"As long as there is man, there will be violence." "As long as there is violence, there will be war." "And as long as there is war... we will always have a job."
Private Military Contractors (PMC) are mercenaries, soldiers and other combatants employed by a private company or other organization and fighting on behalf of clients. While such soldiers of fortune are regarded with wariness in most settings, they're generally considered distinct from criminal enforcers, mafia hit men, and the like.
In the real world, they are usually ex-soldiers with decent to slightly-above-average equipment from the United States — the largest company, and largest number of companies, are American. Other common national backgrounds are former Soviet Republics or South Africa. Of course, there are plenty of less professional and less affluent outfits out there, some of which will hire just about anyone who'll take them up on their offer. It's a great summer job! In fiction, though, they tend to get all the latest and most expensive vehicles and support equipment as well, and are often recruited and trained by the company itself. Fictional mercenary groups often hire unique individuals or groups of various special types of fighters: ninja, roninsamurai, dishonored knights, mages, shapeshifters, and left-over warriors of defeated organizations, nations, or races that need to make ends meet. Some PMCs are just a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits.
These characters can be both heroic and villainous; in a conflict, they usually are allied with the richest party's faction, but sometimes have a strict honor code that prevents them from switching sides mid-battle. If they get too enthusiastic about their job, they may become Blood Knights and try to start a War for Fun and Profit. On the other hand, they do have to deal with the risk of their employers double-crossing them when the job's done. And if their clients run out of money before the fighting's done, things will get ugly in short order in one or more of many ways.
In recent years, there's come to be a distinction between a "mercenary company" and "corporate mercenaries", especially in Western (American) television and movies. The traditional mercenary who hires himself out (or himself and a dozen of his best buddies) is seen as somewhat honest, with at least a personal code of honor of some kind (even if it's just "do the job, get paid"); determined to accomplish the mission for which he has been paid and takes his reputation very seriously; and is scrappy yet skilled. This character is usually played moderately sympathetic, or at least as an antihero. They will typically have some attention given to their, quite possibly colorful, personalities.
In stark contrast, the "corporate mercenary" is usually just a Red Shirt of some kind, and the "character" takes the form of the PMC corporation itself. Corporate mercs are usually depicted as being up to no good, or are the hand-puppets of some shadowy organization which is itself up to no good. They are portrayed — when anything more than Red Shirts — as amoral, ethically-challenged, and professional but hardly ever inclined to argue with Corporate Headquarters. If former military, many will have been dishonorably discharged. Unless the writer's bent on defying What Measure Is a Mook?, they are almost never the "good guys" in recent years. Their parent company usually has a name based loosely or thematically on "Blackwater" in a No Celebrities Were HarmedExpy of that real-life PMC — examples include "Blackriver", "Red River", "Blackthorne", and "Starkwood".
Note that although this trope description uses the terms "PMC" and "mercenaries" interchangeably, in Real Life the distinction between them is extremely Serious Business. This is because the international treaties that establish The Laws And Customs Of War explicitly forbid the usage of mercenaries in warfare. While traditional mercenaries might be tolerated in practice, legally they are neither lawful combatants, nor non-combatants, and thus aren't eligible for protection and respectful treatment under, for example, the Geneva conventions. When captured, they are treated as a criminal gang at best, and at worst as complete outlaws.
Private military contractors are the way that some peopletry to weasel out of this ban on mercenaries. Even though the largest of these companies employ materiel that is ordinarily associated purely with the military - armor, helicopters, light warships — on paper, they are just your garden variety mall guards writ large, and they are not authorized to wage war on their own. Officially, these units may be employed only in some duties not involving actively engaging the enemy (though they can do this if forced), such as escorting convoys and guarding some civilian structures. In practice this mandate could be, and often is interpreted very broadly — "While you're on patrol, don't go and get into a fight with the insurgents at yonder hill three klicks to the southwest, but if they fire first, or if you see anything indicating a possible threat, then by all means, do whatever you must." Note that not all PMCs necessarily are thinly disguised mercenaries; a private military contractor is any non-government organization contracted by the military, which may include as mundane things as a contract to make and serve food for an army in peacetime.
A PMC can provide a villainous Evil Army if one doesn't actually want to insult any real country's Armed Forces. If they're too much of an army, then they are an N.G.O. Superpower.
Mercenaries are the basic, land-based version of this trope; at sea and in space, they're privateers operating under letters of marque.
A sub-trope of Hired Guns, and can overlap somewhat with the Professional Killer. If employed by a Mega Corp, then Corporate Warfare can be expected. Commonly a favorite industry of a Proud Warrior Race.
The Extra Order mercs from the first arc of Black Lagoon, who are described as war-junkies and take things to Psycho for Hire levels at the Yellow Flag before Revy and the Lagoon Company take them down. They were probably a Shout Out to the real-world Executive Outcomes, below.
The Lagoon Company itself might also qualify as mercenaries of the modern-day pirate persuasion.
Lagoon Company functions more as a black market goods and personnel courier. Balalaika's personal branch of the Russian mob is more of a straight example, however.
After most of the members of the eponymous Hellsing organization are killed, its leader Integra hires the mercenary group called the "Wild Geese", (see under "Film", below) led by Pip Bernadette, as a replacement Redshirt Army.
The PMC Trust in Gundam 00, a massive coalition of dozens of PMC groups, and powerful enough to have their own dedicated nation. The first season of 00 features two episodes to the Gundams tearing the place apart.
Terminal of Gundam SEED Destiny, which grew out of the original Three Ships Alliance. They are an underground armed organization that answers solely to Lacus Clyne, and are not affiliated with either the Earth or ZAFT forces.
The League Militaire (late UC era). They're quite specifically not the Federation military, they just rose up due to the Federation being too apathetic to oppose Zanscare. It's later revealed that one of their primary sponsors is Anaheim Electronics, a major player in the area of Mobile Suit and weapons design, which explains where they get all their advanced equipment.
In the series Area 88, the fighter pilots at the eponymous airbase mix elements of this trope and the Foreign Legion. At one point, they fight the Wolf Pack, who play it straight.
In Mahou Sensei Negima!, Mana Tatsumiya explained that she was once a part of one of these named Kanbanurae. She traveled to so many battlefields across the far corners of the globe that main lead Negi questioned whether she could actually be 15 years of age. Keep in mind, at the time she was 7-10. Also, Nagi Springfield's group the Ala Rubra used this as a front for their work in the Muggle world.
The organization Mithril in Full Metal Panic is one of these, and a large proportion of the show's characters, including one of the two main characters, are members.
After the formation of the United Federation of Nations in Code Geass, the Black Knights become this to them, with Zero as its CEO.
Berserk has mercenaries as its primary characters, with its lead character Guts having been trained as one from childhood. The Golden Age arc of the manga, which the anime covers, follows a mercenary company called the Band of the Hawk that Guts was a part of, and in particular the events that would lead to its idealistic leader, Griffith, undergoing a nasty Face Heel Turn and becoming Guts's number one enemy.
