International Arms Trade

The international arms trade exists for weapons to be made in one country and sold for use in another country or occasionally to be transshipped to a third party.


The international arms trade exists for weapons to be made in one country and sold for use in another country or occasionally to be transshipped to a third party. The reason for this has often been that the source country has an extensive manufacturing capacity, usually for high-grade weapons, or that it is not possible to manufacture weapons in the country where they will be used. A third sector of the international arms trade follows a conflict when unused weapons may be sold to another party.International arms tradeArms tradeInternational arms tradeArms tradeWeapons trading


Since ancient times, the international arms trade has been very important, because if one side in a conflict has access to better weaponry, that gives them the military edge in conflicts. Also in terms of the money spent on weapons, it has been estimated that some 2 percent of the world’s gross domestic product is spent on weaponry, leading to the emergence of a military industrial complex. In 2007, it was estimated that nearly $33 billion (in U.S. dollars) was spent on weapons in that year. In 2008, that amount declined significantly, to about $14.3 billion, and by 2009 it was expected that the financial constraints on many countries would continue to cause a diminution of the international arms trade. However, the arms trade will remain important for military as well as economic reasons well into the foreseeable future.

History of the International Arms Trade

Ancient World

There is much evidence that there was an extensive international arms industry during ancient times. Much of this concerned the development of particular armaments, notably the use of Bronzebronze and then Ironworkingiron. When the metal was developed in one area, entrepreneurs were involved in selling some of the weapons in rival countries. This was certainly the case with the introduction of iron (used by the HittitesHittites) into ancient Egypt. It has also been suggested that the spread of the technology associated with iron helped transform the Africa;ironworkingAfrican continent, leading to small groups of people able to dominate particular societies in central, east, and southern Africa.

TheWeapons manufacturinglargest military powers in the ancient world–the Assyrians, Achaemenid Persians, Macedonians, Carthaginians, and Romans, as well as the armies of ancient China–had to ensure that they held the military edge over their opponents, and this often involved the purchase of weapons or the materials to make weapons (such as tin from Cornwall or from Southeast Asia) to help furnish the large war machines. For example, items that could be easily transported, such as battleships, had to be made near the source of the materials (here, wood) required for their construction.

Animals Animalswere used in war in the ancient world, and the procurement and then the training of animals often involved significant cross-border trade. Such animals included war elephants, horses, and camels. As part of the international arms trade in the ancient world (a situation that has continued through to the present day), trained personnel were hired by a second country to accompany particular armaments to ensure that they were used correctly. This was often the case with Siege enginessiege machines, but also with simple weapons that required a particular skill, such as the Balearic slingers and crossbowmen in China.

Medieval World

Greater trade in medieval times allowed for the increasing manufacture of weapons, and the decline in the large empires and creation of city-states led to changes in the international arms trade. Some parts of Europe–especially northern Italy and central Germany–became favored locations for the manufacture of armor, both for its durability and for its style. It became customary for members of royal families and the nobility to import armor from these places, as is evident in armories around Europe and the Mediterranean.

The Crusades;weapons manufactureCrusades led to increased manufacture of weapons for export, with the Knights TemplarKnights Templar and the Knights HospitallerKnights Hospitaller both stockpiling within their castles in the Holy Land large numbers of weapons manufactured in Europe. It has been suggested that the wealth of these two Crusader orders led to the largest-scale mass manufacture of weapons since the end of the Roman Empire. Their enemies, the Seljuk TurksSeljuk Turks, developed the use of SteelDamascus steelDamascus steel, a technology that was heavily guarded, but this secret did not prevent many rulers in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and northern India from wanting to equip their armies with weapons made from Damascus steel.

An AK-47 rifle, one of the most popular weapons of the international small-arms trade.

(U.S. Marine Corps.)

Gradually within Europe, in the German and Italian states, the emergence of an arms industry led to the manufacture for sale of Crossbowscrossbows and later Artilleryartillery–and in the early modern period, Harquebusesharquebuses. The need to have trained soldiers using them led not only to the purchase of the weapons but also often to the hiring of Mercenariesmercenary bands. It was essentially the development of Firearmsfirearms from the harquebus that led to the international arms trade as it is today.

Modern World

In GunpowderFirearmsthe early modern period, the heavy use of firearms by one side over the other gave the side that possessed them such a major military advantage that it rapidly became necessary for all armies to be reequipped with such weaponry. Because of the complicated nature of firearms manufacture, some craftsmen specialized in making firearms, which were then sold to armies and paramilitary groups. As a result, the international sale of such weapons spread throughout the world, equipping armies, often with weapons sourced from a range of countries. During periods of particularly fierce hostility–such as the Wars of Religion (c. 1517-1618)Wars of Religion in France from 1562 to 1598, the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648);arms tradeThirty Years’ War (1618-1648), and the English Civil Wars (1642-1651)English Civil Wars (1642-1651)–the need for firearms and also gunpowder led to a lucrative trade in which neutral countries or states recognized that they could make fortunes in the provision of firearms and cannons.

The provision Armies;standingof large standing armies in Europe during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries led to the uniform equipping of entire armies. As a result, many major countries began to establish their own arms industries, which quickly developed the ability to sell surplus weapons to other nations. After the major wars of the period–the Spanish Succession, War of the (1701-1714)War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the Polish Succession, War of the (1733-1735)War of the Polish Succession (1733-1735), the Austrian Succession, War of the (1740-1748)War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), and the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763)Seven Years’ War (1756-1763)–there was often an abundance of weapons at the end of fighting, and this generated an arms industry of its own.

Many of the weapons were sold to places that lacked the industrial capacity or manufacturing ability to make their own weapons–parts of North America, the Caribbean, South America, and Africa–and some groups able to buy weapons from Europe were able to create secondary empires of their own. The export of weapons to Asia led to a transformation in that continent, with some groups able to reequip their armies quickly and others unable to do so.

Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, a central figure in the Iran-Contra affair, testifies before a joint House-Senate panel in 1987. North, a Marine officer working for the National Security Council, was accused of directing a secret U.S. operation to sell arms to Iran and secretly diverting the profits to the Contras, a group trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. He was found guilty of crimes arising from the affair, but his conviction was overturned.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The French Revolution (1789-1793)French Revolution (1789-1793) and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815)Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) coincided with a period of Europe;industrializationindustrialization in Europe, starting in Britain, which led to that nation’s becoming one of the leading arms exporters. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, it was the ability of people in South AmericaSouth America to buy many of the surplus weapons that led to the successful wars of independence that saw the countries of South and Central AmericaCentral America gain their independence–and for some of them, their own arms industries. By the mid-nineteenth century,Great Britain;arms salesBritish arms sales contributed significantly to the international arms trade. Although many of the weapons made were used throughout the British Empire, a large number were sold overseas.

Although companies had operated since medieval times making arms, the nineteenth century saw companies such as Blyth BrothersBlyth Brothers in Limehouse, London, start to focus heavily on manufacture of weapons for sale overseas. The arms industry soon came to be linked heavily with the Foreign policy;arms tradingforeign policy of the country in which companies were located. There was a worry that the weapons could be used against the armed forces of the manufacturing country. Thus the introduction of export permits generally resulted in bans placed on the sale of weapons to countries that were likely to go to war with that of the manufacturer.

By the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, a number of major arms manufacturers had emerged. In Britain, Vickers and ArmstrongVickers and Armstrong (which subsequently merged) made goods ranging from small weapons to battleships. In Germany, Krupp companyKrupp and other major industrial firms, such as Blohm and VossBlohm and Voss, dominated the German production. The manufacture of various machine Gunsguns, such as the Maxim machine gunMaxim gun and the Nordenfelt gunNordenfelt gun, also led to increased sales as countries again sought to rearm. In addition to the manufacturers themselves, there were dealers who traveled the world offering weaponry for sale. Such marketing efforts led men such as Sir Zaharoff, BasilBasil Zaharoff to be accused of causing wars.

After World War I, the press focused particularly on Zaharoff and the role he had played in that war. The international arms trade was denounced by speakers such as the Reverend Coughlin, CharlesCharles Coughlin in the United States, who linked war profits with the U.S. involvement in World War I. Profits from arms sales to other countries were denounced, as they helped encourage conflict, and the constant need to rearm as weapons became obsolete led to many countries being unable to afford to spend money for the welfare of their own people–a criticism that has continued to the present day.

The emergence of new nation-states after World War I helped increase the international arms trade. Some of the smaller countries were not large enough to manufacture their own weapons and were forced to acquire arms from overseas. This situation continued after World War II, with many countries gaining their independence. The constant reequipping of armies in Latin America and Africa by foreign arms dealers led to an emerging body of literature outlining the role played by the international arms trade. As well as the main manufacturers–the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union/Russia, and then China–there were a number of other countries that became heavily involved in the international arms trade, such as Czechoslovakia, Chile, Argentina, and also, because of their peculiar circumstances, South Africa and Israel. The latter two both manufactured their own weapons to prevent reliance on foreign imports, but to finance their arms industries, they began a trade in exporting their weaponry–with the added benefit to purchasers that the weapons had generally been tested in combat.

In the period from the 1960’s to the present day, the international arms trade has continued to be an important part in the extension of the political and foreign policy goals of many countries. The sale of arms from one country to another tended to signify political support rather than a mere financial transaction, and similarly there were organized boycotts of sales of weaponry, such as the United Nations’ sanctions on the apartheid government in South Africa. Countries and companies involved in breaching such sanctions were often blacklisted, as in the case of those who supplied the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein in the run-up to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Arms trade;illegalAs a result, many companies have become involved in the international arms trade, seeking to sell their weapons to countries that have difficult reputations and often selling those arms through middlemen in a country that can provide the requisite “end-user certificates” to prove that the weaponry is to be used by that country and not sold to another. This illegal sale of weaponry has led to the arming of militia and paramilitary groups around the world.International arms tradeArms tradeWeapons trading

Books and Articles

  • Laurance, Edward J. The International Arms Trade. New York: Lexington Books, 1992. Written at the time of the first Gulf War, this volume examines arms trading in the light of international realtions theory to analyze the impact of the international arms trade on policy makers.
  • Levine, Paul, and Ron Smith, eds. The Arms Trade, Security, and Conflict. New York: Routledge, 2003. A collection of papers by world experts considering the economics as well as security impact of the arms trade.
  • Navias, Martin, and Susan Willet. The European Arms Trade. New York: Nova Science, 1996. Examines the arms export and trade policies of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and the European Union from several perspectives. Index.
  • Sampson, Anthony. The Arms Bazaar: From Lebanon to Lockheed. Rev. ed. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1991. From Vickers and Krupp to Lockhead and Northrop, Sampson looks at arms scandals in the Middle East, the role of arms trader Adnan Khashoggi, the buildup of arms sold to Iran, and the impact of the first Gulf War.
  • Yihdego, Zeray. The Arms Trade and International Law. Portland, Oreg.: Hart, 2007. A research fellow in law at Oxford Brookes University presents an authoritative and thorough overview of the impact of small arms and light weapons (SALW) on the post-Cold War modern world, which takes a hard look at the numbers (700 million SALW worldwide, traded by 99 nations and involving 1,000 companies). Argues that these unregulated weapons constitute a looming crisis and that there is an imminent need to address them legally at both the national and international levels.



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