The Guns of An Emporer

Royal Tiger Imports brings Ethiopia’s Arsenal to America

Story by Frank Jardim and Photos by Ulie Wiegand

Royal Tiger Imports CEO Uli Wiegand among typical stacks of rifles he recently acquired in Ethiopia, in this case Mausers dating from World War I to the immediate postwar era.
If you don’t know by now, Royal Tiger Imports is offering for sale some of the rarest late 19th century to mid-20th century military rifles and carbines to ever make their way to the collector market. What makes them really significant is not so much the types of weapons available, as it is their remarkable and undisputable provenance to Ethiopia. One of the least studied and most important military powers in Africa, Ethiopia’s history was shaped by the arms its people bore.
Military history buffs have likely, at least, heard of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 that forced Emperor Haile Selassie into exile until British forces finally liberated the country in 1941. If that’s all you know, the good news is there’s a lot more Ethiopian military history for you to discover that will be eye-opening.
Ethiopia, called Abyssinia back then, is an ancient nation, more a peer of the Roman Empire than of Egypt. At the close of the 19th century, it had the largest and best-equipped army in Africa. Its emperors, and one empress, knew they could not hold back the wave of European colonization with swords and spears. at was going to take diplomacy and guns – lots and lots of guns. For over 40 years, Ethiopia artfully played the European powers off each other, while they armed up, organized and trained a formidably large army equipped with a diverse array of metallic- cartridge repeating rifles from various nations spanning the black powder and smokeless powder eras. eir rifles were generally obsolete by European standards, but they made up in numbers what they lacked in comparative technical sophistication.

You might be surprised to know that, unlike nearly all other African nations, Ethiopia was never successfully conquered and colonized by any European power. e Italians did defeat Emperor Selassie’s army in 1935, but it should be noted that the Ethiopian forces were limited to infantry with some horse cavalry, while the Italians brought modern airplanes, tanks and poison gas to the battlefield. It was hardly a fair fight, and the League of Nations, of which Ethiopia and Italy were both members, did not act seriously to stop the invasion. However, despite Italy’s apparent victory, and their installation of a colonial infrastructure to effect their rule in this geographically huge country about the combined size of the four corners states, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, they quickly discovered a fly in the ointment.
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The Ethiopians were not willing to be ruled by colonial masters. Tens of thousands of them fought on in the name of their exiled emperor, waging an aggressive rebellion that denied Italy control of the majority of the country. The rebels even tried to assassinate the top Italian general in charge, and very nearly succeeded.

Comparatively rare, and really nice, British No. 5 Enfield “jungle carbines” that may have come from Britain as military aid after World War II.
WHENEVER I READ military history, I always get curious about the existing artifacts associated with the subject. When people go to museums and see the real uniforms, equipment and firearms used in a historic time or place, it’s natural for them to feel a direct connection with that past time through those artifacts. They were actually there, and somehow they survived to the present for us to see and sometimes even touch. Up until now, you could never find anything Ethiopian to connect you to the First or Second Italo-Ethiopian Wars, Ethiopia’s UN participation in the Korean War, or even the 1971 communist overthrow of the emperor or the civil war that continued until the communists were finally defeated in 1991.
I am amazed at what Royal Tiger Imports has accomplished. It really seemed impossibly unlikely in this day and age – maybe in 1965, but not today. Anyone who recalls the ads in the American Rifleman magazine for surplus military guns through the 1960s will tell you it was a golden age for collectors.
The western nations, by then largely recovered from the devastation of World War II, were modernizing their armies and had a lot of obsolete weapons on hand. Plenty of them, by sale or gift, made their way into the armies of what were once called Third World nations. Ethiopia was one of them. Those countries needed arms to fight growing communist insurgencies armed with surplus weapons from the Soviet Union, “Red” China (as we called it then), and the satellite states they seeded around the world.
Though Cold War national interests sucked up a lot of surplus, American collectors got their share from the arsenals of the major world powers, thanks to the entrepreneurial efforts of domestic firearms importers large and small. The variety of guns available was astonishing, and naturally, the importers sought those in the best condition that they could obtain.
Sadly, the thing about surplus is, once it’s gone, it’s gone. As collectors, we haven’t had much reason to get our hopes up lately. The last huge caches of World War II-era guns came out of the former Communist Bloc countries in the 1990s when the Iron Curtain fell. That’s when Inter Ordnance Inc. came on the scene and made a name for themselves as importers. Among other things, I.O. Inc. bought Mosin Nagant rifles and captured Kar98 Mausers from Russia, WWI-era M95 Mannlicher straight-pull carbines from Bulgaria, and thousands of demilled parts kits from German MG-34, MG-42 and MP40 machine guns, and brought them home to the American collector market. Company CEO Uli Wiegand was in his element hunting down and orchestrating these deals.