The Ninja villages of Naruto are a fantasy version of this. The villages are answerable to their nation's daimyo due to their role in national security, but they can contract missions with employers of other nationalities as well. Though what their lower-level personnel does can be tasks as mundane as finding cats or doing yard work, the higher-ranked missions often include bodyguards for important political figures, working in place of regular military, or assassination (not that we see them doing the last two parts very much).
The Grass Country Arc was about gathering info from The Mole as a prelude to assassinating Orochimaru, and in the course of which a plot to assassinate Sasuke was uncovered. The following arc revolved around a mission to assassinate Akatsuki duo Hidan and Kakuzu before they captured Naruto. We do see stuff like that, though admittedly these are all security matters and not hired mercenary missions.
Prior to the founding of the villages, shinobi clans more closely filled this role.
This is also what Akatsuki did to raise funds when they weren't pursuing their own agenda. Not that we ever got to see it.
Essentially what Hunters in Hunter × Hunter are. The difference is, the Hunters Guild is a looser association. Hunters take their own jobs, but the Guild provides contacts and perks.
Arqon of Vipers Creed is a PMC tasked with the elimination of "Mech Bugs", stray war machines from a war that ended eight years prior to the story, and still attack cities at random. It is a notable example since the main characters are a pilot and his operator working for Arqon, plus their companions and the overall staff make up most of the cast. Basically the anime is about the PMC.
Silver Sable from Marvel Comics is the ruler of her own micronation who employs her mercenary group Wild Pack as a way to support her nation. She also takes many jobs on her own and has employed superheroes such as Spider Man from time to time.
The ex-IRA mercs in Sin City are just soldiers of fortune that have the weaponry of a small army.
It's hinted that the Colonel might use his Guild as one of these considering he recruits snipers and even black helicopters.
The company "Red River" in The Boys is closely aligned with Vaught-American, a corrupt company behind the existence of superpowered individuals in VA's quest for control over the US government. They prove to be very competent and ruthless, most notably when they wipe out the Captain Ersatz of the X-Men with frightening ease.
In 2012's Vertigo graphic novel, Shooters, the private military contractor is much closer to real life; the PMC is shown guarding supply trains, and bodyguarding diplomats, including the guy responsible for the protagonist's friendly fire incident.
In An Entry With A Bang!, several down-on-their-luck merc groups like the Buron Cavalry were dragooned into joining Vorax's expedition to Clancy-Earth and are Heel Face Turned. At one point, Buron Cav head Major Staedele gets into a disagreement with Blackwater's CEO after noting how C-Earther PMCs are not up to snuff for the full-scale independent open warfare demanded of Battletech merc groups.
Naruto: Soldiers of Fortune is a Naruto fan fic where ninjas working for villages are replaced with mercenaries that work for private military contractors. Still no guns though.
Forward features a mercenary firm called "Skyhawk Intervention" which directs a number of other mercenary companies across the 'Verse. One of the stories features a mercenary group called TalonCompany who are the main villains for that "episode".
In the Forever Knight Wars, a series of fanfic round-robins in which factions focused around the different characters have a free-for-all, the Mercs are a notable presence. They will take jobs from anyone in any faction; payment is negotiable and extremely variable, but they are fond of chocolate.
The Dogs Of War (1981), though the film removes much of the political points made by Forsyth about the links between big business and war.
The Wild Geese (1978) depicts the recruitment of a mercenary force to free an imprisoned African leader, only for the force to be abandoned when their sponsors strike a deal with the current rulers of the country.
Lord Of War, so many, from South America and Little Odessa to Africa and Asia.
Outpost has the eponymous installation investigated by a group of mercenaries firmly on the anti-hero sign of things. Their resumes are a Royal Marine (the commander), a US Marine (his second), a former IRA guerilla who joined the Paras, a UN Peacekeeper, a Foreign Legionnaire, a Russian Alpha Group soldier, and a yugoslavian man whose unit is never named.
The Big Bad in National Treasure: The Book of Secrets is the head of a PMC, justifying why his Mooks are always armed and following all his orders.
The Expendables are about a group of mercenaries who take any job they can get. It's a handy excuse for putting together some of the most legendary action heroes together and make every one a badass. There is even some nods towards the way they operate, as they find out their most recent "employer" is actually CIA looking to pass off some Dirty Business onto their shoulders.
In Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman is the vengeful ghost of one of the Hessian mercenaries hired by Great Britain during the American Revolution.
Hammers Slammers, from the eponymous David Drake novels. While Drake mostly uses them to tell stories based on historical events, their mercenary nature plays an important role in their characterization. In the series background, war has become so very expensive that mercenaries are common, and usually the most competent soldiers. The Slammers interact with other mercenary companies and are sometimes shortchanged by their employers. At other times, they play both sides off against each other.
The Dendarii Mercenaries from Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga appear to be entirely this; in actuality they're Barrayaran-employed irregulars (and still not averse to taking lucrative contracts that don't conflict with that). While several galactic powers, and a few individuals, have figured out the truth, it's still not common knowledge. Even among the Dendarii themselves.
This cover works because there are plenty of bona-fide mercenary companies around. The books include Randall's Rangers (before Cavilo took charge) and the Oseran Mercenaries (before Milesdazzled them into working for him). Other companies are referenced as existing at a variety of scales.
In the CoDominium series, the Falkenberg's Legions books have a ton of mercenaries, ranging from independent military companies (such as the eponymous Mercenary Legion) to planetary armies sold out to pay for their expenses.
The Dorsai, basically a Planet of Hats of the greatest mercenaries and military minds in the colonized universe.
The Friendlies. Although from a religious Planet of Hats, the Friendlies live on poor resource worlds. To survive they are hired out as mercenaries. Unlike the Dorsai though, the Friendlies suck at warfare, but their cheap price and numbers make up for it.
World War Z has a self-proclaimed mercenary [he doesn't like the politically correct terms of PMC or Private Contractor] re-counting his experience of the war, which was guarding a mansion full of celebrities hiding out. He eventually leaves because zombies don't attack - instead, desperate civilians do, wrecking the house's defenses. He escapes.
Present but not particularly common in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Most mercenaries are pirates turned privateer for a little legitimacy and extra cash, and they're usually pretty poorly equipped—mercenary fighter squadrons in particular are known for using "Uglies", mashup starfighters cobbled together from different fighters.
Aurodium Sword is basically a PMC (of the real-life "non-mercenary" sort) that provides personal security for VIPs.
There's a mercenary talent tree for the Saga Edition of the Star Wars RPG.
The Red Moons (featured in the short story Blaze of Glory) are a group of mercs who became disgruntled with the New Republic. Feeling that the Republic wasn't doing enough, the Red Moons decided to do something it.
Robert Asprin's Phule's Company are part of the Space Legion: technically a branch of the military, but they're often hired by private groups when they're between assignments, which is most of the time. Interestingly, Regular Army units can also occasionally be hired.
Lord Commander Staffa Kar Therma's Companions in W. Michael Gear's Forbidden Borders series.
