The arms trade, as we know it today, can be traced back to the Middle Ages. It began in the 14th century, when gunpowder was introduced in Europe.

The market for powder-charged weapons grew quickly. Kings and knights wanted cannons to demolish previously impregnable battlements. Far-sighted warlords began arming their troops with portable firearms: old-style pikemen and archers, or mounted knights in armour, were no match for the new guns. It was the beginning of that great and dangerous competition later to be called an ‘arms race’.

Big demand for the latest weapons created a thriving industry. Originally most weapons were manufactured for local users, but some entrepreneurs sold them throughout Europe to anyone who had the money to pay for them. The first steps towards the creation of an ‘international’ arms trade had been taken.

early beginnings
The arms industry first developed in Liège in Belgium. Iron and coal were in plentiful supply there, and the roads and rivers were more than adequate to transport both materials and finished weapons efficiently. The industry soon spread: up the Rhine to Solingen, eastwards to Prague in Bohemia, south into France (St Etienne and Bayonne), Italy (Turin, Milan, Florence, Brescia and Pistoia) and Spain (Seville and Toledo) and westwards across the channel to England (London and Birmingham). These towns and areas are still centres of the European arms industry.

The Liège weapon makers were aggressive salesmen. They were so dynamic in their pursuit of profits from arms trading that, in the 15th century, Charles the Bold of Burgundy issued an edict forbidding the Liègeois to manufacture arms. They defied the ban. Charles promptly besieged Liège, captured it, burned it to the ground and slaughtered its inhabitants.

But its arms industry was back on its feet remarkably quickly – demand had not stopped growing – and has thrived ever since. Today, Liège is the home of one of the most efficient, inventive and forceful arms manufacturing companies in the world.

Liège was also the city responsible for the first known instance of anti-national traffic in arms - that is, sale of arms to a known enemy. In 1576 the Duke of Alva and his army invaded the Low Countries. His soldiers and the Dutch and Flemish soldiers resisting them were all armed with weapons manufactured in Liège

rise of mass armies
The beginning of the nineteenth century saw new developments in the conduct of warfare. These would have a profound effect on the weapons business, and their influences are still at work.

Before the French Revolution, wars were essentially private affairs in which the general public had no active part. By present day standards armies were small. Upwards of 80,000 men were involved in the Battle of Crécy in 1346, where a few thousand bowmen prevailed against knights on horseback. Cromwell's New Model Army, founded in 1644 during the English Civil War, numbered only 20,000. In 1781, 9,000 Americans and 8,000 French fought against 7,000 English troops at Yorktown, Virginia (during America’s war of independence). Weapons more often than not were the personal property of the individual soldier, and he was usually responsible for arming himself. It was Napoleon who changed all this: he was the first leader to create a national conscript army. By 1813 he commanded over a million men in uniform.

The rise of mass armies was made possible by the Industrial Revolution. Machines came to the aid of war, and war underpinned the growth of the machine age. Big armies meant a big demand for weapons. The arms-makers of Liège, Solingen, St Etienne, Turin, Toledo and Birmingham responded to the need. In future, cut-throat competition between them, and between the arms-dealers who fought for sales, would continue in peacetime as well as in war.

The Congress of Vienna took place in 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon. Land, power and borders across Europe were re-distributed and new nations created. Each country now wanted its own army, equipped with the latest weapons. The arms business grew larger still, and development of new arms technology speeded up. Existing weapons were redesigned to be more effective, entirely new weapons were invented. In fact, these changes happened so fast and in such numbers that soldiers often hardly had time to get used to the latest equipment before discarding it in favour of something even newer.

By the middle of the 19th century a truly international arms trade had been established. It bred its own rogue elements. For example, unscrupulous salesmen knowingly sold defective weapons. Others were happy to follow the long-ago example of Liége by selling arms to both sides in a war: their loyalty was to money-making.

It is said that at the Paris Exhibition in 1881, a man told Hiram Maxim, an American, that if he wanted to make a fortune, he should invent a machine that would help these Europeans kill each other. He did and sold his machine guns to European countries on the eve of World War One, and changed the nature of war.

He founded the Maxim Gun Company in Britain to produce his new weapon and licensed it to the British Army and later to the Austrian, German, Italian, Swiss, and Russian armies as well. Maxim died on November 24, 1916, only days before the Battle of the Somme, during which over a million soldiers were killed – many advancing over and over into the machine gun's fire.

Hiram Maxim and his gun

britain honours arms makers
The terrible carnage of the First World War was in no small part due to the killing-power of the new weapons. To the arms trade, this was an attraction, not a horror. Development of even more deadly weapons was the next step, involving more and more of each nation’s workforce in manufacturing them. In the decades between the First and Second World Wars, there were moves to shift arms manufacture from private companies to national governments. This was partly because many believed that private arms salesmen like Basil Zaharoff (known as ‘the merchant of death’, and knighted for his services to the Allies) had been responsible for the Great War. There was a demand for more control. In 1936 the League of Nations called for a vote for the abolition of private arms manufacture: it received overwhelming support. The League also kept statistics on armaments, in the belief that with public exposure of the facts the arms trade would diminish. Neither move had any impact on a business far too lucrative for its owners to give up.

On the same day, July 31 1914 that the French pacifist Jean Jaurès was assassinated for his anti-war views, Basil Zaharoff, Europe’s premier arms salesman who became known as the ‘merchant of death’ for arms deals to ‘both’ sides in wars, was awarded the Legion of Honour for services to France, and later Britain honoured him with the Order of the Bath.

Zaharoff was an agent for a complex and changing European gun industry, finally ending with the British Vickers Company and becoming one of Europe’s richest men. Today BAE Systems, one of the world's four largest arms companies, is the descendant of the disparate arms industries of the early 20th century, which owe their wealth to the 10 million dead in WW1 and the many more in the wars that followed

Basil Zaharoff

In 1940 the United States of America passed legislation allowing the sale or transfer of military equipment to anyone it chose. The US arms industry grew prodigiously, supplying Britain, France, and the Soviet Union with huge quantities of armaments to fight the Second World War. When that war was over, former allies engaged in a ‘cold war’ between Western capitalist countries and the communist Soviet Union. The Cold War did not officially end until 1991. The USA supplied weapons to any state which opposed the Soviet Union, which also armed its own supporters. Many developing countries were flooded with weapons, with appalling consequences which are still being felt.

The USA is now the world’s biggest arms manufacturer and distributor. It has won a dubious race to be the leading ‘merchant of death’.

(Based on material from the Voices for Peace interactive CD)