A Guide to Plastic Toy Soldiers - Why Plastics?

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Put simply this is a guide to what is good about plastic toy soldiers. More specifically current production, unpainted, mainly soft plastic (as opposed to hard plastic kit type figures) sets in 1/72 scale (20-25mm) and 1/32 scale (54mm). I have written it for three main reasons, these being: 1.) I love plastic toy soldiers and given half a chance like to go on about them! 2.) Newcomers or potential newcomers to the hobby may be interested in learning more as to what the attraction is and 3.) Some collectors and wargamers into other materials and scales may not be aware that we are currently living through a real golden age for plastic figures that they may be missing out on.

If this material appears in part familiar it may be because I have incorporated some of the text I used in a letter I wrote to Miniature Wargames a few years back in response to another reader's questions as to whether wargamers use plastic now and if 1/72 is a viable scale. My interest is both personal and professional as I enjoy collecting, painting and gaming with plastic figures and I also run Drum & Flag - the largest** toy soldier store on eBay.co.uk. Anyway here's the guide in which I have sprinkled a few pictures of figures I have painted to brighten things up and break up what would otherwise be a solid block of text. Latest update: May 2010.

 Italeri 1/32 Scale Teutonic Knight

* RANGE

According to Plasticsoldierreview.com (brilliant website) in 2007 81 new 1/72 scale sets hit the market, in 2006 111 sets were released making it a record year and in 2005 83 sets came out. So in the last three years alone a whopping 275 became available. Add that to earlier production and it's no wonder the different item count in the 1/72 section of my eBay store went over the 700 mark recently (although this does include some vehicle and building kits). It's a similar picture with the larger 1/32 scale figures. Here companies like A Call to Arms, Armies in Plastic, Barzso, CTS, Conte, Hat, Emhar, Imex, Italeri and Toy Soldiers of San Diego have really driven things forward in the past few years. Using the same metric as for 1/72 the item count in my eBay store is over 400 different items for the 54mm figures (although again this does include some vehicles, buildings and accessories).

With this flood of production it is now easier than it has ever been to build complete all arms forces in many different historical periods using plastic figures. The most popular eras in my experience are Napoleonic, WW2 and Ancients. However increasingly you name it and it's covered. For example Strelets have issued many Crimean War sets in 1/72 scale and Armies in Plastic have produced a very comprehensive offering for the Colonial era in 1/32 scale. Where there are still gaps a couple of other dimensions open up - namely converting and hunting down deleted sets.

 Revell & Imex Confederate "Napoleons" in 1/72 Scale

* EASY TO USE

Most soft plastic figures come pretty much ready made and do not require any assembly other than removing from the sprue and for cavalry sitting riders on horses. Many hard plastic and some metal figures from 25mm (1/72) through 28mm and onto 54mm (1/32) do require assembly as heads, weapons, shields, limbs etc...are seperate and require glueing together. As always you pays your money and you takes your choice. If you prefer having a bit of assembly to do as it gives more opprtunity for variety all is not lost as there is always converting which is dealt with in the next section below.

* CONVERTING

Plastic is a sympathetic material to work with either carefully cutting away what you don't want or adding parts you do. Planning what are your base figures for conversion and what materials you need to add or subtract is great fun and turning out a unique finished individual piece or unit is very satisfying. SuperGlue bonds most plastics very well. Milliput and/or greenstuff enables you to fill any gaps, make new parts etc... As with painting converting merits a guide or two in it's own right. Fortunately a fair bit of info is available on this via the internet and in magazines. For 1/32 scale I would recommend seeking out some of the numerous articles written by Mike Blake in the hobby press.

 1/72 Scale Union Zouave Conversions. HaT bodies with Esci heads!

* DELETED SETS

If sales slow down after a few years or a company ceases trading etc sets can be deleted from the roster of current production. Inevitably this leads to scarcity and some sets take on a Holy Grail type aura! The 1970's Airfix Waterloo Assault Set Accessory Pack is a prime example. Seeking out a set you desperately want is good fun as it gives you something to focus on when scanning trader's stands at shows and these days obviously when browsing eBay.

 Figure from Revell's excellent & currently out of production 1/72 Scale Napoleonic British Infantry set

* HISTORICAL ACCURACY

With so many sets coming onto the market standards are ever higher and whilst not universally so I do not think that a lack of historical realism and accuracy is a charge that can levelled at many plastic sets. In my experience not many plastic sets, outside of a few ranges, sell principally as childrens toys - they sell to adult wargamers and/or collectors who are looking for a certain standard and generally get it.

 A Call to Arms 1/32 scale Iron Brigade

* PRODUCTION QUALITY

It is not much good being historically accurate if the figures don't look right. Again I do not think that many plastic manufacturers can be accused of poor sculpting, detailing or proportioning these days. Flash is also increasingly rare. (This is when the plastic overflows the injection mould and leaves a thin and unwanted piece of plastic surrounding areas on a figure where the mould join was). I could point to many examples I'd note as top quality figures but among my favourites are Zvezda in 1/72 scale and Conte and TSSD in 1/32 scale.

 Zvezda 1/72 Scale War Elephants

* VALUE FOR MONEY

1/32 scale sets vary in price a bit more than do 1/72 sets. I guess this is due to a combination of differing tooling and distribution costs, development expenditures, production runs and less homogenity in set contents. That being said many sets generally range from about  £5 - £10 per box with individual figures working out at anything from 25p to £1 each. A typical 1/72 set offers 40-50 figures for £4 - £5. So you are looking at 10p per figure. If wargaming with 1/72 scale figures a bit of planning when buying enables units of the same pose to be built up easily and cheaply if desired including the correct number of command figures. If using a rules system such as Fire & Fury or Warhammer Ancient Battles the few odd or unusual poses that crop up can easily be accomodated as casualty and status markers or used in small vignettes / diorama stands. If they can't be used in this way or for conversions (which as I have indicated is a mini-hobby in it's own right) then at 10p a figure the odd wasted pose does not break the bank, especially when you can sell spares back on eBay often at surprisingly good prices.

