At the intersection that forms the closest thing to a business district in Accokeek, members of the area Lions Club erected a gallery for that most enduring of American rural winter pastimes: the turkey shoot.

Half a mile down Indian Head Highway, gun testers with earphones blasted their man-shaped targets in the sound-proofed caverns of Beretta USA, the Italian arms maker's only U.S. factory.

In Accokeek, an area of snow-dappled fields and ample lawns in southwestern Prince George's County, the rural and the international coexist amiably and, until recently, without fanfare.

But two weeks ago, the U.S. Army announced its somewhat controversial decision to replace the venerable Colt .45 with the Beretta 9mm as the standard sidearm for the American armed forces. And suddenly, Accokeek and its largest industry are in the news.

"I'm sure most people around here know the Beretta plant is down the road," said Accokeek attorney Donald Wike, "but I've never heard anybody say a word about it."

Accokeek, an Indian name for "across the creek," is an unincorporated area with uncertain boundaries and several thousand residents. It boasts a barbershop, a grill, a couple of service stations, a branch of the county public library and a volunteer fire department offering bingo nights.

The Beretta company, which dates to 1526 and touts itself as the world's oldest industrial dynasty, came to Accokeek seven years ago, incorporated here and set up operation in a building beside the Accokeek Garden Center.

Its 120 workers -- most of whom are local -- spend their weekdays turning out commercial .22- and .25-caliber firearms. The 9mm Berettas carried by law enforcement agencies such as the Connecticut State Police and the Texas Rangers are manufactured at the Beretta factory in Brescia, Italy, then shipped to Accokeek, where they are tested and distributed.

With its new $56.4 million, five-year contract, the Accokeek plant is expected to explode.

"The major pistol contract of the century," said Robert Bonaventure, vice president and general manager. "We'll be hiring 200 to 300 new people over the next few years -- 90 percent of them local and nonskilled. We'll be investing approximately $15 million right here. This will be the biggest industry in southern Maryland."

But Accokeek's apparent boon is a bane to critics who question the wisdom of a foreign manufacturer producing weapons for the American military and to traditionalists who mourn the passing of the Colt .45 with its long tradition and macho image. (The manly Mike Hammer packed a Colt .45; the more elegant James Bond favored the Beretta.)

"I know there are some who say, 'How dare you cast aside a gun with a proud and distinguished history?' " said Lt. Col. Craig MacNab, an Army spokesman. "I understand that. I've been a soldier for 20 years, and I've carried the Colt .45, but, my Lord, we would still be carrying sabers if we always resisted change."

Since 1911, the Colt .45, manufactured in Connecticut, has been the reigning handgun for all branches of the armed forces. It is used by officers, tank and truck drivers and many military police whose duties prevent them from carrying rifles. It weighs 2.76 pounds, has the kick of a mule and makes a satisfying roar when fired.

"It's a wonderful design for 1911," said MacNab, "but we haven't bought any new Colt .45s in 40 years -- we've just replaced parts -- and the old pistols are worn out."

Beretta says its 9mm pistol, which weighs about 2.5 pounds, has a less cumbersome design and is more accurate than the Colt .45. The Beretta pistol holds 15 rounds of ammunition compared with the Colt's seven.

The beginning of the switch to the 9mm began in 1978, when a House Appropriations subcommittee on defense noted that the military was using more than 25 models of sidearms.

The Pentagon, ordered to standardize, opted to have a 9mm pistol, a decision based in part on the fact that the other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance use 9mm firearms. Eight competitors -- two American and six foreign manufacturers -- submitted bids. But only two of the eight, Beretta and a Swiss firm, met all the government specifications, MacNab said.

According to the five-year contract, Beretta will supply 315,930 weapons, with the first year's batch produced in Italy. The second year, the pistols will be assembled at the Accokeek plant, where full production will begin by the third year.

"From the very beginning, there's been some attitude about, 'Buy American,' " Bonaventure said. "The fact is, we are a U.S. corporation. We're not going to have a mobilization base outside the United States."

On a recent afternoon, Beretta employes in Accokeek stood at attention at their machines, undisturbed by the questions about their products. A heavy smell of oil hung in the air, and the machinery made a steady roar as it churned out the 50 separate parts of a pistol.

"There's a lot of power in that little thing," Bonaventure said.