"His eyes slid to the gun and holster on the desk. He thought of his fifteen years' marriage to the ugly bit of metal . . . How many times had it saved his life? How many death sentences had it signed?" - From Ian Fleming's James Bond novel) "Dr. No."
In a nondescript brick building in Maryland, far from the glittering world of casinos, foreign agents and international intrigue, some four dozen workers produce 1,500 copies of James Bond's beloved Beretta every month.
Nestled among the farms and horse stables of Accokeek, 17 miles from Washington, the small plant seems an incongruous birth place for the tiny, sleek Italian semi-automatic pistols so favored by Agent 007.
But, because of a 10-year-old law forbidding the importation of small handguns, small plants like F.I. Industries in southern Prince George's County have sprung up aroud the country. At the Accokeek plant, behind anonymous walls and chain-link and barbed wire fences, imported parts are turned itno guns.
The import ban was passed as part of a congressional effort to cut back on the proliferation of cheap, snubnosed Saturday night specials - an easily accessible type of handgun widely used by criminals.
F.I. Industries in Accokeek was turning out just this kind of weapon when the Beretta Corp., which has been manufacturing guns in Italy for nearly 300 years, bought the firm's plant last year.
At first, Prince George's County officials, welcomed the appearance of Beretta. Believing that the firm would produce only sporting guns - weapons for hunting like rifles and shotguns, or pistols crafted for target shooting - county officials asked the state for a $400,000 state insured development loan for the firm.
Later, after learning that the plant would produce small pistols, they scuttled the loan.
In addition, Beretta's arrival provoked an outcry from citizens and antigun activists who objected to the presence of a gun factory nearby. They pointed to statistics on the role of handguns in crimes, such as 1977 FBI figures showing 48 percent of all murders nation wide were committed by people using handguns.
Beretta officials, however, bristle at any comparison between their small guns . . . which are from 3.3 to 4.5 inches long . . . and Saturday night specials."That gun is a revolver," said Enrico Battisti, acting general manager of the Accokeek plant. Unlike a revolver, which holds bullets on a rotating tumbler, Beretta pistols are loaded by inserting a clip of ammunition into the handle.
"The difference between a Saturday night special and our pistol is the same as the difference between a truck and a Rolls-Royce" Battisti added.
Despite the cold welcome given by county officials, Beretta went ahead with production of two kinds of diminutive pistols. About 50 workers drill, assemble and test the guns, which are then trucked to a New York distributor J.L. Galef & Son Inc., for distribution to dealers around the country.
There are an estimated 170,000 licensed gun dealers in the United States, but Galef vice president Albert Baker refused to provide any information on how many Berettas are sold or to whom.
The Accokeek plant sits one mile from the Charles County line on a long stretch of Indian Head Highway, a road that cuts through miles of field and farm broken up occasionally by car dealers, gas stations and fast food eateries. The closest other industry is the Indian Head powder plant, the Navy's ordnance station, according to Accokeek retailer Charles Hess.
When Beretta sought development funds last year, citizens wrote their county council members opposing the move. But today, Beretta's presence is met largely with indifference. "They sell different kinds of guns, very expensive guns," said Hess, who was unaware the plant was turning out only pistols. "There is no problem with them."
But then handgun manufacturing is nothing new in the Washington area.
In Midland, Va., not far from Warrenton, a firm called Interarmco - the world's largest private armaments dealer - makes modern-day copies of the 1873 single-action Colt.
Two kinds of guns are assembled at Beretta's Accokeek plant, each fitting easily in the palm of the hand. The .22 caliber model, in an apparent nod to the Beretta's reputation as a "ladies" gun," is called "Minx." The .25 caliber model - carried by Bond - is named "Jetfire." Each has a retail price of $125.
The firm's officials are reluctant to give exact or to discuss their plans to expand the plant. Battisti, an urbane Italian who sports a long gun-shaped tie clasp, said last week that current production levels are "not sufficient to justify ( the plant). We need to at least double" production.
Leo Goldsmith Jr., president of Beretta in the United States, said the firm's goal is to expand the plant to produce sporting guns." "We would hope to be making sales of a couple of millions in shotguns."
Goldsmith, a New York lawyer, said he had no figures on sales of the pistols being made now. He said the company is locating here to avoid labor troubles in Italy.
