For seven hours, the Pakistani brigadier general drove the American arms merchant through the mountains of northern Kashmir, their jeep lurching along a narrow, treacherous road. It was the 1960s, and the arms merchant had an appointment with the sultan of Swat, ruler of the independent State of Swat that had not yet been swallowed by Pakistan.
The general and the arms merchant passed uneasily through roadblocks manned by suspicious soldiers--tensions run high in that part of the world where the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Soviet Union and China meet.
Finally, after a long day's journey, they reached their destination.
"So," the arms merchant asked the sultan of Swat after greeting him politely, "what's your batting average?"
Sam Cummings, arms merchant to the world, chuckles at the memory of that moment. The sultan of Swat had no idea what Cummings was talking about, but the sultan's Oxford-educated son assumed Cummings was referring to cricket.
"But I didn't understand his answer because I knew as much about cricket as he did about American baseball," Cummings said.
Funny business, the weapons business. And bizarre. You never know when you'll be cutting up with the sultan of Swat. Or when Idi Amin will call you to inquire about the availability of some bazookas. (Cummings told him to try the Russians.) Or when Col. Muammar Qaddafi will send a plane and request your presence in Libya. (Cummings' deal with Qaddafi evaporated when Qaddafi seized British Petroleum's Libyan assets; the British government refused Cummings permission to sell weapons to Qaddafi.)
Enough of Cummings' deals have worked out, however, to make him the world's largest private dealer in weapons. He has sold arms to, among others, Cuba's Fulgencio Batista and his successor, Fidel Castro, as well as Domninican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. Though he got his start in Central America, Cummings has cut deals around the globe, most recently concentrating on the Far East market.
The company Cummings founded 28 years ago, Interarms, has depots on Alexandria's waterfront and in Manchester, England. The Alexandria depot contains at any moment between 40,000 to 80,000 sporting arms while the Manchester depot houses as many as 500,000 military items (enough to equip 15 army divisions) that are mostly surplus items from foreign governments.
In addition to buying and selling military weapons, Cummings manufactures handguns. An Interarms factory in Midland, Va., turns out 80 pistols a day under license from the Swiss firm Hammerli. Another plant in Huntsville, Ala., makes 1,000 Walther pistols weekly under license from the original German maker.
These days, Cummings--who grew up in Washington--lives in the lush resort principality of Monte Carlo. From an opulent 14-room apartment and office that overlooks a turquoise slice of the Mediterranean, Cummings directs a worldwide army of salespersons, including princes, former diplomats and retired generals who work for Cummings on a commission basis.
His business has made him a fortune, yet Cummings travels the world tourist class, frequently flying stand-by--it's cheaper. When Cummings visits his Alexandria headquarters, he stays at a nearby Holiday Inn because he likes its $61- a-night corporate rate. He does not smoke, drink, swear or gamble.
At 54, he has the rounded body and amiable manner of a midwest insurance agent, hardly the dark, bloodthirsty mien with which editorial cartoonists endow arms merchants. To talk with Cummings, you might guess he sells penny candy instead of guns; his manner is relaxed and, as the sultan of Swat learned, his humor is dry.
He has called his Alexandria facility "the devil's smithy" and, for the benefit of a visitor to his Monte Carlo office, Cummings points to an antique cannon in the corner, a British two-pounder from the 19th century that he grandly proclaims "protects this end of the principality."
Cummings' work has bred in him a world-weary, almost fatalistic, sense of humor: "I think it's the old Arab saying, that there are only three eternal elements in the world: God, human folly and laughter. And since the first two pass our comprehension, we must do what we can with the third."
Cummings admits he has also done well with the second.
"The military arms business is totally unpredictable in every sense of the word," he says. "It is based on human folly, not on human wisdom, and you can't tell when human folly will surface. You only know it will surface."
