1/72nd Plastic Figures

The following article first appeared in issue #13 of Battlegames during the early summer of 2008.



12 Must-Know Secrets about 1/72 Plastic Military Miniatures

Want to try a new period, add to your existing army, or go “Old School”?  Plastic soldiers are the answer.

Stokes Schwartz

Do you cringe at the thought of using plastic figures in your wargame armies?  Well, consider broadening your outlook.  Plastics actually have a lot going for them.  Learn why both new and veteran wargamers alike should take a second look at these affordable, well sculpted, and readily available military miniatures.


1.  It’s all about the money.
Cost is an issue for many of us.   And veteran gamers can tell you that figures have not become any cheaper in the last 35 years.  This fact alone is reason enough to look at 1/72 plastics more closely.  They’ll allow you to create a respectably sized army (or even armies) without taking in lodgers or selling your youngest child into indentured servitude!

My own imaginary 18th century project, involving the Grand Duchy of Stollen and the Electorate of Zichenau, illustrates the importance of cost.  As a recent newlywed saving for that first house, paying monthly bills, and struggling with hefty student loan payments, the relatively low cost of 1/72 plastic figures has made a diversionary wargaming project feasible, allowing me to indulge in two small armies.  End result?  I’m happy, connubial bliss is maintained, and all is right with the world! 


2.  Over the hills and far away.
On a similar note, have you ever wanted to try something a little different from your usual period, but avoided it thanks to the cost?  Here again, 1/72 plastics make a foray into another wargaming era possible, enabling you to test the waters of that new period while remaining within the parameters of acceptable spending. 

While I’ve wanted to build up imaginary 18th century armies for years, cost always stood in the way.  Since I’ve spent 20+ years and considerable funds amassing three 15mm Napoleonic armies for the Waterloo period, I simply couldn’t justify spending the money necessary to build up another metal army or two.  Plastic figures, however, mean that my fiscal conscience no longer hurts me.  Likewise, I enjoy the happy diversion my plastic figures provide, but I’m not necessarily sure I’ll want to invest the same amount of money that I have with my Napoleonics.  What if I lose interest in my imaginary armies over time?   Use of 1/72 plastics means that I haven’t dropped a bundle on a project that I might wish to abandon in five years.    


3.  Size really does matter.
My third point also relates to cost.  Have you ever admired those Peter Gilder-style battles?   The more reasonable cost of 1/72 plastics makes assembling large forces like those attainable.  And if you have certain “old school” tendencies, you can actually afford enough plastic figures to create really BIG Charles Grant and Peter Young-sized units.  Here again, plastic soldiers come to the rescue. 

For my imaginary 18th century project, I wanted big units of 30-60+ figures on the table, á la Grant and Young.  Although most of the Revell SYW figures I tracked down and purchased came from Germany, Denmark, and Russia, they were still less expensive than a comparable number of metal figures would have been.  What’s more, the considerably lower cost enabled me to purchase the figures necessary to create those coveted units like those adorning the pages of The War Game and Charge! 


4. You don’t have to be a star, baby. . .  or an old master. 
Painting 1/72 plastics is not the problem some might imagine.  In a nutshell, you paint them just like metal figures, but it’s what you do pre- and post-painting that’s important.  With care, you’ll ensure that your figures both look good and stand up to heavy use for a long time.

First, applying a fairly thick coat of white glue to the plastic figures is one way to prepare them for painting.  The glue shrinks as it dries, sealing the figure and providing a surface that is receptive to paint.  Other plastic soldier buffs suggest that artists’ acrylic gesso, liquid latex, and aerosol spray plastic primers work well too.  The choice is yours, so long as you provide a suitable “key” to which paint can adhere.

What about painting?  Use either acrylics or oils.  Enamels will almost certainly flake off from the bendy bits, like spears, swords, muskets, or pikes.  Acrylic and oil-based paints, on the other hand, have “give” to them and flex with the thinner parts of plastic figures. 

Last, a protective coat or two of acrylic varnish should be applied after you’ve finished painting.  These too will flex with those figure parts prone to bending.  Moreover, your paintwork is less likely to crack and peel away from general use.  Here’s a tip: Future acrylic floor finish (sold under various names around the world) provides an incredibly cheap way to finish your figures with a protective coat.  It dries to a high gloss, which is fine for wargamers who like that kind of look.  If you prefer, a shot of Testor’s Dullcote restores the matt finish.

While there are differing opinions on painting and varnishing methodology, I’ve used these steps successfully with my own 1/72 plastic figures.  It’s really all about what works best for you.  Don’t be afraid to experiment a bit to find your own happy medium.


