The Bushmaster M4 is a 50-inch rifle capable of firing thirty 5.56×45mm NATO rounds, and used by spec ops forces throughout Afghanistan. It's a serious weapon. But in the Internet's darkest black market, it's all yours. Who needs a background check? Nobody.
The Armory began as an offshoot of The Silk Road, notable as the Internet's foremost open drug bazaar, where anything from heroin and meth to Vicodin and pot can be picked out and purchased like a criminal Amazon.co.uk. It's virtually impossible to trace, and entirely anonymous. But apparently guns were a little too hot for The Silk Road's admins, who broke the site off from the main narcotics carnival. Now guns, ammo, explosives, and more have their own shadowy home online, far from the piles of Dutch coke and American meth. But the same rules apply: with nothing more than money and a little online savoir faire, you can buy extremely powerful, deadly weapons — Glocks, Berettas, PPKs, AK-47s, Bushmaster rifles, even a grenade — in secret, shipped anywhere in the world.
So I wondered, just how easy is it to get a gun? A semi-auto, 9mm Beretta 92FS with "No scratches or dents, very slight wear from extremely light usage" would hit me for 338.69 bitcoins. At the current Bitcoin/Pound exchange of roughly 5-to-1, that's a little over £1,800. A stiff markup. But that got me thinking: what if you wanted to go beyond arming yourself? What if you wanted something more powerful, or more plentiful? What if you weren't just interested in self-defense or hunting? What if you wanted to, say, arm a 20-person paramilitary group to overthrow a West African government in a Internet-armed coup d'état? Could a band of anonymous weapon mongers prepare me and 19 imaginary compatriots for illegal warfare? It looks like the answer is yes.
The Amazon comparison might not be fair — The Armory wants to make itself hard to access (for obvious reasons that have to do with not going to prison), so it's not as easy as just firing up any old website. In fact, it's not really on the web in any traditional sense. To get to The Armory, you need to deploy a free piece of software called TOR. Originally (and ironically) developed by the US Navy, it's become the anonymising software par excellence among criminals, hackers, schemers, and the otherwise paranoid. TOR routes and reroutes your connection to the Internet through a sprawling maze of encrypted nodes around the world, making it a herculean feat to find out who's who. The Armory's URL — ayjkg6ombrsahbx2.onion — reflects that, a garbled string of letters and numbers deliberately impossible to memorise. Once you're actually signed in, you then have to turn to Bitcoins as mandatory currency, a further exercise in computer secrecy and complexity in itself. This ain't exactly walking into a gun show and walking out with a pistol.
Still, the site prides itself on being about as easy to use as an illegal underground weapons dealership can be:
The Armory is an anonymous marketplace where you can buy and sell without revealing who you are. We protect your identity through every step of the process, from connecting to this site, to purchasing your items, to finally receiving them.
That receiving part is almost as tricky as the labyrinthine purchasing process. How exactly do you illegally ship illegal guns to potential criminals? In pieces. Small pieces. The crafty gun dealers of The Armory aren't going to just stick an assault rifle into a manilla envelope and drop it into a local mailbox. Rather, buyers get each gun component shipped in shielded packages — disguised to look like other products — that then require self-assembly. You get your gun, the dealer gets his money, The Armory retains its secrecy, and the mail carrier doesn't realise it's part of an international weapons smuggling operation.
But who are these anonymous online gunslingers? Nobody can know for sure. Nary a single one will mention where they source their wares, or provide even the slightest shred of locational information. You're lucky if you know what continent they're on. Some won't even talk to you unless you use an added layer of super-tough PGP encryption in all of your messages, gilding the lily with layer upon layer of software scrambling.
There's dave00, a European who'll ship you a bazooka:
I'm dave00 a new firearms and explosive supplier. I have plenty of contacts all over EU that can provide me a large variety of weapons,ammunitions and explosives.
usually all orders have to be considered shipping included.
I can ship in various ways postal systems for small orders and dead drops with gps location.
I can create custom listings on request
I can ship in all EU and also to the USA
I'm able to get handguns, full auto weapons, machineguns, grenade and rpg launcher and ammunitions
There's Steinberg, "Just a gun seller trying to expand his business."
And then there are the steely super-pros like "bohica," whose profile is written like it should be read in a thick, generically Soviet accent:
Greetings Armory Members,
We are Bohica and Associates and new to the Armory, but not new to the business. We are professionals that understand the needs of real shooters. We only locate and carry small arms, tactical equipment and munitions. If you need cheap shit guns, you can try IcePick and T-Dog on the corner, but you won't find any of that here. Our offerings initially will be a sample of our regular inventory. We will slowly release our inventory line as transactions progress. We want to be clear upfront we do not locate "exotic or collectible" small arms.
Luckily, as this is all online, you don't have to worry about bohica cutting your throat if your business goes awry. Which is good news, because I intended to do some serious business.
I started asking around for guns, contacting sellers directly. But what was the point? They list their stuff directly on the site. With pictures, specs, and price tags. There's no fun in window shopping — I wanted a special order. I wanted to equip a private army and overthrow a 3rd world government, combining faint fantasies of that time rich British guys conspired to take over Equatorial Guinea and various scenes from Clear and Present Danger. I'd need guns. Powerful guns. Lots of them. Could The Armory handle more than a pistol order — could it help me become a dictator?
