Wargaming with Plastic Toy Soldiers – Part I – 1/72 scale
(Note: The piece below formed the basis of an article I wrote for Wargames Illustrated Magazine in 2018. It was put together around January 2018 so parts of it will date over time but I thought it may still be of interest, particularly to newcomers to the hobby. Rupert 24/09/19)
This two-part overview article is aimed at gamers interested in exploring a new scale or a new material or a new era or a combination of these. In Part I shall look at 1/72 scale figures (with Part II covering 1/32 scale - see link at foot of page).
By 1/72 scale I mean that we are talking about mainly “soft” plastic figures that are typically 20-25mm tall. Many people will rightly immediately think of Airfix but as I will set out there is so much more to gaming in 1/72 scale these days and reasons for doing so extend far beyond their relatively low cost.
Let’s consider the quantity of sets available to begin with.
The go-to website for plastic 1/72 scale enthusiasts is www.plasticsoldierreview.com or PSR for short. According to their analysis over 1600 1/72 scale plastic soldier sets have been released since 1958 by over fifty different manufacturers covering fifty or so historical eras.
This is for figure sets only and does not include tanks, vehicles, buildings, scenery or accessory sets – of which there are many available in 1/72 scale but that’s another article in itself.
Of those 1600 or so sets more than 75% have hit the market since 2002. 2009 was a record year seeing a whopping 142 new sets hit the market and every year since then more than sixty sets have arrived including 2017 with sixty-two new releases.
Clearly many older sets will now be out of production either permanently or temporarily but even allowing for this the best part of 1000 sets are still in production and currently available. Add to that all the retired sets that can be found on ebay or at specialist retailers and you have a pretty big pool of figure sets to choose from.
It’s worth pointing out that PSR only review historical sets and do not cover Fantasy so we have that to add to the mix as well with companies such as Dark Alliance and Caesar producing over forty 1/72 scale sets in this genre ranging from Amazons to Zombies.
So with this volume of sets to choose from it is increasingly easy to pick up all the units you need to complete a substantial all arms force in most of the more popular historical eras such as Napoleonic, WW2, Ancient & Medieval, Colonial and American Civil War not to mention many less high profile eras.
One important development that has helped keep the new release count up and greatly benefit gamers in this scale is the arrival of “MAC” sets. US manufacturer HaT was one of the first to do this type of thing with Strelets and Waterloo1815 doing similar to varying extents. “MAC “ being Marching / Action / Command.
At one time most sets would be released containing a real mix of poses which could be good for diorama builders but less useful for gamers who wanted mainly marching poses for example.
Now gamers can more readily choose which poses they want – buying maybe half a dozen sets of Marching troops and one of the Command set and one Action box for the skirmishers.
Prolific Ukrainian producer Strelets have broadened the “MAC” idea out further offering sets in a variety of specific pose type such as “In Attack”, “Charging”, “in Defence” and “at Ease”.
Hopefully this will sooth the fears some folk may have about 1/72 scale sets that even allowing for their relatively low prices they often have too many useless poses. If further assurance is needed I would add that ebay offers a great mechanism to sell off unwanted figures and converting seemingly duff poses into casualties and the like can be an enjoyable aspect of the hobby in it’s own right.
So that’s quantity dealt with but what about quality?
Well as you might expect it’s a mixed bag to some extent but also a matter of personal taste and preference. PSR really comes into it’s own here as it offers detailed independent reviews of historical 1/72 scale sets including pose pictures and scores out of ten for five different key attributes.
Those key attributes being: Historical Accuracy, Pose Quality, Pose Number, Sculpting & Mould. Very useful when weighing up your needs to build a wargames army particularly as they also show pics of the box artwork, the sprue frames and details of figure heights.
Among the very best figures produced in my opinion have been those by Russian manufacturer Zvezda. They offer wonderful sculpts, clean moulds, dynamic poses and realistic proportions. Their extensive range of about eighty sets covers many eras spanning Spartans through to Saxon Napoleonic Cuirassiers to WW1 Germans.
Unfortunately Zvezda’s 1/72 scale figure output has slowed in recent years and they have focussed more on their small hard plastic multi-part Art of Tactic range of sets rather than the larger softer plastic sets with many more figures per box. On the upside is that most of the sets that they have produced have been kept in production most of the time.
With the likes of Revell, Italeri (including many ex-Esci), Airfix and Imex joining Zvezda in slowing down or stopping new releases of late let’s take a look at those manufacturers at the forefront of the hobby just now producing new things – some of whom I have mentioned already.
