Blackwater’s founder talks guns, tactics, logistics, and politics
It’s hard to find a person with a neutral opinion of Erik Prince. To some, he’s the epitome of the hard-charging capitalist, finding solutions to problems where the big government failed miserably. To others, he’s a war profiteer, singlehandedly responsible for the deaths of 17 civilians in Nisour Square in Iraq, and whose company was supposedly banned from doing business in that country because of it. It wasn’t, but hey, why let facts get in the way of the narrative? Somewhere between the characters of Hank Rearden and Mephistopheles lies the real Erik Prince, and in order to divine which end of that spectrum someone falls, it’s usually a good idea to observe what they do, rather than rely on what they say.
We first encountered Prince at SHOT Show in January 2019, when he was signing copies of his autobiography. A 30-ish double amputee ambled up on prosthetic legs, shook Prince’s hand, and for the next five minutes, the two of them cracked jokes, bullsh*tted, and reminisced, while Prince’s staff glanced nervously at their watches, anxious about missing the next appointment. If anyone had reason to resent the globe-trotting venture capitalist, the man who had given his legs while a Blackwater contractor would be a good candidate. Instead, he quietly said, “Best job I ever had,” as the two parted company.
Growing up in the Midwest, Prince managed to escape the fate of many sons born to self-made millionaires. In our experience, such scions often mature into men devoid of purpose or responsibility, lacking challenge and content to live off their trust fund. In Prince’s case, he left home to join the SEALs, the start of a career that’d revolve around military operations in both the public and private sectors for the next 27 years, and result in the creation of a company synonymous with the private sector’s involvement in America’s Middle Eastern wars.
Following the sale of Blackwater in 2009, Prince moved his operations to the Gulf States and minimized his visibility in the U.S. media. Recently, he’s been back in the news, publicly espousing a strategy for Afghanistan, which relies heavily on a small contractor force to bring an end to the conflict. According to Reuters, he’s also been pitching the idea of a force comprising 5,000 private military contractors (PMC) to overthrow the Maduro regime in Venezuela, which reportedly has failed to gain traction in the Trump administration. We sat down with him to talk guns, geopolitics, and PMCs.
RECOIL: What was your first introduction to firearms?
Erik Prince: My dad’s dad died when he was 13 during the Great Depression, so he worked his ass off to support the family and was never much of an outdoorsman. I grew up in suburban Michigan and learned to trap muskrats and raccoons as a kid, so you’d see me at 5 a.m. in December out pedaling my bike in the snow, carrying a baseball bat because I didn’t have a gun yet, but eventually, I moved up to a pellet gun. The first real firearm I shot was due to my dad having a boat down in Florida during the cocaine wars of the ’80s — the traffickers would grab a boat and murder the occupants, so my dad bought a Mini14 and an 870, and I kinda adopted those. The next gun I bought was at an auction; it was a Ruger 10/22 covered in the Budweiser logo, and I shot the hell out of that thing and have passed it on to my son.
RECOIL: Do you have any notable guns in the collection now that you’d never part with?
EP: I have a 1901 Naval landing gun, which went around the world with Teddy Roosevelt. The cool thing is that it was a gift from the armorers at Blackwater; they found it in derelict condition and with unbelievable love and painstaking detail, they took that thing apart — every spring, every pin, every piece of metal was restored and made that thing fire again, and they presented it to me. I’m very nostalgic about that gun.
RECOIL: How and where do you spend your time these days?
EP: (Laughing) I work and fly too much. I enjoyed building and running Blackwater and really enjoyed employing thousands of highly motivated, hard-charging people. Standing around at the SHOT Show, it was extremely satisfying to have hundreds of guys say, ‘Hey, thanks, Erik. That was the best job I ever had.’ And so I’m running hard to do that again. Unfortunately, that means I’m gone too much, but I enjoy coming home to Middleburg, Virginia, where my wife runs a great farm, but I spend some time in the Middle East, in Africa, and in Hong Kong.
RECOIL: What’s Erik Prince been doing since the sale of Blackwater?
EP: I moved to the UAE because of piracy off the coast of Somalia. At the time there were 80 to 90 ships a year being hijacked and the UAE government wanted to do something about that, so I gave some ideas as to build a police unit, which effectively ended piracy and did it for a cost of less than the pirates were taking in ransom per year. It was kind of a passion project, and it showed how cheaply and effectively the private sector can do things if allowed to innovate. I compare that to the U.S. Navy, the EU navies that were dispersed all over the Indian Ocean — if you have a problem in your yard, the smart homeowner doesn’t chase bugs all around the yard with a spray can, rather they find the nest, and that’s what we did.
RECOIL: And since then?
EP: Since then, I started a private equity fund, I’ve invested in some mining and energy upstream geoscience activities, and I’ve been involved in some more aviation and transportation work in Africa and the Middle East. I’ve been very public about what the United States should do in Afghanistan and a few other of the nagging problems where people continue to suffer because no one can seem to put the fire out.
RECOIL: The role of the U.S. military should be to win wars by killing people and breaking their stuff. How does the private contractor fit into that?
EP: The U.S. military is designed to win a conventional war, but the problem is when you take a conventional unit and re-task it from a linear battlefield, re-tasking everything from your air defense guy, your chemical weapons specialist, to your artilleryman to now fight an insurgency where the enemy is all around you or nowhere, we have a real struggle dealing with that. I remember a former Special Operations commander describe it this way, ‘In [Special Forces (SF)] units, you equip the man — the guy is the weapon system. In a conventional unit, optimized for that linear battlespace, fighting a nation-state — in that case, you man the equipment.’ What does the Army say? Artillery is the king of battle, so you man the artillery, the tanks, the rockets because that’s what does the large-scale killing on the battlefield. All that firepower doesn’t really apply to fight guys on motorbikes wearing flip-flops, and that’s where the United States has struggled this past 17 years. Right after 9/11, we had around 100 CIA and SF guys working in Afghanistan in an unconventional manner, and they smashed the hell out of the Taliban in a matter of weeks. Then, when the conventional army rolled in, we largely replicated the Soviet battle plan.
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