Richard Beck, white, 33, made his living until recently as a gun dealer (some would say smuggler), selling handguns, rifles and a few semi-automatic weapons to South African whites.

Beck is married, resides in a suburb of Johannesburg, lives on steaks, lamb chops and smoked oysters and favors the Cafe Mozart, where prices are a wee bit higher because the help is all white. He is a member of the South African Reserve Army, an excellent shot and, until recently, politically naive.

And, he was acquitted this year of falsifying documents in a weapons shipment case when the presiding judge overturned a Michigan jury's guilty finding -- the only time the judge had done such a thing in his 18 years on the bench.

Last year, on Nov. 17, Beck stepped off a plane at Chicago's O'Hare airport and walked into an ambush. He had traveled from Johannesburg to claim $25,000 in guns which had been confiscated by the U.S. government, and he had no idea that customs agents had lied to get him into the country. He was greeted by Seymour Freilich, a Detroit gun dealer, who led his South African customer into the hands of the Customs Service. Within a few hours, Beck was charged with running a gun smuggling operation to his homeland, and his bond was set at a half million dollars.

With Beck in the lockup, it seemed the U.S. attorney had hooked a big fish, a walking symbol of apartheid, the only South African ever to be charged with violating the U.N. arms embargo against Pretoria. The prosecutor initially planned a political trial.

Five months later when the trial finally began, however, it became apparent that despite the grandiose descriptions of the U.S. attorneys, Beck was no big fish at all and the case became remarkable not for its political importance, but for revealing that the arms embargo is strictly a moral posture, that it takes little sophistication to bypass it and milk the fairly lucrative South African handgun market.

Richard Beck, though he'd be the last to admit it, is strictly small time, but still several steps above Seymour Freilich, the American connection in the gun smuggling operation and the man who led Beck into the ambush in Chicago.

Freilich, 33, is married and the father of two children. His parents were Polish Jews who fled to Russia during World War II. Seymour was born in a refugee camp near Nuremberg, Germany, in 1947. Freilich's parents emigrated to Detroit when their son was 2. As a young man, Seymour dreamed of owning his own business, and he finally got his chance a few years ago when he founded Concealable Body ARMOR (CBA).

Freilich and his partner, a pantyhose wholesaler, found CBA when they discovered a market for bulletproof vests among security guards and store owners in Detroit's inner city. In the beginning it was strictly a basement operation, hard on the shoe leather, but business grew steadily.

By the summer of 1977, the two partners had enlarged their line, and were selling riot shotguns, derringers, .357 magnums, cattle prods for controlling crowds, lock picks, blackjacks, ankle holsters and narcotics ID equipment. They gave an interview to a reporter from the Detroit Free Press, displayed their impressive wares and claimed they dealt only with governments, municipalities and security guard companies.

They said that they were trading in flashlights and holsters with South Africa, but claimed they sold no weapons there, and said they had mixed feelings about trading with the country at all and did so only because if they didn't someone else would.

The partners weren't quite telling the truth. Seymour Freilich had no qualms about exporting anything to South Africa; a short time after the interview, he sent off his first shipment of handguns to Richard Beck.

It was easy money.

The United Nations, voicing its abhorrence of South Africa's treatment of blacks, passed an arms embargo on Aug. 7, 1963, against South Africa. France, Italy, Israel and Belgium -- all major weapons supplier, observed the embargo, as did the United States, with some exceptions and permitting some loopholes.

Sixteen years later, the embargo is almost a moot point, an ineffective censuring of Pretoria's racial policies. When the embargo was instituted, South African defense forces had essentially a defensive capability. The army was stocked with a collection of old British and U.S. equipment, and didn't even have a small mobile attack force.

Today, the nation's military capability is awesome. With the help of foreign multinational corporations who exported their technology under license, South Africa now can produce fighter planes, armored cars, air to air missiles and tanks, as well as bombs, mines, napalm, nerve gas and defoliants.

However, small arms are a slightly different game. South Africa produces all the firearms needed by its military and police, including exact copies of the Israeli Uzi machine gun and the Belgian Fabrique National assault rifle, used as the army's basic shoulder weapon.

