Explorer Christopher Columbus of 1492 fame may have sailed under a Spanish banner but is remembered by Italian Americans for his roots.
Born Cristoforo Colombo in Genoa, Columbus was likely the first person to bring firearms to the New World and, when land was first sighted, the crew of his ship Pinta, lit off a deck cannon to alert the fleet-- the first shot heard in the Americas.
When Columbus Day was designated in 1966, President Johnson said that "we honor Columbus not only as a voyager but also as a symbol of the long tradition of Italian enlightenment," going on to call the millions of Americans of Italy decent the "spiritual heirs of the Italian genius which has enriched the quality of our national life."
As Columbus in a way kicked off American gun culture, we figured today would be a great time to talk about Italian "arma." After all, while we in the U.S. are imminently familiar with the designs of Samuel Colt and John Browning, odds are you also know of the firearms invented by Bethel Revelli, Tullio Marengoni, and Salvatore Carcano, although you may not recall their names.
When it came to the arms carried by Columbus and his men, their most advanced portable guns were arquebuses, early firelocks. Ironically, it was for 185 arquebus barrels that Mastro Bartolomeo Beretta of Gardone in 1526 received 296 ducats for in a contract to supply the Arsenal of Venice. Since then, Beretta has expanded just a bit but remains in Gardone-- as well as other places such as Tennessee and Maryland-- producing guns that are of more modern vintage. Perhaps you have heard of them?
Giuseppe Benelli started his company in 1911-- to make motorcycles. Expanding on the brand, his grandson Giovanni Benelli started making fine Italian shotguns in 1967. These days, the motorbike and moped part of the company is owned by a concern out of China but the shotgun maker, famed for its Super 90 series semi-autos, has been wholly part of Beretta for the past 20 years.
A younger company that Beretta, Bernardelli"only" dates to about 1631 and produced not only firearms but also components for Alfa-Romero engines. In the 1980s, the firm was sold to Sarsilmaz in Turkey, who still produces shotguns under the storied old banner.
Formed around 1868 in Brescia, Italy, Franchi is best known for its various shotgun lines but has branched out into rifles from time to time. Imported since at least the 1970s, the brand has gone on to become iconic in many ways with its distinctive SPAS-12 tactical shotguns having cameo appearances in the hands of everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chow Yun-Fat to Ice Cube and Pam Grier. Today, the company is a Beretta subsidiary by way of Benelli.
F.A.P F.LLI. Pietta
Established in 1960 originally as a shotgun maker, Pietta has since carved out a serious chunk of the single-action revolver market in recent years and their Old Western-style wheel guns are imported and distributed on this side of the pond by EMF and others.
Fratelli Tanfoglio S.N.C.
Formed in the 1940s, Tanfoglio has been in the semi-auto pistol club ever since and many of the first CZ 75 clones imported into the U.S. were made by the Italian company. There were also any number of EAA, Excam, F.I.E., and KBI-branded Tanfoglio pistols that made it to American shores going as far back as the 1960s.
Dating back to 1959, Uberti, like Pietta, specializes in modern clones of historic 19th Century black-powder-era rifles and revolvers with their first product being a rebooted Colt 1851 Navy. Many of Italian director Sergio Leone's "Spaghetti Westerns" featuring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Josef Egger relied heavily on Uberti-made clones, so when you say that you want a hog leg from the Dollars series, you are probably talking about a Uberti rather than a Colt or Winchester. To keep the brand alive and growing, Beretta acquired them in 2000.
While not a "brand," the Italian Army's standard infantry rifles for about 70 years-- the Modello 1870 and the Modello 1891-- were upgrades of the Swiss Vetterli and German Gew88, the latter with a Mannlicher-style en bloc clip, that were produced at Italian armories. The man who designed the latter, Italian engineer Salvatore Carcano, has his name tied to the M91 rifle to this day. Both guns were widely imported to the U.S. across the 20th Century, going on to live lengthy second lives as budget deer guns and collectors' pieces.
Naturally, there are other past and current Italian firms such as Caesar Guerini, Davide Pedersoli, FABRAM, Renato Gama, Rizzini, and Sabatti, but our plate is only so big today, and Columbus only had three boats, after all.