Book Review, July 2000:

Deadly Business:  Sam Cummings, Interarms, and the Arms Trade
by Patrick Brogan and Albert Zarca
W.W. Norton & Company, 1983, Hardcover, 
384 pages 
ISBN 0-393-01766-4
Deadly Business
Have you ever walked into your gun room, or a gun shop, and wondered how all the military surplus firearms came to be there?  How these firearms, which were manufactured half a century or more ago, for the armies of such far away places as Japan, Germany, England, France, Finland, and Russia, wound up in your safe or on the shelves of your favorite retail establishment?  In short, how did the industry centered upon bringing foreign military surplus to the US consumer market evolve?

The answer can be had in two words:  Sam Cummings.  Sam Cummings, a child of the Depression born in Philadelphia, achieved the American dream through these firearms.  By dint of education, hard work, and entrepreneurial spirit, he created a multimillion dollar, multinational business, and made his name and the name of his company familiar among the halls of government and power in many of the world's nations.  More importantly to the cruffler community, Cummings and the company he founded, Interarms, became the leading supplier of military surplus firearms and  ammunition to US commercial market for many years.

Cummings' life, and the evolution of Interarms, are ably chronicled by Patrick Brogan and Albert Zarca in their book Deadly Business:  Sam Cummings, Interarms & the Arms Trade.  Despite the occasional editorial comment lamenting the trade in and easy availability of firearms on both the world and US domestic markets, the book is well written, informative, and remarkably even handed.  Brogan and Zarca describe the interdependent lives of both Cummings and Interarms.  Through the writing, the reader becomes one of Cummings' intimates; familiar with his early life in Philadelphia.  The factors that shaped Cummings and his outlook, the Depression, his father's death, his mother's strength and successful forays into the real estate industry, and his family's emphasis on education, are all laid out and amply explored.  And then, there are the guns.  Cummings' affinity for historical firearms began very early.  At age five, Cummings discovered a German Maxim MG08/15 machinegun that had been brought back as a trophy from World War One and later abandoned by an American Legion post in Philadelphia.  The gun wa carried home for him, and he taught himself to strip and reassemble the piece much as other boys played with more conventional toys.  By the time he was eighteen, he had amassed some fifty guns, which he packed in grease and stored when he went off to join the Army.

The reader learns of Cummings' trip to Europe in 1948, and his amazement at the prodigious heaps of small arms, ammunition, tanks, vehicles, and artillery that lined European roads and stood in the fields and meadows.  More importantly to the story, we see how Cummings later learned to negotiate the purchase and resale of these weapons while in the employ of the Central Intelligence Agency, and how he eventually withdrew from government service to form his own company, Interarms buying and selling surplus weaponry on the world market.   Contrary to rumor, after he left the government in 1953, Cummings had no further professional contact with the CIA, and was certainly not an operative.

Paralleling Cummings' own history is that of the company he founded and ran for most of his life, Interarms.  From the first deals in central and south America, to the establishment of warehousing and production facilities in Europe and the United States, to the artful way Interarms defeated potential rivals, to the foresight and management that allowed the company to survive the restrictions placed on its bread and butter business by the Gun Control Act of 1968, the history of Interarms is the history of careful planning, foresight, and determination.  All of this, and more are covered in the book.

What is not covered in Deadly Business is the how to on becoming an international arms dealer.  The book is not about the ins and outs of obtaining import and export licences, end user certificates, and discovering caches of World War Two arms in sub-Saharan warehouses.  Indeed, other than Sam Cummings,  Deadly Business is about two things - the evolution of the military surplus and commercial arms export/import industries from 1945 to 1983 (the year of the book's publication), and an American business success story.  No matter how many editorial comments Brogan and Zarca insert about the evils of the arms industry, they cannot help but admit that Sam Cummings turned a dream into a profitable reality through hard work, persistence, and patience.  There is never an intimation that Cummings exploited his CIA contacts or engaged in any illegal activity.  No matter how hard they try, Cummings cannot be painted as anything other than a successful, honest businessman.

Indeed, Cummings was little more than a man with an understanding of a particular product, and an idea as to how to successfully sell that product.  So successful was the marketing paradigm that Cummings pioneered that on June 21, 2000, the National Press Club presented a guest speaker whose company makes $40 billion worth of sales annually using the Cummings/Interarms paradigm.  That guest speaker was Michael Dell, the company was Dell Computers, Inc., and the paradigm in question is called "direct marketing." Until the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, it was exactly how Cummings and Interarms did business with the American consumer, with one notable exception.  Under Michael Dell's version of direct marketing, little or no inventory is ever purchased until the order is placed.  The exact opposite was true of Interarms; its inventory was its stock in trade.  By maintaining a huge inventory (enough at one time, claimed Cummings, to equip forty infantry divisions), Interarms was able to satisfy most, if not all orders regardless of size or type as well as maintain a virtual monopoly on the surplus arms market.  It is possible then to at least make the argument that Cummings' greatest contribution was not to the arms industry, but to the modern internet marketplace, whose most successful business paradigm he pioneered.

Sadly, Interarms was a business that was inextricably intertwined with the persona and personality of Sam Cummings, and when he died, it effectively died with him.  However its physical presence can still be felt when one walks the waterfront in Alexandria, Virginia and sees the old Interarms wharf and the rows of Interarms warehouses, and its true legacy when one notes the great number of surplus importation companies today that follow in Interarms' footsteps.

Deadly Business is a fascinating look at the industry that history that crufflers are intimately involved with on the consumer end, and certainly something that should be on the mandatory reading list for all crufflers, "accumulators," and  serious collectors.   The only problem is that the book is out of print.  However it is easy to find using most out of print book search services, and can be had most reasonably.

Deadly Business is currently out of print.  It may be found using the Bibliofind service.   Click on the image to order:
Deadly Business

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