In April 2012, Viktor Bout, perhaps the single biggest private arms trader in the world, was convicted in a New York court and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.
Bout, a Russian citizen, began his private business as a military transporter and weapons supplier in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He acquired a fleet of Soviet military aircraft including Antonov and Ilyushin cargo planes as surplus of the Cold War and employed them in operations to deliver weapons to various combatants in Africa.
By his own admission, he had flown weapons to anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan during the 1990s and aided the French government in transporting goods and UN peacekeepers to Rwanda after the genocide there. According to UN documents, in exchange for illicit diamonds Bout had supplied former Liberian President Charles Taylor with weapons to help destabilize Sierra Leone.
Previously Bout had supplied arms to both sides in the Angolan civil war and also sold and delivered weapons to various warlords across Central and North Africa. Operating through Eastern Europe, Bout transported weapons through Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine to Liberia and Angola in the first years of the new millennium.
Indeed, there were few conflicts in the world over the past two decades where Bout’s weapons were not present. So spectacular was his rise as an arms dealer that his story served as the basis for the 2005 film Lord of War.
In court, Bout was found guilty of conspiracy to kill Americans and U.S. officials by delivering anti-aircraft missiles and aiding a terrorist organization.
The case against Bout was built upon a sting operation with DEA agents posing as would-be buyers from FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Bout was prepared to supply anti-aircraft missiles so that FARC could shoot down American pilots working with Colombian government officials.
The Lessons of Viktor Bout
Bout’s experiences as a gunrunner illustrate important patterns in the history of the global arms trade since the advent of firearms in the early modern era: where weapons are sold and bought, who sells and buys them (individuals or states), which weapons (new or second-hand), and whether the weapons’ sales are legal in the context of shifting national and international law.
Bout also exemplifies the reemergence of the leading role of private suppliers in the global arms business—as opposed to the country-to-country transactions that dominated the Cold War era.
To be sure, weapons sales by sovereign states have not disappeared. In 2011, the United States sold a record-shattering $66.3 billion in weapons globally (more than 75% of the world arms market that year) and considerably more than the previous record of $31 billion.
But, Bout is a descendent of a long line of private “merchants of death”—a pantheon that includes the likes of Basil Zaharoff, Prodromos Bodosakis-Athanasiades, and Samuel Cummings.
Bout’s arrest also reflects a long line of efforts on the part of the international community to control and restrict the arms trade.
In one regard, Bout’s activities mark a significant change in the history of the global arms trade: for first time, thanks to the collapse of communism, black market supplies are more plentiful and cheaper than newly produced weapons.
The global arms trade has long been spurred on by the development of new weapons, from matchlock to flintlock to breech loading to automatic weapons, for example. With each advance in weapons technology, arms dealers and military elites looked for places and peoples to sell their old, technologically inferior weapons to make room for the cutting edge technology that would win wars.
But the flood of second-hand, cold-war weapons into the market has made the last two decades unprecedented in private arms dealing.
The Global Arms Trade is Born: Early Modern Europe and Africa
While the trade in weapons has blanketed the planet, Bout’s dealings in Africa reflect how that continent, more than others, has for centuries been saturated by the arms trade to disastrous effect.
Starting in the sixteenth century, European traders began trafficking arms into African, American, and, to a lesser extent, Asian markets.
While there was diffusion of firearms technology generally, and a number of locales developed production capabilities as gunpowder states, West European centers emerged as the main sources of arms across Europe and around the world.
Western European states dominated the trade in part because of advances in firearm and gunpowder technologies and also because of their burgeoning global trade networks. In particular, Europeans sought to leverage their advances in gun technology to increase their presence and profits in the slave trade out of Africa.
Among these western centers, Portugal acted as the chief conduit of firearms to Asia and Africa in the sixteenth century thanks to its global trade routes. Despite Papal bans on the sale of weapons to non-Christians first issued in 1179 and reiterated numerous times thereafter, the Portuguese initiated the arms traffic into the African Gold Coast in the sixteenth century—trade that brought great profit.
By the seventeenth century, the Dutch became probably the leading arms exporters internationally, with Amsterdam at the heart of the trade. Purchasers of Dutch weapons came from neighboring European states such as France and England, as well as customers further afield including from Sweden, Russia, Poland, Portugal, Venice, and Morocco.
As firearm technology changed on the European continent, European traders sought to sell off their old, less desirable weapons in Africa and elsewhere. And these weapons offered excellent goods for use in the slave trade.
In the period 1650-1700, a rising flow of new trade flintlock muskets together with older matchlocks released from European armies poured into West Africa: to the Gold Coast, Slave Coast, and rapidly spread out to Benin by the early eighteenth century and the eastern Niger Delta by 1750.
As a measure of the scale of operations, in 1700 Dutch establishments on the Gold Coast ordered 6,000 carbines. Additionally, the English Royal African Company sent 32,954 arms to West Africa between 1701 and 1704. In 1730, the Gold Coast and Slave Coast together imported 180,000 firearms.
English private commercial interests substantially joined the African arms traffic business by the turn of the eighteenth century. Private English arms exports to West Africa commenced in the late 1690s, with gun-making centers in London and (a little later) Birmingham, which completed its first order for “slave-trade guns” in 1698.