In By The Sword, Kerowyn becomes the the leader of the Skybolts, a mercenary company. After Kero gets dragooned by a talking white horse, said Skybolts negotiate a permanent contract with Valdemar rather than lose her.
And before that, Kerowyn's grandmother and her partner sign up with the Sunhawk company in Oathbreakers.
Joel Rosenberg's Metzada series has a planet of Space Jews whose only valuable export is mercenary services; which sucks, because their ancestors were exiled to an unterraformed planet, and they must constantly import food and air, which is rather pricey. So they'll take any work they can get, even if they utterly hate their clients.
The tie-in novels based on the original Mutant Chronicles games had "free-lancers" who performed everything from bounty hunting to corporate espionage. The armies of the Mega Corps are technically PMCs, but since corporations are the closest thing to governments left in that universe, they function more like national armies... with Executive Meddling in the form of company agents who go along on missions to enforce corporate protocol and the bottom line.
The Vatta's War series also by the Elizabeth Moon deals with these heavily, particularly the Mackensee Military Assistance Corporation whom Kylara Vatta, The Captain, both hires and is hired by. The MMAC is depicted as being very strict in who they will do business with, with their contracts spelling out certain actions their employers might take where they will consider their contract terminated on the spot and withdraw immediately, in order to avoid any association with this trope's negative trappings.
In Simon R. Green's Deathstalker books, the Families employ hordes of these. A few of the main characters are ex-mercenaries, as well (and one of them is only helping overthrow the evil empire for the loot that will be in it for her if they succeed).
Soldiers Of Barrabas, or SOBS (a 1980's Gold Eagle action series by Jack Hild) is ostensibly lead by a mercenary who's 'soft' on his native country, and so willingly seeks contracts that advance its interests. In truth they work directly for the US government as a deniable dirty tricks team.
The "Free Companies" mentioned in Consider Phlebas by Ian M. Banks. The Space Pirates the protagonist hooks up with like to call themselves one, but don't quite make the grade.
Market Forces by Richard K Morgan is set in a world where Mega Corps are in virtual control of everything, and the world's military and intelligence forces, from the SAS to the CIA, have been privatized. Another example of this trope is the Wedge in Broken Angels, who are an elite company of interstellar mercenaries.
In Carrera's Legions, the hero loses his family in a 9/11 analogue and forms a PMC to avenge them. Said PMC grows to be an NGO superpower, and then to the de facto & de jure military of the nation it's based in, Balboa.
Countdown has M Day, Inc, founded by a former US Army officer who was forced out of the service around the end of the US involvement in Afghanistan.
In the Dale Brown novel Rogue Forces, Patrick McLanahan is now official head of the Scion PMC, with ex-POTUS Kevin Martindale as the "silent owner".
In The Dresden Files novel Changes, the vampiric Red Court makes heavy use of an unidentified South American PMC to guard the Mayan temple where they're having their happy blood sacrifice holiday.
There's also Kincaid, who is a lone gunman for hire who spends most of his time protecting the Archive but is willing to do side jobs if the pay is right. The Red Court and White Court make use of a number of mortal mercenaries, as does John Marcone's outfit when they need extra firepower. In fact, Odin's troops, particularly his Valkyries, are for sale as hired muscle to people in the know.
Terran soldiers in Star Guard are described as mercenaries, but in fact they're conscripted by Earth's puppet government on the orders of the extraterrestrial super-government Central Control and hired out to various planetary wars.
John Dalmas' The Regiment was made up of the T'swa, troops who didn't really care whether they won or lost — what was important was "playing" war skillfully. Since they considered reincarnation a proven fact and thus also didn't care if they died, T'swa were very effective soldiers. They were not motivated by money: advanced psychological placement assigned those children best suited for military training, just as it did for all other facets of T'swa society.
In P.C. Hodgell's Chronicles of the Kencyrath, the Kencyr people live in a resource-poor area but are exceedingly good at fighting; they make ends meet by hiring their troops out as mercenaries. Judging by examples in the series, about a quarter of the Kencyr peoples are mercenaries out on contract at any one time. Their rigid honor code makes them sometimes difficult employees, but their skill keeps them hired.
The White Company by Arthur Conan Doyle involves an English "free company", as they used to be called, being raised in England and Calais to travel to Spain and help Pedro the Cruel re-gain his throne.
Numerous mercenary companies exist in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, from the savage Bloody Mummers to the elite Golden Company. They are regarded as skilled fighters whose experience is offset by their notorious tendency to switch sides or run away when events turn against them (though the Golden Company deliberately averts this trope). Individual sellswords exist as well, and in times of strife can do quite well, such as Tyrion Lannister's hireling Bronn, who goes from being so low birth he has no surname to a knighthood, getting a lady wife and stepson, and becoming a minor lord in the Riverlands.
Elayne in the Wheel of Time has to turn to mercenaries to help secure her claim to the Lion Throne. They are not played with the remotest hint of sympathy.
On the other hand, the (second founding) Band of the Red Hand, while loosely associated with the Dragon Reborn, has spent the majority of its existence effectively taking mercenary work so they could keep paying the soldiers' wages while their leader was absent. They're played sympathetically, contain a reasonable fraction of the Mauve Shirt characters of the series, and besides a bit of lovable roguery, are among the most professional military organizations in the world - and damn proud of it!
"Bellarion The Fortunate" by Rafael Sabatini (1926) is set in 15th century Italy, when pretty much all war was conducted through hired mercenaries.
Xenophon's Anabasis is about his own experiences as a mercenary in Persia and his company's long and dangerous journey home after their employer died. Despite being written in the 4th century BC, this work served as the inspiration for The Warriors.
Bob Lee Swagger took on rogue members of Graywolf Security in I,Sniper. When he later faces down the Big Bad, his Graywolf bodyguards don't engage him, as company rules prohibit them from attacking law enforcement personnel (which they suspect Bob to be).
Joe Pike from Robert Crais's books used to be a relatively ethical mercenary. Some less than ethical ones appear too.
Korr Military Solutions, Inc. is one of the PMCs leading the charge against the Daemon and they are definitely unsympathetic.
The Dirigent Mercenary Corps series follows an officer in one of these. The planet Dirigent's hat is providing mercenaries and exporting weapons to settled space at large.
They also repeatedly butt heads with the much larger (and decidedly malevolent) PMC Cerberus Systems.
Better To Beg Forgiveness follows a team of Combat Pragmatists from a PMC called Ripple Creek who're contracted to protect a President Personable, and their attempts to keep him safe after a coup is launched.
"Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy."
—CHAPTER XII How Many Kinds Of Soldiery There Are, And Concerning Mercenaries
In Harry Turtledove's Videssos Cycle the Empire of Videssos hires mercenaries from neighboring countries to fight the Yezda. Each country specializes in supplying different types of troops.
In Mercedes Lackey's Vows & Honor and the sequel By the Sword the heroines serve in mercenary companies. In that world, there is a well-organized Mercenaries' Guild that regulates the profession.
The villains of the pilot episode of Knight Rider 2008 were from the really shamelessly transparent "Blackriver" corporation, an organization of evil US military contractors.
