A few days ago I put together some thoughts about the plastic toy soldiers of my youth. For me, lead toy soldiers were what I gravitated to when I realised there was something better (if more expensive) than the plastic Airfix soldiers I cut my teeth on. Moving to the present day and more in the context of fantasy gaming, I see metal miniatures as the essential accessory for D&D and the strategy games I play. Between the plastics and today was an interesting time when I collected true lead toy soldiers for a while. Sadly, most of these are gone now for a whole host of reasons, but like the plastics that went before them, they still have a place in my memory and gaming history.
Why I changed from plastic to lead soldiers
Probably around the age of ten, a mate of mine discovered lead miniatures. In Nottingham where I was brought up we had a serious collectors shop called (originally) Nottingham Model Soldier Shop. This tiny place was the Mecca of wargamers and unique as far as I can recall. The whole place was decked out with wood drawer cabinets filled with tiny lead toy soldiers. The proprietor, a middle aged lady seemed to have endless patience with us clueless but enthusiastic kids that came to worship in this shrine to warfare. What made lead toy soldiers so much more appealing than their plastic counterparts was in part the presentation. I really liked opening drawers and rummaging through the different variations they held. This was a far more engaging way of buying than popping in to Beatties for your Aifix models. Today’s habit of blister packing has ruined this simple pleasure but we know it “shifts units”. The other reason at the time was the weight and apparent quality. I doubt sculpting was that much better than that of Airfix miniatures but they felt and looked better in metal.
Early historical Toy Soldier Manufacturers
The three big brands that stuck in my mind were Skytrex, Hinchliffe and of course Minifigs. I expect these were the only brands of lead toy soldiers my local shop stocked. Either way, they were the major beneficiaries of my pocket money until I had to budget for fags, booze and Blue Stratos aftershave. Even beyond the first girlfriend (and to date for that matter) the lead toy soldier fund allocation has been preserved. Unfortunately my mate found and focussed on the Napoleonic period. I wish he had found 15mm skirmish wargaming first because our collections took a long time to amass in 25mm and for mass battles, they are not really the ideal scale. Even worse, at that age, I wasn’t smart enough to read the rules before committing. I therefore spent the next four years building and losing every battle with my consistently poor Prussian army (and wishing I’d found the Brits or French before the others had).
Painting and presentation of my early toy soldier collection
We were really quite stupid in those days. In our defence, we never found a local gaming society to lead us in the right direction. We could paint (reasonably well) but we had no idea about basing. You try and move a couple of hundred un-based miniatures around sometime and you will appreciate how my first games were a labour of love. Worse still, try doing all that movement and getting constantly butchered. I rapidly learned “taking part” was more important than winning!
From toy soldiers to lead miniatures
Because of a change of schools at the age of 11, I discovered D&D. I lost touch with my original mates and eventually sold off a suitcase full of Prussians at a wargaming convention. I think roleplaying won out as my primary interest because the objectives and measures of success are a bit broader than just winning (something I’m just not very good at). Being tall and loud were great credentials for success as a pre-pubescent roleplayer and my lack of tactical prowess was rarely a problem. I still play with lead toy soldiers but more in skirmish games than full war games. The passion for the figures was transferred to fantasy genres and other manufacturers. I am a modeler at heart and one big win for fantasy miniatures over traditional toy soldiers is the variation. I can appreciate a well sculptured Napoleonic Hussar or a Viking Huscarl but with fantasy, there really are no limits baring the creativity and vision of the makers.
Early fantasy lead manufacturers
I have taken the opportunity to list the main influences on my shift away from lead toy soldiers to fantasy miniatures. There are other manufacturers who have entered onto the scene since then, but these were the first to capture my imagination. I do not expect this list to be a revelation to the more mature reader, but some may be new to the younger readership and I urge you to have a look at the old catalogues. Many influential designers cut their teeth with these companies like Jes Goodwin of GW fame. Asgard was just like this and the manufacturer that started it all for me as a local, accessible company. I know they are still theoretically about (somewhere out in the USA) but like Metal Magic , Grenadier, Garrison and Ral Partha, what is left becomes condensed to a limited line and seems to lose something.