A collector of historic military guns since he was 12 years old, vintage arms were, and remain, his passion. When the surplus dried up and the Clinton-era U.S. State Department choked off imports, I.O. Inc. turned to manufacturing for a while. But, in recent years, Wiegand has returned to his first love in the firearms industry, the real adventure of traveling the world searching out historic military guns to bring home to America for collectors. He formed a new company, Royal Tiger Imports, just for this purpose. I had a chance to talk with him about RTI’s most exciting success to date that brought him to Africa to acquire the best of the surplus arms held in storage by the Ethiopian government.

Comparatively rare, and really nice, British No. 5 Enfield “jungle carbines” that may have come from Britain as military aid after World War II.
American Shooting Journal How on earth does something like this come together?
Uli Wiegand It’s not easy, but I love it. From the time I was first told about a huge cache of historic guns in Ethiopia to the day I got the first guns through customs was about eight years. I’m approached by people with stories of treasures often enough that I was doubtful this Ethiopian cache even existed. Most of the stories are just that. I made some inquiries and this story was true. At that point, it was a massive research project to discover the right contacts and administrative channels on the African side to open the door to negotiate a deal. It was an agonizingly slow process. What takes five minutes here, takes five days there. They work on African time. It took about five years to get it all figured out, and then another three to make it happen. It turned out they had around 230,000 small arms, of which I bought about half, knowing that I’d probably only find 50,000 to 60,000 worth importing as complete firearms. The majority just wouldn’t be worth it, though they might be worthwhile to break down for parts.
ASJ What did you find?
UW It was really amazing. The oldest guns were flintlock muzzleloaders from the mid-1800s, and the most recent were German G3 Assault rifles. Basically, just about every firearm used by the Ethiopian Army for a hundred years was there. Not all of them ever made of course, but examples of just about all the types used. For me, the early, pre- WWI bolt-actions were the most fascinating. I found guns I’d never held before. Russian Berdan II 10.75x58mm rifles, for example. That was the predecessor of the M1891 Mosin Nagant rifle. Russia under the czar, like Ethiopia, was an Orthodox Christian country. The backstory on how the Berdans got to Ethiopia is the Russians knew the Italians had colonial designs on Ethiopia and did not want to see an Orthodox nation fall under the control of a Roman Catholic nation. In the 1880s and 1890s, the Russians provided something like 30,000 Berdan II rifles to Emperor Menelik II.

France was a direct rival of Italy in Africa and provided the Ethiopians with 1866 Chaspot rifles converted to metallic cartridges in the Gras pattern, as well as various newer, 1880s-vintage Gras rifles and carbines.
The Germans were rivals of the Italians too, so it’s no surprise that the Ethiopians got a lot of Model 1888 Commission rifles and carbines. I found all these models with hand-carved markings in Amharic script indicating the guns were the property of Emperor Menelik II or his wife, Empress Taytu. That was how they marked their military guns, just like in America we marked our M16A1 rifles with “Property of U.S. Govt.” The soldiers who worked with us at the base where the guns were stored did the translating for us There were also M1888, M1890 and M1895 Austrian Mannlicher rifles. The M95 was the main rifle used by Austria-Hungary in World War I and they are quite rare today in their unaltered, 8x50mm-caliber, full-length rifle configuration. I even found some sniper models with the scope bases and bayonets for them. I mention all these guns first because all of them were very likely to have been in service at the time of the First Italo-Ethiopian War. They may have even been in the hands of Menelik II’s troops at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. By the way, the Ethiopian soldiers we met were very proud of their historic military successes. They know that battle like Americans know the Battle of Yorktown.
[Sidenote: The Battle of Adwa was a humiliating defeat for the Italian Army and brought about the end of Italy’s first attempt to conquer Ethiopia. This battle is a stand-out in military history because it was so rare for Africa to meaningfully resist, much less defeat, the military power of the colonizing Europeans.]

A curious goat came inside the arms storage warehouse to have a look around and visit with the “stranger.” The soldiers kept the goats as livestock for milk and they had the run of the base.
This highly engraved and inlaid Carcano carbine was one of only 200 specially made at Beretta for the personal guard of the Duke of Aosta, Italian viceroy in Ethiopia. It was one of the most amazing finds.
ASJ There was a fairly large number of Italian Carcano rifles, from what I’ve seen on your website.
UW We found Carcanos ranging from pre-World War I M1891 rifles through just about all the carbine variants in use up through World War II. Since the Italian Army didn’t use the Carcano in the First Italo-Ethiopian War, I think those were left by the Italians after they were driven out by the British in 1941. We found quite a few of the World War I upgraded Italian Vetterli rifles (the Model 1870/87/15) that must have come over during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War too. I think so because some of them had the round “AOI” stamp in the buttstock, indicating they were for issue to local forces supporting the Italian colonial government. AOI stood for “Italian East Africa.” I found that mark on other obsolete guns too, like the French Gras, which says to me that the Italians probably didn’t want the native forces to have anything too good that they might turn against them.

