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Army Men: The Origins

The predecessors to Army Men are the old Tin soldiers.  Made of various cheap alloys of tin, lead, zinc, or antimony, these small toys became popular in the late 1800s.  Germany was the foremost producer at the time, followed by England and France.  The originals came in three types: solids, flats and semi-solids.  Solids were fully "3D" figures; flats were a flattened, wafer-thin type figure, and semis were somewhere in between.  Later, companies made their solids hollow, making a lighter figure which was cheaper to produce and ship.

Early soldiers included both the current and historical armies, from ancient Egypt right on up to the Victorian era.  They were painted in bright gloss colors and sold in boxes, generally six or eight footmen to a box.  Accessories included the gamut of wagons, artillery, caissons, engineer's equipment, pontoon bridges, fortifications and buildings.  Some of these were cast, others made of wood, composition or paper mache.

The average toy soldier stood 2 to 3 inches tall.  Britains, Ltd., an English company, helped standardize the size to around 54mm scale. A smaller figure appeared that was somewhat standardized to 30mm, and was mainly used for miniature wargames.  (Scales for Army Men are expressed in two ways.  For example, "54mm" means the height of an average standing figure would be just that tall.  1/32 means that the figure is 1/32 the height of its real counterpart.  There is a third scale used rarely that is borrowed from model railroading, and is expressed in letters: N, TT, HO, S, OO, O, G.  These are N- 1/160, TT - 1/100, HO - 1/87 or 20mm. OO - 1/76 or 25mm, S - 1/64 or 30mm, O - 1/48 or 40mm, G - 1/32 or 54mm)

American makers began producing figures around World War 1.  Scales varied from 45mm scale to 90mm scale.  Among troops produced soldiers, Civil War, Cowboys and Indians and assorted off-scale vehicles such as trucks and planes.  Several makers molded their figures in cast iron.  Later, American lead figures were made in the standard sizes.  Makers added spacemen, gangsters, and a few foreign troops.  Figures varied from solids to semis.  

One of the more popular figures was made in New Jersey.  Known as the "pod foot," their feet terminated in a round shape so as to make them stand.  These were WW2 era figures, and included a variety of marching and fighting troops.

Because of concerns about lead poisoning in the 1950s, manufacturing methods changed.  The availability of plastic, both hard and soft, allowed makers to produce safer and cheaper toys.  Thus came Army Men, those soft plastic figures which were so cheap to make that they were sold in plastic bags!  Some makers merely reproduced their old lead figures in plastic (for example, Timmee Toys' popular US infantry are the same as the old lead figures).  Others designed and produced new figures.  Plastic allowed a more detailed figure, and so the newer designs were more realistic.

Various companies produced Army Men.  Most were made in Taiwan or Hong Kong.  The most popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s were non-brand types, such as the Timmee recasts, Ideal's ring-hand figures, and a very common sort with very flat feet and no stands.  A smaller 40mm off-brand was also common. Army Men were sold in every toy store. Every plastic bag included troops, a flag, and vehicles.  Jeeps, trucks, half-tracks, cannons and tanks were usually included.

A few large companies produced their own name-brand Army men.  Most popular was Louis Marx Inc, a large toy manufacturer that also sold O gauge electric trains and other toys.  Marx figures were offered both in bags and in playsets.  Sets included soldiers, equipment, structures, fortifications and vehicles.  The most popular included Battleground (My favorite - US versus German WW2), Blue vs. Grey (Civil War), Fort Apache (Wild West), the Alamo, and Knights vs Vikings.  All except Battleground had some lithographed stamped metal structure included.  These were assembled and fitted with plastic parts.  The castle had plastic tower battlements, gate and drawbridge.  Fort Apache was a plastic fort with a metal barracks.  The Alamo was almost entirely made of stamped metals.

Ideal produced its own playsets, while MPC offered sets with ring-hand troops.  These were soldiers with separate weapons.  You could arm any man as you pleased.  Troop types offered included Civil War, WW2 and modern US Army, Wild West and Space men.  The Ideal and MPC sets weren't as posh as Marx, but they offered plenty of everything a kid needed to do battle.

During the 1960s, a new type of Army Man entered the ranks.  He was a standard US soldier armed and equipped in the latest gear, including the M-16 rifle.  As with the others, these new Army Men were normally sold in bags, with a vehicle or two.

