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    

Tekno Denmark No 442 Vintage Vespa Scooter Very Rare Item Nmint In BoxBritains No 7464 Acw Federal Gun Team And Limber, Complete BoxedVintage Husky #1202 Batmobile - Made In Great Britain - Mip Moc - 1960sLarge Vintage Lot 75+ Britains, Barclay Johillco More Die-cast Figure CollectionBritains Arab Warrior On Camel (set 193) Scale 1:32Jagdwaffe - Luftwaffe Colours 2/4 - Battle Of Britain Phase 4 - Very Rare & Oop!Rare Timpo England Hollow Cast Lead 16x U.s. Army Soldier Set In Box Britains !9 Britains Hollow Cast Lead Danish Guards.Large Vintage Lot 65+ Britains, Barclay Johillco & More Die-cast Park Collection5 Vintage Britains Swoppet Standing Knights With Lances1/off Britain’s Us 155mm Gun #2064 Boxed.Britains Lead Toy Soldier Gun Of The Royal Artillery With BoxVintage 54mm Lead Farm / Garden - Flint Walling + Gate Posts - BritainsWm Britains Toy Soldiers Vintage Canada Fort Henry Band 9154 England Orig BoxLead Toy Soldier Ww1 Model T Command Truck Die Cast 54mm Britains MignotVintage Husky #9 Buick Police Car - Made In Great Britain - Mip Moc - 1960sBritains Vintage 1960's Scooter Vespa? Lambretta?Britains Hollowcast Lead 4th Queens Own Hussars Set 8 Troopers & BuglerVintage Britains 155mm Gun No. 2064 With Box And Accessories Vintage 54mm Lead Farm / Garden John Hill Summerhouse + Rustic Table 1/32 Scale Wm Britains 5197 Crimean War Charge Of The Light Brigade 1854 Toy Soldier SetJagdwaffe - Luftwaffe Colours 2/3 - Battle Of Britain Phase 3 - Very Rare & Oop!Vintage 54mm Lead Farm / Garden - Oak Tree - BritainsVintage 54mm Lead Farm / Garden - John Hill Greenhouse - 1/32 Scale Britains Royal Marines Marching With Rifles At Slope & Officer, Set 3518 Piece Hollow Cast Lead Band, Us Infantry 1890's. Unknown (to Me) MakerVintage 54mm Lead Farm / Garden - Gpo Pillar Box - John Hill ?Bluebird Land Speed Racer Original Box W. Britain EnglandBritains Royal Horse Artillery Office Soldier 4 Vintage Britains Swoppet Standing Knights With Swords And AxesFordson Tractor With Driver Britains Figure Lead F471Britains Hollow Cast Guards In Winter Overcoats With Their Officer.Six Mounted Royal Scots GreysVintage 54mm Lead Farm / Garden Hen + Crate + Chicks + Cockerel Britains/hillPre War*william Britains*racing Colours Series*race Horse*no JockeyVintage Husky #65 Studebaker Tv Car - Made In Great Britain - Mip Moc - 1960sW Britain Collectors Club Band Of The Royal Marines #0232 Set 2 Limited Ed Mint Lots Britains Swoppet Spares/repairs Knights Archers Horses Swords Shields EtcBritains Set # 2099 Venezuelan Cadets With Officer - Rare! - ExcellentVintage 54mm Lead Pixyland Kew Farm / Garden Huntsman + Woman + Fox Hounds 6 X Fox Hound & Hunstman Standing *william Britains*hunt Series(lead/metal)54mm Britains Swoppet Medieval Castle Agincourt Knights LotBritains 6 Horse Team From Royal Horse Artillery Set #39Hollow Cast Lead Indian Army Marching Band. Repainted Britains & ?Huge Lot Britains Deetail Acw Indians 7th Cavalry Cowboys Wagon Robin HoodLilliput World Lv/sa Vehicle Set Tied In Box!10 Piece Hollow Cast Lead Us Infantry Marching, Indian Wars Era. Maker??Britains Civil War Artillery Cannon Vintage Husky #71 E Type Jaguar - Made In Great Britain - Mip Moc - 1960sVintage Britains Swoppet Mounted KnightLot Of 22 Vintage Lead Britains Bagpipes And Band Lead SoldiersLead Toy Soldier Us Army Model A Truck Die Cast 54mm Britains MignotJagdwaffe - Luftwaffe Colours - 2/2 Battle Of Britain Phase 2 - Rare & Oop!On Target Special No.2 - Britain Alone: June 1940 - December 1941 - Superb!Vintage 54mm Lead Farm / Garden Models - Twins On A See Saw ! John HillBritains Limber From Royal Horse Artillery Set #393 Vintage Britains Swoppet Standing Knights With SwordsVintage 54mm Lead Farm / Garden - Gun Dog Carrying Fowl - CharbensW Britain Metal Toy Soldier Lmt Ed 981 Of 70001 The Lifeguards #5184 W/ Coa MibBritains Set 142 9166 5 French Zouaves Charging With A Mounted Officer