Something I haven’t witnessed for many a year – children playing with toy soldiers! I’ve seen a few older children, 13/14+ playing skirmish and war-games with them, and I’ve seen plenty more adults doing the same, but I haven’t seen young children playing with soldiers as toys for an absolute age.
I think back to when I was a boy and the fun I used to have playing with little plastic soldiers, declaring war on anyone who would play with me. I can see how this simplest of things went on to influence my life – my love for all things military, especially planes, and the joy I got from playing these games put me on the track to join the Air Force, and eventually to write this blog.
I do wonder if modern day children are missing out, but then I suppose they are still playing with soldiers, they just happen to be made up of thousands of little pixels!
Anyway, before I go on about my memories – here’s a very brief history…
Toy soldiers have been around for a long time, and I mean a long time – since the days of the Egyptian Pharaohs. But it took until the 18th Century before they became mass-produced as military figures. Even then they were still only produced in relatively small amounts, in tin or lead, and usually hand painted. This made them expensive and something only really for the more privileged child or the collector. Those who couldn’t afford the likes of tin or lead soldiers often resorted to hand-making little wooden figures for their children.
They became cheaper when, in the 1890’s, toy company William Britain started mass producing soldiers using a ‘hollow casting’ method, even so, they still remained out of reach for the majority of the population.
Eventually, the development of plastic meant that soldiers could be mass-produced at a reasonable cost, and in America they were in production as early as the 1930’s.
1946 saw the first toy soldiers produced in Britain, by that now familiar name, Airfix. As they became readily available, children everywhere wanted them, and many a battle for the toy-box fort was recreated in living rooms across the nation.
In 1966, with the use of lead being banned from toy production, most toy companies focused solely on producing plastic soldiers, and this produced a boom, with numerous companies providing a wide and varied range of figures.
The 90’s once again saw the emergence of metal soldiers, this time lead free and often pre-painted, both for the toy market and the collector (the collector versions were painted to a higher ‘connoisseur’ standard).
Originally, toy soldiers were most commonly found in the 1:32 scale (roughly 2.25inches, or 54mm), and old lead ones in this scale are highly sort after by collectors. When it came to playing war-games though, especially ones on a grand scale, they were impractical – unless you had a very large playing area!
I’ve been trying to find out when the smaller, 24-28mm, scale soldiers were first produced, but have yet to come up with a definitive answer. They were certainly around in the 50’s, and their production was aimed at war-gamers. The scale allowed the players to field larger armies, and from there, replay major battles from a variety of periods.
There is also another scale that is popular with war-gamers, and that’s the 10mm scale. This enables large-scale battles to take place in a relatively small area, and has developed quite a cult following.
Looking at the toy soldier scene now, it’s probably never been in better health, at least for the collector, wargamer, and painter, though maybe not for the 5 year old! There are countless companies producing both metal and plastic soldiers, spanning from the ancient Romans, through medieval times, and the two World Wars, right up to modern day. They also provide everything a person could want to complete their army – Cavalry and chariots, Canon’s, jeeps, and tanks… if you want it, you can probably get it!
H.G Wells’ book, Little Wars (published in 1913), depicts him playing such war-games with the 1:32 figures, only the floor space he was using would probably have compared to the living space of three or four average families combined! The ideas he puts forward – launching projectiles from a small toy gun to knock over the soldiers – was something that was certainly still around in my day – which leads us nicely into…
I can’t recall exactly how old I was, around 8 I guess, but I do remember the fun I used to have. I would plod around to my friends house armed with a tub of soldiers from a variety of periods (all 2inch and it made no matter to us if the knight was battling away with a bazooka armed American!), and Robert would waiting my arrival having gathered together his forces.
We would both get busy setting our ‘men’ up around our respective halves of the room, taking into account the best places for cover, as well as having enough room to launch a successful attack. Soldiers would peer out from around chair legs, be hidden from the enemy by a hill of Beano annuals, or crawling under the edge of ‘Bean Bag’ mountain – anything and everything was used to full advantage.
We would randomly determine who was to go first, and then battle would commence.
Our arsenal included a variety of then modern weaponry – Marbles, matchsticks, and these things that I seem to remember were called ‘Whizzers’!
Marbles were limited to a certain number per-side, per-turn. You chose which soldier was going to fire, get as close to him as possible, and roll a marble from there towards the enemy. Hopefully you would get a ‘hit’ and knock one of the enemy soldiers over, or maybe even two!
Each of us had a few matchstick launching weapons, usually artillery pieces or tanks. Robert was lucky, he had an aircraft, which he could use every turn to overfly my forces and fire a match at his unsuspecting target – it was a Phantom II I think, and thankfully, it was remarkably inaccurate! These weapons were great, as they could fire from the rear over your own troops, so they were difficult for the enemy to take out (they required two hits on them to knock them out – that is if I remember rightly). The down side was the fact that they weren’t always powerful enough to knock a soldier over, and it caused some consternation to see a well aimed shot bounce of the helmet of some unsuspecting Medieval knight and not wipe him out!