Though Cummings' wealth and 20-year residency in Monte Carlo could put him on the palace party track, he chooses to live a more anonymous life. He rises early to answer mail and pauses at midday for exercise. In the winter he walks the half-mile of Monaco between the French and Italian borders. Until cool weather arrives in October, he spends lunch hours at the salt water pool at the posh Monte Carlo Beach Hotel. There, surrounded by topless contessas and bronzed playboys, Cummings swims 500 meters, then retires unnoticed to Cabana No. 226 for some sun.
Except to show the place to visitors, Cummings never patronizes Monte Carlo's opulent casino. On a big night, he and his Swiss wife might take in the opera. He spends the Riviera's high season--July and August--at a chalet in a Swiss Alpine village.
Every day Cummings telephones his Alexandria or Manchester headquarters to learn if any major deals requiring his attention have come clattering over Interarms' Telex machines. Because his is a business that trades in trouble and tension, he watches the world closely. And business over the last three decades has been very, very good.
Cummings' meeting with the sultan of Swat was a typical one for him: he wanted to add the sultan's cache of arms to his already substantial collection of antique weapons. The sultan wanted to exchange the old guns sent to his part of the world by the British East India Company in the 18th century for modern, American-made carbines.
"I would loved to have made that deal," recalls Cummings, "but Pakistan wouldn't let the sultan get any new arms and wouldn't even agree to the shipment of old arms out of Pakistani territory. There was no way to send them except via Karachi, unless over China. But in those times the Chinese card was impossible to play."
Never mind. A few years later, Cummings got a similar stash of weapons by cutting a deal with the king of Nepal. For six months, Cummings' agents worked in Katmandu sorting more than 100,000 18th- and 19th-century firearms for shipment to Interarms' warehouses.
Not all deals are made in exotic places with royalty. Cummings recently bought 5,000 light machine guns from the Belgian government that his company will recalibrate to standard NATO ammunition at the rate of 100 a month. An Asian nation has agreed to buy 2,000 of the weapons from Interarms. In another deal last year, Cummings bought about 4,000 American-made, 50-caliber, airplane-mounted machine guns from the Netherlands Air Force. Interarms converted the guns for ground use and sold them to the Austrian, Brazilian and Italian armies as well as various countries in Asia.
All of Interarms' transactions are subject to approval by either the State Department in Washington or the British Foreign Ministry, the countries in which Interarms has its warehouses. Which means Interarms misses out on the back-alley trade for which the secondary arms market is notorious.
"We're tightly controlled and restricted," he says. "We do what we can, but we can't make any decision on any contract with anybody across the table. We can just say: 'Fine, there's the material. If you like it, let us have your official order, and if it's a "the devil's smithy" and, forpproved by Whitehall or Foggy Bottom, we can commence delivery.' "
Arms dealing is not always such a white-glove affair. In the past such characters as Sir Basil Zaharoff, a famous arms broker at the turn of the century, was said to have helped start feuds to increase sales figures of Vickers-Maxim machine guns. And today free- lance brokers lurk everywhere.
"You shake any tree in Belgium, and a chap will fall out offering to either buy or sell armament," says Cummings. "He doesn't have anything, but he's a broker. The same applies in certain Asian countries. Thailand, for example. Lean against any palm, and it's not a coconut that'll fall out, it's some Thai offering to buy or sell weapons.
"We don't consider these people serious. Usually they confuse the situation by running around and, when they hear of a deal, offering it to everybody. The trick is to get past these worthies and deal with the man--the minister, the general or the head of state --who can say yes or no."
Does Cummings deal in poisons and explosive liquids?
"We don't have a clandestine services department," he says. "I might note licensing for that sort of thing is extremely difficult to obtain. Occasionally we have orders from NATO countries for silent pistols and submachine guns, but even NATO orders are approved only on the personal okay of a defense minister.
"Years ago we had the idea: Why don't we buy a big surplus freighter, load it up with arms and just sail around the world, buy here, go over there and sell ... ? It wouldn't cost any more to run than our land depots. And we'd be free agents. Then we were politely reminded that the torpedo was invented." Cummings gives one of his ironic laughs. "And that's what would happen if we tried to go it alone ... the big governments would give you headaches."