However, the citizenry must look elsewhere for its household weapons, and it was this handgun and rifle market that Beck and Freilich were taking advantage of. Demand became particularly acute in 1976. The government issued a law decreeing that black school children no longer would have their classes taught in English, but would instead be taught in Afrikaans, the language of the ruling class, the Afrikaners.

On June 16, the students in Soweto rebelled, boycotted their school and marched through the district. Met by armed policemen, the students threw rocks and stones. The police responded with guns, and somewhere between 500 and 700 blacks died, most of them school children.

The three whites killed during the upheaval were officials who worked in black districts. The white citizenry responded by arming themselves. A New York Times correspondent reported that some gun stores registered a fivefold increase in sales, and that Colts, Lugers and Berettas were selling at double and triple their factory prices.

A Johannesburg movie house was converted to a pistol range, renamed Gun City and by the end of the year was catering to 400 customers a week. More than one in four of the country's 4.2 million whites owned a registered weapon, making South Africa's white population among the most heavily armed in the world, owning proportionately twice as many handguns as there are in private ownership in the United States.

The weapons had arrived in South Africa through a variety of routes, often through middlemen in Europe and Hong Kong. Many of the weapons, perhaps most, originated in countries observing the U.N. arms embargo. Winchester, a division of Olin Corporation with headquarters in New Haven, used Mozambique, Greece, the Canary Islands and Austria as its transshipment points, sending 20 million rounds of ammunition and 3,200 rifles to South Africa between 1971 and 1975.

Walter Plowman, an employe of Colt Industries of Connecticut, managed to send 33 shipments of arms to South Africa in 1974 and 1975 by transshipping them through West Germany. At Plowman's trial, a month after the Soweto uprising, his lawyer argued that the practice was common among gun companies, and that the State Department had looked the other way. The judge urged Plowman to talk, saying he had the feeling that the buck was stopping in the wrong place, but in the end the lone employe pleaded guilty.

The Winchester and Plowman cases are not particularly surprising; embargoed nations have never had any trouble getting arms, and the South Africa arrangements may not be as clandestine as one might suppose.

"All nations realize that while embargoes may inhibit violence and bring applause to the peace loving power, they also create a vacuum through the withdrawal of the great power's influence," writes George Thayer in "The War Business," his 1969 study of the arms trade. Middlemen step into the breach, Thayer says, often with the covert support of their government, allowing a government to have the best of both worlds -- it maintains its influence in the embargoed nation and can still tell the world how principled it is.

In the case of Seymour Freilich, running guns didn't take much effort, and was hardly a cloak-and-dagger operation. He boxed the weapons, marked the cartons with customs codes identifying the contents as sporting goods, playground equipment or underwater breathing devices and took the packages to his freight shippers, where he washed his hands of them. Some of the shipments went directly to South Africa, but at least one went by way of Zurich, where a Swiss businessman was supposed to change the address labels and send the gunds on to Johannesburg.

After four months of trading, Richard Beck and his partner wrote to Freilich to say that they could send orders for $10,000 in merchandise per week, and that by the end of the year they might be able to swing a quarter-million-dollar deal. By February, 1978, Freilich had made 21 shipments of 545 arms, 9,550 rounds of ammunition and scopes, sights, bullet casings and other goods valued at more than $350,000.

"It was easy money, like falling off a log," says an attorney who worked for CBA. "He had a customer willing to pay a premium. He just sent the guns off.What business could be easier?"

Word travels quickly in the arms trade, and only a few months after the gun-running operation had begun, CBA had acquired a reputation. At a sporting goods convention in Houston, Freilich and his partner were offered a tank to add to their merchandise. The mails brought word of fighter planes and reconditioned tanks for sale in Europe. Freilich began getting access to discounts and surplus sales of small weapons. In response to a request from a contact in South Africa, he began shopping for torpedoes and machine guns.

In less than two years, Seymour Freilich had risen from selling bulletproof vests in the inner city to dealing internationally in weapons capable of enormous destruction.

A freak accident, not diligent police work or crafty intelligence agents, brought about Freilich's undoing. A shipment of 20 cartons of handguns, rifles, ammunition and flashlights, addressed to Switzerland but meant for Johannesburg, was stacked in a freight hanger at O'Hare airport in Chicago when a forklift operator noticed that one box had fallen off the pile. When he peered through the torn cardboard he saw a box of .22 cartridges. It struck him as peculiar that there was no explosives label on the box, as required by law, so he referred the matter to his superiors.

