Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Toy Soldiers

I found this picture on Pinterest awhile ago and there is something about its composition that keeps me coming back again and again. I think that it is the combination of old toy soldiers (and ones with red coats and kilts at that) and old leather bound books. This is definitely Man Cave material here.

The toy soldiers have a Britains look to them, but the bases appear to be too thick, so maybe they are Heyde figures from Germany? Whatever they are, they have a well worn patina of time and considerable use on some young boy's floor games. We used to play with our 54mm toy soldiers on the floor where we had unlimited space to move them around. Also, they remained upright easier when played with on the floor. ( I didn't have to worry about sore knees and pulling back muscles when I was ten years old.

I used to have one of these Elastolin castles that came with Prince Valiant plastic figures that were approximately 25-30mm.

Ten years old. 1962. I think that's when it all started. My grandparents had just returned from a vacation in England and they bought a box of William Britain & Sons Household Cavalry (5 per box) and a box of Grenadier Guards. Both were in those wonderful red cardboard boxes with the paper label on the box cover. I augmented the collection by saving up my allowance until I had enough to buy another box. I'm trying to recall the price for a basic infantry box of 8 figures. Was it $2.50 or $5.00? Something like that.

I divided my figures into two armies: the metal Britains were The Good Guys and the Green Army Men, Herald and Timpo plastic ACW figures, and in fact, anything plastic, were the Bad Guys or The Barbarians.

In 1963 my parents took us on a ten week vacation to Europe ( well, mostly it was my Mom and Aunt Pearl - the latter was quite a hoot- my Dad only stayed for two weeks and had to return back to the States to go to work). We were spending the night at Evesham. It was there that I found a toy store with a bunch of Swoppets War of the Roses plastic figures and my Dad bought about a dozen of these for me. I played with them for the rest of the trip. I wish that I still had some of my old Swoppets.

They were really cool toy soldiers. All of the plastic swords had their own metal scabbards. You could put pole arms, shields or swords in each figure's hands, you could swap torsos with the other figures. In a word, you could just let your imagination run wild. Of course, a lot of the bits and pieces would eventually get lost, so a couple of the figures would end up being used for their parts.

I started giving Britains metal soldiers to friends for their birthday presents in order to recruit some opponents. One friend, Tony M., had a rich grandmother who would buy him anything, so Tony soon had the largest metal Britains army on the block, mostly Arabs and British Colonial red coats. Tony soon got tired of playing with toy soldiers and moved on to other things. This was too early for "girls" to be those other things, so maybe it was sports that ended his career as a floor general.

Then there was Tom P., whose grandmother was one of the descendants of the Kraft Cheese family and she likewise showered her grandson with unlimited quantities of Britains toy soldiers. Hmm, something about those rich grandmothers always throwing a wrench into my plans for world domination.

At any rate, Tom P. acquired the 200-300 piece Changing of the Guard set from Britains for his birthday and that knocked me down a peg or two in the pecking order. I was demoted to Duke from King. Sigh....  Tom always had to one up me don't you know. I would buy a model airplane and then a couple of weeks later he would have a whole squadron of airplanes. And so it went.

I had fun anyway because Tom had more toy soldiers than you could shake a stick at and it was always a great joy to go to his house and see what new editions had flown in from Grandma Kraft. And so our floor battles got bigger and bigger with hundreds of metal and plastic figures lined up in marching order and ready for battle. We always played on the same side: Tom and I versus The Barbarians, or once in awhile, Tom's older brother Michael played the Bad Guys against us. Michael had a large collection of metal Swiss Guards that were made in France. I don't recall the brand ( it wasn't Mignot or one of the expensive French toy soldier ranges), but they were spectacular. 

Our games got so big that we would have to schedule a sleep over at Tom's house on a Friday night. I would go to his house after school and we would set up the battle and then break for Dinner. Mrs P. Was quite a good cook, so there was always a great dinner in the offing. After dinner, we would watch The Man From Uncle on television and then head to the play room to start the battle. It would carry over to Saturday morning and we were always successful at defending Civilization from the Barbarian Hoard of plastic soldiers.

The Barbarian Leader was Turk - one of the Marx Warriors of the World 60mm hard plastic soldiers. Turk was a WW2 American GI sergeant who was posed wildly waving his revolver over his head. Since Turk stood a few millimeters taller than the other Barbarians, he became their leader, the nĂºmero uno of Bad Guys. Turk had a Harry Flashman quality to him in that his army could get wiped out week after week, but Turk would manage to escape somehow and live to fight another day.

Rules? We didn't have any. We just used common sense. If a hoard of plastic Barbarians was charging Tom's French Foreign Legion with Maxim Machine Gun, well then it was obvious that most of them would get mowed down. If the hoard was particularly large, it might overwhelm a company of metal Britains soldiers. We never had any arguments and the system seemed to work just fine.


  1. This is a beautiful reflection, Jim. I can recall somewhat similar experiences at the same age. My grandmother returned from a trip to the UK with one Britains figurine for each of her grandchildren. Then came a Timpo crusader castle (what fun!) and an opportunity to get into my uncle's relic box of real tin soldiers at my other grandparent's house while on holidays. My brothers and I set them up and them mowed them down with little canons that shot match sticks. And then packs of Airfix figures, set up in lines only to meet with rolling marbles, or better yet used to man castles in the sand box. Things are still as much fun now, at least when I let them be so!

    Thanks for the Proustian moment.


  2. Hi, I wonder if that shop was Hodgetts near the river bridge or Goodwins opposite the churchyard, alas both gone now. Of course you can go and buy Gripping Beast figures direct from the manufacturers.

  3. Cool reminiscences and that photo that sparked them.
    I never knew about Britain's figures or similar larger figures back then (the 60s), but did buy a good few assorted boxes of the little Airfix figures with my allowance. I had an eclectic assortment (the Tarzan set, American Indians, some sort of soldiers in blue (Civil War Yankees or maybe French Foreign Legion), and I don't remember what else). And a few Matchbox vehicles, including an old car (30s or 40s era) and a much more modern exploration vehicle. And forts and islands and trees that I would place around the floor of my bedroom. I'd shoot at the other force with plastic caps from cheap pens, and move figures around as desired. No real rules. But hours of fun.

  4. What a wonderful post!

    Best Regards,


  5. Wonderful post Jim. It is always interesting to reflect on what started us on this path towards a lifelong passionate hobby. Very enjoyable read.

  6. Most enjoyable post.Interestingly my Britains were the good guy versus Timpo etc as the baddies.

  7. Funny how so many of us had the same experiences with the same figures. Ahh nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

  8. Definitely man cave material there. There is something about books and toy soldiers.

  9. The Scots look like they may be by Hauser Elastolin, which makes your opening statement a pun. Follow google and you will find lots of pictures of Elastolin Scots on the net. You should be able to snag some off ebay if you really want them and are patient.

  10. Halcyon days ! Marshall Field's supplied my army ranks.

  11. Halcyon days ! Marshall Field's supplied my army ranks.