5.  I don’t know art, but I know what I like.   
Most 1/72 plastic figures available today look deliciously like the humans they represent in miniature.  This is not always so for 25-28mm metal figures.  While certain ranges exhibit correct symmetry, not all do.  Often, wargamers using metal figures must contend with problems like pumpkin heads, baseball glove-sized hands, or tree trunk calves.  In contrast, most plastic figures enjoy rather more realistic proportions.

This particular concern is yet another reason why I chose to build my imaginary armies using 1/72 plastic figures.  Initially, I ordered a few metal samples, to see what they were like. Several had decidedly odd shapes though.  Not so with the Revell figures, which are nicely proportioned, measuring 25-26mm base to eye, in the case of infantry.  They are very slim and even a bit taller than 25mm MiniFigs. 


6.  Breaking the Law.
The above brings us to an interesting point.  Some 1/72 plastics are quite compatible with smaller 25mm figures, making it possible to augment an existing metal army, made up of the latter, inexpensively.  While combining plastic figures and metal figures within the same unit might not be to your taste, it’s worth noting that you can supplement your metal battalions and regiments with units consisting entirely of plastic figures, or vice versa. 

Since Revell neglected to produce suitable SYW mounted generals, I turned to 25mm MiniFigs and RSM figures to command my plastic armies.  And guess what?  They look just fine together, especially when painted.  If there is a slight discrepancy, I ignore it.  I’m also using 25mm MiniFigs cannon with my SYW artillery crews, to replace the puny plastic guns that came with the Revell sets.  Here, figures and guns match each other perfectly.  Problem solved! 

Still skeptical?  Don’t forget, Young and Lawford used plastic Spencer Smiths on the table beside metal figures by Stadden, Suren, and Holgar Eriksson.  So too, did The War Gamers in their refight of Sittangbad at the May ’06 Partizan, and that’s good enough for me.


7. We want information! 
Don’t remain a prisoner of ignorance where 1/72 plastic figures are concerned. It’s easier now more than ever before to learn everything you need to know.  The internet provides ready access to information on figures by Revell, Italeri, Imex, and many others.  In minutes, you can learn where to find and buy 1/72 plastics plus how to prepare and paint them.  You can also find out about manufacturers, set composition, availability, pricing, periods, etc.

 Just get on your computer and type in the key words “plastic soldiers” to see what comes up.  A good place to start is the Michigan Toy Soldier Company at: www.michtoy.com, which presents lots of information on plastic figures.  An even better source is Plastic Soldier Review at: plasticsoldierreview.com, which features everything you might want to know about the subject.   Both have all kinds of interesting links to other related sites.  A third useful site is Plasticrush at: www.plasticrush.com.


8.  Doctor Frankenstein, I presume?   
Admittedly, you might not find every figure you need in a given range.  But don’t let that stand in your way.  For handy souls, plastic figures have great potential, offering considerable scope for creating exactly the kinds of figures one wants.  Indeed, Donald Featherstone himself noted in issue #1 of Battlegames that early wargamers used to snap up new figure sets with conversion possibilities in mind.  And often, you can scavenge the necessary parts from those inevitable extra figures in a box that you don’t need.    

I’ve decided to get my own feet wet by converting some spare 1/72 plastics.  To create a regiment of cuirassiers, which Revell also omitted from its SYW range, I’ll pin the heads from some unused kneeling Prussian infantry to the bodies of approximately 30 Zvezda Saxon Napoleonic cuirassiers, who wear a breastplate without a backplate.  What if you want SYW light infantry in mirlitons?  Simply replace the heads on Revell Prussian or Austrian infantry with those from extra Prussian hussars.  It’s easy. 
 

9. And if at first you don’t succeed. . .
Now, you might think to yourself, “That’s kind of interesting about conversion possibilities, but I’m all thumbs.”  Well, since plastic figures are so inexpensive, you can simply dispose of any mistakes that occur.  Better yet, there are always extra figures in each box that you won’t actually use.  Experiment with these first, to make sure the result you envision will actually work in practice.  Make a mistake, or two, or three?  Simply throw them away and don’t lose any sleep over it. 

I haven’t had this problem yet in my work on Stollen and Zichenau’s tiny armies. But, it’s nice to know that I won’t waste lots of money when I make a serious mistake during conversion attempts.  And I will.  It’s inevitable.  If working with pricy Foundry, Suren, or Tradition miniatures, I’d sure feel pretty rotten about unsalvageable blunders.   It’s simply not a huge problem, though, if a few serious mistakes occur in converting cheap plastic figures. 


