beretta craftsman shaping gun stock
A Beretta craftsman shapes a premium gun stock. Phil Bourjaily

One of the highlights of my recent visit to Beretta was the glass-enclosed wood room where the premium blanks are stored under slightly elevated humidity to keep them from drying out. The grade 4 and 5 blanks were gorgeous. Although I like engraving, if I had to choose, I would prefer a gun with highly figured wood and no engraving to a gun with plain wood and great engraving. Really good wood seems to have depth to it if you look at it long enough, and there’s always some new wrinkle or swirl to find in a good gun stock. It wasn’t easy narrowing down my choices, but I tried to decide which blank I’d want for the SO 10 I’m ordering next time I have $90,000 burning a hole in my pocket.

Figured grain is what makes a stock beautiful, which is why blanks cut from near the root or at the crotch of the trunk and a large branch have the most attractive grains. But, straight grain is stronger, and the grain at the wrist of the stock should be fairly straight for strength. In a properly laid out blank, the grain runs parallel to the top of the grip. All of the pretty swirls belong closer to the butt. Trees big enough to make good stock blanks are more than 100 years old and up 300 to 500 years old. A lot of history passes in a few centuries, which is one reason the stocks of Beretta’s premium guns are tomagraphed (sectionally x-rayed) to look for weak spots, nails, wire, bullets, shrapnel, and anything else that may have found its way inside the blank to cause a problem.

Blanks take many years—up to 10—to cure, dry, and stabilize in air. Kiln drying cuts the time to under a year, but can crack some types of walnut. In the 1960s, Browning found a source of walnut in California and, not having enough time to kiln dry it, tried a new method of drying developed by Morton Salt for the furniture industry. According to firearms historian Ned Schwing, Browning filled a room the size of a football field with 5x5x8-foot stacks of blanks which were then covered with salt. It worked—except for the part where the moisture pulled out of stocks at the top of the stacks ran down and into stocks on the bottom, essentially brining them. Once those stocks from the bottom of the pile were put onto guns, they rusted metal, often from the inside, where you couldn’t tell what was going on until you pulled the stock off. “Salt wood” Brownings were made from 1966 to 1972, with the majority of affected guns being made from ’67 to ’69.

But, I digress.

We were talking about Berettas, and my SO 10. Depending on density and grain, wood can vary quite a bit from blank to blank. That’s one reason listed gun weights are so often misleading in gun catalogs.* If I decide I’m going to splurge and order not one SO 10 but a matched pair—you know, for driven pheasants in England and partridges in Spain—I’d go to the smaller, more exclusive wood room we saw. There I would choose among matched pairs of blanks, with both blanks guaranteed to weigh within one gram of one another so my matched pair would, indeed, match, and my timing and swing wouldn’t be thrown off in the heat of a drive. (It’s nice to dream sometimes.) I realize you can mold hundreds of plastic stocks that all weigh exactly the same, but that’s not really the point here.

*The other reason is, manufacturers lie about the weight of their guns.