It began with a rusty Maxim machine gun found discarded outside an American Legion hall in Philadelphia.

Fifty years later, the personal firearms collection of international weapons dealer Samuel Cummings is among the world's most elaborate, 1,500 pieces that range from engraved flintlock pistols once owned by Napoleon to experimental assault rifles developed by the Nazis.

Cummings, founder, sole owner and president of Interarms, believed to be the world's largest private arms trading company, is looking for a public spot to display the fruits of his long passion for guns and collecting.

But his first choice, the City of Alexandria, where he founded his business in 1953, has not jumped at the chance. The City Council is sitting on a Cummings offer to lend his collection to be displayed in a proposed firearms museum that the city would set up.

Mayor Charles Beatley, who says he has no particular love for guns, favors the idea. "Even things that I don't like are part of history," he says. Museums and this kind of display fit into Alexandria, he says. The city has no shortage of civic pride in the city's colonial origins and illustrious martial residents such as George Washington and Robert E. Lee.

But there is no building readily available (the museum would require considerable space and security) and Beatley says the city can't afford the project.

Other council members aren't sure that getting the city involved with Interarms and the museum itself portray quite the image the city wants to cultivate. Vice Mayor James Moran raises moral objections, saying that such an arrangement would suggest the city condoned Interarms' commercial arms operations.

"He's welcome to engage in any business that he wants," says Moran, who has supported toughened gun-control measures in the city.

"But I don't think that we should be in any cooperative relationship with him."

Cummings, 56, who describes himself as a "gun bug," says he can't understand why the project could be called undesirable.

"Weapons are fascinating," he said in an interview recently in his Alexandria offices, amid racks of sample rifles and an antique cannon. "For better or worse, they're a part of our history."

He already has shipped most of the collection to Alexandria, where it lies in one of his six waterfront warehouses, packed in crates and oil-proof paper. Gun experts regard the collection as among the largest and most comprehensive in private hands in the world.

"Undoubtedly, Sam Cummings owns guns that are not extant elsewhere," says Arthur Pence, associate curator of the National Rifle Association museum.

Cummings says the Maxim machine gun, which he hauled home on a wagon as a boy of 6 or 7 and spent hours disassembling and restoring, marked the start of his lifelong fascination with firearms. "In a way, my business is still my hobby," he says.

Cummings entered the arms business with just a few dollars, buying and selling the mountains of surplus arms littering the world after World War II. Later he turned to jet planes and modern arms. Now wealthy and a resident of Monte Carlo, he seems to take pleasure in disappointing visitors' expectations of how an arms merchant should behave.

He is tirelessly genial, a trifle overweight and quotes English poet Samuel Coleridge on the "wild and dream-like trade of blood and guile" in which he has made a fortune. He dismisses his many critics with jibes about naivete. Compared with governments and their multibillion-dollar arms deals, he says he is small fry, having never reached $100 million in sales a year.

"My job is essentially not to praise or to blame weapons," Cummings says. He just sells them.

According to the National Rifle Association, about 2.4 million of the 50 million to 60 million Americans who own guns consider themselves collectors. People collect out of interest in military and technological history or unexplainable affection for the feel of stock and steel.

But few have either the money or the entree to the world's armories that Samuel Cummings has. His antiques include two carriage pistols, two pocket pistols, a hunting rifle and a gold-hilted sword that were presented to Napoleon by the French Republic in 1797 to honor his victory over the Austrians and Sardinians. Napoleon wielded the sword when he drove the Council of Five Hundred out of St. Cloud and became First Consul.

After Waterloo, the items remained in the family of an Irish peer, Cummings says, until 1976, when they came up for auction at Christie's in London. He paid 36,000 pounds for them, and has since brushed off overtures from French museum authorities to buy the "national treasures" back.

Other antiques include a pair of flintlock dueling pistols that belonged to King George III, and two silver-mounted dueling pistols and a fowl gun believed to have been owned by William IV.

The collection also is well-endowed with 19th century Colt "presentation" pistols, finely crafted guns specially made to be gifts, often with the owner's name engraved in elaborate script. One came with a case resembling a hardbound book, so it could be disguised on a shelf.

Kaiser Wilhelm's 1896 Mauser pistol, serial No. 1, is there too, bearing an inscription commanding any user to "hold me in honor" because the gun was once fired by the great leader.

But among military historians, Cummings' collection is known as much for its guns of the common foot soldier. Immeasurable energy, money and ingenuity have gone into improving firearms over the centuries and his collection documents almost every step.

Many of these firearms Cummings got for next to nothing. While sorting through huge consignments of small arms bought in the post-war years, his staff often came across rare pieces and would put them aside. Cummings was careful to keep samples of even the common models, too.

It now includes muzzle-loading rifles converted to breech-loading after the Civil War, anti-tank rifles developed by the opposing sides before World War II and later abandoned as ineffective, a Swedish mortar and prototype rifles developed in German and Japanese armories.

Occasionally, his clients also present him with something as a token of esteem. Years ago, Chilean officials gave him a rare .38 Colt automatic pistol with their navy's markings on it.

The collection continues to grow. Last year, Interarms contracted with China to buy more than 100,000 old Mauser rifles, which Cummings believes the Russians captured from the Germans during World War II, then transferred to the Chinese before the Sino-Soviet rift.

In the shipment, Interarms employes found rifles with a cover fitted over the breech, meant to keep grit out, but discontinued as impractical on other Mausers. "I knew that existed but had never seen one and no one I knew had ever seen one," says Cummings. One of the rifles is now in the collection.

The most recent purchase is a 19th century .44 magnum Colt pistol known as a Third Dragoon, which had laid for years in an Alexandria house. "The owner brought it down, knocked on the door and asked if we'd like to buy it," says Cummings. He did, for $1,500.

Over the years, Alexandrians have expressed concern over the possibility of explosions at the Interarms warehouses on the waterfront. But generally the company has been a neighbor that is seen but not heard. It will pay more than $55,000 in city property taxes next year and an undisclosed tax on its gross receipts.

The museum idea arose when city officials approached the company several years ago to request a donation of $3,500 to buy a small cannon from the War of 1812 period that had been fished out of the Potomac River. Interarms agreed and the cannon is now on display in a city museum.

City Manager Douglas Harman, himself an avid student of local history and a collector of World War I memorabilia, told council members in 1981 that an arms museum would fit the local milieu and the city would "benefit significantly" as tourists, scholars and military personnel came to visit it.

"All through the years, the City of Alexandria has been tied up in one way or another with the major wars of the country," Harman says. It was near the front lines during the Civil War and produced torpedoes in the two world wars in a riverside plant. (Harman was instrumental in finding a torpedo produced in Alexandria and bringing it back for display in the factory, now an arts center.)

Harman got the go-ahead to explore the museum idea. But the idea remains stalled. If necessary, Cummings now says, he will display his guns in company offices at his own expense, to mark the 30th anniversary of Interarms.

If he does that, some of the newer military pieces will not make it into the country, he says. The 1968 gun control act, which was aimed in large part at eliminating the import of surplus weapons, a business Cummings helped pioneer, would make their import for private use virtually impossible.

He continues to scoff at the moral arguments, saying all of his business is conducted with approval of the U.S. or British governments. "If I'm a merchant of death, so are you," he says, "because we both pay the same taxes."