Z Is for Zoli
From its steeply wooded hillsides and rocky stream flowing through its narrow valley, Gardone, Val Trompia, could be anywhere in the Alps. Ferlach perhaps, but the Val Trompia’s arms tradition is at once both older and younger than that of its Carinthian rival—older in that weapons have been made there since at least Roman times; younger because fine shotguns are only a relatively recent innovation.
The revolution that swept through the gunmaking ateliers of Italy began, so the story goes, in Gardone. A New Jersey entrepreneur, Val Forgett, having been previously rebuffed in Birmingham, traveled to the Val Trompia in 1956 with a view to organizing the manufacture of replica blackpowder pistols and rifles. Forgett foresaw a demand that would revolve around America’s forthcoming Civil War Centennial and a burgeoning enthusiasm for muzzleloading. His pioneering vision created an industry for which he was knighted by the Italian government in 1977, but it also inspired a generation of Italian gunmakers.
Skilled craftsmen who previously had struggled to overcome the legacy of fascism and then Nazi occupation in a stormy post-war economy soon were fully employed making copies of Colt cap-and-ball revolvers and rifles suitable for reenactors. Many were encouraged to a vision of their own. One of these was an individual named Antonio Zoli. Zoli built shotguns when shotguns were in demand and replica blackpowder guns when replica blackpowder guns were in demand. And that’s fiendishly difficult.
Steve Smith and Laurie Morrow tell us in their book The Italian Gun that “Fifty years ago, Zoli was the first Italian gunmaker to produce a bolt-action, big game rifle.” Today the company continues to offer a line of big-game rifles and competition shotguns, as well as fine game guns. The firm’s history as told in its catalog claims that Zoli was building locks as early as 1490 and flintlock pistols by 1850.
According to Steve Lamboy, General Manager of Antonio Zoli North America: “Right, forget all the stuff regarding ancestors building guns. It is true, but only Beretta has had a business in continuous operation for several centuries. The Zoli family formed its first company around 1869, the same as Fiocchi. The firm was essentially stolen by the Germans during World War II, and everyone was forced to work for the Nazi war effort. There is no way to emphasize strongly enough the severity of this trauma. Lives were shattered and terrorized. The day the Nazis were driven out of northern Italy and the war in Italy ended, Paolo’s grandfather, Antonio [Paolo Zoli is the current president of the firm], was sweeping out his empty factory, making plans for a new beginning. So profound was the desire to go forward and away from the terrible war experience that the Zoli family considers that day as the birthday of their company and history.
“After the war they concentrated on several projects: first building H&H sidelock actions, second building Anson & Deeley side-by-side boxlocks, and third building Kirsten-locking O/Us for the general market as well as for Abercrombie & Fitch in a special partnership with Fratelli Rizzini.” In the past Zoli has made components for Holland & Holland, Krieghoff and Beretta, but Lamboy declined to comment on the company’s current activity in this regard.
“During this time they also started building over-and-under double rifles and developed super-accurate high-temp barrel brazing,” Lamboy continued. “This is important today. They are the dominant producer of these rifles for the German market because of the barrel accuracy. They use the same technology to produce the best-patterning shotgun barrels. Only Zoli guarantees barrels 100 percent for point of impact [POI] with a high-temperature soldered barrel.”
Zoli’s experience with seven-pin H&H-style actions continues today with the firm’s bespoke Vulcano Record ELX, which offers trim understated elegance. Based on the H&H Royal design, it is available in 12 and 20 gauges with chrome-moly forged actions, chopper-lump barrels and Turkish timber. According to Lamboy, “They have produced about a dozen per year for over 45 years, mainly engraved by Angelo Galeazzi. They go for $50,000 on special order only.”
In the 1970s the Val Trompia was rife with small gunmaking ateliers, some of which were rustic and not quite ready for prime time, according to Lamboy. “Zoli produced the same bottom-locking over-and-under as all their competitors in the valley after Beretta discontinued it and went to their 600-series guns. The various Rizzini companies, Angelo Zoli [no relation to Antonio Zoli], Fausti, Fabarm, Silma, Sabatti, Bernardelli and so on all used some derivative of this lower-lock design, which, unlike Browning’s use of it, has no recoil shoulders. Therefore the guns are not as durable for today’s high-volume clays and game shooting. Zoli built above-average versions of this design, as their targeted competitors were Browning and Beretta. They never once tried to enter the US market and build their brand until our joint efforts began in early 2006. Historically, they sold standard and custom guns to any requesting US importer.
“Years ago Fiocchi imported and sold a Zoli model called the Ritmo [“rhythm” in Italian], for which I constantly get calls for information. These guns are worshiped by their owners. They were mainly trap guns and all are still working! They had recoil shoulders. The owners never call for parts; they just call to talk. Also, the Abercrombie & Fitch guns have a cult following. The little .410 sideplated models with 28-inch tubes are wand-like lightweights and fetch $5,000 or more, as do the 28-gauges. One of our current dealers, Griffin & Howe, is the surviving side of A&F sporting and has the records of these guns.
“Then after the Ritmo period [the early 1990s] Paolo Zoli began taking over the firm for his dad, Guissepi, son of Antonio. By the late ’90s Paolo realized a vision to take the company into the future. It called for transforming the firm into a maker of far-fewer-but-higher-grade O/Us. Instead of 9,000 shotguns it would make up to 2,500 high-quality guns. This required a new unique design and a complete re-capitalization and re-mechanization of the factory into a state-of-the-art facility. To accomplish this, they contracted with the newly retired head of engineering of Perazzi, Mr. Marini. [Marini was there at the start with Daniele Perazzi and Ivo Fabbri] It just so happened that his son was finishing engineering school at the time. So the deal was struck: Marini would develop the new design, and his son would be the apprentice and a Zoli employee.