I started asking around via private message — "Do you have what it would take to arm a small paramilitary group? Say, 20 people?" I made it clear that I needed something "more powerful" than what was displayed on the site.
The answers poured in:
I can provide: tec9, scorpion, ak47 and one single vietnam war "thumper", but its ammo costs.
Smgs are much less expensive, and satisfy your self protection or combat needs very well: the sound of a easy-to-conceal soviet scorpion can scary the most badass motherfucker will stand in front of you...
I'm telling this for you: one single grenade of a thumper costs 50 btcs to me: the GL itself will be around 100, to me. Take your time to choose, there's no rush: but be sure your purchase is worth :)
My sources aren't object of discussion, sorry.
The cost depends from what do you need, obviously.
I will provide good quality items:
what about something full auto easy to conceal?
-H&K MP5K-PDW, i will get 16 pieces in two weeks.
Something less "lady style"?
-H&K G3A3, 15 pieces in 2 week.
-AK47, 28 pieces in 10 days.
-H&K PSG1 civilian model, 5 pieces in 2 weeks.
Something sharp but cheaper?
-Dragunov SVD, 12 pieces in 10 days
Take your time and make your choice Sir, we're here to serve you.
I can provide a Accuracy International AW50 included optics and accessories
But the power has always a big cost
For this weapon i can provide also API, AP , Incendiary , tracer and explosive rounds
I would recommend ak47 or m4 , for sidearm mp5 or handguns like glock or beretta 92
The body armor will be NIJ IV level, it can stop also an ak47 rounds
This kind of material is easily to obtain especially for body armor
But it was my supervillain friend bohica who seemed most willing to help me with my imaginary coup:
Absolutely, we can accommodate your request, but we need more parameters such as your exact arms needs and destination country. We only deal with small arms and equipment, but if you need artillery, MANPADS [Man-portable air-defense systems], ordinance, APCs, Helos we do have resources and can make certain introductions for a fee. Please send your next message through PGP encryption, our public key is on our profile page.
Bohica seemed ready to deliver me enough firepower to take on the US government, to say nothing of some West African backwater.
I told each seller I was ready to do ASAP, and they went off to get me pricing information and begin the long process of sourcing enough weaponry to arm twenty men through jungle and urban combat. Of course, I didn't buy anything — I don't have the tens of thousands of pounds to buy crates of rifles, or perhaps millions to buy helicopters and armoured troop carriers. But there's every reason to believe that, with a little patience, a lot of money, and uneasy trust, these things could have been in my hands — or the hands of anyone else. Say, someone who wanted to go on a domestic shooting spree, assassinate a world leader, or any infinite number of other nefarious things you can do with guns and armoured vests.
There's a mantle of skepticism here, of course: the huge and necessary question here is Are these people real. Is an entity like Bohica just an elaborate scam — an untraceable means of parting a fool (or warlord) with his money? Are these "dealers" just putting together a federal sting operation? Sure, maybe — but there's plenty of reason to believe this is just as terrifyingly real as it looks. The sellers have feedback ratings, and reports in the Armory message boards of successful shipments. There's a whole thread dedicated to listing scammers, and none of my contacts were flagged.
And then there's the spooky case of "mrpman888," who instead of listing guns for sale, listed his seller's account. He'd had enough, he said, and wanted to offload the account to someone else — no questions asked. I asked a question, and he replied, curtly, "i just dont want it anymore. its never been used." Could he elaborate a little? "No."
Unless dozens of anonymous figures are all collaborating on one of the Internet's most bizarre forms of performance art meets con art, the whole thing is just too complicated to be wholly fraudulent. Some of these guys are selling guns. And if you're someone who doesn't want to be indiscriminately shot at, that's a problem.
Shouldn't the government be standing between us and a swarm of people who will send war weapons to anyone with the necessary cash? Say, the American Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives? Surely, if the DEA is creeping up on The Silk Road's infinite drug stash, the feds must be up on The Armory? Right? Or have any idea of what it is? Not really.
A call to the ATF didn't bring much reassurance: After trying to explain The Armory to a confused spokesperson, she replied only, after a long pause, her hair likely vibrating, tensely, from the dry air conditioning somewhere inside the federal sprawl, "It does seem like a problem." That was as much as she could give me. She put an ATF agent on speakerphone, who after another pause said only that he'd check into any ongoing investigation of The Armory, but that if there were such an investigation, he wouldn't be able to tell me. The ATF later called back to say they'd located The Armory in Virginia Beach, and that it was a fully licensed, legitimate operation. This, despite the fact that I'd explained again and again that it existed only within a marsh of online encryption, with the explicit mission of illegally selling illegal guns, illegally. I explained how a storefront in Virginia was sort of the opposite of The Armory, but it wasn't much good — the ATF said it'd have to dig around itself again and get back to me. It hasn't.
The Armory shouldn't scare you, really. There are plenty of ways for a crook to buy guns, and there have been since both crooks and guns existed. The site doesn't represent some new influx of bullets into murderous hands, so much as it's a harbinger of things to come — and a klaxon for what's already here. The Armory is a tiny community, but the network that hides it is immense and near impossible to dismantle. We should find solace knowing that there are tools like TOR to keep our emails away from, say, the prying eyes of an oppressive regime. But this tool is powerful far beyond privacy. If even a single gun is shipped to a single person, we're living in a society in which things that kill people can be moved around the world with zero accountability. And then there might be the guy whose dream of a heavily armed third world coup d'état is more than just an experiment.