In 1927, Sam Cummings was born rich, but it didn't last. His family had to give up a big house in suburban Philadelphia, as well as a chauffeur, maid and cook after the stock market crash of 1929. His father lost the money he'd inherited from his father's mineral water business, went to work as an appliance repairman and died of a heart attack several years later at age 35.
That left Cummings' mother to support 8-year-old Sam and his younger sister. She managed a small apartment building her family owned and began buying and renovating modest suburban houses. One day young Sam found a rusty Maxim machine gun discarded behind an American Legion hall. He took it home and restored it.
"Some people have tried to read Freudian symbolism into that--fatherless child, playing with machine gun--and maybe they're right," Cummings told a Harper's magazine writer 11 years ago. "But Freud himself said sometimes a cigar is only a cigar. I think I was fascinated by the intricate machinery of the gun. It took me two years to figure out how to work it, but by age 10, I was the only Maxim machine gun expert in my neighborhood."
In 1942, the Cummings family moved to Washington, where Sam attended John Eaton and Sidwell Friends schools. His mother, who continued to prosper in Washington's bullish real estate market, lived on Macomb Street until her death in 1970. His sister, Lilla, became a lawyer and real estate operator. Four years ago she married Texas Sen. John Tower.
Cummings takes pains to distance himself from his brother-in-law, now the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He says he has never visited Tower's office, that their business never intersects, and that he only occasionally dines with his sister in the Towers' Cleveland Park home.
After a stint in the Army as an infantry sergeant and gun instructor, Cummings attended George Washington University on the G.I. Bill. During night law school, he worked as a $27-a-week file clerk at the Chamber of Commerce of the United States.
When the Korean War began in 1950, Cummings got a call from, as he puts it, the "dreaded three-letter agency," the CIA. He was hired as a $2,900-a-year tea "the devil's smithy" and, forchnical analyst of small arms.
"I sat in an office in Washington looking at pictures of material captured in Korea, then writing on the bottom: 'This is such-and-such type of rifle, it was made at such-and- such a time at the following factories and could have been delivered to North Korea by the following means.' I wasn't exactly hired as a key man on the policy level."
At age 23, Cummings quit law school when the CIA sent him overseas to help buy World War II weapons stashed around Europe for possible shipment to arm the nationalist Chinese. Cummings roamed north to Norway, south to Gibraltar and east to Turkey, gaining a valuable knowledge of arms dealing.
In 1952, newly married to a Costa Rican airline stewardess he'd met during CIA travels in Central America, Cummings settled in a small home near MacArthur Boulevard and printed up a letterhead for Interarmco. (Later, a lawsuit by Armco Steel forced Cummings to change his corporate name to Interarms.)
"I called myself 'vice president' to give the impression that there was at least one more employe," recalls Cummings. He wrote to embassies, chiefs of police around the world and ministers of defense, "pointing out the unique opportunities possible if they disposed of their obsolete material either for cash or as trade for modern material. The silence was deafening."
Then, one day, the chief of police of Panama wrote to tell Cummings he had some confiscated weapons he wanted to sell. Cummings flew to Panama to discover "a cavern of Ali Baba" of guns he knew could be sold. He agreed to purchase the lot for $25,000 he didn't have, called a California company, and sold the batch to them for $60,000, pocketing about $20,000 after expenses.
The Panama deal led to a contact in Costa Rica which led to a contact in Nicaragua where the father of the late Anastasio Somoza befriended Cummings. A stopover in Havana earned him Batista as a client, who suggested Cummings visit his buddy in the Dominican Republic, Trujillo.
Before he was 30, Cummings was shipping Sten guns (10,000 of them) to Guatemala. Then, when the government there was overthrown, Cummings returned to buy 80,000 surplus weapons and to sell Garand M-1s that had been lend-leased to England by the United States.