“The new design would be capable of being competitive with the best high-volume competition guns of all time: the Perazzi MX8, Gamba Daytona, ASE 90 Beretta and the Krieghoff K80. It has some attributes of other designs, such as an oversize Boss locking system and one-piece monolithic forged frame. But then it departs rapidly. To reduce recoil, the barrels sit nearly one-quarter inch lower in the frame, which is the same low height as on an MX8. However, recoil shoulders—essential on any true high-volume gun—are not on the sides of the frame; they are EDM-machined into the bottom of the frame. This puts the Boss lock way above center, the recoil shoulders way below and the hinge pin in between. This can be done, as there is no bottom plate; it is a one-piece forging. This action is so strong it set a proof record of 4,800 bar.”
Just as gear heads place great value on the cams, valves and pistons in a high-performance car, gun nuts appreciate the tumblers, springs and levers that make up the mechanics of a shotgun. Every gunmaker seeks to create a unique arrangement of the same mechanical components that will make its offerings distinct from those of its competitors. Now Antonio Zoli may have found a unique mechanical niche with the Z-Sport Bilanx.
Featuring a new precision inertia trigger group and the recently patented BHB (Between Hands Balancing) system, the Bilanx represents a new approach to balance. Or as a recent press release explained: “Distinguishing itself as the only shotgun engineered to house an internal balancing system within the grip of the stock, this patented concept keeps the weight between the hands. The Bilanx [pronounced “be-lanks”] allows every serious competitive shooter to customize the necessary control, balance and swing dynamics that are paramount in a well-fitted shotgun—while they are shooting. The Between Hands Balancing system is comprised of two weight components. The quick-detachable, modular grip-cap mechanism fits into the buttstock grip, accommodating six threaded steel disk weights adding up to three ounces. The forend weight system has the capacity to add up to twenty individual four-gram weights easily installed onto the side ribs underneath the forend. Therefore, all adjustment weights are between the hands, providing for instant precision adjustment of gun-swing dynamics.”
The company’s game guns have evolved from Zoli target guns and incorporate competition-gun characteristics intended to increase both performance and durability. Guaranteed to function reliably, they also are intended to last generations. There are four models available: the Expedition, the Expedition EL, the Ambassador EL and the Ambassador Super Luxus. (Each model is also available as an HV, or High Volume, game gun incorporating the BHB system.) All feature Boss-style bifurcated locking systems, forged boxlock actions with fitted recoil shoulders, single- or double-hand detachable trigger groups and the renowned Zoli barrels. The barrels are created in-house from hot-forged chrome-moly steel rods that are stress-relieved various times in the manufacturing process.
As mentioned, the Boss-style locking system used on Zoli game guns is oversized for strength, and EDM technology allows it super-smooth lock-up and opening. Positioning the locking system way above center, the recoil shoulders in the bottom of the action, and the hinge pin in between makes it so that the hinge pin takes no strain during firing. “You could shoot a thousand rounds in Argentina every day for three years before you would need a new locking bolt,” Lamboy said. “These guns are guaranteed to go 100,000 rounds before needing a locking bolt. No game gun without fitted recoil shoulders can do this. The nearest gun to compare is a Perazzi game gun, which starts at $13,000. The Expedition is $3,995.”
The action has no separate floorplate but is machined from a single piece of high-strength steel. The trigger group is an entirely separate component encompassed by the frame. Easily removed with a supplied wrench, it is available in both inertia and mechanical systems—both of which employ powerful helical springs.
Fit, finish, wood quality and engraving all improve with grade. Ambassador and Super Luxus models feature hand-shaped actions and hand-cut engraving. Lower-grade models are machine engraved. Barrels are available from 26 through 34 inches with fixed or removable Briley chokes and a choice of ventilated, solid or Churchill ribs. All feature three-inch chambers. Two-barrel sets can be had in 20 and 28 gauge on the small 20-gauge frame.
“Zoli makes 95 percent of their own parts in-house,” Lamboy said. “The factory is within the walled Zoli family compound, which also houses most of the family members as well as their favorite bird dogs. The latest CNC machines whirl away inside the factory. There are exceptions. The barrel center uses classic, mechanical, deep-hole drilling machines to bore the forged rods, and all fitting of monoblocks and ribs is done by hand. The barrels are high-temperature-brazed together on a proprietary system. Each barrel is tested for POI in a fixture.” Guns are assembled by hand, barrels are final-jointed using files, and triggers are fitted by specialists. Standard stocks are machined outside, but all custom stocks are made inside by a “best”-gun stocker.
The newest addition to the competition line is the innovative Z-Sport Bilanx VCS. VCS stands for Variable Clays System, as this model comes with two ribs and an adjustable stock with two combs. The higher rib is fully adjustable to serve as a high-rib sporter or a trap and skeet gun when paired with the high adjustable comb. This rib is attached with clever German-style claw mounts and is simply detached to shoot the gun with the lower comb and the traditional low, flat rib. The gun can be balanced with the BHB system.
Zoli competition guns have been used to win major national and world titles in recent years, including the World Cup Trap Championship, The National Sporting Clays Championship, The US Open, and the World Sporting Clays Championship (ladies). In 2010 Brad Kidd Jr. used an early prototype of the BHB system on his Zoli competition gun to win the National Sporting Clays Championship. Kidd went on to take second in the 2011 World English Sporting Clays Championship shooting the Z-Sport Bilanx with the BHB system.
Gun styles from the Val Trompia in general and Antonio Zoli in particular may change, but the thrill of winning continues.
Author’s Note: For more information, contact Antonio Zoli North America, 585-394-1271; www.zoli-northamerica.com.
Douglas Tate is an Editor at Large for Shooting Sportsman.
- By: Douglas Tate