The Great Gun Merchant

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Bannerman also had answers for customers with special problems. Describing the Hotchkiss twelve-pounder the catalogue noted, “These fine guns should be particularly desirable to South American Government War Departments or to any government for service in mountainous countries.”

Bannerman’s ability to deliver the goods was best demonstrated during the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. He submitted samples to the Japanese war department for 100,000 rifles, 10,000 army saddles, 100,000 knapsacks, 150,000 gunslings, 100,000 khaki uniforms, 150,000 white summer uniforms, and 20 million cartridges—an offer, it appears, that the Japanese let pass.

But Bannerman would not sell to just anyone. The firm had an iron rule: “No firearms are ever sold in our store to any minor.”

Bannerman also conducted a lively trade in less lethal wares. He sold surplus military uniforms to bands, fire departments, and patriotic organizations. Seventy-five years after the Civil War the firm was still offering Union army uniforms “in the original cases, free from moths and in perfect condition.” Buffalo Bill used Bannerman supplies in his act. The cast of My Maryland , a 1927 musical with a Civil War theme, was outfitted in original blue and gray uniforms from Bannerman’s.

The firm also did a brisk business in martial antiques, supplying the veterans’ post wanting a front-lawn cannon, the museum seeking a suit of armor, the collector looking for a seventeenth-century blunderbuss, or the schoolboy dreaming of crossed sabers hanging in his room.

The company even had links from the famous iron chain that had been strung across the Hudson River during the American Revolution as a device to snag British ships. The links were cut into cross sections a quarter of an inch thick, polished bright, stamped “Section of chain used by General George Washington, West Point, New York, 1778.” The last of these links to the Revolution were sold in the 1940’s for $2.75 apiece.

Although the identity of its major munitions customers was a tightly held secret, the firm hotly denied that it ever armed revolutionaries for profit. Yet when Panamanian rebels broke away from Colombia in 1903, presumably conspiring with a United States government bent on building a canal through Panama, the insurgents were armed with Mausers suspiciously like those captured from the Spanish in Cuba.

 

When a story about the firm, headlined FITTING OUT REVOLUTIONS , appeared in the old New York Herald , the company angrily objected. “We have plenty of honorable business without stirring up or aiding strife,” a spokesman said. “If revolutionists purchase our goods, they do so secretly through others.” No doubt true. But the Bannermans asked no questions. They took the money and delivered the goods to a pier or freight yard. Where the material went after that was not their concern. They could honestly say they did not know.

What sort of man was this merchant of secondhand guns and surplus bombs? He himself might have answered “a man of God.” A lifelong object of Frank Bannerman’s generosity and interest was the Scotch Presbyterian Church of Saint Andrews in Brooklyn. His favored recreation was weekly Bible study with poor lads from his boyhood Brooklyn neighborhood.

When a minister friend accused him of being in a horrid business, Bannerman had a ready retort. He asked the cleric how many swords were reported in the company of the Twelve Apostles. When the minister, citing Luke 22:38, answered “Two,” Bannerman commented: “Two swords in a company of twelve makes a rather good percentage in favor of weapons.”

In another novel defense Bannerman wrote, “The good book says that in the millenium days, swords shall be turned into plow shares and spears into pruning hooks. We are helping to hasten along the glad time by selling cannonballs to heal the sick.” This was no metaphysical argument. The passage merely referred to another Bannerman product, for which the company had received “frequent calls from physicians”—cannonballs covered with leather, which were recommended to patients suffering from constipation and other abdominal maladies. One placed the ball on the floor and rolled on it to relieve the condition—something of a martial medicine ball.