It is not exactly clear how stealing the control codes for a US military satellite and selling them on the black market to enemies of the US, when the FBI knows from the start that you're the ones behind it, plays into this business model. You would think that sort of thing would be bad for business.
The Unit featured a company called "Blackthorne", which tried to recruit one of the members.
The seventh season of 24 (as well as the TV-movie prequel 24: Redemption) has the Starkwood corporation, who, among other things, give weapons to genocidal African rebels in exchange for permission to use innocent villagers for weapons testing and plan attacks on American soil to get Senate investigations off their backs.
During the first season of Jericho, the PMC Ravenwood tries to loot the town of Jericho (and successfully raids the nearby towns of Rogue River and New Bern). In season 2, it is learned that they are a subsidiary of the Big Bad, Jennings & Rall.
In Occupation, a drama set during the Iraq War, an ex-British army soldier teams up with an American to form a PMC, which recruits another character.
Bodie, Lewis Collins' character in The Professionals, is a former mercenary. This provides the basis for the plot in a couple of episodes.
An episode of The Philanthropist had a corrupt group of mercenaries deliberately sabotaging peace efforts in Kosovo in order to sell arms. Subverted in that the entire PMC was not corrupt and fired the corrupt ones when presented with evidence. Of course, the company could've just been covering its own ass by shifting blame to subordinates.
Highlander had a plot with an immortal using his private army to invade the house of a friend of Tessa's after the guy's son raped the immortal's (adopted) daughter.
The main antagonist in the fourth season of Damages is the owner of a mercenary firm called High Star, yet another Blackwater Brand X.
One Villain of the Week on Burn Notice was Ryder Stahl, the owner of a company called Security Associates. Mike's cover ID was of a Kenyan diamond dealer who needed a village ... removed.
On Leverage's "The Homecoming Job" the Villain of the Week was a PMC Blackwater Expy that had shot up a group of US Army reservists. Their client was one of the wounded soldiers who was unable to pay for his medical expenses. While it was initially assumed that the reason for the shooting was simply that the mercenaries panicked, it was later found that the company was actually stealing money from Iraq and using it to bribe a Congressman in order to continue to be given no bid contracts.
Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner by Warren Zevon. Roland is a Norwegian mercenary hired to fight in the Congo Crisis of the 1960s. He is betrayed by a fellow mercenary and goes seeking revenge, despite being dead. It's them implied he goes on to become a spirit of conflict, following the major ideological wars across the world and in some cases inciting them ("Patty Hearst/heard the burst/of Roland's Thompson gun/and bought it").
This is a classic Plot Device in tabletop games in general. Whether they're sword-swinging fantasy adventurers, Wild West bounty hunters or futuristic mercenaries, a time-honored means of getting Player Characters involved in a plot is to have someone hire them to accomplish some task or another.
Battletech is full of mercenary armies, such as the Gray Death Legion or Wolf's Dragoons. Many of the high-grade mercenary armies are a match for or even superior to the best armies of the various governments, and some can even get titles and holdings in the neo-feudal system of the 31st century. The Gray Death Legion, for example, was one of the few Inner Sphere units to come out with wins in their initial clashes with the Clans, and for their service to House Steiner were given the planet of Glengarry; Grayson Carlyle himself was given the title of Baron.
BattleTech also has both honorable mercs (the Gray Death Legion, Wolf's Dragoons, The Kell Hounds) and dishonorable ones (the Crater Cobras, Little Richard's Panzer Brigade, the Waco Rangers). Many Pirate groups are failed mercenary units.
This made a certain amount of sense in the setting back when even owning a rare and semi-irreplaceable Humongous Mecha made you a military force all by yourself. As the time-line has advanced and 'mech manufacture has become common it doesn't really make sense for governments to rely on mercenary units the way they are depicted to. Then again playing a mercenary is really awesome.
It makes somewhat more sense when you consider that by that later time many of the larger big name companies that can really influence events control entire planets or even regions of space making them quasi-political entities in their own right.
Fading Suns has the Muster guild, which offers many kinds of muscle for hire, but began as, and is still mostly made of, mercenaries.
Pretty much the driving force behind Shadowrun. Only instead of actual PMCs it's a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits thrown together by circumstance to "run the shadows". Of course there's nothing stopping the DM from making a PMC for the players to join. True PMCs do exist in the game's backstory—the most prominent are MET 2000, Tsunami, 10,000 Daggers and Combat Inc.
In Shadowrun, there are PMCs everywhere. The most common regular police are Lone Star and Knight Errant, which are private contractor companies who employ high firepower in their protection of the urban sprawls.
Warhammer 40000 features an entire fan-made codex of Kroot Mercenaries that can be fielded as a separate army all their own, or as a component force of other armies. Though most often they are used by the Tau to compensate for their Crippling Overspecialization.
Warhammer Fantasy has a similar army in the Dogs of War. In the storyline, these mostly hail from Tilea, an analogue of Renaissance Italy and the Condottieri.
Plus the Empire's Free Companies, supposedly mercenary divisions but basically equivalent to militia. Odd since the regular Empire infantry dress like real-life Landsknecht mercenaries, and are closer in organization as well.
Plus the Regiments of Renown, particularly notable mercenary regiments you can enhance your otherwise by-the-book army with. They often have one or two additional special rules which make them stand out of the crowd.
Since many Traveller characters have a military background, they often find themselves doing mercenary work.
Hobgoblins, are generally more of a militaristic society than one composed of PMCs, but that just makes them more valuable when they do hire their units out ot others.
The Eberron setting has several groups, such as the troops of House Deneith and House Tharashk's ogre/troll contacts in Droaam. For non-House versions, the Red Gauntlet regiment and the Manifest Legion (mercenary summoners) are also up for contracts.
Speaking of Droaam, the setting's Gnolls have decided that they're going to position themselves on every side of every conflict under the reasoning that that way, they'll grow in power and influence no matter who wins. They refuse to fight each other though.
Forgotten Realms got a special sourcebook "Gold and Glory" for most known of these, along with inherent adventure hooks. With understanding that small adventuring bands impossible to list due to great numbers and overall turnover rate also do a lot of the small-scale work in this field, and sometimes happen to hire, be hired by or grow into larger mercenary groups.
The New World of Darkness has Blackfire, a PMC that's well-connected and clued in to the nature of the supernatural. Whether they're upstanding or bastards depends entirely on the Storyteller, though the sample adventure that comes with them implies that they're not entirely on the up-and-up — mainly because one of the three heads of the company got possessed by a fragment of an ancient spirit that desperately wants out of its current prison.
Eclipse Phase features Direct Action, a hypercorp formed from the remnants of old earth's militaries, they act as the Planetary Consortium's primary enforcers. Since there are few traditional nation-states remaining there are hundreds of smaller PMCs including the Ultimates, a group of Social DarwinistNietzsche Wannabes who hire themselves out as mercs while waiting for an opportunity to seize control of the system.
