All The Fun Of The Arms Fair

Some time ago, I covered a UK arms fair for a magazine. I never thought you could have so much fun with a laser-sighted rifle and a room full of weapons dealers.
Publish date:
Updated on


Perhaps the most numbing role I took on as a journalist was running the International Phosphates desk for a HIGNFY guest publication candidate by the name of ‘Fertilizer Week’. It was more fun covering the City. At least something was happening; even if it was to other people’s money. I covered stocks in the oil, mining and defence industries for a personal investment magazine.

That's how I find myself one morning standing in a pin-stripe suit next to a crowd of demonstrators with my MOD press clearance clutched in my tight little fist.

A chatty Bobbie takes me past the first cordon and we leave the hissing, heckling demonstrators behind. He barely misses a beat when he hears my accent and as we stroll into the tent like buddies, he confides in that hushed English way: ‘me Mum was Irish you know?’.

Then he accompanies me as an officer at a desk takes my name and ID. On hearing it, my constabular confidante starts laughing and produces his warrant card; it turns out we have the same ‘straight from Central Casting’ Irish surname.

Anyway, that happy coincidence makes any questions or fuss go right away. With a nod and a ‘Fighting Irish’ wink to my Peeler clansman, I wander into the exhibition.

If someone hasn’t experienced the joyous corporate bacchanalia that is ‘The Trade Fair’ it’s a difficult thing to explain.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re in swimming pool fixtures or the adult film business, trade fairs are dull dull dull. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of people being put in a big room full of stock and made to talk shop. When Sartre said Hell is other people, then this must surely be the ninth circle of existential torment.

So I walk around.

And around. As dull as any trade fair I’ve ever been to in fairness. Seems like most of the tamer stuff is kept near the entrance; your protective clothing, flak jackets, gas masks that sort of thing.

As I wander around among the frequency jammers and night sights, I happen on a huge smiling South African who gently pushes the weapon he is cradling into my arms. I look down. It is a drum-loaded grenade launcher very like the one Christopher Walken used in The Dogs of War.

My Antipodean salesman doesn’t even give me a chance to tell him I'm a journalist before he launches into his sales patter (‘ambush ‘em with the grenade-launcher and make the sale while they’re still thinking about it’). It's all ‘fields of fire’this and ‘kill patterns’ that with even the term ‘cost-effective’ making an appearance amongst the more technical jargon.

By the time he’s finished, I still haven't the heart to tell him that not only am I not a buyer, I am a member of the press. Oh well, the moment's gone I suppose....

So instead, I ask him how much I’d need to pay in order to be able to take delivery of a consignment of said material.

Quick as a flash he gives me a price per item on a minimum shipment; my eyebrows rise and his price falls. I smile, take a card and a brochure (beautifully produced) and make my excuses, promising I'll be in touch. What I'm really wondering is 'Who did that guy think I was?'

Anodyne number-filled conversations around rocket-launchers and stingers like it was a tool box talk in the Black & Decker shop. It’s the banality of it that really wrong-footed me, I was very troubled even though I’d picked up some great investment stories.

After that, I chat briefly with a serving soldier; one of a number who the Brass had obviously sent along for the benefit of the buyers and public. He's a Geordie from one of the Fusiliers Regiments and he is looking around him like a Bulgarian at Harrods.

Soldiers are great; they love a moan and it dosen’t take long before he is colourfully berating the SA80 (Standard issue British Army Assault Rifle: 7.56mm, bullpup magazine configuration) to high heaven. He's even asking for the old SLR back. “It’s like bein’ a kid in a toyshop when your mam's on benefits and your Da’s gan away,” says the bemused squaddie with unexpected pathos.

The trade fair then passes in a series of virtually carbon copy encounters. Bland salesmen: bland the way a Bavarian chicken farmer called Himmler was bland.

What I keep noticing however, is that money is always discussed before anybody even mentions the need for the right paperwork (and that's usually me), funny that.

Anodyne number-filled conversations around rocket-launchers and stingers like it was a tool box talk in the Black & Decker shop. It’s the banality of it that really wrong-footed me, I was very troubled even though I’d picked up some great investment stories.

As I am preparing to leave however, I see what, in purely aesthetic and industrial design terms, is a beautiful object: the Excalibur moment.

Tastefully lit and seeming to almost hover in mid-air on its perspex stand: if it had been shown at the Tate instead of at a mass-murder fest, it might have won the Turner.

The salesman, from a Singapore gunnery, takes the weapon down and hands it to me; solicitously pointing out specifications in impeccable Straits English. Then he shows me the best bit, the killer app; if you go in for that type of thing.

It's a just little button down the left side of the assault rifle's barrel, designed for access with the thumb. But pressing the button emits a red-eye laser sight. Sure-shot.

I know I shouldn't have...but I did: I'm a weak man, what can I say?

Leaning into the rifle, and peering down the barrel, I scan the crowded exhibition hall and spy one of my earlier unctuous salesmen: I wait till he turns around and then my thumb flickers and there it is: red between his shoulder blades and then gone again.

That's when I notice my South African, ambushing another would-be customer and there it is again!

Just a thumb-twitch, easy as pressing the send button on a text, and an eye-blink on his neck.

Then I get up on the dais to get a better view....

Peeping above the crowd I spot my Geordie soldier’s beret and feather; he’d love this gun, I think. And the dot flashes off the tip of his feather. Canny lad gets away with it but his bonnets in tatters.

OK, one for the road, I think; Jesus, this can’t be healthy.

Just as I am about to give a policeman my parting dot, he turns around and it's cheery PC Namesake. I hand the gun back to the salesman: my ironic killing spree just isn’t fun anymore.