I’m in the upstairs long room with Kevin Kelly of his eponymous fine outdoors and apparel store in historic Thomasville, Georgia talking about his Plantation series of shotguns made by Fratelli Poli Armi in Gardone Val Trompia, Italy. The atmosphere here is mahogany trophy room circa late nineteenth century dating from completion of the brick dry-goods building. There’s a prevailing halo effect of hand-rubbed Turkish walnut, rose-and-scroll patina and velvet-lined oak trunk cases from the four office-size rooms across the hall that hold among the most prestigious inventory of shotguns currently for sale in America.
At the boardroom table, our conversation turns to the Poli brothers, since I had recently returned from a visit with Antonio and Tiziano in their compact workshop on Via Matteotti – directly across the road from Beretta. In fact, Mr. Kelly, with his Southern roots and style, could be recognized as the honorary third Poli brother in the family’s boutique shotgun company as he describes their five-year-old relationship.
Kevin Kelly and his son Chad behind the gun counter of the Kevin’s store in Thomasville, Georgia. Like the Poli brothers, Kevin’s is a family endeavor that includes his wife, Kathleen.
He was talking about the origins of Kevin’s Plantation shotguns that celebrate the bobwhite quail culture of Southern Georgia. Starting in the late 1990s, when they were originally called Kevin’s Pointer Collection, the shotguns were manufactured in small lots by Beretta to Mr. Kelly’s specifications. The Pointers were built on the Beretta 686 and 687 until manufacturing and management changes eliminated custom-lot production on the scale Mr. Kelly required. After 20 years with Beretta, he was forced to look elsewhere for a production partner.
He met with gunmakers in the U.K., Spain and Italy until one day, about 10 years ago, leaving Beretta, he saw the small sign for Fratelli Poli Armi on a two-story building set back from the road in a courtyard.
Antonio Poli (left) and his brother Tiziano in the showroom of Fratelli Poli Armi.
“I walked in and spent three, four hours with the Poli brothers and felt very comfortable,” Mr. Kelly recalled. “What brought me back to Poli was that, like our business, it’s a family-run company. I realized that Poli was the place I needed to be. They’re authentic, we’re authentic. They’re dedicated to their customers, we’re dedicated to our customers. It was just human nature for me to want to do business with the Poli brothers.”
When we parked in the courtyard of the pink stucco Poli building, a young man leaned out the window from the second floor and, in Italian, invited us upstairs as though we were old friends arriving for Sunday supper. Then Antonio zipped in on a scooter, removed his helmet, stood, and became a surprisingly big guy with a heart-felt smile. Our interpreter, Giulia Zera, introduced us. Antonio’s exuberance was probably that same openhearted life force Mr. Kelly encountered when they originally met years ago.
A couple of the craftsmen that work with the Poli brothers at Fratelli Poli Armi.
At the top of the steps, entering the workshop reveals a single, fluorescent-lit room about the size of a double-wide trailer that appears unaffected by time since the brothers’ late father, Paolo, started the company 50 years ago as a one-man operation.
Given that he had taught his sons the gunmaking craft, it’s no surprise there’s an abundance of hand tools on work benches and peg boards: files, chisels, magnifying glasses, drills, pliers, plastic squirt bottles and calipers. The grinders, drill presses, vices and steel tool chests evoke a small-town garage. Each brother has a bench directly under a window where stocks hanging from wire are air-curing. Two craftsmen are stationed across the room – an island of tools and shotgun receivers between them. Toward the back of the shop a locked cage secures shotguns that are finished or close to it. The walls hold an old wrist watch and small cabinets, racks and shelves for tools and barrels and stocks in various phases of production along with photos of family, friends, the Virgin Mother and game birds. If there’s anything digital in here, aside from our cell phones, good luck finding it.
Antonio speaks pretty good English and he takes the lead. As he explains their methods, he’ll turn to Tiziano, who is busy working, and answers the question in Italian. Ms. Zera will step in occasionally but if you allow Antonio some patience the conversation will move along. In part that’s because his gusto, sincerity, dedication and expertise make you realize that you’re experiencing the rare opportunity of watching a master gunmaker share his brilliance. You just gotta love this guy as he gives one-hundred percent demonstrating the virtuosity of making a beautiful, hand-crafted, Italian bird gun.
The Kevin’s Plantation family of shotguns dominates Poli’s production. Considering the shop’s size and price points they sustain, Poli sources its barrels and receivers from the valley’s top suppliers. The magic is performed through hand finishing and fitting the shotgun’s components and relying on some of Italy’s best engravers who happen to be neighbors and friends.
Antonio amazes us. Holding a raw stock, he douses the wood with rubbing alcohol and sets the shebang on fire for a couple of seconds, quickly blowing it out. You’re mind buzzes with questions until he explains that the trick opens the grain’s pores to accept the stain and oil.
A hand-finished Kevin’s Plantation shotgun stock.
He explains the process of applying 18 coats of Tru-Oil (two coats per day Monday through Saturday for three weeks) to the stained hand-shaped wood. He shows us the blue grease smeared on the breach face to check clearance by opening and closing the gun and then filing the barrel until the tolerance is flawless. In Italian it’s called ramponatura (lug fitting). Once the grease stops blemishing the opposing surface that step is completed, but the technique is repetitious and tedious and you see that only through repetition can the Poli brothers achieve perfection in their hand-crafted shotguns. Antonio shows us how he hand-checkers a forend. Pushing the steel cutter in straight lines, he the picture of devotion. He moves through each step of finishing a shotgun efficiently, focused, in total control of mind and body until, done, looks at us to deliver an exhilarating narrative before moving on to the next demonstration.
Antonio Poli demonstrates the process called ramponatura of fitting a barrel to the receiver.
We wrap up in the shop then take the narrow stairs down to Poli’s street-level showroom. Tiziano joins us. The space is unpretentious but effective. The lit showcases elevate the artistry of Poli’s shotguns. I shoulder and swing a 28-gauge side by side that glides to the statue of a wistful woman in a sheer negligee, strap dropped to expose a breast, holding one of their guns across her body.
“This gun is absolutely beautiful,” I say.
Antonio translates for Tiziano and they laugh, loving life.