Inside the Benelli Shotgun Factory in Urbino, Italy

Most people visiting the beautiful Italian Renaissance city of Urbino are attracted by the art and architecture. I'm a duck hunter. I was attracted by that factory in the valley below the town's ancient walls. The sign said "Benelli." So while my wife was thrilled to have a seat at a baroque musical recital, I was thrilled to have a seat in an official vehicle escorting me down the hill for a private tour of a plant producing some of the world's most famous auto-loading shotguns. I knew just what to expect: 10th-generation Italian craftsman wearing aprons and visors lovingly hand-crafting sporting arms using traditional techniques passed down by the masters, milling barrels, scrolling receivers, polishing walnut stocks - the Geapettas of the firearms set. I could almost smell the gun oil and wood polish. What I found was something else entirely. But just as fascinating. The setting for the Benelli factory is worth the trip, even for non-hunters. The hilltop town of Urbino is one of Italy's most beautiful and well-preserved renaissance treasures. It is located in the central province of Le Marche, which has a rich and ancient hunting tradition s still very alive today - and one reason the manufacturer of fine shotguns is located there.Bob Marshall
The factory hides in the folds of a green valley directly below the ancient walls of the town.
The walk through the front office was promising and exciting, heavy with evidence of beautiful shotguns and hunting traditions.Bob Marshall
Benelli's president, Luigi Moretti, was waiting for me, holding a typically beautiful gun.Bob Marshall
But when we pushed through the door to the factory, the image I'd had of how these guns were made changed completely. There were no Geappta. There was no oil. No men in visors and aprons. Instead I found a state-of-the-art, ultra-modern factory powered by whizzing computers.Bob Marshall
CAD screens were glowing in front of geeky-looking engineers wearing ties.Bob Marshall
Robots were drilling, welding, cutting and polishing.Bob Marshall
Okay, there was some hand scrolling. But not much. Turns out this is the way things are done these days -- and not just because it takes less time.Bob Marshall
"Computer-driven robots can make gun parts to much more demanding tolerances than anyone can do by hand," explained Gian Luigi Boninella, plant manager at Benelli. His factory can produce 700 auto-loading shotguns per day- about 600 more than a factory full of hand craftsman could do. And they will be tighter-fitting and more blemish-free than anything produced by hand, Boninella claimed, because the element of human error has been removed.Bob Marshall
And computer errors are caught by quality control checks done by other computers measuring parts and fits to microscopic tolerances that are ...Bob Marshall
... unattainable by human hand or eye.Bob Marshall
If I'd known the history of Benelli Arms, I wouldn't have been urprised. It was started only in 1967 by a family famous for making some of the world's finest motorcycles. But they also loved field sports, and guns. In 1967 they became intrigued by a revolutionary auto-loader design from engineer Bruno Civolani called the inertial release locking system. Forty years later they are a world leader in auto-loader production.Bob Marshall
For a southern waterfowler like me, the shotguns -- all autoloaders -- coming out of that assembly line are eye candy in every desirable flavor.Bob Marshall
There are field grade beauties, camo-skinned workhorses, and matte-black technical innovators.Bob Marshall
The gates to Urbino rising above the factory may have been designed during the Renaissance, but there is nothing old about the Benelli factory quietly humming away in the valley below. This is Italian craftsmanship, 21st-century style.Bob Marshall