious in U.S. trials ordered by the Department of Defense to find a replacement for the aging .45 Government Model with a more modern mechanism, one that chambered the NATO-compatible 9x19mm cartridge.
After beating out a number of rivals, the 92 was adopted in 1985 and officially entered U.S. service as the M9. The standard-issue piece had a 15-round mag, ambidextrous safety and matte-blued finish. Used in a number of conflicts, the M9, while generally well received, has not been without controversy. Early complaints about slide failure were addressed, and while ostensibly due to ammunition that exceeded recommended pressures, nonetheless Beretta modified the slide accordingly.
The 92 is made in a wide range of models — everything from compacts to full auto — again, way too many to recount in the space allowed here. Let it suffice to say that it has proven to be a solid platform, one that reflects the Beretta tradition of high-grade semiautos.
Of course, the Beretta story doesn't end with the 92. Far from it, in fact. During and since the 92's appearance, a plethora of other handguns — large, small, fancy and utilitarian — have regularly flowed from the firm's Gardone facility.