The most amazing Carcano I found was one of the 200 carbines specially made at Beretta, engraved and gold inlaid, for use by the personal guard of the last governor of Italian East Africa, General Prince Amedeo di Savoia, Duke of Aosta. I’ve read he had his men use them for ceremonies to impress natives.
ASJ It’s hard to believe anything that beautiful could have escaped plunder over the past 80 years.
UW Well, it was completely disguised under a lot of dirt. The guns were only recently moved to covered storage at the army logistics base. My understanding is that prior to that, they were under the sky, maybe with a tarp covering them at best. They were all covered in a thick layer of dirt and dust, and one dusty carbine looks pretty much like the next. There were six storage warehouses in all to go through. Five of them were just corrugated metal sheeting attached to locally cut log framing. Not 2x4s or any other type of finished lumber, but actual whole tree trunks – and not very thick ones either. The floors were dirt and there was bird poop all over the place. All the guns would need to be cleaned before shipping and I had to hire a team of 10 guys locally to clean and repair rifles for shipment.

Some of the small cache of pre-World War I French Lebels discovered. These arms may have been captured in wars with neighboring French colonials.
ASJ What was the military base like?
UW Primitive by our standards. It was fenced and guarded, though I felt sympathy for the soldiers in the rickety-looking guard tower. We nicknamed it “The Leaning Tower of Nazareth.” When we opened up the warehouse doors, the goats living on the base got curious and came over to look at the guns too. The soldiers had the goats for milk. There was no electricity in the warehouses, so I had to buy a full-size, towed diesel generator and lights so we could work in there. We did a lot of inspection by flashlight, and my hat-brim light turned out to be very useful. It took four trips to Africa to go through all the guns. We couldn’t stay at the logistics base because there were really no accommodations you would want to stay in there or the tiny village nearby. The soldiers, like the villagers, lived in little sheet metal or block buildings. On the base they’d converted a 20-foot shipping container into a little dwelling and that was as nice as it got for them. This is not a rich country, but the people seemed happier than we are. They like Americans too.

We stayed at a big hotel in the capital city, Addis Ababa, where the international airport is. Even in the city there were animals everywhere. They don’t eat pork over there so you see these ferocious-looking warthogs hanging around but nobody seems concerned about them. We saw camels just walking along the highway, horses too, and outside the city there were monkeys and baboons in the trees. We weren’t on safari but we saw a lot of wildlife every day. It was an hour and a half drive, each way, to and from the base. Our transport was an old Toyota Land Cruiser with broken A/C. At times, the road up the mountain to the base was really nothing more than rain-rutted trail.

Closeup of Emperor Haile Selassie’s personal, engraved and inlaid custom Mauser hunting rifle discovered among the stacks of arms.
ASJ Did you actually inspect every gun?
UW I had to … to separate the junk from the gems; but I wasn’t by myself. I brought a team of five arms specialists with me from the U.S. and Europe, and I had some assistance from the soldiers on base too. The team would cull through the stacks and I’d inspect what they pulled. Since I bought 130,000 guns, I inspected at least that many. My hands became so painful and swollen from handling guns, working actions and such, I needed to see a doctor to get cortisone shots in my fingers to keep working. The pain didn’t take away much of the fun of the treasure hunt. What a thrill it was to make a great discovery.

ASJ Anything else like the Duke of Aosta Carcano Carbine?
UW I believe I found one of Emperor Haile Selassie’s personal hunting rifles. It’s a custom Mauser, engraved and bearing his name.

Over 600 Rifles Stacked
ASJ What was that doing in there? He’s a national hero, is he not?
UW He is, and that’s a good question. In addition to the military arms in storage, there were lots of civilian guns with paper tags attached to them indicating who they were taken from and how much ammunition was taken. I learned these were privately owned guns that were confiscated by the communist Derg when they overthrew the emperor in 1974. They disarmed the population so they couldn’t resist them. Eventually the people drove the communists out, but I bet they could have done it before 1991 had they been armed at the start.

ASJ Were there many guns from the communist times?
UW I’m getting ahead of myself, but the answer is yes. I found and imported M91/30 Mosin Nagants and Bulgarian refurbished Mannlicher M95 carbines. The funny thing was I immediately recognized the Bulgarian carbines as the exact same type I’d imported 30 years ago.

They had that commie, orangey-colored varnish on the stock. I also imported the Czech VZ 52 rifles. Those guns were once nearly impossible to find on the American collector market. There were also SKS, PPs 43, VZ 24 and 26 and PPSH-43 submachine guns, and a ton of RPD and DP machine guns, along with Goryunovs. In my next trip, I have to go through all the eastern bloc guns to separate the importable ones from the non-importable.