MAG focuses on an all-out war between three mega-PMCs (each of which have replaced government armies - they've been downgraded to little more than a glorified National Guard).
Three of the five featured PMCs in Metal Gear Solid 4; the first two encountered have their members portrayed as mercenaries in that they're performing offensive operations, while those of the third are identically dressed and equipped like the first (since the second was in South America) but are performing security... and executing curfew violators in an effort to root out "resistance members". All three are operating for the governments of the countries where they're found, although in the South American location the rebels have hired a local PMC of their own, and the militia have local PMCs assisting in the Middle East. Of note is Werewolf, which seems to field only unmanned units for recon and security.
The PMCs are also used as a callback to the original Metal Gear, where Big Boss built Outer Heaven as a refuge where disillusioned and disavowed soldiers could go, effectively becoming mercenaries, or a sort-of proto-PMC. His goal of creating a world where soldiers are always needed is essentially fulfilled by the War Economy (which is probably one of the reasons why he renounces his original beliefs at the end, it's clearly not a good thing), and the parent company that owns the five major PMCs is actually named "Outer Heaven".
The origins of Outer Heaven are explored in Peace Walker, starting out as the Militaires Sans Frontieres. Unlike most examples, however, the Militaires Sans Frontieres were portrayed in a positive light. Another Private Military Contractor in the game is the Peace Sentinels, but they are portrayed as genuine bad guys. It's strongly implied that the Peace Sentinels are rogue CIA operators.
A similar theme seems to exist in Metal Gear Rising Revengeance. Raiden is a member of Maverick Security Consulting, Inc., which similar to the Militaires Sans Frontieres, are overall portrayed in a more positive light. Likewise, Desperado Enforcement LLC, similar to the Peace Sentinels, are portrayed as genuine bad guys. Raiden later learns that many of the Desperado mooks are Punch Clock Villains; it's only their heads, the Winds of Destruction, who are outright villainous.
In the first game, the player is a member of the PMC Executive Operations (ExOps, see Real Life Examples for why this name was chosen). In the sequel, the player presumably still works for ExOps, though after the tutorial level and the refusal of the Corrupt Corporate Executive to sign the damn check, he goes into business for himself to bring him down, while Fiona and the rest of the support staff tag along for opportunities for fun, profit, and lulz.
Also, there's the massive oil super-conglomerate known as Universal Petroleum, which contracts out a "low-rent" PMC known as Tactical Solutions to do security work. Of course, in this case, "security work" includes deploying a battalion of tanks, a virtual air wing of helicopters, and over a thousand foot infantry, complete with military-grade air support. The scary part is that some real-life PMCs (i.e. Blackwater and Executive Outcomes) could match what UP's mercenaries do in-game.
A small army of primate PMCs are hired by Carmelita Fox in the third Sly Cooper game.
One of the villains in the upcoming Sly 4, El Jefe, is the leader of Private Army that specializes in taking over countries for the highest bidder.
The final mission of the game is an assault on the very same (corrupt) PMC headquarters that the player characters have been working for most of the game, and at the end they decide to found their own PMC that won't plot attacks on American forces in order to build a case for privatizing the U.S. military.
In the sequel, The 40th Day, most of the 40th Day initiative are stated to be various mercenaries working for PMCs, with enough collective strength to take over and occupy the city of Shanghai.
In Red Alert 3: Uprising it turns out the war-weary Allies are now relying heavily on the PMC/weapons developer Futuretech, who were able to hire large numbers of veteran disenfranchised soldiers following the end of the war, to provide a great deal of their security.
In Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. you play as a former Air Force working for a PMC fighting an alliance of anti-American South American states known as Las Trinidad who defects back to the Air Force once the PMC betrays the U.S. because Las Trinidad made them a better offer. To be fair, the immediate flip-flopping of the PMC for the better offer is mentioned as being against the Reykjavik Accords that legitimized PMCs in the first place, and at the end of the game, in addition to repealing the Accords, the US carries out a private and probably illegal operation to assassinate the CEO of the PMC after an international manhunt fails to find him.
In Act Of War: Direct Action, powerful mercenaries can be purchased for a limited time with "insurance" money, if the mercenaries survive half of the money is given back to you, if not you don't see a return on your deposit. The mercenaries are tiered as "Official" (Heavy Infantry and Medics), "Unofficial" (AA-Guns and Tanks) and "Illegal" (Fighter Jets and Low Yield Nukes). They also play a minor role in the storyline. When Richter goes rogue and flees the USA, he ends up having to rely on mercenaries for a few missions. The missions contain some debating regarding the morality of using mercenaries during which it is mentioned that a good chunk of the mercenaries were trained by the US even though Richter remains ethically opposed to their use.
Among other things, the Umbrella Corporation's "Security" in Resident Evil seems to have the military strength of a small country. Specifically, the UBCS (Umbrella Biohazard Countermeasure Service) is explicitly staffed with mercenaries.
Mantel in Haze is described as a Private Military Company, though in the game itself it's acting on its own and hasn't been hired. It's a particularly ludicrous example of this trope, since it's stated to have all but replaced all national armed forces. And Mantel is not just a PMC, but a super-corporation that has, apparently, taken over most of North America.
Jagged Alliance has you hiring mercenaries from the Association of International Mercenaries (A.I.M.) to complete your missions. A.I.M. seems to work as more of a mercenary union/guild rather than a PMC, as members are hired on an individual basis and bring just themselves plus their starting equipment if you chose to pay for it, leaving you to provide any other equipment, further training and transportation within the area of operations.
Jagged Alliance 2 would introduce the More Economic Recruiting Center (M.E.R.C.) as an alternate provider with its own membership. The locals who can be recruited for dirt-cheap salaries (with stats to match) and the rebels (who are seconded to your force without pay) are not mercenaries, however.
That said A.I.M has very strict standards, they won't even think about hiring or lending mercs to people with criminal backgrounds or Child Soldiers. The events of the first two games in the series seemed to have lent them a strong degree of international legitimacy as well, so they don't seem to be willing to hire their mercenaries out to morally unscrupulous individuals. When the legendary ex-A.I.M. merc Mike shows up partway through Jagged Alliance 2, the other A.I.M. mercs respond to him by calling him a "traitor" for working with someone as out-and-out evil as Deidrianna.
In-game, many of the antagonists you end up fighting are also mercenaries. Lucas' red-shirt wearing goons in the first game are all mercenaries he's hired to wrest control of the fallow trees, and Deidrianna's troops in the third are an even mixture of fanatically loyal soldiers, conscripts, and mercenaries. As the game progresses, Deidrianna begins to rely more and more on professional mercenaries to make up for the fact that many of her people are rebelling and her poorly-trained and poorly-armed conscripts have been regularly slaughtered by your own mercs.
Perfect Dark has an excessively large security division of the dataDyne hyper-corporation, which is contracted to an alien race (albeit somewhat unwillingly), as well as the protagonists workplace, Carrington Institute. The sequel and extended universe adds the contractable security sectors of another two hypercorps; Zentek and Core-Mantis Omniglobal.