Strelets - They regularly release significant new batches of new figures across many key eras. At time of writing the latest group of releases arrived in December 2017 offering fourteen new sets covering Napoleonics, ACW, WW2, WW1 and the Russian Civil War. Strelets have produced over 300 sets split over three different series. Their regular sets usually contain many different poses with fewer repeats. The Mini sets feature fewer poses but more frequent repeats and the Arms series features figures with artillery and vehicles etc… Over the past year or two Strelets have changed their sculpting style and box artwork on many new sets. So if you haven’t looked at their output in a while it’s well worth taking another look. Future plans include Napoleonic Old Guard, Prussian Landwehr, various Camel Corps sets and a box of Spartacus Army figures. Price wise most infantry sets cost between £6.50 and £7.99 and usually contain 40-50 figures. Strelets have a good website and an active forum. www.strelets-r.com
Caesar Miniatures – Based in Taiwan Caesar like Strelets regularly release pretty healthy batches of new figures. Their latest batch of figures arrived in the UK late last year and featured sets as diverse as WW2 German Fallschirmjager Heavy Weapons and Ancient Chinese Warriors. The sculpting quality of Caesar is usually pretty high and most of their sets present figures individually rather than on larger sprue frames. Caesar have produced well over 100 sets, most of which are still in production. This includes several of their interesting Fantasy range which features Orcs, Goblins, Undead, Zombies, Elves, Adventurers, Ratmen & Lizardmen. Most Caesar sets retail for around £7.99.
Waterloo1815 – This Italian manufacturer have produced about fifty or so sets with code AP041 Napoleonic French Foot Dragoons having been the most recent. This popular, nicely sculpted set followed on from other well received Napoleonic releases such as French Line Lancers and British Heavy Dragoons. Their separate 1815 uniform French Line Fusiliers Marching and Voltigeur sets also proved popular. 2018 should see the release of their Prussian Staff set for the 1813-15 period which will very likely be a good seller. As well as Napoleonics, and despite the company name, Waterloo1815 offer sets in several other periods such as WW2, WW1 and Colonial - many featuring Italian forces as you might expect. Price wise taking their new Dragoons as an example this set features 52 foot figures in 13 different poses and retails for around £10.99 excluding any postage. So about 21p per figure.
RedBox – This Ukrainian manufacturer has produced over 100 sets covering some interesting areas such as the Boxer Rebellion, Wars of the Roses, the Jacobite Rebellion and various troops of the 16th & 17th Century. Their Police & Civilians and Gangster sets from Prohibition era America are an unusual and welcome couple of sets ideal for skirmish gaming. RedBox’s most recent releases were a pair of boxes of 15th Century Burgundian Infantry and Knights. Sets costs around £7.99. Website www.theredbox.co.ua
Dark Alliance – As you may have noticed many 1/72 scale figures are produced by Eastern European manufacturers and Fantasy specialist Dark Alliance is another. Their figures are made in the Ukraine and are featured on the RedBox website. Among their more recent releases were two sets of “Fire Demons”. Previous releases have included a comprehensive assortment of Trolls, Orcs, Wargs, Amazons, Cimmeranians, Dwarves and Zombies. Great stuff whether you wish to put together sizeable fantasy armies or skirmish forces at reasonable prices. For example set number 72030 War Trolls #1 contains 8 trolls in 4 poses and retails for about £7.99 – A pound per Troll!
Mars – Again from Eastern Europe Mars have been regularly releasing sets in recent years. Their 100 set plus output is varied covering eras from Ancients to Medieval to WW2. The Thirty Years War has been a conflict of particular focus for Mars with many different sets released. They also have several Pirate sets that have been popular. Their most recent new sets covered late 17th Century Austrians and Turks.
Ultima Ratio – Another company from the Ukraine this relatively new manufacturer is showing promise with sets so far including subjects such as Chindits, WW2 Japanese, WW2 Russians, Medievals and French HYW Musketeers. Cardinal Richelieu’s Guards are next up by the look of it.
HaT – Although they have been in a bit of a new release lull of late I have included HaT here as they look like releasing a batch of interesting new sets before too long. I believe that these should include Prussian Landwehr, Unmarried Zulus, WWI Belgian Infantry & Heavy Weapons, WW1 French Artillery Crew (Early War) and WW2 French Artillery Crew. These will add to the 300 or so sets already produced by HaT most of which are still in current production. There are also many avid HaT fans pressing for re-releases of several popular sets that are currently o/p and hopefully in the queue to be run once more – Nassau Napoleonics, WW1 German Infantry and Peninsular British for example. HaT have covered many historical eras most notably Napoleonics, Colonial, WW1, WW2, El Cid and Ancients with their most recent couple of new sets being Sassanid Light Cavalry and Sassanid Clibanarii. HaT have a comprehensive website including a forum at www.hat.com.
Honourable mentions should go to several other manufacturers for keeping their sets in production even if new releases from some of them are sometimes a bit thin on the ground. These include companies like A Call to Arms (18 sets made), Emhar (18), Orion (c 50), Linear-b (14 sets mainly Roman), Pegasus (24 mainly WW2), Plastic Soldier (12 WW2 sets excluding tanks) and Valiant (10 WW2). All worth checking out as are any others I have not had time or space to cover.
