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 Set No19f Tree+gate With Boy On A SwingBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Prairie Schooner+figures+cowboy+bullock+wild HorseVintage Antique Old Estate Lot Lead Soldiers Britains Cowboy Horse Lasso Two GunBritains/hugar Wooden Stable+painted Lead Figures-foals-pond-ducks-troughs-etcBritains/hugar Wooden Stables+painted Lead Figures-horses-bench-troughs-etcBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Set No28mg Garden ShelterBritains/hugar Wooden Farm House + Painted Lead Figures-paving-bench-dog -etc Britains Lead Large Lot-pigs-sheep-geese-donkeys-goats-cat-dog-etc+buildingsLot Of Vintage Britains Ltd Deetail American Civil War Toy Soldiers Horses Hw34Vintage Britains Diecast Farm Equipment X 6 Inc Seed Drill, Manure Spreader, EtcVintage Britains Ltd Land Rovers X2 SafariBritains Lead Pre-war No563 Stable Lad + 8 Foals In A Debtoy Stable BuildingHuge Mixed Lot Vintage Toy Soldiers Figures Most Plastic Marx Tim-mee Britains Britains Pre/post War Painted Lead Lot Of 28 Cowboys & Indians FiguresBritains Pre-war Painted Lead No521 Oak Tree About 5.1/8" High - Very GoodBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Garden No31 Step LaddersVintage Britains Ltd Ford Fordson Tractor And TrailerVintage Britains Swoppet Confederate Cavalry Civil War Soldier Figures1940s Britains Chinese Infantry Lead Soldier Set #241 In The Box NiceBritains Ltd Farm Implements Job Lot Spares Spot On Cottage Garden Mechanics 1970s Britains Model Cycles(2) And Half Track Motorcycle All Mint In BoxsVintage Lead Britains Ltd. 7 Pc. Band Royal Scots GreysJob Lot Of 15 Vintage Britains Lead Figures Of Various Breeds Of DogBritains 1:32 ,ford 5000 Cabless Tractor,excellent,complete Condition,no BoxBritains 1:32 Scale,ford 6600 Farm Tractor,excellent,complete Condition,no BoxVintage Antique Old Estate Lot Lead Soldiers Britains Military Naval Movable ArmBritains American Revolution 17451 Molly Pitcher Set W/cannon In Original BoxVintage Britains Mounted Guard Lead Soldier FiguresVintage Britains Ltd Land Rover Horse Cart Tractors Job LotBritains American Revolution 17763 Yorktown Alexander Hamilton In Original BoxVintage Britains Ltd Jcb 5c ExcavatorBritains 17285 American Revolution 6lb Cannon Gun + Crew Metal Toy Soldier SetBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Garden No676 Hose Reel With NozzleJohn Hill & Co Pre-war Painted Lead Rabbit Hutch + Rabbit + 2 Britains HaresBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Garden No617 Folding Table+4 No049 Lawn SectionsOld Vintage Antique Wooden Elf Toys Zoo Enclosure Cage Britains Plastic FiguresBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Garden No051 Man Pushing LawnmowerJob Lot Of 11 Lead Gilco Road Signs Britain's Dinky Meccano Diecast 2 Pieces Metal Lead Models Green Desk & Brown Trunk Britains Johillco Timpo ToysBritains Toy Lead Soldiers Lot Of 6 Mounted KnightsBritains "racing Colours Of Famous Owners," Mrs. Mcdonald Buchanan, 1938Britains Pre-war Painted Lead No8f Horse Rake Set Complete And BoxedOld Vintage Antique Wooden Elf Toys Zoo Monkey Cage Britains Plastic KeeperLot Vintage Antique Britains Pre War Lead Floral Garden Figures Fence Bed WallsOld Vintage Antique Wooden Elf Toys Zoo Enclosure Cage Britains Plastic PenguinVintage W Britain West Point Cadet Set #299 (rd No. 459993)Vintage Britains Ltd ScooterAntique Britains Toy Lead Soldiers Duke Of Cornwall's Light Infantry Set Of 24Britains Toy Lead Soldiers Mix Lot Of 9 Cavalry Prussian Scottish DragoonBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Boy Scouts Climbing Tree With Gate & HurdlesBritains American Revolution 17278 Charles Cornwallis In Original BoxBritains Ltd. Deetail Toy German Soldiers Wwii 1971 Made In England Lot #3Britains Pre-war Painted Lead Farm No564 Man With Swing Water BarrowLot Old Vintage Antique Britains Plastic Zoo Figures Animals Elephant GiraffeOld Vintage Antique Wood Wooden Elf Toys Tiger Cage Britains Plastic Lead FigureVintage Antique Old Estate Lot Lead Soldiers Britains Military Horse And RidersBritains 1:32 Scale,mf 595 Drw Farm Tractor,ab Exc,complete Condition,no BoxPrewar Britains Lead - Boy Scout With PoleBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Three No152 Mounted Indian ChiefsBritains Painted Lead Seated Figures+bench+hill Ducks+willow Series Duck Pond