C.E.L.L. from Crysis 2 are portrayed as both incompetent and unprofessional compared to the Marine forces. They fail to effectively fight the Alien Invasion (granted, they were originally hired to quell riots while the marines fought the aliens), attempt to kill the protagonist simply because of a grudge their commander has on the guy he thinks he is, and blatantly refuse to follow orders to stand down from their corporate CEO, just to get their vengeance on the protagonist. In the third game, they control the world's energy supply with technology looted from the aliens.
In Far Cry 2, the main enemies of the game are members of two PMCs, augmenting the local forces of each faction. The APR hired American PMC MacGrudder-Powell, while the UFLL hired Bastion UK.
Browser-based nation sim Cyber Nations uses this as the source of soldiers; they don't come from your population, which tends to be convenient at times.
In Final Fantasy VIII, most of the playable characters, including the hero Squall Leonhart, are part of the PMC organization called SeeD. It was originally founded for more noble purposes, but turned to hiring out its soldiers in order to bring in enough capital to keep operating, and soon lost track of its intended purpose.
In Final Fantasy VII, Cloud is ostensibly a mercenary for the first hour or so. We find out later in the story that this is meant to be taken almost literally.
In F.E.A.R., the Armacham Technology Corporation intends to market its Replica soldiers as a PMC. Armacham also keeps a small army of heavily-armed mercenaries as part of both their Security division and their Black Operations division; the former protects Armacham assets while the latter eliminates threats and cleans up evidence of their extensive misdeeds.
Senator David Hoyle gets his own in F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate to help him do a little ATC shoplifting. They call themselves the Nightcrawlers. Apparently, they're a free-standing army.
In Alien vs. Predator 2, the General Rykov's Iron Bears are mercenaries being employed by the science team on LV 1201, involved in morally dubious operations. After the arrival of the Colonial Marines, they attempt to strand them deep within the Alien hive while Rykov and the Predator stalk each other.
The Armored Core series seems to have moved away from an official PMC as of Armored Core 4, making the player more of a private mercenary for hire. There's still an organization of some sort backing the player, but it's only alluded to, never really discussed in detail.
Collared is pretty much just the Lynx's hangout, as its members are already sold to specific corporations or are freelancers. The organization is pretty much tradition by this point.
Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando featured the "Thugs-4-Less" organization. One of their slogans pretty much says it all: "You bring the cash, we'll bring the thrash."
Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War has beleaguered Ustio hire mercenaries to bolster their forces. You, Cipher, are one of them. Admittedly, though, no organizations are outright named. In Joint Assault, player character Antares is a newcomer to Martinez Security, another one of these.
The Scarface squadron from the first two games seems to be one of these, as well.
In Team Fortress 2 the world is secretly controlled by two holding companies. Each company has a branch dedicated to this trope, and both of them employ the nine playable classes to try to destroy the other company.
In Air Rivals/Ace Online, players start as mercenaries under FreeSKA and only decide which of the two sides to join at level 11.
General Shepherd's Shadow Company from Modern Warfare 2 have most of the trappings of PMCs, though the SOCOM emblems they wear make their true nature somewhat difficult to discern. A PMC, just called "PMC", is a multiplayer faction for Modern Warfare 3 and is matched up against African Militiamen.
On the other hand, Menendez's troops in Call Of Duty Black Ops 2 are explicitly PMC's. Unlike Shadow Company and many other examples, they are not Americans, but former Cuban special forces operators who went mercenary. Which makes sense in context, really, given both Menendez's hatred of America and his own Latin American heritage.
Although they are clearly Cuban mercs being led by Menendez in the campaign, in the multiplayer they are led by a presumably American CO with a gruff voice, and the soldier chatter is all done with a distinctly Australian accent.
The Mass Effect universe is filled with various mercenary groups, such as the Blue Suns, Eclipse, and Blood Pack. These groups make up a significant portion of the second game's enemies, as it takes place in a region of space outside of Citadel jurisdiction.
Furthermore, each of these companies has their own distinct styles. Eclipse, for example, makes heavy use of asari Vanguards, salarian Engineers, and mechs. The Blue Suns use elite squads of heavily-armed human, turian, and batarian soldiers. Blood Pack use regenerating vorcha and krogan troops, and a hefty amount of flamethrowers.
It is worth noting that in addition to standard PMC jobs, the majority of the mercenary organizations in the setting also run large-scale criminal enterprises as well. As a result, a lot of the mercenary groups are also effectively heavily-armed, militarized versions of The Mafia. In one neighborhood this is made explicit when a recording notes the Blue Suns regularly collected protection money.
Finally, Mass Effect 3 DLC Citadel also had the CAT 6: a group of mercenaries named after Category 6: Alliance's term for discharges due to steroid abuse and similar transgressions. The ones you fight are surprisingly powerful too, outclassing their comparable Cerberus equivalents, even though they lack the unique reverse-engineered Reaper technology implants and other bonuses. This discrepancy is never elaborated upon.
Zaeed Massani in 2 is a mercenary, the co-founder of the Blue Suns, and one of the toughest characters in your party.
Splinter Cell had a few: Armed Guardian Services (ARGUS), Shetland's Displace International, and Conviction added the Black Arrow company. There's also a more heroic example in Paladin Nine Security, the PMC run by Sam's friend Victor Coste, who assists Sam throughout Conviction
Fire Emblem has a number of mercenaries within the games.
Notable are the Greil Mercenaries in Fire Emblem Tellius, of which main character Ike is a member. They fall under the "mercenary company" heading, working for the side they think is right even when working for the other side would mean greater profits.
Magoichi Saika's group (their Japanese name Saika-shu literally means "Saika group") in the Samurai Warriors games. Most prominently shown in the second game, where in Magoichi's story the "Saika Mercenaries" first fight alongside Oda Nobunaga at Anegawa the behest of Magoichi's friend, then against Nobunaga at the next battle. Once he's on the other end of their guns, Nobunaga does not take this well.
WarCraft 3: Mercs can be hired from camps, and mercenary heroes, in the expansion, from tavenrs. Mercs can be quite useful in story missions as when you aren't given the means to make more of your troops but are still picking up money they can fill in gaps in your forces.
Bladestorm The Hundred Years War has the player as an up-and-coming mercenary working for the English and the French in the eponymous war. Although there's no official group or organization monitoring the mercenaries, there are a lot of them working in sort of a loose-knit coalition, such that even facing off against a mercenary on the battlefield doesn't mean you can't be friends. Kicking the snot out of the English or French King, on the other hand...
In Civilization III, the Carthaginians and Dutch have Numidian and Swiss mercenaries as their respective special units.
The Total War series often has mercenaries available for purchase. Particularly, in Medieval I and II and Rome. Justified given the time period and subject.
In Assassins Creed II, Ezio can hire squads of condottieri troops to assist him in battle. They can't parkour around on rooftops, but they are very tough and carry heavy weapons, making them superior to most of the city guard. In addition, they allow Ezio to make flanking moves and attack enemy troops from behind, which are one-hit-kills.