In large part, the increase of European firearms to the region was linked to increased European demand for African slaves as African traders found themselves in a position to demand more guns in exchange for slaves.
The second half of the eighteenth century witnessed a surge of English arms exports. Of the estimated 283,000-394,000 firearms annually imported into West Africa between 1750 and 1807, England accounted for about 45 percent. One firm in Birmingham by itself was manufacturing 25,000-30,000 guns a year for the West African market in 1754. As these figures indicate, the slave trade and the arms trade were inextricably bound.
Guns, Industry, and European Imperial Reach
The period 1860-1918 witnessed a profound expansion in the volume of arms trafficking. As industrialization picked up speed in Europe, more arms could be produced more quickly than ever before. Mass production and an unending series of technological advancements in weaponry generated obsolete castoffs and war surplus weapons on an increasing scale.
In the global context, the main players in the extra-European arms traffic were the French and Belgians, and the Italians to a lesser extent in the case of East Africa. Overwhelmingly, the weapons sold included older Remington and Gras rifles rather than the state-of-the-art weapons manufactured by Mauser and Steyr.
The prominence of the Belgian city of Liège as a chief supplier of firearms to Africa also reflected changes in the period. By the late nineteenth century, Liège had taken the African gun trade away from Birmingham, and the Belgian city accounted for some 67 percent of the African arms traffic by 1907.
Thanks to the imperial scramble for Africa in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, East Africa rose as the chief destination for imported firearms through trafficking and new private traders and state governments took on leading roles in the trade.
By the early 1880s, both the Italians and the French worked to supply Ethiopia with arms. Italian officials wanted to gain political influence over King Menilek of Ethiopia as part of their imperial efforts, whereas the French interest grew from private arms traders.
By the end of 1882, French rifles were arriving in Ethiopia from Marseilles. French traders delivered obsolete French and Belgian weapons, and often sold them with a markup between 400 and 500 percent. Not to be outdone, the Italians committed to deliver 4,000 rifles immediately and 50,000 Remingtons with 10 million cartridges over the next decade.
Beginning in the second half of the 1890s Belgian and French firms figured prominently in the arms traffic. And the arms trade was a consequential source of jobs for Europeans. At Liège more than 10,000 workmen engaged in the manufacture and repair of arms, of which about 3,000 worked at the large private factory of Herstal, which was supported by the Belgian government.
In 1895, Ethiopia’s Menilek had sent a mission to Paris with the sole purpose of forwarding arms and ammunition via Djibouti. The fruits of this mission manifested in a major shipment of 40,000 arms and 5 million rounds of ammunition from Liège to Ethiopia conveyed by the Dutch steamer Doelwijk.
By 1898, no fewer than 300,000 guns and carbines had been exported from Belgium. A single French firm at St. Étienne had supplied 350,000 carbines for Ethiopia, of which 150,000 arrived in March 1900. These were Gras Mousqueton carbines recently discarded by the French artillery service.
Arming the Persian Gulf and Middle East
While the arms route into East Africa via Djibouti carried the most volume of traffic, another route flowed from the Persian Gulf into South and Central Asia beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century.
This route operated on various sections of the Persian Gulf littoral including Muscat, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the Arabian Peninsula. In particular, Muscat and Oman had served as central emporia for the arms traffic. The arms flowed freely into Muscat and from there throughout Persia and inland to Baluchistan and north to Afghanistan.
Local demand for these weapons was strong in Central Asia. The influx of new arms and ammunition permitted those who could access them to shift the balance of power not only with other local groups but also with the European colonial powers.
As had been the case with the East African traffic, French merchants from Marseilles along with Belgians imported arms into Muscat. Even with prohibitions against the arms trade decreed in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qajar Persia, the region witnessed a large and increasing illicit traffic in arms. British colonial authorities in India estimated that 94,000 tribesmen on the Northwest Frontier had acquired breech-loading rifles by means of the illegal traffic.
Once consignments cleared the coast of Persia, it proved virtually impossible to catch the camel caravans that conveyed the arms to the interior. Local Persian officials were incapable of containing the traffic because the Afghans participating in the arms smuggling were almost always better armed than any opposition the Persians could manage.
In 1908 an estimated 30,000 rifles and 3 million rounds arrived in Afghanistan via Muscat, with an additional 40,000 rifles arriving in 1909. Undercover agents from British India discovered as many as 250,000 rifles in store at Muscat.
Afghans purchasing weapons from Muscat could sell them in the Kabul market within nine weeks of landing the guns at Makran. Ultimately, these weapons found their way into the hands of tribal leaders and regional strongmen in Afghanistan, affecting local power struggles.
Basil Zaharoff, Arms Dealer Extraordinaire
Although the second-hand arms trade proved vast—and the illegal trade in weapons very hard to control—the big money was found in the manufacturing and selling of the new weapons to governments. In that arena the major military industrial producers included Krupp (Germany), Schneider-Creusot (France), and Vickers (Britain).
Sir Basil Zaharoff, the infamous sales agent for Vickers, was probably the world's best-known arms dealer through World War I. Zaharoff once boasted to a London paper, "I made wars so that I could sell arms to both sides. I must have sold more arms than anyone else in the world."