Battisti, noting that 10 of the plant's 50 employes are trainees, says expansion would mean "we can give more jobs to people here."
"'Your gun got stuck, if I recall. This Beretta of yours with the silencer. Something wrong there, 007. Can't afford that sort of mistake . . .'"
From Ian Fleming's
Neale Swann fires some 400 rounds a day, to make sure mistakes don't happen. As the Beretta factory's test firer, he is in charge of quality control.
Donning heavy earmuffs or plugs, he plucks the newly assembled Minxes and Jetfires from their trays, loads and points them at the opening of a tube. He pulls the trigger; there's an instant red-orange flash and a loud bang.
Any defects, he says, are minor - such as a trigger that sticks. While other employes work on machining or partially assembling one part, Swann works with the whole gun. Still, he says, "It's just another job, like sweeping floors."
It is a lonely job. Swann works usually alone, in a tiny cubicle with a closed door. And, he says, "my wife's the only one who knows what I do. I never tell the neighbors." Not even his two school-age daughters know.
The 42-year-old Pisgah resident, who has worked at the plant for seven years, says he keeps his job a secret because he "would rather not be approached" by "the wrong element on the street," asking him to steal a gun.
Bond put his right hand inside his coat and on to the taped butt of the Beretta. It was tucked into the waistband of his trousers. He could feel the metal of the silencer warm across his stomach. - From Ian Fleming's "From Russia With Love"
New employes are attracted to the plant, according to production manager Hank Stromberg, by the lure of the guns themselves. "The average male is interested in guns like he's interested in a car motor. There's a certain inherent interest," says Stromberg, who was a Baltimore gunsmith before taking the job with Beretta.
Stromberg, a longtime collector of rifles, shotguns, muzzle-loaders and other exotic firearms, waxes rhapsodic when asked why anyone would want to buy a gun.
"It's a long-term investment," he says.
Battisti puts it in more practical terms. "It's a defense weapon," he says.
But that view raises debate among gun fanciers and foes. Much of the debate turns on the Beretta's small size and limited accuracy.
Battisti said the .22 and .25 caliber Berettas are accurate at 10 meters or less. They are intended, he said, for close-up personal defense, not for long-distance shooting. Other gun experts say the chances of killing someone from a distance with a Beretta are remote - the bullet would have to hit a vital organ.
The firm's president in this country, Goldsmith, says he doesn't even own a gun and doesn't see the Beretta as a defensive weapon. "If you said I needed a gun for protection, I wouldn't have one because they're not big enough." What is the Beretta good for? "It could kill a snake," Goldsmith says.
The Beretta's power to menace an attacker also pooh-poohed by Harold E. MacFarland of Cottonwood, Ariz., a contributor to American Rifeman magazine.
"It's isn't a man's weapon," MacFarland says. "If a man were really tough and deserved shooting you could make him angry by shooting all those little holes in him."
MacFarland recounts the legendary tale of the Texas cotton-picker, who, shot in the stomach with a Beretta, "put on a Band-Aid and went on pickin' cotton."
But the Beretta can kill, and, short of that, can provoke fear.
"This, is a weapon that people carry in their jackets for convenience. They end up shooting someone. Those guns are not good for defense, they're good for threatening storekeepers," says Sam Fields, field director for the National Coalition to Ban Handguns.
Fields, a long-gun fancier who got his first one "as a bar mitzvah present," estimates the number of handguns registered in the United States at 40 million.He says studies show that "crime guns tends to be new guns," not collectors' items.
Gun retailers in the Washington area do stock Beretta pistols, although they seldom have more than a few on hand. The guns, said one dealer, sell very quickly. "The women are interested in something small enough to go into a handbag," said Scott Carter, manager of Clark Brothers in Warrenton. "They'r interested in self defense."
Robert Brumley, owner of B&B Guns in Woodbridge, puts it this way: 'Buying a gun is a little like buying a watch that you see and fancy. We get a lot of different responses from different people. Most of the people just enjoy having them."
"Bond shrugged his shoulders. 'i've used the .25 Beretta for fifteen years. Never had a stoppage and I haven't missed with it yet. Not a bad record for a gun.'"
- From Ian Fleming's "Dr. No" CAPTION: Picture, A made-in-Italy version of Beretta .22-caliber Minx.