Once, while Cummings demonstrating a rifle to Trujillo, some Castro supporters landed on a Dominican Republic beach and were fired on by Swedish Vampire jets that Interarms had sold Trujillo. One of Trujillo's staff interupted the Cummings-Trujillo meeting to ask if Cummings had sold Castro the weapons the raiders used. Yes, said Cummings, but added quickly that he certainly hadn't suggested Castro use them against Trujillo.
Despite the stories of Cummings' deals, he says he is a small-time operator compared to governments such as the United States. While the sale of a single fighter jet by the Pentagon can bring $20 million, Cummings says Interarms' total sales have never exceeded $100 million a year. But because he's a private dealer trafficking in an exotic netherworld, he attracts attention.
In the beginning, he says he was a "junkie" who only sold and bought surplus arms. In the '60s, when he began representing most major European gun manufacturers, Cummings emerged as the frontrunner in his occupation. In the '70s, with his own manufacturing plants, he is set for life. The appreciation of his 200,000 square feet of land in Alexandria alone has made him wealthy.
Cummings is now talking with a developer about building a luxury hotel on his waterfront Alexandria property, with the stipulation that it eventually be turned over to his twin 19-year-old daughters by his second wife. (He and his first wife are divorced but remain friends.) If that should happen, the daughters will be able to watch their father's legacy rise by the Potomac--both young women entered a Washington-area college last month.
A complicated Supreme Court decision several years ago threw the nationality of his daughters into ar tea "the devil's smithy" and, forquestion. If Cummings had died then, his daughters would have been stateless. So Cummings flew to London, and because two of his grandparents had been born in England, he had no difficulty registering as a British citizen. Which means these days, Cummings must request a visa to visit his homeland.
Decades of feeding a worldwide lust for weapons has made the merchant of menace apolitical.
"I think I'm mildly pessimistic about all colors of politics," says Cummings. "I'm still in accord with Winston Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government except for all other forms. But so many governments are a fraud on their people."
He can't remember the number of heads of state he's met--like airline miles, he says, they come with the business: "It's not lawnmowers or plowshares I'm selling--it's swords, and you have to deal with either the minister or the head of state because they're the people who control that material. And it controls them ... These political leaders," he says with a small, tight laugh, "they come and go."
For the last five years, most of Cummings' sales have been in Far East countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Phillippines. "They're worried about the American pull-out and the Vietnam resolve," he explains.
And it is Vietnam that most intrigues Cummings now. "Until Iran collapses," he says, Vietnam holds the "prime lot of surplus of the decade," $5 billion worth of abandoned American light weapons and artillery.
"Iran is interesting, but it's a mixture, and we'd prefer the all-American arms in Vietnam," says Cummings with undisguised desire. "It's absolutely intact. The whole computer system, the inventory ... everything!"
Three years ago, Cummings says he met in Paris with Vietnam's peace talk negotiator, Le Duc Tho, and suggested Interarms manage the disposition of the surplus American weapons. Don't call us, Le Duc Tho told Cummings.
"What the Vietnamese should do is say, 'Mr. Cummings, that's too much material for you to buy, but if you want to market it for us ... ' And we'd do it!
"Look, the American embassy in Ho Chi Minh City sits empty. It's brand new, air-conditioned, has a heliport on the roof. I'd move into the ambassador's office and reactivate the computer systems."
Cummings begins to chortle at the thought.
"I'd have a direct link with the Pentagon--it's all there--and sell the stuff under a combination of Vietnamese and American government licensing. It's the only solution!"
His laughter rolls out louder as he imagines himself in the ambassador's office peddling the mint-condition weapons from America's debacle.
"All we need are one or two fellows and a secretary! The ambassador's car is still there--the bulletproof limousine!"
It would be a Hollywood cap to the career of Sam Cummings, arms merchant to the world, that even the sultan of Swat would understand.u