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A Toy Soldier Primer: Britains Ltd.


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Royal Field Artillery. Britains horse drawn artillery sets were always spectacular. Although set #144 was first issued in 1906, the set shown here dates to 1916-17, the year when they replaced the twisted wire roped traces between the horses with metal rods, eliminated the buckets seats on the gun, and gunners that rode on top of them. The horses still retail their old collar harnesses that would be replaced in 1922 by the improved breast harness. The gun’s finish is in brownish khaki, shown it was likely made the year before the company gave all their guns and wagons a darkened “fumed” finish which will be talked about later. The other set seen at the bottom comes from an on-line image, and shows the set in its post-1932 configuration (a new gun and updated limber). Note gunners no longer ride on the limber (in fact the seated gunners are eliminated) and the collars have been changed to the lighter breast harness.












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Feet together-Feet apart. Britains earliest lying firing figures had their feet together. At some point around 1933 they realized this pose was not realistic, so they redesigned them with their feet apart as shown here on the right. 


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US Marines. To the left is a set of pre-war Marines that would contain 8 Marines at the slope without officer, but one figure would be painted as a well hashmarked NCO (to include blood striped trousers). They wear blue dress caps, but with a strangely embellished red hatband and collar. Perhaps this is attempt to recreate the Marine’s long discarded special dress uniform. The postwar figures below appear with white dress cap and an empty handed officer (not shown)who was introduced in 1948. Note the painting styles between the pre-war and post-war eras. 



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West Point cadets came in summer and winter uniforms starting in 1926. The set consisted of 8 marching cadets. On the left is the pre-war cadets in winter uniforms. On the right post-war cadets in their summer dress uniforms. Both sets in summer and winter uniforms were available pre- and post-war. Again, a good opportunity to study painting styles and how the paint Britains used mellows after 80 plus years.



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Three versions of the 4.7 “ Naval Gun….a popular model that lasted in the Britains inventory until the late 1970’s. It was based upon a naval gun modified for land action during the Boer War. It was a popular item and it appears prominently in H. G. Wells book “Little Wars”. On the far right with gold barrel is the gun’s second version (roughly 1904-08) with an open spring on the gun’s trail. The first version had a closed spring, but Britains found the spring broke easily and was hard to replace, so the rectified the problem through redesign. The next version dates from WWI or shortly thereafter, when Britains “fumed finished” their wagons and guns by hanging them in sheds above vats of smoking chemicals. The third version now painted in a olive color with gun shield added, dates after 1934 and was a completely redesigned model of the gun.  Later models were made of increasingly cheaper and lighter metal and painted a dark but yet brighter green.




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What make a set valuable. Same as in any collecting field: rarity, condition, and desirability. Rarity is based usually upon how long a figure was produced, or how likely it was to survive to this day. A early set #1 Life Guard figure (that was modeled on German mounted figures) in good to excellent condition that was produced in 1893, but replaced by a remodeled figure three years later, will be far more desirable then a mint in box set #1 Life Guard figure made in the 1920’s….of which thousands might survive. Collectors also love original boxes, although many years ago this was not the case. And now box condition is a factor…is the box intact, edges rubbed, is the label clean, tie card missing? Next is the set complete. If you know a set had 8 men but one is missing or broken, value drops considerably. Some collectors think they can buy a rare set and add a missing single piece. However, this in many cases proves next to impossible, as paint shades varied and painting styles vary slightly set to set (after all they were hand painted)…even if two identical figures were produced at the same time….painters were given pails of paint to take home or use in the factory and it’s rare to see a match. As one dealer said “finding matching khaki figures is next to impossible as there was countless shades of khaki in the Britains paint inventory”. Broken figures go beyond the obvious of missing bases or heads or arms, they include snapped off bayonets, helmet balls and spikes, rifle barrels…all impact value…paint loss is a factor. Another thing to check for is match stick repairs. Heads break off…but the can easily be mended by sticking a match stick in the neck of a figure and glued to the body of the casting. Look along the neck area for repairs. One interesting bit of damage is figures with holes in them….early Britains cannons shot lead shells and rods with the pretty good velocity and this accounts for damage we sometimes see (note the mounted figure with the round hole). Collectors like matched sets that have been together since they left  the factory. Check bases, does the base paint match for all the figures. Do the flesh tones match on the faces, the hair match, the shades of paint on the uniforms, do they match? Note a solidly repaired horse leg and three distinct sailors from different sets but still sold as a set….






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Black light testing. Britains paint does not really react to black light, but modern paints used for touching up do. So if you see glow, chances are the figures have been messed with. Of course restorers and some sellers who are setting out deceive, now use paints that do not react to black light. Study your figures carefully. Sadly, these figures are fully repainted….with an original of the same period to compare it to….





