We anticipated an extraordinary weekend of shooting and dining, since we also had dinner reservations at another great American institution, the Culinary Institute of America in nearby Hyde Park.
It's an autumn afternoon in southern New Jersey and I'm in a luxurious tent browsing the best shotguns, when something different, beautiful, stunning catches my attention.
First the black lab shows up at the door, then the gunsmith, who escorts me through the utilitarian building into a workshop where the president of shotgun maker Caesar Guerini, Wes Lang, has a file in hand working on a customer's barrel.
It started in a pizza and sandwich shop in South Philadelphia, and eventually led to one of the great finds in the world of big-bore collectors.
Today, Bernie Liberati can legitimately claim he is the only man to own two consecutively numbered L.C. Smith 8-gauge shotguns -- a highly coveted find given that only 35 total were ever made.
The achievement is a far cry from the kid who delivered pizzas and sandwiches in South Philly. Delivering food in that neighborhood may not sound glamorous, but it opened the door into the world of big-bore shotguns for Bernie...
After working there for a while, the shop owner had taken Bernie out hunting one night.
"We didn't get anything, but I had fun," he said.
The Boy's First Shotgun
Afterwards, his boss suggested that Bernie may want to buy a shotgun. Bernie didn't own a shotgun (or any other kind of gun for that matter). The man offered to get one for Bernie, and soon the delivery boy entrusted his boss with the cash to buy his first shotgun.
It turned out to be a 12-gauge Daiwa, made by Singer Nikko in Japan.
"It was beautiful," Bernie recalled.
So beautiful, in fact, the man offered Bernie $175 -- a full $25 more than what the boy paid for it. Did Bernie bite? No way. But it was his first introduction into the value of shotguns -- planting a seed that would grow into a fascination with the thunderous big bores.
Telling Dad About the Shotgun
In the meantime, though, Bernie had to contend with his father. You see, when he came home that night with a shiny new shotgun in a cardboard box, he father reprimanded: "You can't bring that in the house."
I said "I have no place to put it."
Dad: "That's your problem."
As the sun went down, young Bernie was relegated to the porch. Wearing only a t-shirt, it was like sitting in a refrigerator out there -- until his mother intervened.
"My mother was inside, complaining, ‘How could you let my son sit out in the cold?'" Finally, his father let the boy in...along with his brand new shotgun.
Bernie and his friends loved to take his new Daiwa out to a field near the Philadelphia airport. "We'd set up a skeet machine and no one would bother us. The police would come by to make sure we weren't doing anything wrong, that we weren't drinking."
Yes, those were the good old days.
Fast forward to 1992...
Bernie's father, now 78, wanted to retire from the customs house broker company he owned since 1963, Morris Friedman and Co. So rather than sell the business to a stranger, he gave it to Bernie.
A Fateful Meeting With Jim Stahl
One day, Bernie was hard at work in the office, when one of his regular contacts from U.S. Customs stopped by -- a guy named Jim Stahl. He suggested to Bernie they go trap shooting one night. (As fate would have it, Jim would become active in the L.C. Smith Collectors Association.)
They had such a good time they thought it would be a good idea to make it a regular Wednesday night ritual.
After a few times out trap shooting, Jim invited Bernie to go hunting... and they had a great time doing that too.
As their friendship grew, Jim introduced Bernie to side-by-side shotguns. Bernie was bowled over when he discovered that Jim's collection actually reached 25 side-by-sides.
"That's unbelievable," Bernie told Jim, laughing about it today and given the size of his own collection.
Bernie's Shotgun Education
In conjunction with the side-by-side collection, Jim was an avid collector of books related to vintage and big-bore shotguns.
Thanks to Jim, Bernie embarked on his shotgun education.
But Bernie was about to get hooked.
One Saturday afternoon, Jim took Bernie to visit Hollowell's Gun Shop in Connecticut.
"We're walking around and Jim says what kind of gun do you want?"
Bernie's wasn't exactly sure what he wanted, but he knew what he didn't want: a 12-gauge.
"Everybody has a 12 gauge," Bernie remembers telling Jim.
As they wandered the around the store, Bernie thought he would go for a .410.
"But there was this 10-gauge Remington. It was cheap and unique," Bernie said.
Out of the Corner His Eye...
Then lightning struck...
Out of the corner of his eye, Bernie spotted an 8-gauge J.P. Clabrough "in the middle of the table. It was the first 8-gauge I'd ever seen." After negotiating about 90 minutes, Bernie brought home the first two big bores of what would become an extensive collection.
"And that's how I started. I was fortunate in that people were not that enthusiastic about buying them, and the prices were pretty affordable," he said.
After years of collecting 4-, 8- and 10-gauge vintage beauties, Bernie was finally able to put it together: his prized consecutively numbered 8-gauge L.C. Smith Grade 2 shotguns.
The first one he purchased was number 46291. As fate would have it, Bernie bought it on Valentine's Day 2006.
Only three weeks later, another 8-gauge L.C. Smith Grade 2 became available.
As Bernie tells it, "There was a fellow who was member of the L.C. Smith Collector's Association. Unfortunately, he was going through some rough times." The man needed to liquidate his collection, and the dealer who got it immediately gave Bernie a call.
When Bernie got it, he realized it was numbered 46290.
Well, from the kid sitting out on the porch that one chilly night with his first shotgun, Bernie now owns about 50 big bores.
"I like the fact that they're unique, and have a history behind them," Bernie said.
But these stunning shotguns aren't mere museum pieces for him.
"I shoot them at least twice a year."
Bernie Liberati today with his son, Bernie.
