In 1988, ESCI produced a surprise. A new range of plastic figures was launched in the larger 1:35 scale. If the figures looked strangely familiar, this was because exactly the same figures had appeared in their 1:72 range. So, obviously, some sort of re-use or re-engineering was involved here. More importantly, how do the larger figures compare?
The Imperial Guard Grenadiers
We’ll take as our example the ESCI set of Napoleonic French Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, perhaps the toughest and most famous troops in Napoleon’s army. The Guard formed an elite corps within the army, and, within this, the Grenadiers were the most prestigious units of all. At the time of the invasion of Russia in 1812, the Guard comprised roughly 50,000 men, of whom 4,000 were Grenadiers, out of a total army (French and allies) of perhaps 600,000. As can be seen therefore, the Grenadiers were a small component of the Guard, and a tiny part of the French army.
Entry to the Guard and especially the Grenadiers, was carefully controlled, with recruits selected from veterans of good character. They were paid more than the line soldiers, well-equipped and strongly loyal to the Emperor Napoleon. It is somewhat ironic then, that in general the Guard was used as a bodyguard and army reserve to be committed only in extreme circumstances. As a result, they saw relatively little combat until the disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia, where they suffered badly (though not as badly as the rest of the French army). At Waterloo, the Grenadiers were held back until late in the day and famously ommitted as part of the final attack by Napoleon. When this failed to break through the allied line, the battle was lost.
The ESCI Imperial Guard
You will notice that our set of 1:72 figures was produced and boxed by Italeri, who acquired the moulds some time after ESCI had gone out of business. Differences in labelling on the box raises the question, who exactly are they meant to represent? ESCI was very specific and on their box labelled them “Napoleonic Wars”, “French Imperial Guard” and “Waterloo 1815”, clearly intending the figures to represent Guard Grenadiers as they appeared at Waterloo. Italeri, however, simply described them as “French Grenadiers” of the Napoleonic Wars, thus broadening the timescale and encompassing also grenadiers in non-Guard units. This works prior to 1812, since up to that date all grenadiers wore the bearskin helmets carried by the figures; after 1812 these were reserved for the Guard.
214 Napoleonic Wars French Imperial Guard
Year first produced:1984
L222xW150xH30 (Italeri box), Plastic 85g, Scale 1:72, Features: 0
Inside the box is the standard ESCI double-sprue, containing 50 figures in 14 poses. As usual the poses are split into three groups. The most common five poses appear five times each, and represent fairly standard fighting stances, though it is difficult to determine exactly what the kneeling figure holding his musket upright is doing.
The next group of five poses appear three times each, and are also mainly combat poses. However, they include a pioneer wearing his ceremonial apron and (rather awkwardly) holding his axe; a striking but not very useful pose, since he is not wielding the tool, and in combat would use a musket.
The final group of five figures appear twice each. They represent a command group of officer, drummer and flagbearer, plus a single piece with two figures, one wounded and the other assisting and defending him with drawn sabre (note that all grenadiers wore sabres in addition to carrying muskets, and neither man is an officer).
The figures are typical of the ESCI range: well moulded, with good anatomy and crisp detail. However, it’s a shame that there are some inaccuracies in the figures. The marching figure rather precariously holds his musket on the right shoulder, not on the left as he would normally; there are minor inaccuracies with the uniform, e.g. some of the figures are missing their sabres and bayonets and none has a water bottle. The command group is especially disappointing: the drum, the flag and even the pioneer’s apron (not worn on active service) are far too small, and the poses are unexciting, almost casual.
Four years after the release of our set of 1:72 grenadiers, ESCI launched their new range of 1:35 figures. As mentioned in the introduction, the sculpts are identical to the 1:72 range. So how did ESCI do this? Now, I’m no expert and I don’t know how exactly how ESCI approached the challenge, but one thing we can be sure of is that back in the 1980s digital technology was not advanced enough to provide any assistance.
ESCI almost certainly re-used the masters created for their 1:72 range. These would have been much larger than the resulting production figures, to allow for easier working and for detail to be more easily captured. The masters were then scaled down to the required size through pantography. So, what is a pantograph?
It’s easiest to explain a pantograph by starting with a 2D version such as that pictured above, which is designed to scale up (or down) drawings or illustrations. The apparatus is anchored by the sucker nearest to the camera, and the pointer behind and to the right is used to trace the original illustration. Movements of this pointer cause the extended arm to flex and copy the trace via a held pen onto a blank sheet of paper seen in the right background.
The 3D version of the pantograph is more complex as you might expect, but follows the same principle. Such machines are not new: they were, for example, used during the early Victorian era for making copies of sculptures and ornaments. The pen of the 2D pantograph was replaced by a tool that would cut away excess material to produce a larger – or, more often, a smaller – copy.
ESCI most probably, therefore, created the 1:35 figures using the same process that they used for their 1:72 range. Using a pantograph, new moulds were produced from the same masters created for their 1:72 range. Let’s take a look at the figures.
The 1:35 Grenadiers
As with their 1:72 range, ESCI sold the 1:35 figures under both the ESCI label and their A-Toys brand. My set is boxed by the latter, and entitled 1605 Napoleonic Wars – French Guards.
The set consists of 14 figures, with two each in 7 poses. As mentioned, these are the same poses as seen in the 1:72 set. Six of the poses are in combat, and the seventh is our friend, the pioneer. The selection is curious. Why was the officer not included, since every soldier needs a commander? Conversely, why include the pioneer in his ceremonial garb? Perhaps the answer is that ESCI thought the figure was particularly unusual and impressive, whereas the officer, sculpted in the act of drawing his sword rather than flourishing it aloft, failed to excite.
The figures in the 1:72 set average 24mm in height from the soles of their feet to the top of their heads, meaning they represent men who were roughly 1 metre 73cm (5 feet 9 inches) high. This is slightly tall for men of the era, but since grenadiers were especially selected for their height it is probably historically accurate.
At this height, the figures in the 1:35 set should have measured about 49mm. However, they are, in fact, a bit smaller at 46mm. This would make them approximately 1:38 scale (or, one could argue, they represent shorter men). In fact, what really strikes me is how slender and delicate the figures look, a feature shared, of course, with the 1:72 set but somehow not so apparent in the smaller size.
When looking at the larger figures, the level of detail appears very good. The bearskin, the hair and the epaulettes are well-textured; details like the cuffs, the buttons on the vest and the crest on the cartridge cases are all clearly modelled; the faces are particularly good; and the detail is crisp and well-defined. You don’t feel that anything is missing, and what is present, is easy to distinguish and would be easy to paint.
I think a real surprise comes when closely comparing the figures with their smaller cousins. All of the detail apparent on the larger figures is also present and visible on the smaller – nothing has been added or lost. This is, of course, what you might expect if ESCI re-used the masters designed for the 1:72 series. But think what it says about those smaller figures. ESCI were able to pack into them a level of detail that is perfectly adequate for figures twice the scale: in other words, they really are very detailed indeed!
Other sets of figures that were also released in 1:35 scale include:
- 5502 Modern U.S. Soldiers (copies of 239), described for some reason as paratroopers
- 5504 WW2 German Infantry (201)
- 5509 WW2 Russian Soldiers (203)
I will be reviewing the 1:72 WW2 Russian Soldiers set in this website, when you will be able to see the full set of poses included. Rather bizarrely, the 1:35 selection included the cavalryman, but not his horse! Perhaps as suggested earlier in this story ESCI thought that he would add some variety to the offering, and he is on foot, but the pose is still awkward as he is clearly meant to be leading the (absent) horse by the reins.