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

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Les Higgins

When I first saw Higgins figures, I was – as you might say – smitten. They were not like other figures I had seen, they were beautifully sculpted, with correct human proportions, they had a simple elegance and they were very cleanly cast. I don’t know why they looked so crisp – did they use different alloys? I do know that the firm had a background of casting figures for sporting trophies and so on, and you can sort of see it in the soldiers, with the smooth finish and the rather stylised poses.

Now I have to make it clear that this post also includes the Napoleonic products of Phoenix Model Developments (PMD), which the firm morphed into after Higgins himself died. A proper history of the company can be gained from VINTAGE20MIL, but it is necessary to understand that Tim Richards became chief designer after Les died, and did a very good job of continuing to produce masters in a style and to a quality consistent with their traditions, albeit with a touch of upward scale creep towards the end.

As I have written elswhere, I have the overriding impression that (to put it a bit bluntly) Higgins himself was a sculptor who turned his hand to making military models, while most of his contemporary competitors seem to have been military enthusiasts who had a go at mastering figures. The difference is subtle but distinct. Les’ figures, apart from the lack of animation, are faultless as miniature representations of humans, but he made a number of howlers in the uniform department which a proper Napoleonic nerd would have avoided – the range initially included some infantry figures which would never have existed. A good example is the British light infantryman (in firing, advancing, kneeling and “at the ready” poses, no less) without shoulder wings, offered as a sort of battalion company LI figure – there was no such thing. These particular figures were suppressed fairly quickly, though – rather irritatingly – the range was also further simplified by dropping the battalion company British line infantry figures (without wings), which definitely did exist, and would have been very useful. Eventually all British line and light infantry figures available had shoulder wings – you just have to leave them unpainted if you don’t want them.

Another quibble is that the Brits wear Waterloo-style Belgic shakoes, yet all have their hair queued in a manner which is more appropriate to 1808 than 1815. And there are a few other niggles – the bayonets are much too fragile, for example – but the figures are lovely. Not quite as lovely as the Marlburian and ECW figures, mind you, but still lovely.

I do have some problems with the Napoleonic cavalry. First off, the horses are awful. Why on earth do these nice little figures have to ride horses from a carousel? Something odd happened here – presumably connected with Higgins’ demise. The cavalry were a later addition to the range and, apart from the initial KGL hussar figure (which is not great, and has a poorly-cast sabre) and maybe the Polish lancer (which is better, though you have to provide your own lance), the riders were all designed and mastered by Richards, I think. The PMD Napoleonic horse is closely related to the rather poor horses from the company’s Colonial range, and looks like it was a rush job, which is a pity, but it is all part of the legacy. I have painted hundreds of the beggars, and I guess I love them in spite of their ugliness!

Richards’ cavalrymen mostly have an odd sideways stance – presumably to simplify the mould seams – but are generally very fine. The French dragoon figures are special favourites of mine. The cuirassiers are also excellent, though there is a conspicuous lack of an officer (you can, however, use the dragoon trumpeter for cuirassiers). It is a little incongrous that the infantry are so static yet the cavalry are performing synchronised galloping reminscent of the Television Toppers (come on – you must have heard of them). No matter.

I have a great many Higgins and PMD figures – wherever they are suitable they provide the bulk of my armies, and they find themselves painted as Italians, Spaniards, and all sorts. I particularly like the gun crews (big chaps, mind you...) and the lovely British command pack. I vaguely remember seeing a photo of masters of a French infantry command set, but can’t remember where, so maybe I imagined it. Whatever, it never appeared. Perhaps they were just lost in the final sunset of the Higgins/PMD wargames ranges as their moulds began to break up and the world moved on to 28mm.

Happily, much of the Higgins/PMD catalogue is available again. Less happily (and my sadness is not helped by the fact that I had a hand in the deed), the Napoleonic range is currently not – it flashed for an instant and then fizzled again. The Spanish concern, NapoleoN Miniatures, bought the masters and moulds of the Napoleonics, with some matchmaking by me, but found that the moulds were in too poor a shape for proper modern production, so they made new moulds. The figures were announced and put on sale. I bought quite a few, but you had to be quick to catch them before NapoleoN entered the twilight period of non-delivery, false promises and general shambles which seems to be the inevitable White Dwarf stage of all failing wargame figure manufacturers.

They did invest a fair amount of time and money in the Higgins project, so I assume the moulds are still around – we can only hope that the enthusiasts who formed NapoleoN will eventually get themselves organised and either sell them or put the figures back in production. It is worth mentioning that NapoleoN were thinking of offering PMD cavalry with an option of PMD horses or their own excellent horses, which would have been a mouth watering prospect.

Like so much of the history of 20mm wargames figures, we are left with a great many what-ifs.


  1. Tony, wasn't it NapoleoN who were going to do a compatible French infantry command pack?


  2. I only have a handful of Higgins - ECW & WWII (? I think?), what I love about them is that they sit so comfortably next to good old Airfix!

  3. Hi Clive

    French command pack - it is a clear omission from the range, and NapoleoN may very likely have considered it. The picture I saw (or may have seen....) was an old b&w effort from years ago - if I try to be more precise I'll really just be guessing.

    There do seem to have been some out-of-catalogue figures around - I recall that one of your blogs has a picture of some PMD French Line horse artillery which are either very clever conversions or else prototype figures. Also I have some figures I bought from the US - lots of them - French infantry with high gaiters but no epaulettes, which is an unlisted configuration.

    NapoleoN's plans for Higgins/PMD were still shaping up at the time I lost contact with them. They were unhappy with some of the cavalry, and had thought of remodelling them, and maybe adding missing officers to the range, which could include an infantry command pack, I guess.



  4. I wonder if you might say more about your figure basing. What rules do you use? Finally, have you seen the 20mm Napoleonics by Newline? What's your opinion?

    Best Regards,


  5. Hi Stokes

    I use a 6-figure "subunit" base measuring 50mm wide x 45mm deep. I use my own rules - in the standard game 4 of these subunits make a battalion, and the groundscale is approx 1 pace to 1 mm i.e. 25 paces to the inch. In the grand tactical version of the game one of these bases is a battalion, and the groundscale is 2 paces = 1 mm (50 paces to the inch).

    For skirmishers I put 3 figures on a base 80mm x 30.

    Newline figures - I think they are superb, though I haven't seen an awful lot in the flesh (so to speak). If I was starting all over I would consider Newline very seriously as the way to go. They are quite a bit smaller than my guys (Higgins are about 23mm tall).

    If I went for Newline I would be very nervous about being potentially stranded if the only supplier packed up, so would consider very seriously bulk buying troops to build a pre-planned army organisation, and work away at the painting. I don't know who else make figures the same size - no doubt someone else will be able to advise.