Merchants of Death



“ War,” says Machiavel, “ ought to be the only study of a prince,” and by a prince he means every sort of state, however constituted.  “ He ought,” says this great political doctor, “ to consider peace only as a breathing time, which gives him leisure to contrive, and furnishes ability to execute military plans.”
—BURKE, A Vindication of Natural Society.

THE market for second-hand rifles is apparently better than that for second-hand motor-cars.  In fact, the used rifle has a distinct advantage over the used car :  it lasts much longer.  Hence there is a constant call and a persistent use for old rifles.

Rifles are retained, even if they are out-of-date, so long as they fire accurately.  In 1903 George C. Maynard of the National Museum wrote :  “ Many thousands of the old Army muzzle loading muskets with the 36-inch long barrels are in constant use by hunters throughout the country, and while they bear no comparison with the newest and most improved rifles, they still do effective work.  Many a countryman who would never dare (nor afford) to use a smokeless powder magazine rifle clings to his old army musket, carries his powder in a bottle and his shot tied up in a rag, and when he goes hunting his family are seldom disappointed in anticipation of rabbit pie for dinner.  In one Maryland county within twenty miles of the Nation’s capital there are no less than 1,000 single-barrel muzzle loading guns in service.”1

There are a great many uses for old guns besides hunting.  Every great war brings back into service rifles and guns formerly discarded, some for actual fighting, others for drill purposes.

Nor is that all.  The “ backward ” countries are always an astonishingly good market for old and obsolete firearms.  The Arab tribes in Arabia and Africa, for instance, still frequently use weapons that seem like museum pieces, although the enterprising arms merchants are now beginning to supply them with machine guns, much to the dismay of the mother countries.  Instances of this sort of traffic are not at all rare.  The north-west frontier of India, for instance, showed much disturbing restlessness before the World War and caused the British great concern.  The reason for this was the fact that British, French, and Belgian traders were selling old rifles and good ammunition to these tribes.  The British shipped through Muscat, while the French operated through Jibutil.  Over 200,000 rifles were thus supplied to the natives.  The British finally put a stop to the traffic, but the accumulation of war material went right on, possibly in anticipation of smuggling expeditions.  In 1911 about 200,000 rifles and 3,000,000 rounds of ammunition were stored by these international traders, waiting for an opportunity to sell them in this hinterland.2

An excellent illustration of the importance and use of second-hand firearms is furnished by the American Civil War.  The Northern armies were in dire need of rifles and ammunition.  Manufacturers worked day and night, but they were unable to keep up with the mounting demand of the Union armies.  At the outbreak of the war, especially, the dearth of rifles was so alarming that a search began for old weapons which were still usable or which could be made serviceable in much shorter time than was required for the manufacture of new arms.  Somebody thought of European stocks.  Surely in Europe there must be thousands of rifles lying around idle which might be remodelled and put into service.  A lively trade in discarded European rifles developed, and every rifle, no matter how defective or out-dated, was bought, hurriedly repaired, and sold to the government—frequently at outrageous prices.

Many of these rifles, of course, were perfectly usable and gave good service to the soldiers.  However, wartime conditions then as always produced dishonest dealers in used weapons, and there were widespread scandals.  Congressional investigations uncovered some very flagrant cases of this traffic and exposed a morass of profiteering.  Lincoln was so moved by the conclusions of the investigating committees that he declared that these greedy business men “ ought to have their devilish heads shot off.”