The majority of the enemies in both Assassin's Creed II and Brotherhood are also condotierri working for the Borgia family. There's also a distinct visual difference between the Borgia mercenaries and the condotierri working for Mario Auditore and Bartolomeo (and, by extension, the Assassins).
In Assassins Creed III, the player can run into Hessians, who are considered elite mooks. The player themselves is stated to be a privateer working for the Colonials during the naval missions.
In Strike Commander, PMCs have become quite powerful, and operate their own armoured and airborne vehicles. They work for different nations to augment armies and carry out percision strikes. The player belongs to one such unit that specializes in F-16 fighter jets. The game takes you all around the world as your squad assists in other countries' wars. Stocking inventory for your squad means buying Sidewinder missiles and laser-guided bombs, among other things.
In Red Faction, once the player character and his comrades have killed most of the Ultor security guards, Ultor brings in "mercenaries" for backup. It's mostly an excuse for the Mooks to get tougher, and to start dropping cooler guns when you kill them.
In Batman Arkham City, new Mayor Quincy Sharp has bought out part of Gotham and walled it off to serve as a replacement prison/nuthouse for Blackgate and Arkham Asylum after the events of the previous game. It is policed by a PMC called "Tyger", which is a perfect example of the villainous corporate mercenaries subtype. They are ordered to kill anyone who tries to escape, commit Police Brutality (though it's hard to feel sorry for, say, Black Mask) and at the same time let the inmates free to do whatever they want to each others (at one point deciding not to investigate a murder where the victim had his face cut off while he was still alive), are willing to kidnap innocents in plain sight and in front of journalists and throw them in Arkham City without any sort of trial, and in the end they partake in the culling of Arkham City, and seem to be really into it. However, it's revealed that the reason why they committed these actions was because they were brainwashed, making it a subversion.
In the campaign on StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty you can hire mercenaries in the Hyperion from Graven Hill, who hangs out in the tavern drinking mai tais. Mercenary units are much tougher than their regular counterparts, can be purchased from the Merc Compound, and are created instantly, but have a limited pool per mission. Examples include everything from Hammer Securities, who are corporate professionals that provide their specially modified Marauder armor and troops to use them, to the Hel's Angels, pirate fighter pilots who do some mercenary work on the side, to the Jackson's Revenge, an old battlecruiser that some say is cursed.
Raynor's Raiders, the player's forces, also do some mercenary work to fund their revolution against Mengsk. Mostly retrieving Xel'naga artifacts for the Moebius Foundation.
There is also a mission where you have to collect enough minerals to hire a merc before the enemy does.
The Veteran Combat Initiative in Alpha Protocol. They can end up as your allies or your enemies — or then one and later the other — depending on your choices.
The Crimson Lance in Borderlands was this to the Atlas Corporation, actively seeking the Eridian technology in Pandora.
South African Vermaak 88 from In Famous 2, by the time the game starts, news reports mention they're the largest and most lucrative private army in the world. Bertrand uses Kuo's conduit gene to turn them into the "Ice men" and intends to use the now insane and superpowered mercenaries to inspire genocide towards conduits by selling them to world leaders as weapons of war.
PMCs are ubiquitous in the year 2027 portrayed in Deus Ex Human Revolution and also play a significant role in the plot. The one that plays the largest role in the game is Belltower Associates, a British PMC that has taken over as the police of Hengsha, a Chinese two-tiered city, and serves as security for Tai Yong Medical, who pretty much own the city as well. Both the leadership of Belltower and TYM are members of the Illuminati, too, and the Spec Ops troops are part of a covert Belltower unit. Amusingly, Belltower is also contracted out to the Australian government to fight in their civil war against separatists who are backed by China, which causes a lit of tension between Belltower's executives and the Chinese government.
Incidentally, while Belltower comes across as an Expy of Blackwater, background material indicates that the company was founded as a result of Blackwater's breakup.
The Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion takes a rather unsubtle swipe at this trope with the Blackwoods Company, mercenaries who are undercutting the legitimate Fighters Guild by taking their jobs for cheaper and then cheating on them for profit. They're also not above using hallucinogens to make the Guild massacre an innocent village.
Peacekeepers International in Call Of Juarez The Cartel, an Expy of Blackwater. They're CEO, Michael Duke is a Corrupt Corporate Executive who started selling high-end firearms to the Mendoza cartel after PI went bankrupt following an incident where they bombed a children's hospital in Iraq.
The Warsworn in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning are a faction of honorable mercenaries that make up a good chunk of the forces fighting against the Tuatha. The Warsworn were originally formed to hunt down the Niskaru, but they were forced to become hired swords to make ends meet.
The eponymous Star Fox team are mercenaries fighting for the Cornerian military. After the credits of Star Fox 64, the team is paid a check for how many enemies they've fragged multiplied by 64.
The games also feature rival mercenary team Star Wolf.
In Dust Five One Four, an upcoming FPS tie-in to EVE Online, the player characters will be immortal clone soldiers turned mercenary. EVE players will be able to hire them to defend or seize planetary assets.
The Murkywater mercenaries, inspired by the real life counterpart Blackwater, show up as enemies in one level in PAYDAY The Heist. They're no more resilient than a SWAT unit, but they have better reaction time and accuracy.
Tagon's Toughs from Schlock Mercenary are one group in a universe full of them. "Pranger's Bangers" are another (much better) group encountered, as well as any number of single, independent antagonists that function more like bounty hunters.
The Majan Hunters of Cry Havoc are just one of many mercenary companies, known in universe as 'dogs of war'. These companies are seemingly used to support small national armies.
The 1st Investment Recovery Battalion from My Life At War are one of a few mercenary companies. They seem to be rather professional mostly used for heavy-duty corporate security.
The CORE in SSDD was a company of mallcops before society collapsed. Now they're a multi-national military force that can conscript troops from member countries and is one of the few things keeping the Collective of Anarchist States from conquering the rest of the world.
Netland`s TOAST Industries contracts out its own internal force group, as well as selling hardware to other PMCs (and the PCs).
In Darwin's Soldiers, Pelvanida guards are explicitly stated to from an unnamed private security company. And they carry some serious firepower.
Ron Stoppable hired these guys in the one episode of Kim Possible where he was filthy rich, for no other reason than so spend money as part of the Aesop. Seriously, they fought the Red Shirts, the guys that Kim takes by herself, and lost...
A well-known example is the private firm Executive Outcomes, which contracted its former South African soldiers to win wars, not fight them. The firm, based in Africa, was responsible for several contracted wars, in which other firms that were owned by EO's parent company gained access to oil fields, diamond mines, and the like. Executive Outcomes folded in 1999, but the majority of its operators and equipment were shuffled around into other private military firms owned by the parent corporation. To add to the irony, while most of EO's members (at least initially) were ex-military of the Apartheid Era South Africa, one of their first clients was the anti-apartheid MPLA government of Angola against which they had fought during the Apartheid. EO was even pitted against their former allies, the UNITA rebels. Money is God indeed.