The ‘Whizzers’, if that’s what they were actually called, were something I believe we got free in breakfast cereal packets. They were a small plastic disc, about 4-5cm in diameter, and had a small slot in the edge where the ‘launcher’ fitted. The launcher was a small, flexible piece of plastic. You placed the edge of the launcher into the slot of the disc, bent it back and let go. The disc went whizzing off in the general direction you had it aimed, and hopefully it would take out a few of the enemy soldiers – great fun – or possible mother’s best vase – not so fun!
In between goes you’d each get the chance to move some men around, and battle would then re-commence – last man standing won the fight.
All this was great fun, and on warm summer days we would venture out into the garden to do battle. This presented different challenges – A greater range to fire across, more obstacles to hide men behind, and of course, there was always the chance of stepping on some well hidden sniper crawling through the grass – how the long summer days used to fly by.
Things suddenly changed though. Robert was presented with two boxes of 24mm soldiers – Ancient Britains, and Romans. They quickly became his pride and joy, hence he didn’t want to be launching marbles, matchsticks, and whizzers at them, so we came up with some very simple rules for killing each other using dice, but it was never as much fun.
A few years later I was given a shoebox full of Napoleonic soldiers. I can’t recall where they came from, but I’d hazard a guess that my Uncle gave them to me. There was quite a variety of yellow plastic men in that there box – cavalry, artillery, and infantry, both French and British, it was a small boy’s dream come true!
At this point I’d decided to try and find some decent rules to use, and ventured down to the local library. Here I came across book by Donald Featherstone – Battles with Model Soldiers an introduction to wargaming. That was it – I was hooked. I think I had that book out on loan for over a year, constantly renewing! It covered all things relating to tabletop wargaming, and delved into all the differing periods, but it was the Napoleonic era that I was really interested in. It contained basic rules, which I copied out and tailored for my own needs. I then proceeded to declare war upon myself, and many a happy day passed in battle.
Again, I used books as hills, all covered up by my Subbuteo pitch, and my biggest enemy became the dog, who would decide that the only place to lie down was in the middle of no-mans-land!
It was around this time I saw the film Callan, starring Edward Woodwood as an assassin working for the Special Intelligence Service. The climax of the film sees Callan playing a wargame against his target, and what a set-up it was too. I think it may have been a reproduction of the Battle of Waterloo, and the scenery alone was amazing, and all those lovely painted soldiers made my eyes light up! After seeing this, all I ever wanted was to own my own similar set-up – sadly this is still to materialise!
From the battles against myself on the living room floor, I then moved on to greater things – battles against a friend. I was in a model shop when I came across some locally printed wargame rules – only these were for WWII soldiers. I showed them to Darren (the subject of my previous, ‘November Geekiness’ post) and coerced him into liking them too!
Then began our hunt for soldiers, and we put many a mile into our legs as we scoured all the local shops for some. Strangely we couldn’t find any anywhere, and only after many days of searching, and travelling further afield, did we eventually find some, and gathered a mixed bag together, mostly American and, surprisingly, Russian soldiers. This didn’t really deter us, and off they went to war against each other. The books and Subbuteo pitch made another comeback, only this time we played on Darren’s dining table, probably to the consternation of his parents!
I seem to remember playing four or five times before things began to wane – we were getting older and music, record collecting in the main, started to take over our interests. But it is something I kept coming back to later in life, and I really dream of owning a large Napoleonic, or maybe even an Ancient army, complete with a full tabletop set-up – oh, and someone to share it all with!
Going right back to my opening statement, about not seeing children playing with toy soldiers anymore, I think that is now reflected in other aspects of wargaming, and I’m talking mostly about historical wargaming here. The majority of people in the hobby are probably of a similar age to myself or older, the ones who grew up knowing what fun could be had playing with toy soldiers. Skirmish games, especially the fantasy and sci-fi ones around today, draw the youngsters in like a moth to a candle; they are quick to play and have rules that can be explained in minutes rather than hours. And I certainly appreciate their appeal – I play a few myself.
But historical wargaming is something more than just a game. There is so much to learn and not just from playing, there’s the research that goes into it all beforehand – from strategy and tactics, through uniforms and weapons, to understanding why these battles took place, and how their result affected the world around them. It really is a fascinating!
As I say, it shaped my life, and eventually led me to join the military – I wonder where I would be now if I’d never got to play with those toy soldiers – makes you think, doesn’t it?
I found this to be a fascinating read – The World of Model Soldiers by John Tunstill – It was originally intended for publication, but sadly never made it, but is well worth taking a look at if you’re interested in the history of model soldiers.