At the very outset of the war Philip S. Justice, a rifle manufacturer, fell foul of the ordnance inspectors.  He obtained a contract to supply 4,000 rifles.  He charged the government $20 apiece.  The rifles were found to be so dangerous to the soldiers using them that the government declined to pay the price.  In fact, Philadelphia got a very bad name with the soldiers as a centre for the production of defective rifles.  Colonel Thomas D. Doubleday made a survey of the situation and found deplorable conditions.  The rifles had every appearance of having been old condemned muskets or so-called new rifles made from parts of old and condemned pieces.  Many of them burst, so that the men became afraid to fire them ;  in others hammers broke off ;  sights came off even with the gentlest handling, etc.  The barrels were found to be very light, sometimes not one-twentieth of an inch thick, and the stocks were made of green wood which shrank, so that bands and trimmings became loose.  The bayonets were often of such frail composition that they bent like lead, and many of them broke off during bayonet drill.  Some of the rifle barrels were rough inside from imperfect boring and burst during target practice.3

So flagrant and widespread were these abuses that there was much talk about the necessity of government arsenals to insure good arms.  One expert estimated that the arms, ordnance and munitions of war bought by the government from private contractors and foreign armouries since the beginning of the war cost, over and above the positive expenses of their manufacture, ten times as much as would establish and put into operation the arsenals and foundries which the government could build itself.  Muskets which the contractors sold, on the average, for about $22 apiece could have been made in national workshops for one-half that price.

One of the Congressional investigators, Representative Wallace, summarised his findings :  “ When we look at the manner in which our army and government have been defrauded by peculators, we must shrink from the idea of trusting to private contractors to furnish the necessary means for our national defence.  Dependence upon private contractors for arms and munitions of war is too precarious and uncertain in all respects, as well as too costly, upon which to rest such an important and vital interest of the nation.”4

Among the profiteering arms merchants of the Civil War was John Pierpont Morgan.  Morgan was in his middle twenties when the war broke out, but he did not enlist or shoulder a gun during the entire conflict.  He had heard of the great lack of rifles in the army and he decided to do his share in bringing relief.5

A few years previously the army had condemned as obsolete and dangerous some rifles then in use, known as Hall’s carbines.  These rifles were ordered to be sold by auction, and they were disposed of at prices ranging between $1 and $2, probably as curios.  In 1861 there still remained 5,000 of these condemned arms.  Suddenly on May 28, 1861, one Arthur M. Eastman appeared and offered $3 apiece for them.  This high price should have made the officials suspicious, but apparently it did not.  Behind Eastman was a certain Simon Stevens who was furnishing the cash for the transaction, but the real backer of the enterprise was J.P. Morgan.

After the condemned guns had been contracted for, Stevens sent a wire to General Frémont at St. Louis informing him that he had 5,000 new carbines in perfect condition.  Did Frémont want them ?  Immediately an order (amounting to a contract) arrived from Frémont urging that the rifles be sent at once.  They were bought from the government and Morgan paid $3.50 apiece for them, a total of $17,486.  These condemned carbines were now moved out of the government arsenal and sent to Frémont, and the bill presented was $22 apiece—that is, $109,912, a profit of $92,426.

When Frémont’s soldiers tried to fire these “ new carbines in perfect condition,” they shot off their own thumbs.  Great indignation was roused by this transaction when it became known, and the government refused to pay Morgan’s bill.  Morgan promptly sued the government, and his claim was referred to a special commission which was examining disputed claims and settling them.

This commission, curiously enough, did not reject the Morgan claim entirely and denounce him for his unscrupulous dealings.  It allowed half of the claim, and proposed to pay $13.31 a carbine, that is, $66,550.00 for the lot.  This would have netted Morgan a profit of $49,000.  But Morgan was not satisfied.  He had a “ contract ” from Frémont and he was determined to collect in full.

Accordingly he sued, in Stevens’ name, in the Court of Claims—and the court promptly awarded him the full sum, because “ a contract is sacred ”—a decision that was the opening wedge for hundreds of other “ dead-horse claims ” which Congress had tried to block.  Of this affair Marcellus Hartley, who himself had brought over from Europe huge quantities of discarded arms and had sold them to the government at exorbitant prices, declared :  “ I think the worst thing this government has been swindled upon has been those confounded Hall’s carbines ;  they have been elevated in price to $22.50, I think.”

These curious dealings, however, must not obscure the importance of the second-hand rifle in the Civil War.  Another indication of the extent of this traffic in a later period may be found in a notation from the Army and Navy Journal which records that, for the year 1906, $1,000,000 was paid into the United States Treasury from the sale of obsolete and condemned government stores.