UK firm Sandline International was another case of a real-life Private Military Company, and had close links with Executive Outcomes. After it shut down, most of the staff went on to form Aegis Defence Services. Check Sandline's (still exisiting) website and check their company profile which reveals some interesting tidbits such as that Sandline will work for. Their involvement in the situation in Sierra Leone, including the coup against Kabbah, was a source of embarrassment to former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook in 1998.
Academi, formerly Xe Services LLC, Blackwater Worldwide, and Blackwater USA. Should be noted that it's their actions, command structure, and actions of their chairman and CEO, Erik Prince (a former Navy SEAL), that separates themselves from more mundane contractors. That, and the mind-boggling extent of both the access to equipment and the variety of businesses that they have. Ironically, though they were perhaps most notorious for their security work (and allegedly fighting alongside coalition military forces in Iraq in the 2004 Battle of Najaf), their chairman/CEO would eventually announce a scaling back of that work (due to the criticisms) in favor of the other services. Blackwater's also interesting in that they're one of the few mercenary companies to have been deployed in America. After Hurricane Katrina, they actually arrived ahead of the National Guard.
Mercenary armies were used during the Congo Crisis and Biafra War, with several mercenaries rising to fame such as Bob Denard, 'Mad Mike' Hoare and Rolf Steiner.
After World War I, lots of discharged and out-of-work German soldiers formed PMCs called Freikorps. They were frequently employed as Hired Guns to put down leftist uprisings in postwar Germany and would later go on to form the core of the Nazi Sturmabteilung (storm troopers), with many high-ranking officers of the Third Reich getting their start as Freikorps commanders.
It is important to note that the Nazi party were not the only ones to hire the Freikorps, and one of the more notable examples of an opposing political movement which took on Freikorps personnel was the Stahlhelm ("Steel Helmets").
The Freikorps don't fit this trope particularly well. They were more like an extremely, EXTREMELY dark take on Eagle Squadron, and most of the units involved were held together by ideology rather than money.
For many of the rank and file members, it was simply that they had no roots in civilian life. They would have been soldiers for most, or all, of their adult lives.
The only true old-school mercenary band perhaps. There were almost certainly individual soldiers fighting in foreign armies under the traditional terms. Furthermore it was still known in faraway places to hire locals as ad-hoc security, notably the Mongol cavalry that guarded US weather stations in the area.
Though in various important ways, this mercenary company was Backed By The Government, including most of its members being serving US servicemembers who were permitted to separate from the US military without suffering any of the usual penalties of leaving the military before your term is up. The means by which they were able to procure a sizable number of for-the-time modern warplanes is noteworthy.
Foreign Legionaires and Gurkhas and so on served in World War II but they were under permanent contract and an organic component of a regular military force.
George Mac Donald Fraser, in Quartered Safe Out Here, tells of a British officer who recruited local tribesmen to harass the Japanese. Similar types were generally known in the partisan war and espionage game as they always have been.
In ancient times, mercenaries were actually more common than nationally affiliated professional soldiers. Even most standing armies of the day (few in number, but with some noteable exceptions like the Roman Legions) were sell-swords to an extent, working more for their salary than for national pride. The mercenaries' level of reliability varies greatly depending on a wide range of factors (mostly pay, morale, origin, and the presence of other armed forces), but they were some of the best soldiers around when they did choose to stand and fight—a fellow that made war his career choice is going to be a lot more experienced than some farm boy conscript that knows more about feeding armies than fighting for one.
Modern standing armies were originally collections of mercenary units under permanent contract to a given ruler (not always mercenaries strictly speaking; most were lawful subjects of said ruler but they served under the same terms). They were usually raised privately by a local noble often from his neighbors (a Proud Warrior Race like Highland Scots had advantages in this regard; a clan just became a regiment and a chief became a colonel). The British army still retains memories of this in its folklore.
In fact much of the modern traditional ranking system was originally commercial in concept.Colonel for instance originally meant "CEO of a regimentum(regiment), that is a mercenary band with a standing royal contract.
For several hundred years, Swiss mercenaries were considered to be the finest soldiers in Europe. They even wore garish outfits so that everyone on the battlefield would know who they were. This is why the Vatican has the Swiss Guard, and why they wear such funny uniforms. Swiss mercenaries mercenary companies would not fight an enemy force that included another Swiss mercenary company, so national loyalty was apparently more important than money in this case.
After the Napoleonic Wars, Switzerland decided enough was enough. Swiss nationals are currently legally banned from serving in the military of a foreign power. This is enforced.
Another famous Renaissance-era group of mercenaries were the German Landsknechts, who were modeled after and considered the primary rivals of Swiss mercenaries. The Landsknechts used a combination of blades, early firearms and artillery. They were also famous for the zweihander, a sword that could be as long as six feet designed for lopping the tips off of long pikes. They did not share the Swiss's scruples about fighting their countrymen.
One common variation known was for a ruler of a small country to simply "rent out" his army to belligerents (much as they have been known in modern times to rent their armies to producers of an Epic Movie when a lot of well-disciplined men were needed for special effects). These were not strictly mercenaries; the soldiers in them tended to be enlisted in the forces of their lawful prince. However someone enlisting would likely know what he was in for. German states were famous for this; their soldiers were such a good buy and their rulers so willing to deal, and they were often times not busy with a war on their own account as major powers were, and so could spare troops.
Most of the "Hessian mercenaries" in The American Revolution were actually this kind of hired gun. The term "Hessian mercenary" is a doubly Non Indicative Name, as although a large number of them were from Hesse, there were also plenty of Germans from elsewhere.
For much of European history, especially in times when Patriotic Fervor was a smaller consideration*
i.e. anytime before Napoleon. During the 19th Century, belief in the eternal moral-spiritual entities called 'Nations' (i.e. 'Nation-alism') gradually took hold en masse at the expense of Christianity
it was not considered dishonorable to fight in a foreign army as long as one does not fight against one's own government. When a petty-noble was left unemployed by that unfortunate mishap other people called "peace" he would often look for work for a foreign ruler. If he was promoted enough he might even change countries and be remembered in history more by the country he fought for then by the country he was born in. Von Steuben was an example of one of these that took American service during the American Revolution but there were other such of varying usefulness. Another famous example would be John Paul Jones. Being a Scotsman (and very much anti-English at that), he is most famous for his service to Russian Empire and United States.
Another good example is Prince Eugene of Savoy who was born in the tiny Italian state of Savoy but spent his life in the service of the Habsburg monarchy.
Taking the examples to their logical conclusion: In the years leading up to the French Revolution, one of the French king's Household Cavalry regiments was known as "Le Royal Suedois" (The Royal Swedish) because all its officers and the bulk of its enlisted men were expatriate Swedes, while the infamous "Royal Allemand" used in the attempt to repress the riots of Paris had its officers and enlisted coming from Germany.
In 19th and early 20th Century America, this was nigh synonymous with the Pinkertons, who weren't above getting their hands dirty so long as they were paid well. Even the US Government turned to their services, at least until the Anti-Pinkerton act in 1893.