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."

His first important achievement was the sale of submarines to Greece and Turkey in the late 1880s. Calculating that if he could sell to one of these countries, then the rival country would feel compelled to keep pace, Zaharoff offered one submarine to the Greeks.

After the Greeks had purchased their submarine, Zaharoff turned to the Ottoman Turks alerting them to the new danger now emanating from Greece. To counter the perceived threat, the Turks subsequently acquired two submarines themselves from Zaharoff. In this way he managed to create a one-man arms race in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Such ploys paid off handsomely, and as Zaharoff built his fortune, he became a primary example of the “merchant of death” persona that captured the imagination and earned the opprobrium of the public during the interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s.

Regulating the Arms Trade between the Two World Wars

The notion that states should limit arms exports for the general sake of peace and the avoidance of war emerged out of the public disgust with the private arms trade following the First World War.

The newly formed League of Nations took up the cause of controlling the arms traffic as part of its larger mission of general disarmament during the interwar era. However, these efforts at regulating the weapons trade all-too-often foundered.

The European colonial powers recognized the danger of the arms trade to the stability and control of their empires, and thus found a common interest in strictly regulating the arms traffic. However, the smaller states rejected this course of action on the grounds that their sovereignty would be reduced and their security eroded by the de facto control of the arms trade by the few Great Powers.

Despite the failure to achieve effective international control over the arms trade through an officially accepted Arms Traffic Convention, the interwar period did see some principles of arms control established, including the licensing of arms exports and publication of export figures.

Thus, by the end of the 1930s, Belgium, Sweden, France, Britain, and the United States had established the peacetime licensing of arms exports as normal practice.

The attempts to control arms exports gained their greatest momentum during the two decades following the First World War. In particular, the arms embargo on warlord China from 1919 to 1929 represented the most sustained effort of this kind.

Initiated by the United States and then joined by Britain and France, the purpose of the Chinese arms embargo was to end internal fighting and prevent any further disintegration of the country. However, many other countries did not sign on and private firms pursued a brisk business. Nevertheless, the China arms embargo did mark the first international embargo against a single country.

Although warlord China did not serve as the most important arms market in terms of size (China ranked fifteenth globally as an arms importer), the demands of 1,300 warlords waging 140 provincial and inter-provincial wars between 1912 and 1928 did generate lucrative opportunities for a variety of arms traffickers.

Official arms traders could be found working within the various foreign legations in Beijing, but the majority of the arms dealers worked as independent contractors lacking formal connections with a foreign government or a private armaments maker. Included in the ranks of these private middlemen were South Asians, Russians, Japanese, overseas Chinese, and entrepreneurs in Canada and United States who smuggled arms from North America.

Bodosakis, Göring and the Spanish Civil War

In the decade following the end of the arms embargo in China, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) between the Nationalists (under General Franco) and the Republicans proved a boon for arms trafficking, and the lure of Spanish gold attracted all sorts of odd political bedfellows to the Spanish arms market.

Perhaps the most dissonant case involved the Greek arms dealer Prodromos Bodosakis-Athanasiades.

Bodosakis was the chief shareholder and executive of the Greek Powder and Cartridge factory, the main gunpowder and firearms factory in Greece. Bodosakis’ pecuniary motives led him to supply both the Nationalists and the Republicans, and he arranged shipments so that the best and latest weapons went to Franco while the oldest and least serviceable arms were delivered to the Republicans.

The Greek factory was in business with the German armaments firm Rheinmetall-Borsig, an enterprise in which Hermann Göring, head of the German Luftwaffe, had personal financial interests. Even as Nazi Germany officially backed the Nationalists and German pilots were flying missions on behalf of the Nationalist cause, the Republicans purchased arms from Nazi Germany through the personal agency of Göring.

In this instance, Göring, who was free-lancing the sales for personal profit, arranged a secret arms deal to the Republicans that included 19,000 rifles, 101 machine guns and 28 million cartridges shipped from Hamburg. When Bodosakis received Spanish requests for arms, he passed them on to Rheinmetall. The Greek government then provided end-user certificates stating that these arms were for the Greek army.

When the shipment reached Greece from Germany, Bodosakis then transferred the cargo to another vessel supposedly bound for Mexico. However, the vessel actually went to Spain. In 1937 and 1938 the Republic’s purchases of weapons from Nazi Germany reached their peak.

As a key participant in this arms trafficking, Bodosakis’ company was taking shipments from Rheinmetall worth up to 40 million Reichmarks (£3.2 million) at a time. These consignments were almost all for Republicans, and generated payments to Göring and members of the Greek government.

Bodosakis even worked with the Soviet Union. In November 1937 he signed a contract with the Soviets to provide the Republicans with ammunition worth £2.1 million.

Samuel Cummings and the Private Arms Trade after World War II

During the Cold War era (1945-1989) arms trafficking again received a huge boost thanks to the vast quantities of war surplus equipment located in depots around the world following World War II.

Precisely at this time Samuel Cummings emerged as the world's biggest small-arms dealer. He founded his private company, Interarms, in 1953 and managed to control 90 percent of world's private trade in guns.

Cummings ran a legitimate and open business selling to the American civilian market of hunters, sportsmen, and collectors as well as to governments. He built his gun business from the debris of World War II by amassing the German Army surplus littering the battlefields in Western Europe. He also offered to buy surplus weapons from government arsenals.

In his first deal, Cummings made $20,000 by purchasing 7,000 weapons from the surplus of the Panamanian government and selling them on the U.S. civilian market.

After touring Europe he bought up German surplus left in bunkers in Holland and sold the material to the government of West Germany. Cummings ultimately bought and sold more rifles and ammunition than Eisenhower needed for the invasion of Normandy and the defeat of the Wehrmacht.

