Fabbri, Italian gunmakers, may well make some of the best guns in the world. Fashioned from titanium, stainless steel and walnut they are 21st-century works of art.
Fabbri, Italian gunmakers, were the subject of a whispered heresy from one of gunmaking’s heaven born: the Blessed Trinity – Purdey, Holland & Holland and Boss – no longer made the best guns in the world. The keeper of that Holy Grail was now Fabbri Italian gunmakers, a family-owned gunmaker based in Brescia, Italy. Fabbri Italian gunmakers have a deserved place on the list of the world’s 20 best shotguns and feature in the 10 most expensive guns in the world.
Who makes “the best of the bests” is endlessly debatable. What’s indisputable is cost. Purchase an over-and-under from Purdey and you’ll part with £108,700, including VAT; you’ll pay £98,400, including vat, for a Holland & Holland Royal; and upwards of £105,500, including VAT, for a Boss. All re-assuringly expensive, one might think. But order a Fabbri Titanium from the Italian gunmakers and be prepared to hand over £150,000 including VAT – and that’s without bespoke engraving.
Yet, despite that price tag, the order book is full for the next six years. Partly it’s because the Fabbri Itlaian gunmakers’ guns have attracted a starry clientele, such as Clapton, Selleck and Spielberg; partly because the technical processes in their manufacture are so involved; but mainly, and gloriously, it’s because the Fabbri family does not wish to make more than 20 a year, compared to a London firm’s output of around 70.
Ivo Fabbri founded the company in 1968, eight years after he began working with Daniele Perazzi. Their dreams differed. Perazzi wanted to create the best competition gun in the world, something he realised incontrovertibly at the London 2012 Olympics, when Perazzis won 12 out of the 15 shotgun-sports medals. Fabbri, however, was inspired by the traditions of London gunmaking and simply wanted to make the best.
What comprises “the best” is a moot point. The classic definition is a gun that cannot be improved by additional time or expense and it’s one that has served the Mayfair makers well. But they use methods and materials that differ little from when they were founded centuries ago. Computer numerically controlled (CNC) machine tools now do much of the basic work but the factories still resemble Victorian workshops in form and function, with metal-to-metal tolerances checked with soot from a blacking lamp. Yet, with steel, wood and a thousand man-hours, London continues to fashion the world’s best guns – or at least, the best in traditional gunmaking. For, with the exception of the Purdey Damas, which uses a powdered steel process to create a gun with great strength but with Damascus patterning, British bests have not embraced new materials. In contrast, Fabbri rejoices in them.
FABBRI, ITALIAN GUNMAKERS, EMBRACE MODERN MATERIALS
I visited the Fabbri factory last October, apparently the first journalist ever to be admitted. It lives off a roundabout in Nave, Brescia, in a building that could serve as a pharmaceuticals HQ in Slough. And inside, the comparison still serves. There are no oily benches, no jackstraws of files and turnscrews, an absence of ladies struggling to stay in the borders of girlie calendars. Instead, there’s white space and the companionable hum of CNC machines.
Tullio Fabbri, Ivo’s son, now runs the business with his wife, Gisela, and the son from his first marriage, also named Ivo. In traditional gunmaking businesses, Ivo might be a stocker or finisher but at Fabbri he is, unsurprisingly, a computer programmer and therefore in charge of production. We walked over the spotless floor to a row of silver bars and Tullio Fabbri became almost messianic at this altar of technology.
“We do not build the guns in batches,” he said. “Each goes through the factory separately. Our barrels are made from aeronautical-grade stainless steel, which is 80% stronger than the carbon steel used in most guns. They are proofed to 1,370kg and the steel is so hard that you can fire Hevi-Shot or steel shot through them, full choke, with no damage whatsoever.
“They start off as bars of isotropic steel that we drill through to create the tubes. We don’t forge them, as that would create stresses in the material. Our aim is to produce the strongest and most accurate barrels by using stainless steel that has a low coefficient of expansion and so avoid the distortion that comes through extremes of temperature, either through a period of rapid fire or by using the gun in cold climates.
“We then attach them to demi-blocs [chopper lumps] before joining the tubes to form a pair of barrels. And that took us years to perfect,” he continued, with a brief smile. “You can’t join stainless steel with solder, so you can’t use the same process as most gun barrels. That’s an advantage, because solder can come apart, as it has a relatively low melting point, and change the aim of the barrels, as the solder heats up more quickly than the barrel steel. So, we use the same stainless steel as our barrels to make tapered side ribs that we know will angle the barrels so that each of the pair shoots to the same point of aim. We then insert them and laser-weld them, so that the barrels are essentially one piece of steel – super strong, super accurate but also, of course, shiny.
“Because bluing and blacking are essentially rusting processes, you cannot use them on stainless steel. So we use a system developed to reduce friction of piston rods in F1 cars. We put the barrels in a carbon plasma, which leaves them with a diamond-like coating, 2,000 microns thick, that is very attractive and extremely hard. ”
The barrels are next matched with titanium actions. Using titanium can transform a gun’s handing qualities. It can remove as much as a pound in weight from a 12-bore over-and-under without any sacrifice of durability or strength. So, a titanium gun can be built with the pointability of a trap model coupled with the speed and agility of a game-gun. British makers are aware of this and are sometimes asked to make titanium-actioned guns, but using the metal would require investment in additional machine tools. At Fabbri, the demand for such guns is high enough to warrant this expense.
After the barrels are fitted to the action, the guns have to pass a test; the tolerances must be so fine that a single sheet of thin paper in-serted between barrels and breech will prevent closure. Once they pass, they go to Marco, the head stocker, whom we met as he applied one of the 15 coats of oil used on each gun.
The temperature-controlled walnut stockroom, some 40ft long and 12ft high, is lined with wonderfully figured blanks, mostly in pairs, and in every colour, from honey to burnt caramel. “Different nations prefer different colours,” explained Tullio Fabbri. “The Americans like lighter, the English darker. Most of our orders are for pairs, so we buy blanks accordingly. And when we deliver the guns, there’s less than one gram difference in weight. Just one gram.”
Looking round the room, I estimated there were 700 blanks there. “Wrong,” smiled Tullio Fabbri. “There are 900.” Rather a lot for a company determined to make 20 guns a year? “Well, this is a family company,” he said, “and I must invest for my sons.”
The following day we took some of the guns and shot with Dario Anguissola, Fabbri’s marketing director and a world champion at helice, a sport that replicates live-pigeon shooting. The Fabbris worked well, as expected. Better than London guns? Not really. But then, I don’t expect any guns to work better than my bog-standard workhorses that are fitted to me.
The buyers of luxury guns are not looking at performance alone but at that seductive mix of exclusivity, pride of ownership and, perhaps, investment. With a London gun, there’s also the joy of heritage and, sometimes, that unquantifiable magic that’s been bestowed by a thousand hours of craftsmanship. A London best can be almost alive, a creature not an object; and “it” can become a “she”.
With a Fabbri, the beauty is also there, though it’s coupled with the technical élan of the best of modern materials fashioned by a family that will not compromise. It is as a modern sculpture to London’s Old Masters. And, like many modern works of art, it commands a price that equals or exceeds others’.
So, for all its expense, is a Fabbri the “best gun in the world”? It’s certainly not a claim Tullio Fabbri would make. “Best” is too subjective a superlative and his respect for the London makers is enormous. But, modesty aside, his guns may have joined the ranks of those that have worn that exclusive badge for a century or two. The Holy Trinity might have become a quartet.