In the back lots of Hollywood, when you say Jack, everyone knows you mean Jack Nicholson. In the shotgun industry, when you say Jack, everyone knows you're talking about Jack Muety.
If you ever owned a Beretta, Benelli, Franchi, Stoeger or Blaser, Jack Muety has helped you find the right shotgun -- and made sure you enjoyed it.
You would be hard-pressed to find another person with more insight into the American shotgun market than Jack. So when he says change is imminent in the shotgun sports, you have to take notice. He has the experience, stats and instincts to know what's coming down the pike -- and how it directly affects you.
He served as CEO and President of Blaser USA for 18 months before retiring in January 2008. While at the helm of Blaser USA, he introduced the company's F3 shotgun to American shooters. With Jack's marketing savvy, the F3's rave reviews served as a springboard for its continuing success.
Jack was an easy choice for the Blaser USA corner office.
Before joining Blaser, he held the position of Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Beretta USA. The Beretta spot was Jack's hard-earned reward after six years as the Vice President of Sales & Strategic Markets for Benelli USA, where he created the most successful brand of semi-automatics in America. He also applied the same ingenuity and experience to increase the popularity of Benelli's extended family of shotguns which includes Franchi and Stoeger.
Reaching the Top the Old-Fashioned Way
Jack's achievements came the old-fashioned way -- from spending quality time with customers. He's been recognized for his countless hours of volunteer service with Ducks Unlimited, Quail Unlimited, Ruffled Grouse Society, National Wild Turkey Federation, Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association. He serves as a volunteer coach of the trap and skeet team at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis.
Now that Jack is retired, he spends his days sailing, hunting and hanging out at his beach house with his wife and friends. And even though he no longer reports to work, he still lives and breathes guns.
We First Met Jack Pheasant Shooting
We first met Jack at a pheasant shoot on Maryland's Eastern Shore. We began talking and discovered that we shared many ideas about the shotgun industry.
Since then the economy has changed fast. Suddenly, we were hearing people we shot with bring up the prices of gas and shells in our conversations. These are the same people who only bought premium shotguns, who never hesitated to drive hours for wingshooting and sporting clays, and who spend just about every weekend enjoying the shotgun sports.
Of course we knew gas and ammo prices were skyrocketing, but when you start to hear it from investment bankers, advertising executives and software developers you realize how deeply the problem has crept into the psyche of the shotgun community.
We thought it would be a good time to give Jack a call to get his big-picture take on what was going on.
We caught up with Jack at the Fador Irish Pub in Annapolis.
"Right now, in the current market, there are several influencing factors," he said. He went down the list: the upcoming election, a sour economy, a drop-off in new shotgun sales and the decline of the dollar against the Euro.
The New Regionalism
Jack saw a potential convergence of political and economic forces that could give rise to what we call a New Regionalism in the American shotgun sports. Shooters would stay closer to home for their clays and wingshooting. The local gunsmith would see a growth in business as people put off new-gun purchases. And the corner shotgun dealer would have a better inventory of used shotguns.
In a way, it was a return to the fundamentals -- forsaking the bling and getting back into the heart and soul of the American shotgun sports. New Regionalism could be a homecoming to simpler days.
"The [shotgun] market is in transition right now driven by the national economy," he said.
Whether you shoot a Holland & Holland, a Beretta or a Benelli, the rising prices of shotgun shells, gas and airfare is a point of conversation that comes up. For some shotgun owners, the higher cost of shooting has absolutely no impact. They shoot the same number of rounds, travel to the same wonderful destinations and buy the best guns available. Other shooters, meanwhile, feel the pinch and they comprise the majority of the market who will embrace the New Regionalism.
What Louise Terry Wrote
You can already see it happening. In the June 2008 issue of Skeet Shooting Review, the National Skeet Shooting Association President, Louise Terry, wrote how the "economic conditions" are forcing shooters to "curtail their shooting plans, and they may not be able to participate in as many shoots as usual this year."
She laid the resolution squarely on the shoulders of the local clubs to consider new alternatives for line-ups that could cut-down on driving. In effect, it's a national problem with a regional solution.
Even Jack talked about how he and his shooting buddies have started car pooling for their annual wingshooting trip to New England.
And then of course there are the escalating prices of shotgun shells. The culprits are the war in Iraq and the surging prices of lead and copper.
For the majority of shooters, higher gas and shell prices are an economic reality. But the decline of the dollar is also taking its toll.
Here in the U.S., the most popular shotgun makers are British and European. People were always willing to pay a higher price for those guns because they are "perceived as being better than guns made in the U.S., Turkey or Asia," Jack said.
For U.S. shotguns, the perception is not just about quality; it's about a company's commitment to its loyal customers. For example, Jack talked about how Wall Street investment bankers like Cerberus Capital Management bought Remington -- after it acquired Bushmaster. The Cerebus portfolio also included Marlin and DPMS Panther Arms. Jack believed that when speculators come into a shotgun company, shooters began to question management's commitment to quality and customer service.
The long shadow of private equity in the shotgun industry is, in some ways, heresy to grass-roots shotgun owners. Fiercely independent, there could be a gathering of sorts around the home fires -- the gospel of New Regionalism.
From Jack's perspective this also presents a unique opportunity for shotgun makers. It gives them a chance to get back to basics. While their sales slip, the biggest shotgun makers should place greater emphasis on customer satisfaction. "They just can't count on volume alone," he said. "They have to take the approach ‘How can I help?'"
Well, we thought that sounded downright neighborly. And after all, that is the foundation for New Regionalism.