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 Boxed No20f Farmers Gig Set Complete & Very GoodBritains/similar Pre-war Painted Lead 5 Mounted Lancers Indian Army FiguresVintage Britains Set 9669 Massey Ferguson 3680 Tractor Honda Atv Accessories NewBritains Metal Toy Soldiers; Circus Series - Kangaroo & Clown BoxingEarly Pre-war Britains Soldiers - Set 124 - Irish Guards Firing LyingBritains 1971 Deetail 1/32 Waterloo British Infantry Set 6 Inc Kilted HighlanderW. Britain - Napoleonic Waterloo: British 1st Royal Dragoons Troopers (no.1 & 3)W. Britain - Napoleonic Waterloo: British 1st Royal Dragoons Bugler & TrooperW. Britain - Napoleonic Waterloo: British 1st Royal Dragoons Officer & TrooperW. Britain - Napoleonic Waterloo: Forward Gordon's Scots Greys Troopers (magpie)W. Britain - Napoleonic Waterloo: Forward Gordon's Scots Greys Guidon & TrooperVintage John Hill & Co Pre-war Rabbit Hutch+3 Britains Dutch RabbitsW. Britain - Napoleonic Waterloo: British Scots Grey Officer & Trooper No.1Britains Metal Toy Soldiers; Circus Series - Camel Ride [boy Rider & Camel]Vintage W. Britains Plastic Highland Cows Antique Farm Toy Figure Exc ConditionBritains Metal Toy Soldiers; Somerset Infantry, Set Of 9 W. Britain - Napoleonic Waterloo: British 1st Royal Dragoons Guidon & TrooperW. Britain - Napoleonic Waterloo: Forward Gordon's Scots Greys Bugler & TrooperLead Toy Soldier Figure Baseball Pitcher Barclay? Britains2 Mib Unopened Vintage Britains Civil War Soldiers 9386,76 Britains Box Only Highlanders Waterloo, Coldstream Guards, Marines, Skinner'sMl10 - Britains Spare Pieces From 1st Version 18 Inch HowitzerBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Farm No4f Tumbril Cart Set With DroverBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Zoo No920 Date Palm Tree About 5" Tall#?? *britains 1970s Mk11 Daimler Scout Car(& 2 X Figures)desert 8th ArmyBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Farm Set No9f Two Section Roller - Complete SetBritains/similar Pre-war Painted Lead Three Mounted Indian Army FiguresBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Farm No142f Single Horse Plough - Complete SetBritains Metal Toy Soldiers; Circus Series - Ballerina On HorseBuilt Diorama"berlin 1945"1:35/32 Finished Model Base-king & Country,britainsDragon 1/6 Ww2 Wwii Major Galland Battle Of Britain 1940 12" 70260 Cyber HobbyBritains / Herald / Swoppets 1/32 Awi Muskets X 2 Spare PartsBritains Metal Toy Soldiers; Circus Series - Trainer & TigerRare Early Lead (3) Pieces Britains Beehive, Cadburys Coco Cub. & Telephone SBritains Ltd Deetail Vintage Toy Soldiers 1971 Vintage ( Made In England )Lot Of 2 Vintage Britains Lead Aviation Pilots Pre War FiguresLead Cowboys On Horses Britains Lot Of 10 VintageVintage Britian's 2me Regt Chasseurs A Cheval # 190nmib Britains Metal Toy Soldiers; Circus Series - Rearing Horse & TrainerBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Garden No617 Table With Folding BaseBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Farm Hedges With Single Gate - Very GoodRare Early Lead (3) Pieces Britains Etc Indian Medicine Man,pierrot,alsatian QVintage Corgi Toys #478 Hydraulic Tower Wagon Jeep Fc-150 Diecast Great BritainVintage Britains Confederate Cavalry And Officer # 2055 Nmib Lot Of Vintage England Britains Lead Soldiers Cowboys Indians Horses Britains Deetail 13 Piece Toy Western Set 1971Original Early Lead Farm Workers (9) Pieces Britains Etc: Farmers, Milk Maids CBritains Metal Toy Soldiers; Circus Series - Clown On StiltsVintage Corgi Batmobile- Made In Great BritainOriginal Britains Hollowcast 11th Hussars, Original Paint - Exc ConditionCorgi Diecast 1960s Marlin Rambler Fastback Model, 1960s, Gt. Britain, Nice!!Original Early Lead Farm Animals 17 Britains Etc;4 Cow/sheep,3 Horse/pigs/duck BSpot-on Diecast 1960s X.k. S.s. Classic Jaguar Models, 1960s, Gt. Britain, Rare!1950s Britains Metal Toy Coronation Coach And Original BoxBuilt Diorama"berlin"1:35/32 Finished Model Base-king & Country,britainsPlastic Toy Soldier Alamo Fighters Set Of 6 Britains Conte Pope Other?Plastic Toy Soldier Alamo Set Of 8 Conte Britains Pope Other?Britains Ltd Deetail Vintage Toy Soldiers 1971-1978 Vintage ( Made In England )Vintage Britains The Life Guards # 400 EbPlastic Toy Soldier Alamo Mexican Army Set Of 4 Conte Britains Other?