The Great Gun Merchant

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For years passengers travelling the railroad between New York City and Albany were stirred from their reveries by a Scottish castle looming suddenly from the Hudson River. An outpost of nearby West Point? The domain of an émigré laird? No, this island fortress was once the private arsenal of the world’s largest arms dealer.

Frank Bannerman saw himself as a sincere Christian. Critics branded him a secondhand merchant of death. Whatever else, he was a paragon of nineteenth-century capitalism.

Bannerman was a child of three when the family emigrated from Scotland and settled in Brooklyn. When the Civil War broke out soon after, his father left for the Union navy, and Frank, then ten, quit school to help support the family. By the war’s end young Frank was carrying on his father’s earlier livelihood, buying government surplus equipment at the nearby Brooklyn Navy Yard.

After Appomattox huge stocks of surplus arms came onto the federal auction block. Frank Bannerman bought up unwanted weapons for their resale value as junk. Before long the young entrepreneur found that the old guns, bullets, swords, and cannonballs he was selling as scrap would command far higher prices in their original form and for their original purposes. By the age of twenty Frank Bannerman, junk dealer, had become Francis Bannerman, secondhand munitions merchant.

When Bannerman went to California to bid on government cartridge boxes, he avoided heavy rail-freight charges by chartering an entire clipper ship to take his purchases back to New York via Cape Horn. He acquired a huge store of army belt-plates and smelted them down in his front yard, separating the lead from the brass in the process; the salvaged metals were then sold, in what was deemed a profitable undertaking. He converted a peaceful passenger ship into a well-armed man-of-war for a South American government in one week, “a record for speed that could scarcely be duplicated,” he boasted; and in one quick turnaround he bought up thousands of Civil War carbines and sold them in bulk to a New York store that retailed the guns for sixty-nine cents apiece. If they yielded a profit at this retail price, one can only imagine what Bannerman paid for them.

Arms meant more to Frank Bannerman than profits alone. The federal government had a practice of smashing surplus arms under heavy hammers before auctioning them. This destruction scandalized Bannerman:

We remember at the close of the Civil War, making the highest bid at Government sale, on a lot of 11,000 old guns, “veterans of many wars,” part of the lot surrendered by General Lee, classified “Rebel.” The U.S. Ordnance Officer refused to accept our bid for the guns, alleging “that Bannerman would repair the guns and put them into serviceable order, and they would then enter into competition with the now obsolete guns that the Government had for sale.” So this lot of “Rebel” guns, which contained many heirlooms of patriots who had fought with Washington and Jackson, was consigned to the fire, and the old burnt locks and barrels sold to us later as scrap iron.

The government’s concern was not entirely unfounded. David, one of Bannerman’s two sons who eventually went into the business, told how the boys were sent to rummage through barrels of broken-up guns stored in the family’s cellar. For every part found in perfect working order—a firing pin, perhaps, or a tumbler—they were paid a bonus.

Bannerman’s greatest coup was the Spanish acquisition. He bought up ninety per cent of all captured guns, ammunition, and other equipment auctioned off after the Spanish-American War. He also bought weapons directly from the Spanish government before it evacuated Cuba. These purchases vastly exceeded the firm’s capacity at its store in Manhattan and filled three huge Brooklyn warehouses with munitions, including thirty million cartridges.

Francis Bannerman Sons now billed itself—correctly, no doubt—as “the largest dealer in the world in military goods.” The firm advertised its wares in a profusely illustrated catalogue that military men the world over valued as a standard reference work. The catalogue spelled out the terms of sale in what Bannerman called The Golden Rule in Action; “First you pay your money, then you get your goods.” In short, cash on the gun barrel and no questions asked.

Cannon? Bannerman offered them with twenty-four hundred rounds of shot “at bargain prices,” ready to be shipped within five minutes of the receipt of an order (“no red tape with our quick deliveries”).

Gatling guns? The firm stocked two hundred, with eight million rounds of ball cartridges “for any government War Department desiring to equip their army with a first-class outfit.”

A machine that could cast over a hundred thousand bullets a day? Bannerman could give you a price.

An ancient crossbow? A Zulu warrior’s lance? A Congo blow-gun arrow? See Bannerman—price: $75, $6.75, and $1.00 each, respectively. He acquired these curiosities through foreign agents and on his own frequent arms-buying forays abroad.