Evolution or Revolution?
The introduction of plastic in the 1950s as a material for making toy figures, ushered in a period of rapid innovation and development for Britains. Several distinct generations of figures, each with their own distinctive character, followed each other in swift succession during the post-war decades culminating with the very successful Deetail range of the 1970s.
Each new range was an exciting departure from previous norms – but was it progress? How do the older generations of figures stack up against Deetail? To find out, we’ll go back to the 1950s, and the arrival in the UK of a previously little-explored era for toy soldiers – the American Civil War.
American Civil War
The American Civil War consumed the United States during 1861-5. The attempt by a group of southern states (the Confederates) to secede from the United States was forcibly opposed by the wealthier northern states (the Federals), who eventually prevailed due largely to their overwhelming resources. The war was bitter, with much of the south devastated and an estimated half a million deaths from war-related causes.
With the passing of time, the conflict became a part of the heritage of the United States and people could look back on the suffering and heroism which the war brought forth, with a more detached mixture of sadness and pride. After the Second World War, US influence in Europe increased, and the significance of the US market grew. Britains were therefore naturally drawn to the US civil war.
The first Civil War figures produced by Britains were part of their traditional metal range, and were released in 1951. Within a few years, however, these were joined by some of the first plastic figures for this era, a set of infantry made by Herald just before their merger with Britains.
The four Federal infantrymen shown here are simple one-piece figures with integral bases, made in dark blue polythene, then hand-painted fairly comprehensively using 5-6 colours. Under the bases is the Herald symbol surrounded by “MADE IN ENGLAND”.
The poses are dynamic and work well together, as if the figures are involved in an advance. Despite the small size of the bases, they stand well and are fairly stable. An officer leads the way, his sword raised and his torso twisted dramatically as he shouts back to his men; a private advances while another fires, both with fixed bayonets; and a bugler steps forward blowing the charge. Note that in this set there is no flag-bearer.
The sculpting is well done, chunky but with good detail and realistic folds in the clothing. The rank and file are nicely encumbered with packs and kit.
These figures remained in the Britains inventory for over a decade, until replaced in 1967 by a new set in a completely new style.
The Swoppets (1967-71)
Swoppets were first released in 1958, with great success. The figures were revolutionary, because they consisted of separate parts that could be assembled and disassembled at will. The original idea was simply that the head and torso of a figure should be able to swivel, so that the pose could be slightly altered, but it was also true – to a degree – that torsos and heads could be swapped between figures, so that, for example, a torso could be placed on a different set of legs. Thus, the number of possible poses was enormous.
It wasn’t until 1967 that a new set of American Civil War figures was released, and strangely they weren’t labelled by Britains as Swoppets at all, despite clearly belonging to that tradition.
The figures consist of multiple parts: a head, torso, one or more separate arms, legs and separate base. Equipment such as the weapons (rifle, sword), flag and backpack are also separate items. The flat bases are marked
“BRITAINS LTD”, “MADE IN ENGLAND” and “Reg. Des. Nos. 929358/9”.
The body parts are moulded in dark blue, and the trousers, flesh and hair are painted on. The equipment items are moulded in suitable colours. The backpacks are actually composed of two separate parts – a backpack and pouch in grey, and a softer flexible set of white straps with bedroll (overpainted brown) which has enough ‘give’ to allow for fitting onto, or removal from the figures. Once assembled, an individual figure may sport up to 8 colours.
In practice, the parts in this set are less swappable than it may appear at first sight. One of the four sets of legs are lying down, and another is kneeling. Each has only one torso that matches, and these torsos will only match these legs. Moreover, both of these torsos have integral left arms positioned such that the only pose reasonably possible is one of firing.
This leaves two sets of standing legs, one still and one advancing, plus two torsos that can be swapped between them (one with integral left arm placed to hold a musket for firing). From these, a small range of poses can be fashioned: standing firing, advancing firing, standing holding musket/sword/flag and advancing holding musket/sword/flag. Add in the ability to turn heads, torsos and arms and you can create a somewhat varied firing line or (slowly) advancing unit.
