SI Vault
Richard Gehman
January 04, 1965
When collectors of military miniatures—toy soldiers—get together, vast armies mobilize, whole villages are assembled and history's famous battles blaze again
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January 04, 1965

A Little War Can Be A Lot Of Fun

When collectors of military miniatures—toy soldiers—get together, vast armies mobilize, whole villages are assembled and history's famous battles blaze again

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The observation post I picked to watch the battle was about halfway between a railroad yard and the plateau on which the opposing armies were deployed. I had to squint to see through the blue haze and intermittent puffs of smoke that floated across the terrain. Some of the troops to the east were about to haul an artillery piece over a bridge, and behind them a group of cavalrymen was preparing to charge. To the west, the enemy had concealed some of his men in a pass behind a mountain. It occurred to me that I was one of the few war correspondents in history who ever had been afforded such a splendid panoramic view of an engagement, and again I peered through my glasses at the troops moving into position.

The men looked very small at that distance. For that matter, they looked very small up close, for each was only 1[3/16] inches tall. Their battlefield was a 5-by-9-foot piece of green-painted plywood set atop a pool table. The blue haze came from a gel placed over a flood-light by a photographer, and the smoke came from a smoke-pill apparatus made for him by a friend in the Special Effects department at NBC-TV. The rolling stock in the railroad yard behind me was all Lionel, my observation post was an aluminum tubular kitchen chair and my glasses were not field but nose. I was in Bristol, Conn. to cover a war game that was about to be played by two devotees of this little-known sport, the brothers Bob and Charlie Sweet (left).

President of the North Side Bank, a graduate of Washington and Lee (he played guard there on a Southern Conference championship team in 1934), Charlie Sweet is a 50-year-old outdoorsman whose husky body imprisons, although not very effectively, the spirit of a boy. For years he took time off from his various civic activities (he is on virtually every public-minded committee in Bristol) to make model aircraft, both gas-and rubber-band-powered, as well as model boats, trains and other toys. As a boy he had played with tin or lead soldiers, and around 1950 he found himself thinking that it might be fun to play with them again.

Today Charlie Sweet is one of the foremost collectors of tin soldiers—or military miniatures, as they are called more formally—in the country. He owns around 6,000 figures, most of which he designed, cast and painted in his basement workshop. Sweet is just one of approximately 10,000 collectors, a figure vouched for by Jack Scruby of Visalia, Calif., a military-miniature manufacturer who also serves as a kind of information center for this breed of hobbyist. "Collectors are divided into three major categories," Scruby said recently. "There are those who just collect soldiers—some of the more famous ones are Churchill, Eisenhower, the writer James Jones, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and King Farouk. Then there are those who get their kicks out of making their own figures, usually in plaster-of-paris molds, casting them in lead and painting them—or who just like to paint the unpainted figures I make and sell. Finally, there are those who play war games with them. Some collectors have really tremendous armies. Leon Chodnicki of Baltimore has more than 40,000 figures, and Gus Hansen of Chicago has at least that many also."

The idea of grown men playing with tin soldiers strikes some people as a trifle ludicrous, which may be one reason why some collectors in various cities have banded together in self-defensive clubs and discussion groups. One of the most active, founded in 1940, is the Miniature Figure Collectors of America, which has around 300 members "in the United States and the rest of the world," according to Arthur Etchells, former president. Its home base is Philadelphia. Another active group is the Miniatures Militarias, with headquarters in Los Angeles. There also are organized clubs in England, France, Germany, Italy and the Scandinavian countries.

The collectors are, as the English ones would say, terribly keen on their hobby. They read and lend each other books on military history and tactics, they read papers on famous engagements, they display and view old prints of battles and men at arms and, above all, they bring, handle, examine (often with a magnifying glass), criticize and sometimes even admire each other's figures. They speak in solemn tones of the giants among the makers of miniatures: of William Courtenay, Charles Stadden, the firm of Greenwood and Ball, and Commander Ping. These are all revered English miniaturists. An Arthur Etchells, returning from a vacation in Europe, will tell his fellow clubmen that he spent most of his time looking at and buying figures, and that the French ones made by Des Fontaines are now so well done they can bring up to $150 apiece. It is not unusual for the dedicated, and affluent, collector to spend $75 for a single piece. It would be hard to get a really good Courtenay, such as a mounted knight with movable arms and a movable visor on his helmet and perhaps a sword that can be taken out of its sheath, for less than that.

Commander Ping is the enigma of the collectors' world. Considering his gift for sculpture and detail, and the projects he is willing to undertake (he has done several sets of all the rulers of England), his prices are ridiculously low. But Ping is not especially interested in money; he is more concerned with historical accuracy. He sits with his wife, who helps him, in his small house in the ancient village of Milbourne Port, Dorset, turning out soldiers by the score for around $11 apiece, each one cast and painted by hand. "I try never to do the same one twice," he says. On commission he will do nonmilitary figures: Sir Laurence Olivier costumed as Richard III, Robert Morley as Nero, Jackie Gleason as Reggie Van Gleason and an Ernest Hemingway coming out of a tiny jungle with a bunch of bananas in one hand and a bottle of gin aloft in the other.

The acknowledged master of American craftsmen is William Imrie of Richmond Hill, N.Y., who at one time concentrated on making expensive single figures that rivaled Courtenay's but now mass-produces his soldiers and sells them unpainted, as Jack Scruby does. Both produce castings from virtually every period and military organization in history; their catalogs contain hundreds of items, and they constantly are adding to them. "I sell around 70,000 castings per year," Scruby says with an alloy of regret and pride in his voice, for what began as a hobby has gradually become a business. "I hardly ever get time to play with my own collection any more," he adds, wistfully. Many collectors take Scruby's and Imrie's castings and alter their positions or change them in other ways; the resulting figures are called "conversions."

Scruby declares that, of all the collectors, those who play war games—he calls them "war gamers"—are the most enthusiastic. Some fight with each other in person across a table, and some fight by mail, as chess fanatics do. And some even fight alone: a British collector, Lionel Tarr, has invented a solitaire war game.

Of all the tabletop generals now in competition, none is more dedicated than The Boy President of the North Side Bank, Charlie Sweet. Collectors in the eastern U.S. acknowledge that his collection, which embraces Courtenays, Imries and other famous names but which mainly is made up of Charlie Sweets, is one of the best extant in terms of craftsmanship, authentic detail and variety. His men have won many awards at the annual conventions of the Miniature Figure Collectors of America, and the shelves of his study are swarming with foot soldiers, artillerymen, grenadiers, cavalrymen and other bearers of arms—so many of them that it comes as a shock to the visitor when he says, "These are only the very good ones. I have thousands more stowed away in boxes."

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