 Italeri 1/72 Scale Romans. A great wargames unit with basic unpainted figures costing only around £1!

* PAINTING

Like conversions painting really needs a guide in it's own right and I have posted one here on eBay so please refer to that for more detail. Suffice to say here that there are two common criticisms levelled at plastic figures when it comes to painting. One is that they don't take paint very well and the second is that it flakes off easily. Over the past 10-15 years I must have painted thousands of 1/72 scale and 1/32 scale plastic figures and have encountered the former situation on only a very few occassions and I can't recall the latter arising at all. Now I recognise that just because that's my experience it does not mean it's everybody else's as patently it is not. I think difficulty arising in paint adhesion comes from two main causes - the main one is not washing figures throughly in soapy water, rinsing and allowing to dry before painting and the second is from not shaking and/or stirring paint properly before it is applied. Not applying an undercoat may also cause some problems some of the time. Flaking is most likely caused by one of three things - a problem in the composition of the paint (again stir/shake before applying) or not varnishing the painted figure (gloss followed by matt is a good combination offering strength and realism) or excessively rough treatment of a finished figure. All these factors would also make life difficult for metal and resin figures so it is not a plastic problem as such. Overall I'd say it is perfectly possible to get a fantastic finish on most plastic figures whether you use water based acrylics or enamels or other paints.

 Armies in Plastic 1/32 scale French Foreign Legion. Gloss varnish finish.

* STORAGE & TRANSPORTATION

Plastic figures are light and can be easily stored. This is useful if you have a large collection and don't want your floorboards to start sagging under the weight! It also means carrying them around is easy if going over to a friend's house for example. If you like the feel of a weightier figure you can of course use metal bases - 1p and 2p coins make good marker bases and lend figures some added weight. For 1/72 scale figures many DIY store tool boxes make for good storage and transportation.

* COMMUNITY

There are many good websites where you can join forums or see other hobbyist's work etc... HaT.com is an ideal  place to start for 1/72 scale. Plasticsoldierreview.com and it's links page will take you into a whole new 1/72 universe. For 1/32 scale try Plasticwarrior.com and it's links page. In January 2008 I uploaded my own gallery pages at drumandflag.com where you will find many more pictures of painted figures as sampled in this guide and more articles covering 1/72 and 1/32 scale plastics (and 28mm metal and plastic GW Lord of the Rings figures).

 Gunfighters on Games Workshop bases. Ideal for 54mm skirmish wargaming.

* EVOCATIVE

Many of my generation grew up with mainly Airfix 1/72 and 1/32 scale figures as kids in the 1970's. I was particularly fortunate as my parents ran a small toy store and I could "inspect" new deliveries of Airfix, Timpo and Britains as they arrived - if only I'd kept some of the stuff I had!  I think it is fond memories of massive garden battles and the like that rekindled my interest in my thirties and I guess judging by the volume of sets produced and sold that the same goes for many others of the same age as well as older and younger. Of course now the problem is not so much a shortage of funds to buy the troops desired but a shortage of time to paint and game with them.

 Airfix 1/32 Scale German Paratroopers. From the classic 1970's set reissued by CTS

* SCALE

1/72 scale is approx 20-25mm and 1/32 scale is 54mm. As well as being evocative of happy childhood days these two scales are also pleasing on the eye in my view. 1/72 scale figures offer a size that is large enough to offer sufficient detail whilst being small enough to field large units on a reasonable size wargames table. 1/32 scale figures offer plenty of detail as they should at 54mm but again are small enough to field in table top skirmish games and indeed for those with more space or a penchant for outdoor battles can be used in more unit orientated games too. Importantly there are also a lot of vehicles, buildings, scenery and terrain produced to compliment both these scales.

* AVAILABILITY

Plastic figures are pretty easy to source these days. Whilst perhaps there are fewer bricks and mortar outlets selling figures and models than there once was they still exist. Track them down through hobby magazines or the internet. The internet itself is of course the major story of recent years and has opened up a global market for toy soldiers as well as practically everything else. Again search hobby magazine ads or surf Google or Yahoo to find e-retailers. Then of course there is eBay which enables buyers to visit professionally run full time eBay stores and also to view the wares of countless fellow hobbyists who are downsizing their collections or just auctioning off a bit of surplus.

So there you go - a few reasons why I think 1/72 scale and 1/32 scale plastic figures are great. I should say that I also love some 28mm metal wargaming figures from the likes of Games Workshop and other makers and 54-70mm metal collectibles from Del Prado, King & Country, Britains, Conte etc... So it's not that I like one aspect of the hobby and not another, it's more that I just like to fly the flag for plastics when I can. In conclusion I think it is a very healthy sign of the diversity and interest level in the hobby as a whole that a booming market for plastic figures happily and successfully co-exists alongside the similarly flourishing, popular and generally higher profile metal wargaming and collectors figure markets.

Thank you for reading my guide. I can be contacted using eBay messages. User ID flagbearer101.

If you would like to visit my eBay shop you can click here: Drum & Flag

(** By number of items listed. Correct at time of latest update.)

 

 

 

 

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