The largest of these used-arms dealers is probably Francis Bannerman & Sons of New York City.  This extraordinary company got its start in 1865 after the Civil War, when it bought at auction sales large quantities of military goods.  Its New York office at 501 Broadway is the finest military museum in New York City.  Up the Hudson near West Point it owns an island on which stands its arsenal, built like an old Scottish castle.  It furnishes antiques to museums and collectors and costumes to theatrical groups, but it also solicits business from all war departments.  It publishes a fascinating catalogue entitled War Weapons, Antique and Modern-Cannon, Muskets, Rifles, Saddles, Uniforms, Cartridges.  This book of 364 pages with 5,000 illustrations sells at 50 cents a copy (de luxe edition, $3) and more than 25,000 copies are sold every year.  It is from this catalogue, 1933 edition, that the following materials are taken.

The Bannerman salesroom “ contains the most wonderful collection of ancient and modern military goods ever shown.  Nothing to equal it in the world.  Our goods are found on every sea, in every land round the world.”6

The history and activities of the company are very interesting :

“ During the sixty years in which we have been in this work, our business has grown so that the U.S. Government now depends upon us to purchase at their sales the large quantities of obsolete and discarded goods. . . . We purchased 90 per cent. of the guns, ammunition, and other military goods captured in the Spanish War . . . We have agents in foreign countries who buy and sell military goods for us. . . .
      “ Our reputation is known to all as the Largest Dealers in the World in Military Goods.  Round the world travellers tell us that there is no other establishment in the world where is carried such a large and assorted stock as ours.  Even in great London buyers would have to visit at least six different places in order to purchase the variety of goods that could be obtained in greater assortment, and in larger quantities, in our store. . . .
      “ In our salesroom we have on view upwards of 1,000 different kinds of guns, from the early match-lock up to the present-day automatic. . . . We have on exhibition over a Thousand Different Kinds of Pistols, from the earliest hand cannon, fired with a fuse, up to the latest self-loading automatic. . . . In cannon we have a large and complete stock, from the ancient iron barrel, encased in a wood log, up to the present-day semi-automatic rifled cannon for battleships. . . .
      “ On short notice we can deliver promptly from our stock 100 high power rapid-fire guns at bargain prices.”

Who buys from this arms merchant’s mail order house ?

“ Our customers include many of the South and Central American governments.  Some of the Mauser rifles7 purchased after the War of 1898 were delivered to European and Asiatic governments.  For years we have supplied the Dominican and Haytian governments.  Our largest customers are governments who, having limited financial resources, must necessarily purchase army guns and supplies at low prices, and who are not averse to adopting a good serviceable gun which has been cast aside by a richer and stronger government.
     “ We purchase large quantities of arms, which we hold in our island storehouse, for times of emergency, when arms are in demand, when even obsolete serviceable guns are purchased by first-class governments, as in 1861, when Lincoln sent agents to Europe to buy up all the guns available to arm the volunteers, and also to keep them from the Southern Confederacy. . . . Cuba depended on us to furnish, on short notice, millions of cartridges and other military supplies.”8

But not everybody can buy at Bannerman and Sons.  “ No firearms are ever sold in our store to any minor.  We will not sell weapons to anyone who we think would endanger the public safety.”

Specific and detailed instances of sales are also recorded.  Thus for instance :

“ Recently a shipping firm in Europe gave us an order to convert a large ocean passenger steamship into a warship for a South American government.  In one week the peaceful passenger ship sailed, altered by us into a man-of-war, fully armed and equipped :  a record for quickness that could scarcely be beaten to-day in any up-to-date government establishment.”9

Another great achievement is reported from the Russo-Japanese War :

“ During the Russian-Japanese War we personally submitted samples to the Japanese War Department in Tokyo of 10,000 McClellan army saddles, 100,000 army rifles, 100,000 knapsacks, 100,000 haversacks, 100,000 sets of equipments, 150,000 gun slings, 20,000,000 cartridges, together with a shipload of assorted military goods.”10

