Where Did the Weapons Come From?
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Categories: Ancient, Medieval, Modern

Where Did the Weapons Come From?

Back in February, as the evidence grew that Putin was about to commit the great mistake, journalists were sharing stories like this:

Dmytro Skatrovsky said he had not been notified by text but had turned up anyway outside the Svyatoshynskyi recruitment centre, in western Kyiv. He spent three years in the army and took part in the 2014 battle to evict separatists from the port city of Mariupol, he said.

“I’ve bought two sniper complexes with good optics,” he added. “I’ve also ordered a drone on Amazon. It hasn’t turned up yet.” Skatrovsky said a group of friends had chipped in to get the rifles – at a cost of $10,000 (£7,370). US contacts had paid $2,300 for the drone, he said.


Over on corporate social media, I see some people who are amazed and offended to see a wide range of kit in photos from the war in Ukraine, ranging from the latest and most fashionable rifles to Maxim guns on steel carriages and – well, I have not personally seen the 1903 Springfield rifles, and the WW II vintage Panzerfaust may have been stolen from a museum. I am not sure if that is as unusual as they think: the German army which invaded the USSR in 1941 has been described as a military museum on wheels, one of the machine guns in the Citadel at Halifax was removed from the museum collection circa 1991 because the Army needed it again, and an American National Guard veteran claims that his unit invaded Iraq in 2003 with old M3 grease guns last produced in 1945. In fact, if you looked at a random army sometime in the past few thousand years, I think you would see just such a diversity of arms, some bought from private sources, others made in rough workshops, others donated, and yet others purchased by the state.

Most soldiers either have to equip themselves, or are equipped by the small unit they are part of. Most cities, kings, and republics did not have enough revenue to train and equip all their soldiers or enough honest bureaucrats to keep the money from being stolen. Until after 1918, the vast majority of ‘national’ laws on arms were concerned with what weapons people had to buy at their own expense, not with what weapons they could not keep or carry. When cities or kings did need a lot of equipment at once, the usual solution was to give a list of needs to a merchant and let him gather as much as he could from the used arms market and contracts with shops in different cities. In the same way, when an ancient Greek army needed to travel more than a few days from home, its commander told merchants where it was going and let them worry about how to get those things to the army. In his Cyropaedia, Xenophon has the Persian king Cyrus offer bonuses or loans to merchants who agree to accompany the army and bring useful things. A Neo-Assyrian letter suggests that an army should camp in one place, where merchants can come to them, and not in another where the soldiers will get hungry and start stealing things. If you have read Armed Force in the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire (bibliographical details) or my post on loin-girdling, you will remember how Babylonian temples bought or produced arms and distributed them to their dependents when they were conscripted. So something like the ancient Inca army with its royal storehouses full of spears and shields, or the 21st century US army with its orders for thousands of identical trucks, is really unusual. Most cities and kings did not or could not do any such thing, and just tried to make sure that their troops had equipment with common functions not common appearance.

Armies today talk about logistics, but it was often merchants who really focused on that. As van Creveld explained, until the 20th century an army which ran out of supplies could usually just march off in a new direction and steal what it needed, but a merchant who failed to keep the dance of materials and money going could go bankrupt. Until the 20th century, armies mostly consumed food and water and fuel which any rural community produced: just like a simple drone, GoPro camera, or Baofeng walky-talky comes from the civilian economy but will serve as military kit in an emergency. I am told that the US government pushed the adoption of shipping containers when they were supplying the war in Vietnam.

Self-procurement has some advantages. If troops can choose their own kit, the savvy ones will pretty quickly learn which works well and choose that. Veterans seem to agree that modern outdoor sports such as hiking lead to huge improvements in the quality of load-bearing equipment and boots. If everyone in the army has to use the same weapons, then if they make a bad choice it will be hard to correct. The sheer size of these mass purchases also encourages corruption, because potential suppliers have a very great incentive to put their thumb on the scales. The Canadian army in WW I were stuck with the Ross Rifle because the designer was well connected and willing to put in some of his own money if he got the contract: it turned out that the Ross was a beautiful target rifle but too delicate to be a good trench rifle. The problem of different types of ammunition has been somewhat lightened by NATO and Warsaw Pact standardization. Instead of every country developing its own weapons in its own calibres, there are two main families of ammunition today.

However, its hard to maintain a random assortment of smallarms. Every one needs different parts and has different quirks. And its easier to give a soldier a new copy of a weapon he has already learned than to train him on a completely new one. Its also easier to learn tactics when you are sure of the capabilities of the weapons which will be supporting you. Nobody wants to be in the middle of a firefight and trying to remember whether this particular anti-tank rocket has a minimum distance before it arms. Nobody wants to find that they can’t share ammunition with the other guy in the fighting pit because the other guy’s weapon uses the same calibre but different magazines. On the whole, standardization is probably better, especially in an industrialized war. But self-procurement can work well enough. And for most of history, it was how most soldiers got their kit.

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(scheduled 11 April 2022)

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2 thoughts on “Where Did the Weapons Come From?

  1. dearieme says:

    When my father joined the Home Guard in WWII he supplied his own weapons – a couple of fowling pieces. When he went off to the army he lent the guns to the unit; naturally by the end of the war they had “vanished”.

    He lent the Royal Observer Corps his rather nifty gypsy caravan that he and Mum used as a beach hut. He never got that back either.

    States, and their personnel, steal stuff. It’s what they do.

    1. Sean says:

      You don’t have to go all David Graeber or James C. Scott to see that historians who identify with states can have big blind spots! And quite a few people today see the Roman empire as much more benevolent than wealthy Roman men saw it as. Half of Roman literature from Sallust to Augustine is asking “are we the baddies?” or accusing other Romans of doing horrible things.

      As soon as they got a navy funded by public money, the Athenians started accusing each other of robbing it blind.

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