10. It’s alive! 
Ok, now that we’ve covered issues like cost, painting, compatibility, and conversion possibilities, let’s look at what’s out there.  In short, almost anything you can imagine.  Manufacturers like Hät, Zvezda, Revell, Italeri, and others currently offer an array of 1/72 figure sets.  Want to create an Alexandrian phalanx, or perhaps a Roman legion?  You can easily find the plastic figures to do so.  Itching to refight a mid-19th century war instead?  Yep, there are plastic figures currently available that will allow you to do that too.  Or how about the Russian invasion of East Prussia in August 1914?  You can even indulge in that.  The possibilities are limitless. 

Where my own activities are concerned, I’ve wanted to develop an imaginary 18th century campaign since the mid-1990s.  However, lack of suitable figures (i.e., affordable) meant that my ideas had to remain dormant for years.  Once I discovered that Revell produced a plastic SYW range, though, my long slumbering plan awoke.  The availability of suitable plastic figures meant that my project would live to see the light of day after all.  The chances are very good that you too will be able to find precisely the figures you want in 1/72 plastics.  What’s that?  Still nothing available for that obscure period that interests you?  See point #8.


11.  Ok, but how do they hold up?
Have you ever accidentally dropped a bunch of painted metal figures?  You know what I mean then.  Since plastics are light and flexible, their parts won’t bend or break when dropped.  Neither will the paint chip.  Inevitably, metal figures suffer some kind of damage when a mishap occurs.  At best, a bayonet bends or breaks off.  At worst, your metal figure is stepped on and squashed into a weird shape, making it unsuitable for continued use on your table.

I’ve suffered a few similar accidents with my 15mm Napoleonics over the years.  Knowing that there is little danger of my plastics meeting a similar fate is liberating, to say the least.  When dropped, I simply pick them up, blow away any dust, and continue painting.  My plastic figures have even withstood the occasional feline abduction, leaving me secure in the knowledge that they’ll also weather more normal wear and tear better than their metal brethren. 


12.  Those were the days my friend.
Finally, 1/72 plastic figures offer a link to our hobby’s glorious past for those of us who weren’t around back in the golden age of Grant, Young, or Featherstone.  Remember, the Spencer Smith Figures they used were plastic at the time.  But what if you can’t scrounge up any of the old 30mm AWI, ACW, or SYW Spencer Smith figures on E-bay?  Dry those eyes and consider going slightly smaller.  Large units in any scale look impressive, so invest in more readily available 1/72 plastics instead. 

Admittedly, a connection to our hobby’s early days was not an immediate concern when I began the Grand Duchy of Stollen project.  Visually impressive battles between imaginary countries in the mid-18th century just looked like a lot of fun.  As I’ve painted and read more classic wargaming literature during the intervening months though, a small part of me has thought, “Hmmm.  It’s kind of neat that guys like Charles Grant and Peter Young also used plastic figures in their imaginary campaigns years ago.”  Enough said?


1/72 Plastic Soldiers: Real Savings or a False Economy?
Occasionally, someone wonders out loud about whether 1/72 plastics really offer a substantial savings over their metal counterparts, or not.  So, let’s consider the following.

As of June 2008, Revell SYW Austrian infantry sets are available online in the United States for US$7.39 per box, each containing 46 foot figures, 1 mounted colonel, and a horse.  For less than US$60 (before sales tax), you can purchase eight boxes, giving you 376 soldiers and eight horses.

Without much trouble, you can organize those figures into several large battalions with enough extras for a third rank of NCOs: a battalion of 48 skirmishers (priming and cocking musket), 64 musketeers firing in a standing position, 64 musketeers in a kneeling position, 64 marching grenadiers with musket shouldered, and 80 advancing/charging grenadiers. Five or six BIG battalions in all.

The remaining figures (mounted colonels, officers and NCOs with spontoons, standard bearers, drummers, and pioneers w/axe – one of each pose per box) can be distributed across your five units. Use the extra command figures to create a small brigade staff of mounted offers, an ADC, plus a few officers and NCOs on foot. Just think, you can assemble a Sittangbad-sized infantry force for US$60!  Clearly, 1/72 plastic figures DO offer an economic way to enter into and/or navigate our increasingly pricy hobby.


Conclusion
Of course, metal figures will always have a certain appeal for many of us.  But 1/72 plastic figures are well worth our consideration too.  They have something to offer everyone in the hobby, from “Marie Louises” to “old grumblers.”  So, if you’ve always meant to supplement an existing army, try a new period, build up big units, or connect with the hobby’s past, you could do worse than 1/72 plastic miniatures.   



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