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Once Britains “standard size” soldiers became a dominate force in the UK, the company attempted to expand into other sections of toy soldier market. This led them prior to WWI to produce smaller scale (I think 44mm) figures (although well painted), and a line of gold wash single colored figures that could be had for a Pence apiece. After WWI they brought out a new line they called the “A Series”. These figures were the same size as their standard figures, but lacked moveable arms and were painted to a noticeably lower standard. The introduction of their A Series coincided with Britains expansion into the American market, and so a number of US figures were available as both standard and A Series sets. Here we have an opportunity to compare similar figures from both ranges: Set # 63A American sailors wearing their winter uniform and a standard Set #230 US Sailors also in winter uniform. Both sets were issued in 1926 (although #230 shown here judging from the painting style, author and Britains expert, Joe Wallis estimates to be from around 1937).  The first thing you notice is the A Series does not enjoy the benefit of fancy Whisstock artwork, instead it’s a plain label box. Then you open the box and see the contents: only 6 sailors vice the customary 8 per box, and they do not have movable arms. As for the painting differences: the Standard series utilizes 10 distinct shades of paint, while the A Series only uses 7. In addition, the A Series figures are not painted to the same high standard: gaiters and shoes form a single swipe of brown paint, while the Standard set has black shoes and brown gaiters.  The artist paints the lower half A Series rifles in blue as she uses that color for the trousers. Note the A Series only has black eyes for the face, while the Standard Set has eyes, cheeks, and lips painted in. Set #230 and the A Series lasted until 1941. 









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What is hot and what is not. In the 1970’s prices for old Britains took off and continued to climb through the 80’s and 90’s, but has since gone soft. The reasons are numerous, but tastes change. Just a few years ago collecting Britains band sets was the hot ticket, now one dealer complains you can’t give them away. Right now the types of Britains most likely to be found in this country are post-war figures….for these in many cases, the market is very flat….but select Ancients and rare Pre-war sets are doing pretty well.  Here are some pictures of a Royal Medical Crops ambulance set. Probably made in the early 1920’s, it gives you a good idea of the amazing range of figures Britains produced.


Now we come to the end of the main portion of the lead figure primer. I hope it has helped those unfamiliar with Britains and what to look for when you come across them. Below is a highly shortened history of the company, post-lead era. These are the types of Britain’s items you most likely will encounter at garage sales, and flea markets. 






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With the demise of the lead soldier, Britains switched production to its various lines of plastic figures. These are shots from their 1973 catalog showing the types of figures children of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s grew up with…and were available in hobby stores and high end department stores. Although in the early 70’s Sears was also selling them. For those grown collectors that had the WWII range, the helmet decals easily fell off after a few battles. Surprisingly, their plastic figures are now becoming highly collectible. The last three photos are from Britain’s Deetail range probably in the 80’s (thanks Gil for sharing them) showing how the American Civil War/7th Cav figures evolved over those three decades.
















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And then in 1973 Britains announced the restart of metal (no longer using lead) toy soldier production with these hybrid plastic and metal Guardsmen. Although they were a far cry from the standards the company set decades before, us younger collectors were ecstatic. 



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By the early 1980’s interest in sold toy soldiers had exploded….and again better department stores started carrying hand painted  “cottage workshop” metal figures, auction houses started hosting antique toy soldier sales, and SoS-like multi-day shows were held across the country.  Britains seeing this trend, started issuing limited edition metal figure sets yearly through the 1980’s. These retailed for $75 a set and for several years discontinued sets would soar to $1,000 before the market collapsed, and now can be had for between $75 and $200 a set.



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And in the 1990’s limited edition sets painted to closely mirror their earlier figures came out. In fact, they even used in some cases original moulds to recast and recreate earlier sets, or create new sets for units previously not produced during the days of the Empire. And at this point you get a general idea of the range of figures out there….running from vintage lead to current. Last three photos via UK eBay










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I am pretty much done with this primer, so now its time to do a thread on American, French, or German made-figures. With the advent of the restarting of metal figure production, Britains has over the last three decades produced a variety of ranges highlighting different styles. For a few years the company released a series of historic figures based upon the highly animated and excellently painted style of “King and Country” out of Hong Kong. As well a new styles as their designers saw fit. In 1984 the family sold the company, and I believe it is now owned by an American conglomerate that still produces figures (last three photos via Uk eBay)







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  • 10 months later...

Adding a few more updates to this thread…in 1952 Britains hit on an idea of selling its primary line (A-series) figures individually, most likely they were getting market pressure from lower end makers and the introduction of plastic figures. So as a counter to these threats, Britains introduced the Picture Pack line….a single figure in its own small box (but no with no picture viewing window). The concept was not a commercial success and was halted by 1959,  but collectors today find these desirable. Here is a minty Gordon’s Officer with binoculars, that was unavailable in any other set. It’s surrounded with its original paper packing. The figure’s name stamped on one side of the box.





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One thing I have been seeing for several years now at shows is boxes with reprinted labels….since an original box with intact label adds much to the figures value, ensure yours is not a copy. In addition, in regions were their are enough collectors I have started seeing both reproduction and original labels on the marked. Also dealers are willfully removing labels from damaged or incomplete boxes and sticking them on original boxes, in addition to selling copies of original labels . Below is a good original from a premier dealer, that I picked up as an example for study. If added to an original box it will make the set more desirable. I don't think in the antique soldier collecting community, unlike in the militaria community, this reattaching a real label is a big thing as long as it’s an original label and box. The labels were a single printed sheet folded at one end so the stores could them stacked on top of each other with end label facing out  for ease of finding particular sets in store rooms.  One photo shows the hinge point between top label and end label.




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While perusing eBay I have come across another range of Britains figures….these are indeed original castings being reused by the company. In many cases, these figures are better painted today then they were when originally issued.  They are not meant to deceive, but a real novice buyer or seller might mistake them for vintage. (Photos via eBay)



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