By end of the 1950s, Cummings had approximately 2 million weapons in England alone. By his tally he bought 4.5 million weapons and 500 million bullets in Europe in the period 1953-1968.

Avowedly apolitical and neutral, Cummings’ business did $100 million annually with factory and arms depots in Manchester, England and Alexandria, Virginia. He supplied guns to overthrow the Guatemalan government in 1954, sold arms to Castro and Batista, and to both sides in the Costa Rican Civil War.

By far his biggest arms deals came from Spain. Over the course of two purchases in 1959-60 and 1965-66, Cummings bought up the entire surplus from the Spanish Civil War, thereby acquiring 1 million weapons and 250 million rounds of ammunition.

Scrupulously law-abiding, Cummings paid all his taxes, and every sale was licensed and approved by British and American governments. Interarms even abided by a UN arms embargo to South Africa 1963.

The Cold War and State-Level Arms Dealing

The Cold War rivalry between the Communist world and the West greatly contributed to the expansion of the global arms trade.

In general the supply of arms and military equipment became one of the most powerful weapons in international diplomacy, and both the United States and the Soviet Union gave a high proportion of their foreign aid in this form.

For the first time in modern global history, country-to-country transactions came to typify the arms trade.

Whereas Sam Cummings’ arms business dominated the private trade in the millions of dollars, the Cold War arms bonanza of government-to-government weapons trade operated in the billions of dollars.

Prior to 1970 world military exports rarely exceeded $5 billion annually and less developed countries accounted for less than half of those sales.

In the period 1973-1980, however, the two Super Powers (USA and USSR) together supplied two-thirds of all arms imported by less developed countries, and arms exports dramatically shot up thanks to the petro-dollars generated by the oil shocks of the 1970s.

From 1978 to 1985, Third World countries ordered $258 billion worth of arms and ammunition including 13,960 tanks and self-propelled artillery, 27,605 armored personnel carriers, 4,005 supersonic aircraft, and 34,948 surface-to-air missiles.

In terms of technical changes, World War II had stimulated tremendous advancements in light automatic weapons. Most famous of these is the AK47, the Soviet automatic machine-gun which was engineered during the war but would come to dominate the light weapons traffic globally in the Cold War and post-Cold War eras. Approximately 70-100 million AK47s have been produced worldwide since 1947.

In 1975 Communist Vietnam became heir to huge numbers of arms available following the Communist victory and American withdrawal from the war in Southeast Asia, including roughly 2 million small arms (M16s) and 150,000 tons of ammunition.

Many of these abandoned American weapons found their way back to Central America in the 1980s, as the Vietnamese traded them to the Cuban government in exchange for foodstuffs. The Cubans then trafficked the weapons into Central America to support the spread of revolution by supplying the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the FMLN in El Salvador.

Vietnamese trading of American war surplus from the Vietnam War led to the largest illicit arms shipment ever intercepted in transit from the United States to Mexico.

In March 1997 U.S. federal agents discovered containers of leftover American automatic rifles and rifle parts which had been shipped from Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) to Singapore, then to Bremerhaven (Germany), and thence through the Panama Canal to Long Beach, California for delivery in Mexico.

Back to Africa

Since 1945, conflicts in Africa have caused on the order of 6.5 million deaths, with most of these casualties due to light weapons, especially automatic weapons. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, vast numbers of light weapons were released from controls and entered the international arms market.

Estimates of the total value of legal exports of light weapons globally reach $5 billion, while the value of the illicit trade may range from $2 billion to $10 billion. Africa is so saturated with weapons that an AK47 can be purchased for $10.

Since the 1990s, West Africa experienced some of the most devastating armed conflicts in the world. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has estimated some 8 million illicit small arms and light weapons are already present in West Africa.

Nigerian sources worry that 1 million such arms may be in Nigeria alone. Liberia used a series of questionable end-user certificates to acquire military equipment from former communist countries in 2000-2001, and Viktor Bout‘s Russian company transported much material from Ukraine.

Bout and the 21st-Century Arms Trade

Just as Zaharoff, Bodosakis, and Cummings were emblematic of the arms trade in their respective eras, Viktor Bout’s business career as an arms transporter reveals much about globalization in the post-Soviet, post-Cold War world.

Working with the abandoned military surplus of the Soviet bloc that unpaid or underpaid soldiers and commanders were only too eager to sell for ready cash, Bout funneled the wares through an intricate web of supply chains involving up to 30 different companies and superficially legitimate end-user certificates to deliver arms around the globe.

In learning from Bout’s case, however, it would be a gross misunderstanding to view the current problems of gun-running and weapons trafficking as recent developments or as primarily resulting from the international consequences of Cold War rivalries.

The preceding five centuries of firearms trafficking around the world shows that the gun markets are deeply embedded in the international landscape.

And as with previous efforts to control the weapons trade, the various recent UN arms embargoes have largely failed to limit access to weapons.

Since 1990, arms embargoes have been imposed to end civil wars in the former Yugoslavia (1991 and 1998), Somalia (1992), Liberia (1992 and 2001), Rwanda (1994), and Sierra Leone (1997). The embargo in Somalia has been in place for many years now, yet warlords and private militias remain well equipped with AK47s and other weapons.

Each successive historical period has brought forth bigger waves of the supply and demand for firearms, which have overwhelmed the attempts to monitor and control the trade through export licensing schemes and international agreements.

And one thing is clear. The easy accessibility of weapons, especially in the developing world, and the ineffective efforts to control the trade have contributed significantly to the devastating violence we see in the world today.


For more on the global arms trade by the author, see his book Rulers, Guns and Money: The Global Arms Trade in the Age of Imperialism, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007).