So that’s pretty much it for what’s available in 1/72 scale. I’ve mentioned PSR a lot but it really is very helpful in showing you what’s what before you decide to buy. When you have decided to buy it also features a list of 1/72 scale plastic retailers from around the world you may wish purchase from.
What else should you know about 1/72 scale plastics?
Painting and gluing spring to mind as worth a mention as they crop up as topics on forums quite often. Many people seem to remember 1970’s Airfix type plastics not taking enamel paint well or flaking off far too readily on the table top. Clearly this was an issue for some but is it still?
Well I can only speak from my own experience and I have to say I have not found there to be too many issues as long as you follow certain routines.
Firstly I would advise that figures are washed in soapy water and then thoroughly rinsed and dried. This helps get rid of any moulding agents used in the manufacturing process that may hinder paint from adhering. Some folk don’t bother with this and still find no problems so the choice is of course yours.
Next I would recommend undercoating with either a brush or spray on base coat. This helps the paint to stick and can also be a speedy way to apply your first paint colour to. Again many painters don’t bother with an undercoat and still produce good results so trial and error may be the way forward for you.
I also suggest using water based acrylic paints such as those from Spanish company Vallejo. Make sure the paints are well shaken before use to get the pigment fully spread through the pot and therefore applied properly.
Whilst painting try not to hold the actual figures too much with bare hands as the natural oily secretions from your skin can make the figure surface less receptive to paint.
Finish off by applying a spray gloss varnish for extra protection, allow to dry and spray Matt varnish to get a more realistic flat finish if that is the look you want. Do observe the manufacturer’s notes on the temperature you use varnish sprays in to avoid blooming (white residue) ruining your paint work.
Lastly store them as safely as you can to minimise them bashing each other, at pretty stable room temperatures if possible and out of direct sunlight which can have a detrimental impact on the plastic and the paintwork.
Hopefully by doing some or all of the above you will find you plastic figures are easy to paint and that the paint stays where you want it once applied. As with any type of figure hard knocks on the miniature battlefield will cause damage, particularly bayonets for example but I have not seen my 1/72 scale plastics perform any worse than my 28mm metals and in fact their relative lightness can help when you are as clumsy as I tend to be.
Regarding glue – well most of the figures I have mentioned do not require any assembly once off the sprue frame which will be a relief to some if not to others. However where it is needed – to secure riders to horses for example - what works will to some extent depend on the type of plastic your figures are made of. 1/72 scale plastics vary from the almost rubbery to others that are a lot harder.
For the latter it is no surprise therefore that something like Revell’s Contacta cement works well. Whereas for other softer figures you may find something like SuperGlue works better. I also generally base my 1/72 scale figures on the 40mm square low profile plastic bases from Victrix using Superglue. Although care has to be taken to avoid using too much or sometimes a white residue from the fumes appears on your figures which is not helpful to say the least. I did try Bostik All Purpose to get around this but found it warped the bases as it dried. As with varnishing temperature can be a factor when trying to glue plastic figures together so bear that in mind as well.
Lastly before I close I briefly want to touch on finding an opponent and rules.
Rules is a simple hurdle to overcome in my view – just use the same rules everyone else does or write your own house rules. I have for example used Hail Caesar, Black Powder, Fire and Fury, LOTR SBG and Flames of War with my various 1/72 scale forces over the years. Sometimes making adjustments for the scale and other times not so much. Do what suits your needs.
Regarding opponents - I rarely get out of my office / man cave so don’t have personal experience of wargames clubs. However my sense is that 1/72 plastics are not widely used in most clubs, certainly when compared to 28mm and 15mm figures.
So for club players at least you may initially have a problem finding an opponent. Solutions to this include solo gaming of course or having a circle of friends that share your passion for 1/72 scale or collecting both sides for a battle and finding an opponent open to giving them a try with you.
As set out earlier the ongoing volume of new releases suggests that despite such issues plenty of folk across the globe are like me and very much enjoy gaming with 1/72 scale figures. Hopefully after reading this you may want to give 1/72 scale figures a try yourself too.
Next up in Part II – 1/32 scale plastic figures.
(I am a 1/72 & 1/32 scale plastics collector, gamer and painter. About 12 years ago I let my hobby get the better of me and turned it into a business spawning internet retailer Drum & Flag. Many of the products I mention in my article are available at my webstore https://www.drumandflag.co.uk/
LINK TO ARTICLE PART II: https://www.drumandflag.co.uk/blogs/news/wargaming-with-plastic-soldiers-part-2-1-32-scale
You may also be interested in:
My article on: Painting plastic toy soldiers
And photos of my painted 1/72 scale Napoleonic Buildings converted from the Airfix Waterloo kit - click here: Nap Buildings