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    

Britains Pre-war Painted Lead Zoo Elephant Ride With Howdah-children&keeperUniversal Hobbies 1:32 Vaderstad Carrier 500 Suit Britains Tractor CollectorUniversal Hobbies 1:32 Vaderstad Top Down 400 Suit Britains Tractor CollectorBritains Vintage Lead Prewar Farm Flint Wall EnclosureUniversal Hobbies 1:32 Fendt 818 Vario Tractor Suit Britains CollectorCorgi Aviation Archive Aa33711 Heinkel Iii Condor Legion Battle Of BritainUniversal Hobbies 1:32 Rauch Axis Spreader Suit Britains Tractor CollectorBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Zoo No953 Camel Ride With Boy And KeeperBritains 5 Military Riders And A 2 Horse Cart Lead Soldiers Made In EnglandBritains Swoppet Knights C15 Shield Plume Sword Saddle Head Belt Dagger ArrowsVintage W. Britain Fox Hunt Set Horses Side-saddle Riders Dogs Fox Pony 32 Pcs Revell 04728 1/32 Junkers Ju88a-1 "battle Of Britain" Wwii German Bomber Model Britains Lead Toy Figure; Railroad Series - Mounted Policeman, Pre-warBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Farm No525 Fallen Tree+old Man+old Woman + DogBritains Farm 9545 Transport Box & Loads (tipping) Fordson Tractors (mint-boxed)1:32 Britains - Stagecoach - With 2 Horses, Driver & Passengers And Cargo PiecesBritains Ltd Motorcycles Speedway Lot MotorbikesBritains Cannon And Figures American Civil War Metal Soldier Lot 2001 2002Vintage Britains 1862 Civil War Union Cavalry And Infantry 2069 Box OnlyBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Huntsman Mounted No608+standing+hound+sceneryUniversal Hobbies 1:32 Amazone Zg-b Spreader Suit Britains Tractor CollectorBritains Boxed No9692 Greeves 250cc Motor Cycle 1-32 ScaleBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Lot Of 4 Direction Signposts+two PigeonsBritains Pre-war Painted Lead No40f Farm Cart With Flour/grain Sack+farmerBritains Pre-war Painted Lead 8 Cowboy Figures With Jointed ArmsBritains Vintage Lead Military Lead Mounted General Officer From Various SetsBritains&others Painted Lead Large Lot 20+ Cowboys-indians-canoe-log-horsesVintage Britains 1862 Civil War Usa Troops And Guns 9485 Box OnlyBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Farm Hayricks-wheatsheaves-feed Troughs-ladderBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Farm No570 Dog Kennel+baseboard+dog+water PailBritains Military Field Artillery Cannon Gun Lead Soldiers Made In EnglandBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Farm No548 Field Gate & Hedges - Complete SetVintage Britains Farm Series Lead *13 People Farmhand Figure Lot* W/wheelbarrowBritains 0175 Hamleys The Drums & Pipes 1st Battalion The Gordon Highlanders Lincoln Logs Lead Toy Soldier Figure Og Caveman & Nada Cavewoman BritainsBritains Pre-war Painted Lead No522 Cedar Tree About 5" TallBritains Large Farm Livestock Trailer (ref: 2127sf00)John Hill&co & Britains Pre-war Painted Lead Rabbit Hutch & Three RabbitsVintage Britains Cast Lead Fox Hunt Set Figures Vrare 40's / 50's 100% OriginalBritains 00105 Royal Guard Of Honour The Queen's Company Grenadier Guards 18991950s Britains Metal 54mm Medieval Knight On Horseback With LanceBritains 'eyes Right' Middlesex Regt Drums & Bugles Soldiers From The 1960'sBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Zoo 2 No903/916 King Penguins+2 No909 PelicansLot Vintage Antique Britains Johillco Timpo Lead Chicken Farm Figures & Wood HutRare Britains Toy Lead Soldier Set 116 Soudanese InfantryBritains Lead Toy Soldier Mounted With FlagBnib Lot Of 9 Pc Britains The Sovereign's Escort Scots Guards On HorsesBritains 1971 Deetail Wild West Plains Indians X 8 Inc. 2 MountedBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Farm Scene Shepherd-dog-sheep-baby Lambs-hurdlesBritains John Deere 3400 Farm ExcavatorBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Farm No548 Field Gate & HedgesBritains Lead Toy Figure; Zoo Or Circus Series - Large Indian ElephantBritains Lead Toy Figure; Zoo Or Circus Series - Leopard1960s Vintage The Beatles Large Metal Tray With All 4 Photo Images Gt BritainBritains Vintage Lead Farm Girl Feeding Assorted ChickensCherilea Lead Toy Figure In Scale With Britains; BallerinaBritains Samson Large Farm Tanker TrailerBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Garden 2 No640 Trees And Another TreeBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Zoo No965 Himalayan Bear+pandas+baby BearsBritains Pre-war Painted Lead No598 Mounted Gentleman Farmer+stable Lad+hound