Watching Mr. Cole thoughtfully apply Timberluxe with his fingers to a custom stock, I remembered an erstwhile French restaurant in Portsmouth called Strawberry Court. Frightfully expensive, we would save for the occasional celebratory dinner there. The restaurant’s lamp-lit 19th century cottage was perfumed with buttery pastries, in contrast to the briny air outside. The silver-haired Swiss chef imperious in a starched tunic must have sensed our financial sacrifice and graciously extended his hospitality to us. During a tableside conversation he explained that the delicacy of his croissants was achieved by spreading butter onto the puff pastry dough with the back of his hand, because the palms accelerated its melting point. That same devotion to perfection bridged past and present as I observed Mr. Cole finesse Timberluxe (that he treats with Private Preserve Wine Preservation) into the shaped walnut, attentive to the ointment’s ephemeral curing for the consummate deep finish he sought.
Rich Cole applies Timberluxe with his fingers to a custom stock.
With the recent opening of a second location in Naples, Florida, Mr. Cole and his wife Jona are taking the business known as the best Beretta shop in America to a higher level of connoisseurship — beginning with the location. The village of Naples hosts excellent restaurants where dinner for one of Tagliatelle funghi with two glasses of Barbaresco will cost $60. Stroll along well-heeled 5th Avenue South and you’ll see an abundance of Land Rovers, Porsches, Mercedes and Ferraris even during the off season. In 2012, the median price of a Naples home reached $615,000.
As Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” might say of Cole’s Naples facility, “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Harpswell, Maine anymore.”
New Berettas with Cole Custom stock blanks on display in the Naples, Florida showroom.
Although the original 3,000-square-foot Harpswell location continues performing factory warranty work, spare-parts distribution, polishing and bluing, gun sales and wood blank storage, the modern 7,700-square-foot converted warehouse on Shirley Street in Naples is the crowning achievement of Mr. Cole’s 30-year career in the shotgun business.
In retrospect, Mr. Cole’s career might surpass his own early expectation. In 1979, he had relocated from Maine to start with Beretta USA in Accokeek, Maryland as an apprentice gunsmith. The job paid five dollars per hour. Over the years he spent extensive time at the factory in Gardone, Italy honing his craft.
Six years later he returned to Maine and started Cole Gunsmithing. His reputation grew beyond that of a great Beretta gunsmith to the point that he was receiving Fabbris, Bosis and other six-figure shotguns for repairs.
In 2005, he started offering the “Cole Custom” 680 Beretta, which included upgraded wood and engraving— the finished product showcasing his vision and craftsmanship.
“It seemed like the natural thing to do,” he said of the Cole Custom Berettas.
Mr. Cole is a long-time advocate of the Beretta 680 line. His 30-year-old Beretta 687 has 60,000 rounds through it.
Rich Cole with his personal Beretta 687, which obviously is not for sale.
To produce a Cole Special, Mr. Cole adds high-grade Turkish walnut and receivers usually adorned by the hand-engraved art of renowned Italian Master Steffano Pedretti. If case coloring is preferred, he sends it to Turnbull Manufacturing Company in Bloomfield, New York. The stocks can be custom fitted by Mr. Cole using upgraded factory wood or blanks from his extensive inventory. The Cole Specials are typically fitted with 30-inch or 32-inch barrels sporting a set of the Beretta Optima-Choke HP.
The prices are surprisingly affordable. A 12-gauge Cole Special with Grade III Turkish walnut costs $3,495. The Grade IV upgrade sells for $3,995.
A Cole Custom Beretta action engraved by Steffano Pedretti.
Cole Gunsmithing gradually expanded as Mr. Cole formed dealer relationships with Beretta, Zoli, Perazzi, Caesar Guerini, FABARM and Syren USA. Today, Cole Gunsmithing is the only independent Beretta Premium Dealer that performs factory warranty service.
Customers’ response to the Naples operation speaks volumes about Mr. Cole’s standing in the fine shotgun community.
In 2011, the Coles moved to Naples in order to “semi-retire,” as he explains it. They built a small studio shop behind the house. The retirement plans included riding Harley Davidsons, fishing and scuba diving.
But word rapidly spread about Mr. Cole's Naples shop and he was besieged with business. The Coles had to decide whether or not to capitalize on the opportunity. In the end, they purchased the warehouse and started building out a dream facility. That semi-retirement fell by the wayside as the Coles work 12 hour days, sometimes six days per week. The Naples location is a family operation that also employs Mr. Cole’s son as a gunsmith, his daughter-in-law in administrative roles and his father-in-law as general support. Ms. Cole, meanwhile, is expanding her role in administration and marketing.
Rich and Jona Cole in the Naples, Florida facility.
At the time of our visit, Cole’s Naples building was still a work in progress. Mr. Cole was waiting delivery of a precision CNC lathe and CNC milling machine from Harpswell. Some infrastructure work was in the final stages of completion. An indoor gun range is planned for fittings and patterning.
Mr. Cole estimated that the place was “seventy-five percent done. We’ll be up and running before the snow birds return to Florida.”
And when they show up, Mr. Cole will have a big surprise for them.
In conjunction with the new Naples venture, Cole Gunsmithing formed a sales agreement with Robin Hollow — the fine gun dealer in Mapleville, Rhode Island. Now Cole Gunsmithing sells exceptional shotguns on consignment from Robin Hollow’s inventory including Holland & Holland, Piotti, Krieghoff, Famars, Charles Boswell and William Evans as well as premium Berettas priced around $20,000. The arrangement makes Cole Gunsmithing the finest dealer in the area.
“The move takes the entire business to the next level,” Mr. Cole said.
The Cole Gunsmithing web site