The Army and Navy Journal11 hints at another Bannerman business success.  It reports that the Panama revolutionists were equipped with “ thousands of rifles suspiciously like the Mausers captured from the Spanish forces in Cuba.”  Since the President of the United States had “ encouraged ” the revolution from Colombia,12 it was charged that the United States government had sold these guns to the Panamanians.  The Secretary of War explained the matter.  Of the 21,154 rifles and carbines captured in Cuba and Porto Rico, 20,220 were sold at auction, 18,200 of these to Bannerman.  “ What he did with the weapons the Government has no means of knowing, but the insinuation that it knew they were to be used in the revolt in Panama is both ludicrous and contemptible.”13  The inference seems clear, however, that Bannerman did sell them to the Panamanians.

That this arms merchant should advocate preparedness is easy to understand.  The way he does it is rather unique.  “ The peace of the world is preserved to-day by the use of weapons.  ‘ Oh dear,’ said a reverend friend whom we met in boys’ church club work, ‘ what a horrid business you are in ;  dealing in weapons of war.’  We answered his remark by asking him if he would tell us how many swords were reported in the company of the twelve Apostles. . . . He saw the point and answered :  ‘ Two, and Peter used one of them with good effect.’  Two swords in a company of twelve makes rather a good percentage in favour of weapons. . . .”

To this is then added the pious comment :  “ St. John’s vision of Satan bound and the one thousand years of peace are not yet in sight.  We believe the millennium will come, and have for years been preparing by collecting weapons now known as Bannerman’s Military Museum, but which we hope some day will be known as ‘ The Museum of Lost Arts,’ when law and order will be preserved without the aid of weapons.  As a sincere Christian life is the surest individual safeguard against wrongdoing, so we believe that when the nations and their rulers, who now profess to be Christians, shall live up to their prayer of ‘ Our Father,’ there will be no more violations of His commandment ‘ Love thy neighbour.’  Then war shall be done away and Peace Shall Reign on Earth.”14

This religious argument recurs several times.  Quite obviously Bannerman and Sons is devoutly Christian.  Take this comment, for instance :  “ The statement has been made that there never has been, is not, and never will be a ‘ Christian soldier.’  What of Oliver Cromwell, of ‘ Chinese Gordon,’ of Sir Henry Havelock, of Captain Phillip, of our own Navy, and a host of other God-fearing men, who did not and do not think it inconsistent with their duty to their Maker to take service in the ranks of their countries’ fighting machines ? ”15  An argument hardly new and scarcely original.  The following comment, however, is a bit puzzling :  “ The Good Book says that in the millennium days swords shall be turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.  We are helping to hasten along the glad time by selling cannon balls to heal the sick.”16

In glancing through this fascinating catalogue one’s eye is caught by interesting items which can be appreciated only by personal examination of the volume.  A short list is here appended with the purpose of whetting the appetite of the curious :

Chaplains’ uniforms together with “ a fine new black felt hat with leather sweat band ”;17
    A bullet machine “ casting upwards of 100,000 bullets a day.  A good opportunity for War Department to obtain at bargain prices ”;18
    The model of a primitive machine gun from 1718 with the legend :
    Defending King George, your Country and Lawes Is Defending Your Selves and Protestant Cause ;19
    Famous Colt Gatling guns with 8,000,000 rounds of ball cartridges.  “ Great bargain prices to any Government War Department desiring to equip their army with a first-class outfit ”;20
    An “ illustration showing short barrel gun mounted on camel’s back for use in desert countries by Arabian Governments ”;21
    German army field cannons with canister shot, 2,400 rounds, each weighing 8¼ pounds.  “ The entire outfit is stored at our Island Arsenal, all packed, the cannons in boxes, the carriages and limbers taken apart and wrapped in burlap bagging ready for immediate delivery to National War Departments at bargain prices.  Five minutes’ time for telephoning to our Island and delivery will begin — no red tape delay with our quick deliveries ”;22
    12-pounder Hotchkiss mountain gun on carriage with limber.  “ These fine guns and outfits should be particularly desirable to South American Government War Departments or to any government for service in mountainous countries.”23

Surely, if anyone is going shopping for bargains in rifles, cannon and ammunition, or if some “ backward ” country wants the best and largest selection of secondhand arms, Bannerman and Sons is the place to visit.

