I don’t know about you, but I’d bet most 40-something gamers and probably a few younger ones started their passion for gaming through plastic toy soldiers like I did. Whilst I’ve left plastic toy soldiers behind me in favour of metal miniatures, I still feel certain affection for them as they started me on my way.
Who chose yellow plastic for toy soldiers?
I think I first got into gaming with a box of Airfix of H0:00 gauge Washington’s Army soldiers moulded in a fetching yellow. I believe they cost me the princely sum of 14 pence (about $0.21 at today’s laughable exchange rates). For serious money there was the 1/32nd scale which was a bit of a revelation. There were Germans and British and of course American GI’s all in exciting poses and unlike some of the little toy soldiers, well made. They put up with a lot of punishment and only gave up the ghost when burned or put through the lawn mower. My mother continued to dig out and clear bunkers in the back garden long after I left home, finding small dedicated units untouched by time not unlike Japanese units in the pacific after the war.
Why do soft plastic soldiers endure?
In truth a lot of plastic toy soldiers are rubbish. I mentioned the colour of plastic used earlier and I stand by my point that brilliant blue, day-glow yellow and crimson are not really very appealing. I understand that the base colour Airfix used was supposed to reflect the uniform or signature colour of the soldier but even at the tender age of nine or ten I hated the colour of my doughty American freedom fighters. Equally, many of the H0:00 figures were not very well sculpted, lacked detail and were often flashed. What really upset me were the inevitable useless figures you got in every box, the dead bloke, the running one and the one holding his gut wound. I know the diorama builders amongst you will be quivering over your keyboards at such heresy but do we really want them – I don’t think so.
Painted plastics, I don’t think so!
What I understand now having worked in plastics at one point in my life is mould releasant. Try explaining to a kid why it is really important to wash your plastic toy soldiers thoroughly in hot soapy water before you try to paint them and he’ll look at you as if you just killed his pet. I couldn’t wait to pull them off the sprue and have a parade. I like to think I was a bright kid but I didn’t even clean the bases until I had hundreds of the little chaps. I suppose I have my mum to blame for that because as a member of the Council “Home Safety Committee” (local government for the non-Brits) I suspect she kept me away from modelling knives. Whatever the reason, my best loved veterans quickly lost their puttees, straps and gun blacking in the first hours of conflict.
The true appeal of plastic to soldiers
Airfix soldiers were cheap and easily accessible. As a consequence you could quickly amass a huge collection covering all ages. I know I have talked about Airfix but soon after I started to discover rules and ultimately D&D, there were a host of other modelling companies getting in on the action. Whilst there is clearly a dedicated and significant group of diorama builders out there, kids must be the big buyers of plastic toy soldiers and ultimately the core market. No doubt it has shrunk because of the challengers out there fighting for a share of the pocket money, music, electronic games, drugs and beer. The reasons why they will endure are two-fold. Firstly, most of the costs of manufacture have been paid. I do not expect the ranges to grow much. But once made, a plastic mould never really wears out. The other reason is what they represent. For kids with imaginations and a love of war, where else do you start? I am sure most wily old gamers started out with a box of Africa Corps or American Marines and long may it continue.
Links and Laughs
There is one definitive source for the serious lover of plastic toy soldiers – Plastic Soldier Review. I urge you to go and have a look at this fantastic archive of childhood fun. In truth there are some rather good soldiers around these days and the breadth of history covered is staggering if not downright obscure. Whilst I know at least one gentleman who would snap up a box of Hittites, I suspect I probably know the entire market and yet they are out there and in production. You should also have a look at the gallery, in some cases for a hearty chuckle but also for ideas. There are also some manufacturers of presentable fantasy figures in soft plastic. If you have kids, get a box or two now and start ‘em young.