It almost goes without saying that toymakers want their products to look good. Britains made great efforts in this respect, claiming in their 1978 catalogue that “The Deetail range are superbly modelled figures…each one individually hand-painted and authentically detailed”. Well, that’s a bold claim, so let’s pause a while and take a closer look at just how good they are.
In the latter half of the Nineteenth century settlers spread westwards across North America, occupying the land and establishing in the process large cattle ranches. The men who managed the herds were known simply as cowboys, and they lived a hard-working outdoors life while organising round-ups, and herding the cows to distant markets.
As might be expected cowboys were a tough, self-reliant bunch and sometimes looked upon with disdain by frontier town-dwellers, especially when they rowdily descended on the bars to spend their hard-earned pay. They were not, however, synonymous with criminality or for that matter law enforcement – a cowboy might know how to use a weapon to protect his herd, but was unlikely to get involved in a gunfight.
This freewheeling cowboy way of life gradually declined towards the turn of the century, as infrastructure and settlement increased, markets proliferated, and ranches became fenced. As this occurred, so old hands and performers set up Wild West Shows which began promoting the image of a bygone turbulent yet chivalric outdoors life, a view solidified by films and literature from the 1920s on. The cowboy legend was born.
Toymakers were naturally drawn to the Wild West, with its prominence in popular culture and array of colourful characters. So, let’s saddle up and head out to the range…
The Dismounted Cowboys
As with all Deetail figure sets, the cowboys consisted of 6 poses manufactured from PVC plastic and mounted on standard metal bases. Three of the figures have separate right arms (the rifleman, the kneeling figure and the standing man fanning his six-shooter), allowing for more three-dimensional poses.
Britains Deetail 7640 Dismounted Cowboys
Year first produced: 1972
L60 x W30 x H60 (max), Plastic+Metal 13g, Scale 1:32, Features: 0
As usual, the characters are painted overall (more on that below), with some details hand-painted in 3-5 other colours. The clothing is generally suitable for men who lived on horseback, with a variety of wide-brimmed hats, bandannas, boots and hard-wearing, practical clothes. One of the figures appears to be Mexican, which is perfectly reasonable given the varied ethnic mix of cowboys in the West.
Whether the figures should actually be thought of as cowboys is perhaps open to question. Look carefully, and you can see that the figure firing his rifle from the hip has a silver star on his chest, and so presumably represents a lawman. But the West was wild, so we shan’t split hairs!
However well a toy figure is created, it will count for nothing if the pose is either unconvincing or simply unexciting. In this regard, Deetail figures like all other ranges were limited by two considerations: the fact that moulding is easiest when the subject is relatively flat, and that the figure must stand up when produced.
As already mentioned, Deetail addressed the former by moulding separate right arms to enable more three-dimensional poses, while the latter is facilitated by fixing the figure into the wide metal base. Of course, the base itself is a limitation on the poses possible, because it is a standard design with fixed slots into which both legs must fit.
So, what poses do we see in the set? Well, we certainly do not see anyone engaged in peaceable activity! All have drawn weapons, and no less than 4 of the figures are in the act of firing. We are clearly in the midst of a gunfight here, á la Magnificent Seven or Gunfight at the OK Corral. Only the Mexican figure stands relatively aloof, holding his six-shooters at the ready, but apparently not at this precise moment aiming them at anyone.
The sculptor has, I think, managed to capture a feeling of rapid motion. The kneeling figure appears to pause to glance sidewards in the midst of emptying his revolvers, arms in mid-air; the sheriff crouches and braces himself while firing his rifle from hip; and a character twists to the right while drawing his pistol. The figures look balanced, and appear to have been frozen in the middle of strenuous activity. And yet of course, courtesy of the metal bases, they stand solidly without danger of toppling over.
All of the cowboys are well-sculpted representations of the human figure. They look anatomically ‘correct’, but like so many toy figures, none of them are distinguished by being fat or skinny, tall or short, or having any other real-world imperfections. Toy humans are always perfect specimens… The only exception to this is perhaps the kneeling figure pictured above, who, if he were to stand up, would probably count as a giant – just look at the length of his left leg!