In the 1970s, several British makers of HO/OO scale figures started offering their own version of Army Men.  However, theirs were marketed as cheaper scale models rather than plain toy soldiers.  Airfix, Matchbox and Timpo figures came to our shores.  They were more popular among serious hobbyists, as these boxed figure sets were not available through toy stores.  

The 70s saw a decline in war toys.  Marx, Ideal and several other US makers folded, leaving a gulf.  While the non-brand bag soldiers continued to be imported, the overall variety shrank. Many figures disappeared altogether.

In recent years, a new addition to the ranks of Army men is the cheap copy of the British boxed soldiers.  Many bag troops are virtual clones of the Airfix and Matchbox soldiers.  They are sold in bags, in plastic buckets or tubs, and in boxed playsets.  Occasionally, older American figures find their way back to store shelves.  A few specialty companies have recasts of the better Marx figures.  Army Men are making a comeback.  Perhaps the release of a new CD game based on Army Men will help, as well.

Know Your Soldiers!

Marx: the best of the best are the Marx figures.  Marx Army Men are World War 2 era figures.  The company ceased production before more modern troops would have been necessary.  That's a shame - I'd like to see what they'd have done with 1970s era GIs and weapons.  In olive drab or tan.

Ideal - rboth armed and ring-hand figures abound!  Makers of some pretty wild stuff - their accessories and vehicles outshine their soldiers.  We all had them!

MPC - THE source of ring-hand figures and snap-together accessories.  Not as well-finished as Marx or Ideal, MPC made its place by a tremendous output and lower prices.  The soldiers' weaponry was WW2 era, the vehicles were from the very early 1950s.

Timmee - a crude recast of older lead figures, not too detailed and rather fluid in form.  Still and all, one of the biggest types of no-brand troops that were so abundant.  A notable feature was an extra bazooka.  Normally sold with a tank and one or more other vehicles.  Molded in a good olive drab.  Timmmee later introduced the excellent modern GIs with  M16 rifles.

Lido - (No-stand #1) - older, crude soldiers with very flat feet rather than a stand.  Helmets had a net pattern, uniforms were purely WW2.  Difficult to stand on a hard surface, but great in dirt or sand.  You could also have them in vehicles, especially the commander's cupola of toy tanks with opening hatches.  Molded in an OD Green that was very dark, although sometimes it seemed almost grayish.

Ideal - (No-stand #2) - much better detail, with WW2 uniforms and weapons.  These were not as common.  The walking BAR gunner was the coolest!  Many troops had carbines.  Usually a lighter green.

Little Guys - 40mm scale GIs in olive drab, the bodies were rather flat.  Stands were rectangular and uniform.  Normally packed with armored trucks, tanks, etc - good assortment of vehicles.  These same figures were made in rubber and packed in a toy transport plane called a Globemaster.

New Troops: most new troops are crude recasts of Airfix figures.  Generally, they're copies of Airfix US and German infantry, US and British Paratroops.  I have seen Germans molded in green and tan and sold as Gulf War US troops, mainly due to new helmets.  

Other brands: one company called BMC has introduced some rather nice playsets.  These are all new figures.  A few elitist companies make overpriced plastic Army Men.  However, the fact that they cost too much to be sold in bags relegates them to scale models or collectibles rather than genuine Army men.

Real Army Men

The official Army Men were US GIs and enemy troops, sold in plastic bags or playsets.  Cowboys , Indians, Pirates, etc. were only included in a very general sense.  They are not true Army Men.  Neither were hobby imports such as Airfix, Matchbox and Timpo.  Besides, they made too many Napoleonics and nobody but nobody played the Napoleon stuff.  In order of importance, here's what we played:

Army men - GIs versus enemy soldiers

Wild West - Cowboys and Indians and cavalry

Civil War - Union Yankees versus Confederate Goober People

Space Men - growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, spacemen were a BIG thing and we loved them!

Knights and Vikings - knights were fun, and we had our inspiration from shows like Ivanhoe and Robin Hood.  Definitely cool, but the Vikings were the coolest.

Alamo - cowboys versus Mexicans - could also turn into a Zorro kind of thing

Pirates - every kid wants to be a pirate.  They get to wear weird clothes, swing weird swords and talk funny  "Arr, Matey, mighty rough seas!"

American Revolution - popular only because of Marx playsets, but nowhere near as popular as the others.

Napoleonics - never heard of them, didn't want to know them.  Weird toy soldier guys from weird places like France.  Give us an M48 and a pack of GIs any day!  THIS IS AMERICA!

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