Some of the incredibly rare, pre-World War I Italian Villar Perosa submachine guns.
ASJ What did I skip?
UW We found lots of military Mausers going back to World War I Gewehr 98s with their roller coaster rear sights. There were extremely rare, 1930s-vintage FN-made export Mausers with Ethiopia’s Lion of Judah crest, and previously unknown Czech export Mausers that are essentially German Kar98s except for the markings. The Germans had the BRNO factory set up to make Mausers during the war. The Czechs later put that equipment to good use making guns for Ethiopian rearmament in 1945. Yugoslavia also supplied Mausers to Ethiopia in the 1950s and 1960s and I found M24/47s, as well as Yugoslavian remarked German Kar98s. There was also an abundance of British Enfield, No. 1 Mk. III rifles, No. 4 rifles from British, Canadian and American makers, and finally, rare No. 5 Jungle carbines. These guns were obtained by Ethiopia after World War II and many were in beautiful shape. My friend Ian McCollum (from Forgotten Weapons on pointed out that when the British left Ethiopia to continue the fighting in Europe, they took all the war material with them. Like the Italians, they also had colonial designs on Ethiopia and didn’t want to leave the people armed and capable of resistance. I’m not sure of the exact circumstances that the Ethiopians obtained the No. 4 rifles, but they had a lot of them, and some were clearly refurbished immediately after World War II. Many of these were in very nice shape under the dust coating. Like they had just been turned in from service.

One of the privately owned guns confiscated by the communist regime when they disarmed the citizens after their 1974 coup.
ASJ I think the guns that made the biggest buzz with American collectors were the M1 Carbines you found. What’s the story with those guns?
UW The United States provided the Ethiopian Army with small arms after World War II. The M1 Carbines I found were part of that. What’s gotten the collectors so excited is these guns appear to have never been rebuilt by foreign arsenals and virtually all makers and variations were represented, from very early production with flip rear-sight, no bayonet lug and “I” cut stock, to a few immediate post-World War II U.S. arsenal rebuilds. Condition runs the gamut from well-worn to clearly unissued, though they all show the dents and scratches and dings of 75 years of storage. Ethiopian troops used them in the Korean War. They were a United Nations member, and Emperor Haile Selassie sent a small combat force to support UN operations against the communist invasion of South Korea. Some of these guns may have been there. I hope to get more carbines in, but my request for importation of the second batch was denied and we might be looking at the last of the “as-issued” World War II carbines we’re ever going to see.

ASJ Were there many machine guns in the mix that didn’t originate in the communist bloc nations?
UW Quite a few, and I’ll be bringing some in as parts kits, particularly the World War II MG-42s and post-war MG-3s. There were also British FAL rifles and German G-3 rifles that I’ll demilitarize for parts. For me, the greatest machine gun finds were the first-generation World War I German MP-18 and Italian OVP 1915 Villar Parosa submachine guns. Those are incredibly rare. There weren’t many – no more than 20 of each. I can’t stomach the thought of cutting these rare guns up for importation to America, so they will be sold to European collectors.

ASJ In many respects, this Ethiopian cache seems like a time capsule.
UW I agree. Only some of the earliest guns, a few of the Gras and Berdan II models, show evidence of modification from the standard to meet the needs of the Ethiopians. They shortened the stocks and barrels on some of the Berdan guns. Everything after that appears to be unaltered. It’s fascinating. Overall, I wish the condition was better on some of the oldest guns, but for pieces ranging from 140 to 75 years old, I’m glad as many were as nice as they were. If these guns had been in one of the tropical African countries, they’d be rust-dust and rotted wood. Fortunately for us, Ethiopia has a dry climate. Some of the guns were in remarkably nice condition and we offer the customer the option to upgrade with hand selection. While most of the World War II and later era guns can be had with no metal pitting or stock cracks, in general, most of the oldest, pre-World War I guns were missing most or all original finish. Many had some surface pitting on the metal and cracks or other damage to the stocks. However, I don’t think most of these guns are being collected as examples- of-type. With the exception of the M1 carbines, the people who are buying them are interested in the history they were a part of. More than a century ago, when some armorer carved that little crown and the Amharic letters to signify that Gewehr 88 was the property of Emperor Menelik II, it ceased to be just an example of type. If you had an 1873 Springfield Carbine used at the Battle of Little Big Horn, the history is more important to you than a little surface pitting. Everyone should read the specific condition descriptions for each type of historic firearm we offer, as they vary by type, and feel free to give us a call with specific questions. If something doesn’t match our description, customers can call us to make arrangements for return or exchange.
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