Beretta Targets Booming Commercial Firearm Market : Weapons: Despite its Pentagon contract, the arms maker sees more growth in the non-military area that continues to grow by 30% a year.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Beretta U.S.A. Corp. has had its problems, but the handgun manufacturer must be the envy of many other defense contractors.

While many suppliers of military hardware are feeling the Pentagon budget squeeze and being forced to curtail their operations and lay off workers, Beretta is moving ahead with plans for a second factory that will initially hire 50 to 60 workers.

Beretta, which has the Department of Defense contract to replace the military's vintage Colt .45 with its 9-millimeter semiautomatic, attributes its expansion plans to a booming commercial market that is already larger than its military contract and is growing by about 30% a year, according to Robert L. Bonaventure, head of the Italian arms maker's U.S. plant.

Beretta U.S.A., opened in 1977, is the relatively young offspring of an Italian arms maker that identifies itself as the world's oldest production company. Fabbrica D'Armi Pietro Beretta S.P.A. was founded in the 1500s and made barrels for the harquebus, a matchlock musket so heavy that it had to be mounted on supports when fired.

But the name Beretta became a household word in America--joining the ranks of Colt and Winchester--in 1984, when it won the military contract to replace the Colt .45, Bonaventure said. The Colt .45 had been in the U.S. arsenal more than 80 years.

"There was a lot of prestige in winning that contract," Bonaventure said.

Berettas also began appearing on the silver screen, in "Lethal Weapon" in 1987 and its sequel, "Lethal Weapon 2," last year. Bruce Willis also carried a 9-millimeter Beretta in "Die Hard," a 1988 movie hit.

The military contract, and related publicity, came as police forces across the country were beginning to notice that they were outgunned by criminal elements, especially those in the drug trade.

Over the past 10 years more than 800 law enforcement agencies have retired their six-shot revolvers in favor of a commercial version of the Beretta military weapon that can be fired 16 times before reloading.

The Maryland State Police turned to the Beretta in January, 1988, as the replacement for its .357-caliber handguns. The Los Angles County Sheriff's Department has ordered more than 12,000 92-Fs, the formal designation of the commercial version of the military weapon. Berettas also are carried by the Connecticut State Police, Florida Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies.

The 9-millimeter weapon, which retails for about $600, and Beretta's smaller .22- and .25-caliber handguns, which sell for about $200, are also popular with civilians.

Rafael Aguirre, Beretta's director of marketing, says commercial sales are rising about 30% annually. He said the law enforcement market, alone, could top 1 million weapons. Beretta is currently grabbing about 30% of this business. The remainder is shared by nearly a dozen competitors.

Since its first shipment to the military left the loading dock in 1985, Beretta has delivered about 100,000 handguns to the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. The government has options for additional orders that could bring the total contract to more than 600,000 units amounting to more than $150 million.

Shipments to law enforcement agencies since 1983 have totaled more than 150,000 guns.

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