A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Friday, 3 September 2010

Figures & Figure Scales - choice or accident?

I did think, once, of growing up, but I looked at the grown-ups around me and dropped the idea pretty quickly. I have never looked back.

My armies are based on the Peninsular War. I use 20mm, or "true 25mm", or 1/72 scale figures, and they are almost all white metal. There is a total of some 3500 painted figures now, which is not remarkable - quite humble compared with some of the wondrous collections I see every day on the Internet - but they are working armies, built to a Grand Plan (which has evolved over the years), and - though I delight as much as anyone in the odd rarity and the vintage figures, their prestige score and monetary value are really secondary matters. I'm still feeling my way into this blog business, so thought I would devote a couple of posts (and some thought) to just how and why I finished up with this period, this particular size of figures and the range of manufacturers who have provided them. On another occasion I'll get to things like painting styles and basing, which latter topic is necessarily related to the rules I use. As usual with my wiriting, the point of the journey is as much to do with the passing scenery as with the published destination!

Collecting seems to me to be a strange activity, though of course I can only comment with any authority on my own position. I have always collected stuff. In approximate chronological order, that includes Dinky Toys, cigarette cards of 1950s footballers, unbelievable numbers of books, records-then-cassettes-then-CDs, archtop guitars and, most relevant to the current posting, little model soldiers to fight battles.

In none of these cases have I set out to build a collection. I just get interested in something and obtain a few more, and then start identifying examples it would be nice to have, until - inevitably - the dreaded Completism Sickness sets in and I become uneasy and distracted if I don't have the full set. In the case of wargames figures, it makes some sort of sense, since it is necessary to produce a working representation of something which, in the real world, is (or was) itself a collection.

Foy's Second Law states:

If you can produce a logical justification for your hobby, then it almost certainly is just an obsession.

There you go - I've started with a digression. At least it's out of the way.

In about 1971 I borrowed Don Featherstone's "War Games" from my local public library and I was never the same again. To quote from the introduction to another classic wargames bible, Charlie Wesencraft's "Practical Wargaming", I had an odd feeling that this was something I had been searching for all my life. In a fever of blundering enthusiasm, I bought and mutilated and daubed boxes and boxes of Airfix ACW figures, bought some whacking great sheets of chipboard (which I still use) and had some truly wild battles using Featherstone's rules. I roped in a few mates to play against - it was really most exciting, though the games left too much scope for confusion and argument, and - on the rare occasions when they reached a conclusion - there was frequently a slight feeling of frustration that the rules were so lumpy. But we kept trying to improve the game. Though most of my erstwhile opponents have moved on to more useful ways of spending their lives, I guess I am still trying.

At this point I had never considered the possibility of these plastic armies becoming anything as significant as a collection, they were simply the playing pieces for the wargames. A visiting player smiled at my Stonewall Jackson figure - a crudely painted cowpoke from the Airfix Wagon Train set, and in self-defence I ordered up some metal generals from Hinton Hunt. They were a revelation. The ACW staff figures must have been in relatively low demand - the castings were exquisite, and these remarkable little, jewel-like figures became the showpiece of my armies. That is the point at which the collection probably started. So I ordered up a load of HH zouaves, which eventually arrived, wrapped in newspaper, from Camden Passage, and that is when the reality of collecting hit me. The castings were very rough - it took long, painful hours with needle files to get them into any sort of useable shape, and I took a long time and a lot of care over painting them. The Airfix figures moved to the back of the shelf.

So I was not a life-long military modeller or collector of Britain's soldiers, I simply got fired up in my early 20s by the possibility of producing a miniature simulation of warfare on a tabletop. The smart rows of soldiers were needed for the game, but had a great visual appeal as well. The ACW didn't last long for me, though I do regret not having made more of a go of it. It didn't take much reading to realise that most of the ACW was fought in woods, with troops in open order or dug in behind barricades. Whatever we were doing with Featherstone's rules, it wasn't really the ACW. Around this time I was also an occasional visitor to the South East Scotland Wargames Group, dominated by the formidable George Jeffrey, and it became obvious that Napoleonics were the thing to do. There was a good supply of figures, there was a huge wealth of literature, the uniforms were sumptuous, the tactics of the day were ideal for the tabletop, and there was a nice balance between the capabilities of infantry, cavalry and artillery. I had already been rather put off Ancients (and apologies to all their myriad devotees) because all the games I was involved in ended in a huge grinding match in the centre, which didn't seem to me to be worth all the dice throwing to sort out. I was also, I have to say, put off by the WRG rules of the day, which were frighteningly thorough but also seemed a bit high-handed; if a book of rules tells you exactly what shape of hills you should build, and prescribes which colour of counters you should use to indicate odd attributes of your units, then the phrase "control freak" forms in the back of my mind.

Quick digression on exactly this topic...

Recently I was reading a set of rules, and in the preface the author stated that games should be fun and should be playable (in which he has my wholehearted support), and that much of the pseudo-legal small print of rules sets can be eliminated if the players remember that it is a game, and that any areas of doubt in the rules, if they cannot be settled by reasoned discussion, should be decided by the roll of a dice. Strangely, I felt, he then went on to stipulate that this had to be a decimal dice. Bong! - paradox alert...

Back to the subject in hand.

I experimented with Rene North's little Almark books and some Airfix French, then took the plunge and made Les Higgins my manufacturer of choice. I have included a photo of the oldest identifiable unit I have - the 1st Battalion of the 6eme Leger; the colonel and the hornist are recent Kennington, the unit has been re-based several times, but otherwise the figures and the Humbrol paint job are original 1974. A testament to the protective power of acrylic varnish?

To be continued.


  1. Hello,

    I've just discovered your blog. I'm actually dumbfounded as your armies somehow look and feel as I intended my future napoleonic armies to look and feel. I on the other hand plan to use the classic Tunbridge Wells Napoleonic rules by G. Gush.
    I still haven't decided what kind of miniatures I'll be using...I would love armies loike yours, but I'm a bit concerned about availability in the long run.
    Anyway, I've linked you in my blog. Good luck with this wonderful project.


  2. Hi Pjotr - thanks for your kind comments.

    Ultimately, availability is everything. If my armies have any kind uniformity now, then it's the result of an extended damage-limitation exercise! With makers going bust and changing sizes, it has been tricky, but I've been lucky enough to get things sorted out.

    Whatever size you go for, you have to have a choice of suppliers or else a big stock of figures!

    I wish I could have talked to an experienced collector when I started off - I could have avoided some very silly mistakes.