Searches and audits ensued, and Freilich eventually was indicted in Detroit on 31 counts of unlawful shipments of weapons, failure to maintain required firearms records and conspiracy, and in Chicago on seven more counts for conspiracy and exporting "arms, ammunition and implements of war" without a license. Named as a co-conspirator in the Chicago indictment was the South African Richard Beck.

When the Chicago indictment came down, Seymour, with a wife, two kids, and a mortgage, offered to betray Beck, to trick him into coming to the United States.

At that point, Beck sat in Johannesburg, sorely grieved by the disappearance of the $25,000 shipment confiscated at O'Hare. Beck had learned he was indicted from the Johannesburg papers, but at that point seemed safe: the offenses he was charged with are not covered by the U.S. extradition treaty with South Africa, and everything he had done was perfectly legal in his homeland.

In mid-August, 1978, he received a phone call from Freilich, who claimed that all the charges had been dropped, that he had simply produced his export license and the government had backed down. The last shipment of guns, Freilich said, was being held by U.S. Customs, and the agency would release them only to Beck, since the South African was now their rightful owner.

Beck asked his shipping agents to check out the story, and they assured him that it was true. It wasn't until after he was arrested that he learned his shipping agents had been lied to by the Customs agent in charge of the case, who was well aware that the preosecutors wanted to try Beck.

And so Richard Beck came to Chicago and ended up doing 83 days in the federal jail. His release came about after he was attacked by a black inmate who did not take lightly tothe South African's country of origin.

Orville Brettman, mayor of Carpentersville, a Chicago suburb, came forward to post bond for Beck. (Brettman is a former member of the Legion of Justice, a right-wing group which committed burglaries and planted explosives in the name of patriotism and sometimes at the direction of the Chicago police. For Brettman's wedding present, he told a grand jury several years ago, his fellow Legionnaires presented him with a break-in of Communist Party headquarters and the theft of the party's lists of contributors.) Beck retired to Brettman's suburban home, and cut no small figure in Carpentersville while waiting for his trial to start.

The case against Beck was not as strong as it initially appeared to be. He denied none of the shipments, and the primary issue at the trial was his state of mind during the weapons transactions. If he had known he was violating the U.S. arms embargo, he was guilty of conspiracy and responsible for the acts of his co-conspirator Freilich. If he did not know he was violating the embargo, he was not liable for Feilich's illegal acts and became then a simple buyer of goods.

Beck's actions were inconsistent, and the jury's verdict proved they were baffled. They found the South African not guilty of conspiracy, but guility of the remaining six counts of filing false documents. It was essentially a contradiction. Beck had not filed the false documents, Freilich had. Beck didn't even know the documents had been filed, or what they were. In order for him to be responsible for Freilich's violations, Beck would have to have been found guilty of conspiracy. Yet on that count, the jury said he was innocent.

Six weeks later, Beck came in for sentencing, facing 12 years and hoping he'd just be deported.The judge began by pointing out the weaknesses in the jury's decision, then surprised Beck and stunned the prosecutors by setting aside the verdict.

"By their own verdicts I find they were not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt," the judge said, and he acquitted Beck of the six conts of falsifying documents. The South African left the courtroom a free man, feeling he'd just scored one for Pretoria.

That was six months ago, but Richard Beck is still with us. The prosecutor got an order from a Court of Appeals forcing the judge to hold the South African's passport until the higher court rules later this year. Beck has been issued a work permit and eventually found a job operating a computer lathe for a Carpentersville engineering firm. In his spare time he has become an expert on international relations, particularly on the communists he sees in the upper levels of the Carter administration plotting against his homeland under the guise of human rights.

Seymour Freilich pleaded guilty in both Chicago and Detroit. As a family man, a first offender, an auxiliary policeman and a cooperator with the prosecution, he expected mercy. He got none, and is now serving a two-year sentence in the federal pen in Milan, Mich.

What is most remarkable about the whole caper is not that it evaded detection through 20 shipments, but that it was uncovered at all. The enforcement of the arms embargo depends on cardboard cartons of firearms falling off piles and breaking open.