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WILLIAM BRITAINS AND THE ANGLO-ZULU WAR

     I spent Friday evening at the Victoria Rifles Club in London, at the annual 'Collectors' Club' event from William Britains, the toy soldier people. My involvement with Britains - as a customer, at least - goes back a long way, to my boyhood, inevitably, when one of the few ways to satisfy my nascent interest in history was buying their figures. In those days they didn't make Anglo-Zulu War subjects - although they had, of course, in Edwardian times, back when there was no 'health and safety' to prevent you making toys in lead - and instead I collected another interest of mine, the American Civil War. I still remember how special the Britains ACW 'Swoppit' cavalry were, each one coming in its own box with a cellophane window, proudly showing off the contents. I particularly likd the standard-bearers, and as a result they were rather over-represented in my fledgling armies - and, being more conspicuous targets, were rather more readily gunned down by the 'working' ACW 12 pdr 'Napoleon' gun I used to shoot at them with.

     Britains have come on a bit since those days. They make finely sculpted and painted collectors' models, and to do anything so crass as play with them would surely be a sacriledge. The Friday event showcased their current ranges. The ACW is still heavily represented - it will come as no surprise to discover they are the top selling range in the US - but these days they look like Don Trioani paintings realised in 3D miniature, exhaustively researched and exquisitely sculpted, all verve and dash captured in a solid moment. There are a lot of Napoleonics, too, and my attention was also drawn to a new range of French and Indian Wars figures, particularly the Native Americans. But my real reason for being there, of course, was that Britains now make an extensive Anglo-Zulu War range, and I've been privileged to advise them on it.

     The range began seven or eight years ago with a small selection of Rorke's Drift figures. At that stage, delighted though I was, I gave it a year before they ran out of ideas or market interest. Well, here we are and it's still going strong - in fact, it's the best-selling range they sell in the UK, and, rather more surprisingly, the second-best in the USA. We've worked our way steadily through Rorke's Drift, not only modelling the personalities (on both sides, where we can) but dozens of varients on the basic theme of figures struggling over mealie-bag barricades, as well as standard firing, en garde and charging poses. Some of these have proved so popular that they have now sold out. Britains even went so far as to make the two buildings at Rorke's Drift in ready-painted resin models in 54mm scale - and the hospital comes in two varients, one with a burnt roof, the other without! We've dipped our toe in the story of iSandlwana, too, with portrait figures including Durnford, Melvill and Coghill, and recently set-pieces depicting Captain Younghusband and one of his sergeants charging down from the hillside, and Signalman Aynsley of HMS Active defending himself with his cutlass. Most spctacular is a remarkable vignette of one of the 7 pdr guns of N/5 battery retiring at full gallop, with the Zulus in close pursuit, killing the gunnrs on foot and trying to drag down the drivers.

     Throughout the whole exercise I have been hugely impressed with Britains' commitment to historical accuracy. Time and again they've fired questions at me which pertain to the most minute details, whether its of the harnesses for the limber horses, or the patterns of Zulu headress. I've always thought myself a nerdy stickler in such matters - but there have been times when I've felt more than a little put on the spot!

     The result is a range that I'm still immensely proud to be associated with. The definition 'toy soldiers' seems rather inadequate to me - they are a historical resource in miniature, and they are slowly and steadily building an interpretation of the battles which is as valid as any new painting or re-enactment.

     And there's more to come! Anglo-Zulu War releases for next year are already in the planning stage, and beyond that? Well, I've still got plenty of ideas, as so, I think, have they - so long as people keep buying them, I think William Britains will be happy to make them.

You can find details of their latest Rorke's Drift and iSandlwana ranges here - www.wbritain.com/products.cfm?catID=3838