The figures have a pleasing variety of clothing. The sheriff wears a fringed jacket; the rifleman a jerkin; the two-handed firer a short coat. The hats and the boots are of different designs. Most importantly, the clothing is well-realised: folds are clearly delineated; jackets flare open as the figures turn; and the occasional sash or handkerchief flurries with his movement.
Some of the figures sport impressive detail. For example, our fan-firer has buttons on his coat and waistcoat, a holster hung on his hip, pockets and a watch-chain, a buckled gun-belt and holster that is tied to his leg, and even shirt cuffs that peep out underneath his coat as he extends his arms. Behind him, a handkerchief billows out of his side pocket. This sculpting really is top-notch!
Naturally, when studying the details, you also start to notice the blemishes that might otherwise have not claimed your attention… Most of these are artefacts of the production methods used, and are commonly seen on moulded figures.
One of these is the raised line which often appears where the two halves of the mould meet, caused by a slight misalignment or by an imperfect junction of the two halves. The other common imperfection is the round marks left by the ejector pins (the sliding pins that push a newly moulded figure out of the mould when it is opened). These are usually positioned to be as unobtrusive as possible, so on the Deetail figures often appear on the back of the figures. And finally, where separate arms have been moulded, the join is usually unmistakable. In the case of Deetail, these blemishes are sometimes made more obvious by the technique of painting the figures with a wash of colour (see below).
An issue that can occur with Deetail figures is that the PVC plastic used can bend, especially with vulnerable extremities such as gun barrels, though this defect is not very visible in the set reviewed here. More significant is the way that a few figures, such as our Sheriff, develop a ‘lean’, by virtue of the flexible way that they connect into the metal base. The figure won’t fall over but they just don’t look right.
All of our figures have been given a base coat of a single colour, with subsequent picking out of selected details in 4 or 5 colours.
In fact, our set of figures contains three different approaches to applying the base colour. One of the figures, our kneeling friend, is painted, in this case bright yellow. Well…I suppose if you were a deadly gunslinger, you might get away with it without attracting any derogatory comments, but honestly, I find it hard to believe that yellow was a good colour even for the Wild West.
Our sheriff (see above) is not painted at all – his figure simply sports the beige/cream finish of the plastic that he is made from. Hmmm, he just looks sort of unfinished to me.
The remaining four figures have all been given a thin wash in brown or blue. This is an interesting technique, and I like the effect quite a lot. The wash makes the cowboy clothes look dusty and worn – very appropriate for a life spent on the range – and because the colour pools in recesses, it helps to pick out and emphasise sculpted details.
However, while I really like the effect of a wash, it also serves to emphasise the defects identified earlier – mould lines and ejection pins marks.
The painting of details is possibly the weakest aspect of the decoration on these figures. Inevitably there is occasional clumsiness, but what I find really annoying is the sparseness of the painting, and the occasional illogicality of the colours chosen. For example, our sheriff has a silver rifle; holsters are seldom painted; and almost everyone in our Western town likes to wear one-colour outfits. Well, I’m probably asking a lot for mass-produced figures…
We’ve already seen that the metal bases are a defining Deetail feature. On the one hand they are intrusive, but on the other they could be said to add value – a classy metal display plinth comes as standard. Personally, I find that after a while you tend to get used to them and stop ‘seeing’ them.
I think the Deetail cowboys are, on the whole, superior figures. Great poses and excellent sculpting make for a really attractive basic item. The mould lines and ejector pins are unfortunate but probably inevitable. The painting is sometimes hit-and-miss, but here’s the point: given some basic skills, I could repaint the figures – and then they would look absolutely fantastic because the basic sculpt is so good.
If you like the cowboys, there is no shortage of additional figures. An additional set of 7660 Dismounted Cowboys was introduced in 1979, and of course Britains also made a set of 7639 Mounted Cowboys.
To accompany (or fight!) the cowboys and expand the boundaries of your very own Wild West, you can add any of the following figures (catalogue numbers represent mounted/dismounted sets):
- 7539/7540 Indians
- 7489/7490 7th Cavalry
- 7519/7520 Mexicans
- 7549/7550 Apaches