Last month I traveled to Urbino, Italy, home of Benelli, to tour the factory. Urbino itself is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen, an almost perfectly intact walled renaissance town on a steep hill in Italy’s Marche region. The building behind me is the palace of the Duke of Montefeltro, begun in the mid-15th century.
The old part of the city is made of brick and full of narrow, medieval streets and views of snowcapped mountains around it. There is a university in Urbino, so it’s a lively place with many sidewalk cafes and gelato shops. Deer and boar live in the woods and there’s a very nice gun club nearby with international trap bunkers.
Urbino lies off the beaten path today. I couldn’t help thinking it was fortunate Urbino was situated well north of Rome 70 years ago, because if the Germans had dug in artillery and a few 88s inside the walls the only way to get them out would have been to flatten the town.
The city is nowhere near Italy’s gun-making center of Brescia in the north, home of Beretta, Guerini, various Rizzinis and others. Benelli–then a manufacturer of racing motorcyles–relocated from Pesaro on the Adriatic coast to Urbino in the 60s. There the Benelli family, all avid hunters, met an engineer named Bruno Civolani who had an idea for a semiautomatic shotgun built on the inertia system. Civolani’s design turned out to be very reliable and it would shoot a long time between cleanings. Benelli now sells 20-some percent of all semiauto shotguns in the world.*
Down below the city walls, tucked into the side of a hill, the very modern Benelli factory hums 24 hours a day. Engineers model every aspect of a gun’s operation, often in sophisticated animation programs, then their pictures are turned into guns in the clean and highly automated factory by machines working to very tight tolerances.
Benelli’s Andrea Luini told us: “In the factory we don’t make Benellis, we clone them. That’s how precise we are.” Robots do the milling and part making. People assemble the guns. In fact, people only work first and second shift in the factory. The machines run supervised only by other machines on the third shift. They will make gun parts all night unless one of the measuring machines finds a part out of spec in which case the whole line shuts down until the humans arrive in the morning to start it up again.
We were also there to preview a new model. I am not allowed to talk about it until SHOT 2014, although I can say I shot it and liked it. I can add that the engineers and robots have collaborated to make an improvement to the basic Benelli design that I am excited about. You will have to wait until next January to find out what it is.
*Benellis are very popular in Russia, specifically the Optifade camo version of the Super Vinci with a 30-inch barrel. It sells for about $3000 in Russia.