MIGHTY HISTORY

A ballsy arms dealer sold dud weapons to three sides of a conflict

You may never have heard of Basil Zaharoff. He's not the Lord of War depicted by Nic Cage in the 2005 film; Zaharoff was actually around much, much earlier. Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, the "Lord of War" the Nic Cage movie is based on, has nothing on the original "Merchant of Death."


It didn't matter that they didn't often work as directed.

Basil Zaharoff, the world's richest arms dealer... eventually.

In the days before anyone actually cared about international arms trafficking, men like Zaharoff were renowned for their salesmanship. The Greek gun dealer and industrialist would become one of the richest men to live in his lifetime, selling weapons to anyone who was willing to purchase them, even if they were on opposing sides of a conflict. But his business cunning didn't stop with getting people to buy. He was also adept at edging out his competition, selling the latest and greatest in military tech.

By the late 1880s, countries like the U.S., Britain, the Ottoman Empire, Germany, and Russia all sought out the Maxim Machine Guns, which Zaharoff had just gotten the rights to produce, along with the new submarines he was suddenly able to sell. While many of the world's major powers eventually lost interest, the sub was especially interesting to Greece, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire.

Isaac Peral's submarine in 1886.

Until this time, the use of submarines was intermittent and untrustworthy in combat. But when a Spanish sailor created one that was actually functional, useful, and fired weapons without killing the crew, it raised some eyebrows. After Zaharoff was able to sell one to the Greek Navy, it wasn't long before the Ottoman Turks, Greece's longtime nemesis, noticed. The arms dealer was able to convince the Turks the submarine was a game-changer. He later told the Russian Tsar the same thing, and that Russia needed two of its own to balance power in the region.

The only thing was, no one needed Isaac Peral's submarine. While it was an advanced invention, none of the models Zaharoff sold to the Greeks, Turks, or Russians actually worked as advertised. It still had a few bugs to work out, and besides – Zaharoff didn't have the actual submarines; he was working from stolen plans.

None of the submarines actually worked like Peral's original.

How you walk when you sell five useless submarines to three countries who will never tell out of sheer embarrassment.

For all his failures of morality, Basil Zaharoff didn't stoop to cheating the Allies out of much-needed cash after World War I broke out. Far from it. He used his skills as a merchant and salesman to further the Allied cause, ensuring Greece would stay in the Entente alliance and convincing the new Greek government to open a front against the Ottomans.

Of course, after the war ended, he went right back to his old tricks. He was selling weapons until the day he died in 1936, providing weapons to the Spanish government during the Spanish Civil War.