The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Society
Military Miscellany


by Benjamin N. Brown.

Have you ever thought of holding a piece of military history and tradition in your hands?

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in a very ancient pastime - collecting model soldiers or "military miniatures." These should not be confused with "toy soldiers" for many reasons which will become clear as we progress in this discussion. Military miniatures have been found in the tombs of Pharoahs and, in the centuries since, many famous people have been enthusiasts, including Kaiser Wilhelm and Winston Churchill.

Today, most collectors sculpt and mould their own figures, or at least lend an individual touch through conversion and hand-painting. These techniques cannot be treated here, but a short bibliography of recent books and current periodicals which specifically deal with the craft of model soldier making appears as Appendix A to this article.

Apart from the satisfaction of creating one's own unique miniatures, the price of finished, painted figures runs from R4.00 or R5.00 each up into hundreds of Rands for a really outstanding custom-made collector's piece! [For reference: membership dues to the Society were R3 pa at that time - Ed]

Collecting military miniatures involves rather less artistic talent and rather more a combination of imagination and painstaking devotion to deep research in detail. most "buffs" haunt libraries and museums and many have built up impressive personal libraries of works on arms, uniforms, insignia, and the mass of detail that establishes the distinctive appearance of particular regiments at given moments in history. True to the breadth of this subject, however, most collectors specialize in a specific period, or nation, or arm of service, or even a certain regiment. (My own special interests are the American Revolution, Prussian Regiments at the opening of World War I, and only recently, the Zulu War of 1897.)

Over the years, commercially produced miniatures have tended to fall into five different categories, which I shall roughly describe in a moment. First, however, I must draw your attention to Appendix B, which lists some of the better known suppliers of military miniatures today. All of these firms publish catalogues of price lists, which will be interesting to prospective collectors.

The general categories of these miniatures are:

  1. "Flats" - These are two dimensional figures 20 m.m. tall (measurements are the height of a dismounted man without headgear) sold in sets and nearly always supplied ready painted. They are usually used for "War Games" or to give perspective to the background of dioramas.
  2. "20 mm Scale Fully-Rounds" - These are three dimensional figures principally used by War Garners, who wish to deploy large forces in relatively restricted areas. They are often comparatively inexpensive and can be purchased either painted or unpainted. Most manufacturers give discounted prices for large orders of 20 m.m. figures.
  3. "30 mm Scale" - These figures are also fully-rounded and are sometimes finely detailed pieces suitable for the collector of individual models. They can be quite expensive although most of them are produced for the war games quantity market. This is a less common size than the others and is probably more often supplied unpainted than not.
  4. "54 mm Scale" - This is the "standard" size, I would say, and will be familiar to everyone as the scale used for most "toy soldiers" found in shops. The 54 mm's lend themselves to display as individual, single figure "portrait" pieces as well as to inclusion in dioramas depicting scenes of camp or battle and employing numbers of models. Most ancillary equipment - horses, cannon, small arms, etc. - is designed to this scale. Generally, 54 mm figures are solid cast lead, but some are hollow lead or plastic compounds.
  5. "108 mm Scale" - These pieces, over four inches tall, are usually hollow cast of lead, owing to the weight factor, or else are crafted of various plastic, barbola, paper maché, or othor non-metallic materials. This is a size frequently found in toys but very rare in serious collections. I have not personally seen unpainted pieces of this size.
As in any other handicraft or art form, of course, untold variations exist from these standards, but few are commercially available.

Making and collecting military miniatures is little known in South Africa at present. Toy soldiers are on the market, but the only local manufacturer of anything approaching collectors' items (S.A.E. Ltd.) has apparently gone out of production. Purchasing "ready mades" overseas presents quite a number of problems. The first is that selections must be made on a mail order basis, sight unseen from price lists or catalogues. Then it is necessary to obtain import licenses which, while possible, is an annoying inconvenience. The better grades of 54 mm figures - even unpainted - are priced upwards from R2.00 for a dismounted soldier or R5.00 for a horseman. When you add postage and duty to this, the cost becomes a serious matter!

Earlier I have mentioned "dioramas." Any discussion of collecting miniatures as an adjunct of military history study must touch upon them. A diorama is a scene which tells a story. Usually collectors select famous and colourful incidents, such as Napoleon's Army burning its colour on the retreat from Moscow, or vignettes from well-known battles, like Custer's last stand, or scenes typical of a particular war, a listening post in No Man's Land, for example. They may utilize a large number of models, perhaps of several scaled for perspective's sake, or possibly only two or three figures can effectively tell the story. A diorama should have its own background and a base appropriate to the scene, such as sand and stones blending into a desert horizon, or a paved barrack square to create atmosphere. Most collectors derive great pleasure and satisfaction from placing their figures on display in exactly the right setting.

Many museums in Europe and America have wonderful military dioramas; the Imperial War Museum London, the U.S. Military Academy Museum at West Point, and Les Invalides in Paris, are among the most famous. Any number of well-known events of South African military history lend themselves to commemoration by diorama. Why not apply your imagination, supported by research, to portraying your military history interests with military miniatures?



Adjutant's Call: (Quarterly), Military Historical Society, Box 639, Times Square Station, New York, N.Y. 10036.
Milhistriot: (Quarterly), (Formerly Military Miniature Collector), Bob Bard, Box 1463, Baltimore, Maryland, 21203.
Tradition (Alternate months), Belmont-Maitland Publishers Ltd., P.O. Box 3 BU, 44 Dover Street, London W.1.


Many other recent publications and current periodicals exist both in English and in various other languages. Only the most easily obtained have been listed.

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