The catalogue also contains some unusual historical lore.  One incident relates to the Civil War.  Christopher M. Spencer, inventor of the Spencer Carbine, after much difficulty in getting his product before officials, finally got a hearing from Lincoln himself.  An amusing incident occurred typical of both arms merchant and the famous rail-splitter.  Spencer set up a target against a tree, fired a few shots at it and then handed the gun to the President, who took aim and got results less satisfactory than did the inventor.  He handed the gun back to the inventor with the remark :  “ When I was your age I could do better.”  But Spencer had won the President, and he left with an order for all the carbines he could furnish.

Spencer at once proceeded to organise a company of which James G. Blaine was a stockholder.  Blaine was then Congressman from Maine ;  later he was to be Senator from the same state, Secretary of State in two cabinets, and even Presidential nominee of his party.  Blaine was “ our most prominent political leader between Lincoln and Roosevelt ” and an idol of the peace movement.  As stockholder in the Spencer Arms Company he was apparently not very comfortable, since he inscribed on the letters which he wrote to the secretary of the company a note reading :  “ Burn these letters.”  This little-known side of Blaine’s life harmonises rather well with his other shady dealings in western railways and land schemes, for which even his own partisans bitterly denounced him.24

The other incident which finds a place here deals with the Spanish-American War.  The Catalogue records :  “ When the Spanish war broke out, international law prevented open sale of arms by European manufacturers to the United States.25  To get round the law, a large steamship was loaded with boxes of cannon, ammunition, etc., the boxes being covered with coal.  When the steamer was within a short distance of the American coast, the crew abandoned the ship.  Singularly it was an American warship that discovered the abandoned ship and towed her to the Navy Yard.”26

The traffic in second-hand arms is profitable.  In times of peace the smaller countries can be depended on as regular customers, and in times of war even the great powers make use of old serviceable arms, at least for drill purposes.  In times of peace, however, the great powers insist on the best and most modern armaments and they demand these from their arms manufacturers.  This governmental drive for constantly more destructive death machines did much to develop the armament industry.  This fact becomes ever more evident as the story of the European arms manufacturers unfolds.

1 Sporting Goods Dealer, January, 1903.

2 Perris, The War Traders, pp. 55ss.

3 Gustavus Myers, The History of the Great American Fortunes, III, pp. 127-138.

4 Congressional Globe, 37th Congress, 2d Session (1862-1863), Part II, Appendix, p. 136.

5 Myers, op. cit., III, pp. 169-176.

6 Op. cit., p. 3.

7 These Mausers were sold by German traders to Spain.  Apparently Bannerman also shipped many of them to Panama to aid in the revolt against Colombia. See page 64.

8 Op. cit., p. 3.

9 Op. cit., p. 4.

10 Op. cit., p. 3.

11 March 26, 1904.

12 Roosevelt said :  “ I took the Canal Zone and let Congress debate ;  while the debate goes on the Canal does also.”  See Charles A. and Mary Beard, The Rise of American Civilization, II, p. 513.

13 Catalogue, p. 37.

14 Op. cit., p. 3.

15 Op. cit., p. 61.

16 Op. cit., p. 147.

17 Op. cit., p. 232.

18 Op. cit., p. 72.

19 Op. cit., p. 155.

20 Op. cit., p. 143.

21 Op. cit., p. 149.

22 Op. cit., p. 137.

23 Op. cit., p. 135.

24 Op. cit., p. 61.

25 This is a misconception, as the history of the World War clearly demonstrates.  International law makes sales of arms to belligerents subject to confiscation if caught.

26 Op. cit., p. 133.