Country Notes

Passion by the barrel

Meeting the new boss of London’s finest gunmaker

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

On the steps up to the blue door a man in a faded red tracksuit leans on one of the stone pillars in the Monday morning sun. All down Jermyn Street windows have been thrown open and flags above shop doors hang still in the heat.

I knock three times then push a bottle of Sudafed up my nose, squeeze twice, and lick at the bitter liquid as it runs over my lip. I was 20 before I ever experienced hay fever. I was fishing somewhere I shouldn’t have been when it first hit. I’ve not enjoyed June much since.

When I get up there, Franco Gussalli Beretta is sitting in the middle of the room in a puddle of sunlight: blue suit, thick grey hair, and a trio of arrows on his big silver belt buckle, the logo of a business established by his ancestor in Lombardy almost 500 years ago.

It might just be that Franco has the coglioni to make gun-making in Britain new

The earliest documented order was from the Venetian Republic for 185 barrels: “296 ducats made payable to Bartolomeo Beretta.” Fifteen generations later, Franco oversees the production of 1,500 guns a day, from grenade launchers to the ubiquitous “Silver Pigeon”, probably the most popular shotgun in the world.

The current generation are aggressively acquisitive. In recent years they’ve bought a German optics firm, a Finnish rifle manufacturer, and an American company that makes replicas of the sort of weapons that won the West — my own cowboy costume has been too small for some time.

Then, last February, Beretta made their boldest move yet by buying Holland & Holland, the finest gunmaker in London. Franco is a likeable man: he speaks at twice the volume he needs to and he laughs more loudly still. He loves cars and art and boats, and he admits that the day there’s a Beretta running the business who isn’t passionate about guns will be the day it all goes bang. What Holland & Holland needs, he reckons, is innovation.

British gunmakers have been stuck in the late nineteenth century for over a hundred years now and it might just be that Franco has the coglioni to make it new. We talk for half an hour and then as I’m standing to go, Carlo walks in — nonchalant at 25, a black t-shirt, dark sunglasses and jeans. Bartolomeo’s 16 times great-grandson. Franco gestures towards him and asks if I have any questions for the boy. Carlo talks to me briefly about NFTs but then tells me the real struggle is going to be a political one. He wants to make the world understand that hunting can be part of conservation. “And do you hunt?” I ask, thinking we might swap rabbit recipes. He shakes his head and tells me that as crazy as it sounds he doesn’t get out very much: “In Italy, young people don’t hunt so much anymore.”

A couple of days later, across town, I’m at the HarperCollins summer party, drinking champagne with Guy Shrubsole, the author of Who Owns England, and a self-confessed “troublemaker” who aims to win public access to private land. It’s a curious thing: as the editor of Shooting Times, I suppose I’m meant to dislike Guy. I know plenty of people who do and I’m sure we could unearth differences if we went at it, but I also want to live in a world where the countryside can be enjoyed by all.

He wants to make the world understand that hunting can be part of conservation

I regularly hear from goose shooters whose hunting grounds have been bought up by second homeowners and not so many years ago, I would sit by the phone, trying to pluck up enough courage to make the call: “I was thinking, mister, could I cycle over on my bike with my air rifle. It’s just I saw loads of rabbits in your top field.” It was usually a yes, except on a local place owned by a garden centre magnate, notable for putting an advert in the local paper requesting that nobody in the village speak to him.

Guy is right. Young people miss out on so much richness if they’re separated from nature. I’ve long thought that to cast a fly, shoot a rabbit, or sit in a muddy ditch waiting for a goose, is to not just be in nature, but it’s to become part of it. Hunting grants us a new way of seeing and I want that for all young people, scions of great dynasties and the rest of us alike.

As I walked home, I wondered if Guy and I should join forces. We could cook up some sort of campaign that fights for the right of every little child to pursue trout and rabbits. I went to bed with my trousers on thinking what a great idea it was and awoke at four in the morning with a sore head, uncertain if the thought had any legs at all.

Patrick Galbraith’s first book, In Search of One Last Song, is out now in hardback with William Collins

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