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]

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Tinplate Clockwork International Oil Tanker Truck, Mettoy, Gt. BritainBritains Vintage Lead Prewar Farm Flint Wall Sections And PillarsBritains Vintage Officers Of The General Staff No.201 Figures In Original BoxBritish Bulldog Lead Toy Soldier Figure Navy Landing Party Set Ducal Britains1930s Collection X6 Britains Lead Robin Hood Toy Soldier Figures Britains Vintage Diecast/plastic Farm Boxed # 9573 Landrover & Horsebox - 1970'sVintage Britains #2106 - 18" Heavy Howitzer Mounted For Garrison Work - Exc!Vintage Britains Swoppet Mounted Jousting Knight With Lance 1960'sBuilt Painted Revell Heinkel He 111 Luftwaffe Bomber Battle Of Britain Ww2 1/72Vintage Lead Britains Boxed Racing Colours - Lord Derby 1926Older Britains Royal Coronation Open Coach-red+gold W/horses & Figures+more-lookUs Civil War Artillery Britains Metal Plastic Confederate Vs Union Toy SoldiersBritains Deetail 1/32 Ww2 Diecast German Army Bmw Motor Cycle Combo & Crew Britains Livery Stable Farmyard Barn Cat Number 4720 1960's/70'sBritains Set 5962 Pontoon SectionBritains Set 43103 Napoleonic Coldstream Guards BandVintage Tinplate Clockwork Horse Drawn Cart Toy, Marx Toys, Gt Britain.Vintage Britains Lead Soldiers Figures X8 Line Bandsmen 11117 Pieces Vintage Britains Farm Painted Lead Toy 5 X Hunting Hunt Dogs & 1 X FoxBritains Set 182 11th Hussars And Part Set 2087 5th Dragoon GuardsBritains Lead Toy Soldier Coronation Coach SetBritains 6 Pre-war Horses At Halt From Set 182 And 2 Napoleonic GunsBritains Ltd. England No 9696 Vintage Triumph Speed Twin Motorcycle 1:32 MibToy Soldiers German Infantry Britains Deetail 7 Piece Set 1980 In Box 7356Britains Swoppet Mounted Knight Attacking With Lance - Complete - Excellent !Corgi 1/72 Diecast Aa33701 Heinkel He111 H3 Hindenburg Battle Of Britain 1940Britains 12 Horses At Halt From Set 182 Post WarLead Toy Soldier Devonshire Regiment Set Dorset Steadfast Britains Tradition ?Vintage Britains Deetail French Foreign Legion And Arabs Toy Soldiers Lot 1971****lot Of 5 W Britain American Civil War Metal Figures****Vintage Britains Lead Soldiers Mixed X4 Europeans Firing 1120W. Britain American Civil War Soldiers #17371 Union Captain & Guidon Bearer BoxCinderella And Price Charming Plastic Windup Toy Original Box Wells Grt. BritainBritish Soldiers The Life Guards 1st And 2nd With CloaksBritains Lead Toy Soldier Ww1 Officer In Shrapnel Proof HelmetBritains 1335 Six Wheel Tipping Lorry9 Pcs Britains Toy Soldiers Civil War Era & Made In England Plastic LotBritains Set 2076 (9217) 12th Lancers, Made In England, 1962Three Vintage Britains Swoppet Mounted Knights All Missing Some Parts 1960'sVintage Boxed Britains Home Farm Series No. 3/11 - 1 Donkey & 2 Fowls VvgBritains Lead Toy Soldier Ww1 Marching In Shrapnel Proof HelmetVintage Britains Lead Soldiers Figures X8 Mixed Line Infantry Marching 1102*refurbished* Britains 155mm Field Gun (long Tom) No Shell Or Shell CaseBritains Vintage Lead Toy Soldier Figure Civil War Union Artillery Set Cannon 3p54mm Plastic Britains Swoppet Knight SparesToy Soldiers Us Infantry Britains Deetail 7 Piece Set 1980 In Box 7346Vintage Lead Toy Soldier Lot Dime Store Antique Sailor Britains Timpo JohillcoVintage Britains Lead Soldiers Figures X6 Line Drummers For Restoration 1110Britains Herald Vintage Plastic Scots Highlander Bandsmen Marching - 1950'sVintage Britains Lead Soldiers Figures X2 Spotter 11049x Mixed Fowls Vintage Britains Poultry Lead Toys - All Chickens. 2 With Damage12x Vg Condition Mixed Poultry Fowls Vintage Britains Lead Toys Ducks Geese SwanBritains Pre-war Set #15 Argyle Sutherland HighlandersModern Britains Toy Soldiers - Acw - Iron Brigade - Floca CollectionBritains Lead Toy Soldier Somerset Light Infantry SetBritains Metal Models British Royal Marines Colour Guard, # 7204, No Box****lot Of 5 W Britain American Civil War Metal Figures****Britains Military Police Land Rover With Soldiers, Fine ConditionLead Toy Soldier Ww1 U.s. Cavalry On Charging Horse Britains Trophy Fusilier ?Britains Herald Vintage Plastic Scots Highlanders Marching - 1950's