Without Britains, toy-soldier collectors would have a much heavier load to bear. That’s because company-founder William Britain, Jr. invented the hollow-casting method, which revolutionized the industry by greatly reducing the weight, and cost, of these toys. Sold at various times under the names William Britain, W. Britain, Britains, and Petite, today the company’s most highly-prized products are its first, 19th-century toy soldier sets still string-tied into their original packaging.

William Britain’s father was a London toy-maker who recognized a potential business opportunity in the huge quantity of miniature soldiers imported to the U.K. during the late 19th century. In 1893, Britain developed his ingenious casting technology, and the company quickly outshone the German manufacturers who had previously dominated the market. Britain’s new hollow-cast method utilized molds with an opening that allowed excess lead to escape before fully hardening, creating a hollow figurine. Since lead was the most costly part of toy soldier production, the new technique enabled Britains to drastically lower its prices, altering the entire marketplace. After a successful lawsuit to protect its designs from cheap imitations, Britains copyrighted its individual figures with a paper sticker underneath each base; later models were marked with an embossed stamp.

Britains’ first models included a set of mounted military “Life Guards,” followed by other series based on British troops. Gamages department store in London, famous for its elaborate Christmas displays, quickly became a major distributor of Britains toys, and by 1906, Gamages stopped selling German imports entirely. Besides their affordability, many Britains figures came with movable arms, a unique feature making them very appealing to children. At a full height of 54mm, these soldiers also matched the standard model-train gauge, further ensuring their success as playthings.

After Britains opened an additional facility in Paris, its lines expanded to include French military units. Both manufacturing plants operated at limited capacity during World War I, and World War II halted production entirely. Postwar restrictions on the use of lead in the United Kingdom forced Britains to supplement its slow domestic market by concentrating on sales overseas, as well as adding many more foreign troops to its product line.

In 1954, Britains acquired rival manufacturer Herald and its greatest designer, Roy Selwyn Smith, who would create popular series of historic figures, like the dramatic “Knights of Agincourt” in all their armored splendor. Herald was known for its meticulous plastic figurines, and Britains would continue to use the Herald name through the 1980s.

Britains most popular plastic lines were its “Swoppet” range, made with interchangeable parts and equipment, and the “Eyes Right” range, which depicted soldiers wearing full ceremonial attire, a return to classic toy soldier styles. From 1959 to 1965, the company offered its “Picture Packs” of individual soldiers from existing sets, whose scarcity makes them highly sought-after by collectors.

Though regulations forced Britains to stop production of all lead toys in 1966, the company introduced its “Deetail” series in 1971, which featured plastic figures mounted on met...

Around the same time, Britains recognized a growing nostalgia market among adult collectors, and in 1973 unveiled its “New Metal Model” series. By the late 1980s, these items were no longer included in Britains’ regular toy catalogs, instead given their own magazine geared to collectors. An official “William Britain Collectors Club” launched in 1993.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood

Embrace your inner child on this website from the Victoria and Albert Museum, filled with high-quality images and i… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Old Vintage Antique Britains Lead Disney Snow White & Seven Dwarves Figures 1937Rare Old Vintage Antique Britains Lead 'village Idiot' Farm Figure Vintage 54mm Lead Models - Instant Zoo!! Animals & Fencing - 66 Items - BritainsVintage Antique Britains Lead Sir Kreemy Knut Sharps Toffee Advertising FigureVintage Antique Britains Lead Cococub Rare Jonathan Walking Figure Cadbury's 30sVintage Britains Lead Toy Farm Series Horse Drawn Farm Implement Hoe Tiller54mm Plastic Swoppet Acw Cavalry And Infantry By Britains Ltd1950's Era Britains 155mm Gun, Box, With Clockwork Brochure, Excellent ConditionBritains Infantry Of The Line With Mounted OfficerDinky Toys,david Brown Selectamatic 990 Tractor, Very Good Condition,no Box.Vintage Britains Ltd Bren Gun Carrier With Crew No 1876 Nmib Diecast ToyBritains Set 2110 - U.s. Military Band In Full Dress Uniform [1956-62] X26Britains 1:32 Scale Case Ih Afx 8010 Combine Harvester Suit Tractor Collector1940's Britains Zulus Wariors No 147 Lead Figure Set NmibVintage Britains Lead Toy Farm Series Horse Drawn Cart Hay WagonVintage Antique Britains Lead Cococub Rare Whiskers Rabbit Figure Cadbury's 30'sBritains 13 Piece Royal Marines Band, Rissue Or Reproductions?1940's Britains The Governor General's Horse Guards No 1631 Lead Figure Set Nmib2 Rare Vintage Britains Lead Toy Beer Drinking Men Seated On Log Bench Farm Britains Royal Army Service Corps Limbered Wagon. Vintage Britains Lead Toy Business Man In Bowler Commuter Pedestrian VillageBritains 1:32 Scale As Marston Tipping Trailer Suit Tractor CollectorVintage Britains Lead Cococub Rare Tiny Tusks Elephant Figure Cadbury's 1930's 11 Piece Mounted Life Guards Band By Britains. Vintage Britains Lead Toy Farm Series Horse Drawn Farm Implement FarmerVintage Britains Lead Toy Farm Series Horse Drawn Cart Wagon Trumbrel FarmerM857 Lot 3 Britains Lead Equestrian Jockey On Horses Figures Cold PaintedBritains Set 2014 - U.s. Marine Corps Band -dress Uniform [1948-55] 20+1 Figures36 Assorted Britains Toy Soldiers In Bearskin’s. Britains French Foreign Legion Soldiers W/ Box 4eeLarge Group Of 100 Britain’s Guards Troops! Britains Civil War Artillery Cannon 1bVintage Britains Lead Toy Rare Ship Captain Nautical Yachtsman Beer DrinkingOld Vintage Antique Britains Lead Cococub Rare Will Mouse Figure Cadbury's 1930sBritains 13 Piece Royal Marines Band21 Britains Guards With Rifles In Various Positions.Marvel Legends/select.............captain BritainVintage Antique Britains Lead Cococub Rare Brother Rabbit Figure Cadbury's 1930sOld Vintage Antique Britains Lead Cococub Rare Freddy Frog Figure Cadbury's 30'sRound Bale Handler; Scratch-built Using Britiains Parts; Very Good Unboxed18 Britain's Hollowcast Lead Soldiers, Grenaider Guards Firing1940's Britains Confederate Cavalry Civil War Lead Figure Set In Box Wrong LidBritains Mountain Artillery Soldier, Mule & Cannon Wheels 3lBritains Vintage Lead Prewar Farm #579 Aa Destination SignBritains Robin Hood Gift Set 7845 Mint Condition Rare VintageBritains 1:32 Scale Jcb 718 Dump Truck May Suit Tractor CollectorBritains Swoppet Parts Lot 14 Piece Britains? Johillco? ? Line Infantry Band. Vintage Corgi "the Green Hornet's" Black Beauty, Gt. Britain, Very Good Cond.Britains 09599; Iveco Truck; Milk Tanker, Robert Wiseman; Excellent Boxed18 Britains Guards With Rifles In Various Positions.Britains 1/32 Metal Guards Figures - Ceremonial Dress X 12Britains Toy Soldiers Royal Australian Air Force Motorcyclist Set 2011 Group Of 4 Britains Cadburys Vintage Lead Cococubs Including KittenVintage Britains Pre-war Painted Lead Lot Two Cats-one Black &^ One White No604Vintage Britains Lead Toy North American Indian Mounted On Horse #2Vintage Antique Britains Lead Cococub Rare Peter Penguin Figure Cadbury's 1930sBritains Set 1291 2153 - Band Of The Royal Marines -x23 Figures Post-warBritains Set 139 - French Chasseurs A Cheval For Repair - X20 FiguresVintage Corgi James Bond Aston Martin D.b.5., 1960s, Gt. Britain, Very Good Cond