I like these figures. It may just be me, but I find reassembling them to see what poses can be created a fascinating process. It’s unusual to have a prone figure. The figures are fairly lean and uncluttered with kit, and the sculpting quite restrained. Compared to the earlier figures, with their heavy detail and energetic poses, the Swoppets appear refined and smart. Nevertheless, within a few short years they were retired and replaced by a new set in the Deetail range. The experiment with exchangeable and poseable parts was over.
Britains Deetail 7450 Federal Infantry
Year first produced: 1972
L60 x W30 x H60 (max), Plastic+Metal 13g, Scale 1:32, Features: 0
The set consists, as per the normal Deetail practice, of six poses – four infantrymen, an officer and an ensign with flag. The figures are a return to single-piece mouldings, except that three of the figures have separate right arms, two to enable firing poses. The third holds his rifle away from his body somewhat awkwardly as if blocking an opponent or threatening a bayonet thrust. The dark blue figures have painted trousers and a range of other details, and are mounted on the standard metal bases marked underneath with
“BRITAINS LTD 1971”, “deetail” and “MADE IN ENGLAND”
The officer in this set is reminiscent of the 1950s series, advancing with a twisted torso and brandishing his sword and pistol. The drama of this pose is not shared by the other figures, however, in fact only the figure with advanced bayonet seems to be following him in the charge. The rest are rooted to the spot, shooting and reloading. The sculpting is good, and the poses are quite legitimate, but just a little dull. They are all in very light order, unencumbered by bedding rolls or satchels.
Now that we’ve seen the three succeeding sets of Federal infantry that Britains produced in plastic, one can’t fail to be impressed by the differences between them. It is obvious that they don’t illustrate a linear progression in figure design, but rather a swinging pendulum of different approaches, from simplicity to complexity and back again. In addition, the treatment of the human form varied over the decades, which is a reminder that technical advances aside, toy figures remain essentially artistic creations.
For what it’s worth, this is how I see the three generations.
The early Herald figures are simple single-piece mouldings with no hidden secrets. They are chunky, vigorously animated, well sculpted and nicely painted – though the paint tends to flake off with age. There are only 4 poses. They look heroic, they were cheap and they are figures to be played with by kids.
The Swoppets are almost the direct opposite of the above. They are complex, multi-part assemblies capable of producing a varied selection of figures. The poses are slightly wooden, the figures slender, and the decoration slightly minimalist. Small parts are prone to be lost or swallowed. They are figures to be built and admired by older children.
The Deetail set are a return to the earlier simplicity, but with the added feature (gimmick?) of the metal base and an expanded selection of poses. They are well proportioned, and solid, but lack the dramatic animation of the Herald soldiers (and aren’t in this regard the most exciting figures that Deetail produced). They are, again, figures to be played with.
I don’t have a favourite set. I like the naïve charm of the early Heralds and the thinking that went into the Swoppets, but I bet the most practical set are the Deetail. But what do you think?
The figures used in all three Britains sets of Federal infantry were – painted with grey uniforms – also released as matching Confederates. In fact, come to think of it, this reuse of the investment may have been another reason why the American Civil War so appealed to Britains! The relevant Deetail set is 7440 Confederate Infantry.
Britains also released Deetail set 7449 Federal Cavalry to accompany the infantry. This, like the infantry, was also re-used to provide set 7439 Confederate Cavalry.
The Civil War was the first conflict in which the famous Gatling gun – an early machine-gun – was used, albeit in small numbers and only by the Federal forces. Britains liked the thought of it, and produced the short-lived and now quite rare 7470 Gatling Gun and Crew. They did not, however, create any artillery for the Deetail range, probably because they had already released a rather magnificent field gun, limber and crew in the same style (but without the multiple parts) as the Swoppets figures. The gun itself is 9726 American Civil War Field Piece.
NB: Shortly after release, the Deetail infantryman with rifle and bayonet described in this story was replaced by a simpler one-piece moulding (and lost his bayonet in the process), so there is in effect a seventh infantry pose to be had…