How the Benelli Shotgun Factory Uses Robots and A Hint at a New Model

Last month I traveled to Urbino, Italy, home of Benelli, to tour the factory. Urbino itself is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen, an almost perfectly intact Renaissance walled town on a steep hill in the Marche region of Italy. The building behind me is the palace of the Duke of Montefeltro, begun in the mid-15th century.

The old part of town is made of brick and is full of narrow, medieval streets and views of the snow-capped mountains all around. There is a university in Urbino, so it is a lively place with many outdoor cafes and ice cream parlors. Deer and wild boar live in the woods and there is a very nice rifle club nearby with international trap bunkers.

Urbino today is off the beaten path. I couldn’t help but think that it was fortunate that Urbino was well north of Rome 70 years ago, because if the Germans had artillery and a couple of 88s dug in inside the walls the only way to get them out would have been the raze the city to the ground.

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The city is far from Italy’s arms center Brescia in the north, home of Beretta, Guerini, various Rizzinis and others. Benelli – at that time a manufacturer of racing motorcycles – relocated from Pesaro on the Adriatic coast to Urbino in the 1960s. There the Benelli family, all avid hunters, met an engineer named Bruno Civolani, who had an idea for a semi-automatic shotgun based on the inertial system. The Civolani design turned out to be very reliable, and it would shoot between cleanings for a long time. Benelli now sells about 20 percent of all semi-automatic shotguns in the world.*

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Below the city walls, tucked away on a hilltop, the very modern Benelli factory hums 24 hours a day. Engineers model every aspect of a weapon’s operation, often in sophisticated animation programs, and their images are then turned into weapons in the clean and highly automated factory by machines working to very tight tolerances.

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Benelli’s Andrea Luini told us: “We don’t make Benellis in the factory, we clone them. That’s how accurate we are.” Robots do the milling and part manufacturing. People assemble the guns. In fact, people in the factory only work the first and second shifts. The machines run in the third shift only monitored by other machines. They’ll be making gun parts all night unless one of the measuring machines finds a part that doesn’t meet specs. In this case, the entire line will shut down until people arrive in the morning to get it running again.

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We were also there to present a new model. I’m not allowed to talk about it until SHOT 2014, although I can say I shot it and enjoyed it. I can add that the engineers and robots worked together to improve the basic Benelli design, which I’m looking forward to. You’ll have to wait until next January to find out what it is.

*Benellis are very popular in Russia, especially the Optifade camouflage version of the Super Vinci with a 30″ barrel. It is sold in Russia for about $3000.

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