When the truck pulled up to the compound surrounding a shuttered 16th-century palace in the Himalayan city of Kathmandu in 2003, Christian Cranmer, an antique weapons  dealer, knew he had come to the culmination of his 25-year  obsession. Even better, he knew he'd make $25 million once he brought the contents of the palace back home to International Military Antiques' warehouse in Gillette, New Jersey.

Lagan Silekhana, a wooden palace that belonged to Nepal's prime minister, Bhimsen Thapa, in the early 19th century, had been closed for about 200 years and was covered in a thick layer of soot. Cranmer pushed open the tall double doors of the entryway, flicked on his flashlight, and finally saw what he had come looking for: a massive trove of rare muskets and rifles from the 1800s. He moved the flashlight around and saw Revolutionary War-era weapons piled in every corner, on the stairs, in the basement, and up in the attic, just like in the legend he'd been hearing about since 1969. 

Cranmer had successfully won an open bid for the cache of 55,000 British and American muskets, rifles, cannons, and bayonets that had seen action in the Napoleonic wars and the U.S. revolutionary and civil wars. Over time the Royal Nepalese Army had converted the palace into an armory to warehouse defunct arms supplied by the British. Some were worth as much as $3,000, but they were literally sitting around gathering dust.

Nepal was in the middle of a civil war when Cranmer arrived, so guards stood watch with machine guns as he and his crew started to pack the weapons. It took him five months to secure his prize--a painstaking process that entailed emptying the palace, loading the weapons onto 31 tractor trailers, driving over the Himalayas to Calcutta, India, and finally loading 400 tons of military history into shipping containers headed to New Jersey. 

"I leveraged everything. I had always said it would be a $25 million return over 25 years," Cranmer, now 70, says. "I thought this was my lottery ticket. It wasn't gold bars, but these guns are my treasure."

Cranmer put his business and his home on the line to raise the $5 million to buy the weapons from the Royal Nepalese Army, which needed the money to win the war against Maoist revolutionaries. He was on his way to make a fortune over the next two decades, but following the journey to Nepal he'd come home to find his mail-order business, International Military Antiques, in the gutter.

Bringing the war home.

Cranmer had left a friend in charge of IMA while he was in Nepal, during which time the company registered few sales. The lights were still on, but Cranmer had to take out an emergency loan for $100,000 just to make payroll after he returned.

By 2004, Cranmer had steered IMA back around, but the business, which advertised in specialty magazines and sold mostly through mail-order catalogs, was stuck in the past. E-commerce was just taking off, yet the company didn't even have a website. Cranmer's son Alex, who had just gotten a graduate degree and was in search of a job, persuaded his dad to let him put the business online. Christian was skeptical, but figured the e-commerce site could help supplement catalog sales. 

Alex methodically went through the inventory, took photos, and posted them to IMA's new website. (Cranmer has modified all the weapons to be inert, so they don't raise the regulatory issues of normal firearms.) Sales started trickling in, but IMA had no infrastructure to accept payments. 

"At first, my dad had teams of secretaries who would call the credit card companies to put the orders through," says Alex, 41.

The father-son duo remedied that issue, and after a year the company's revenue nearly doubled to $1.4 million. The following year, IMA would make more than $2 million. Alex stopped the mail-order business, ended IMA's wholesale contracts, and began selling exclusively online.

Firmly established as an e-commerce company, in 2010 IMA opened its store on Amazon's third-party marketplace. Today, Amazon hosts about half of IMA's 40,000 annual transactions. Amazon takes about 20 percent of each one, but Alex says the number of new customers they get through Amazon is worth giving up the cut. (IMA cannot sell antique guns on Amazon, but it does sell uniforms, helmets, and dummy grenades.) In 2015, IMA--which also sells through eBay--made about $5 million, and revenue is up 41 percent already this year.

"The business fundamentally changed after we opened our online stores and joined Amazon," Alex says. "All of a sudden, this little company was able to compete with companies we used to sell to wholesale."

IMA is now one of the largest players in the antique weapons industry, which is part of the $20 billion memorabilia and collectibles industry. It sells its relics of conflicts past mainly to collectors and history buffs.

"We now sell to people who we never would have without being online," Christian says. "I know I'm not Bill Gates, but we have 12 people and we're proud of what we sell."

It all starts with a letter.

Christian Cranmer started the business when he was 24 years old in his native London. He inherited his father's collection of 300 antique weapons and started investigating where the big stashes of old military munitions were laid to rest after a conflict. He would buy the weapons and sell them to collectors throughout Europe.

The British left munitions in every country the empire colonized in Africa and Asia, while after World War II the Germans and the Allies left arsenals throughout developing countries in Europe. For an antique arms vendor, getting access to that supply means contacting each country's government and military to ask when they are selling the stashes. 

"You write letters, you write letters, you write letters. You write to the country's police, you write to the army, you write to the air force, you write to the navy, whatever they have, you write letters," Cranmer says. "These countries are all trying to sell these weapons because they are useless to them." 

Cranmer's letters brought him to Egypt in 1976 to buy 15,000 Victorian-era rifles and swords and to Uruguay in the '80s to buy 100,000 bayonets dating back to 1850. In 1981, he went to the U.S. to meet a buyer. During his trip he met a woman from New Jersey; they married, and he moved his business to the States.

 

One of the first letters Cranmer ever wrote was in 1969, to a Russian entrepreneur in Nepal named Boris Lissanevitch, to confirm the existence of the Kathmandu stash. Ultimately, he would have to wait until 2000 for the arms to become available for sale, setting him up to claim his great treasure. But traveling through war-torn countries and making deals with militaries wasn't only about making money to him.

"It's a dying business. The militaria up through World War II has been consumed or destroyed," Cranmer says. "I'm in the business of preserving and selling memories and history."

Christian goes to Hollywood.

For one of the largest antique weapons vendors in the world, it's crucial to maintain a supply of weapons and other items from important historical events. Cranmer has traveled around the world Indiana Jones-style to hunt for such unique relics. Some of his most valuable finds include General George Patton's garrison cap, a Nazi Zündapp motorcycle with a sidecar and mounted machine gun, and an amphibious Ford GPA Seagoing Jeep from World War II. As a result, Hollywood frequently calls on Cranmer to help make period films look more accurate. 

In 1998, Cranmer was asked to supply a thousand World War II German and U.S. machine guns for Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. The weapons in the film, Cranmer says, are all from IMA--from the MG 34 machine gun in the opening D-Day scene, to Tom Hanks' Thompson sub-machine gun, as well as the other lead actors' firearms. Somewhat oddly, those guns were from a cache found in Serbia.

IMA also has supplied weapons for the HBO series Band of Brothers and The Pacific, Spielberg's War Horse, and Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Cranmer says IMA supplies a new movie roughly every month. 

The company also sells to museums, including the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. And the father-son duo are TV stars, appearing on the National Geographic channel's Family Guns. Alex is on 10 episodes of Pawn Stars as a weapons expert this season, as well.

Looking back on nearly five decades of building his business, Christian says his success stems from going further than anyone else in the field is willing to. 

"The key is to buy where no one else is. You can't buy something from Madison Avenue and think you have something exclusive. You literally have to go to Timbuktu," he says. "And when you get to Timbuktu, you buy all of it. That way you don't have competitors."

-- Additional reporting by Burt Helm

Published on: Apr 1, 2016