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 Britains Painted Lead Royal Artillery Mountain Battery Set - 13 PiecesVintage Britains Painted Lead Pre-war Armoured Car In Very Nice ConditionVintage Britains Painted Lead Pre-war Lot Of Three Hussars/lancers ?Britains Scarce Set 153 Prussian Hussars Pre-war 2nd Version 1930sBritains Set 2096 Pipe & Drums Of The Irish Guards Last Version 1956-59 1:32 Britains - Overland Stage Coach - With 4 Horses, Driver & Guard & Luggage Britains Ramc Ambulance Wagon #145 Pre Ww2Britains 18” Howitzer #1265 Boxed & Empty Box For 18" Heavy Howitzer #9740Vintage 1960s Corgi Toys Batmobile W Batman & Robin # 267 Great Britain WowHuge Lot Vintage W. Britain Field Guns Artillery Army Beetle Lorry 6 Empty BoxesMixed Lot 25 Vintage W. Britain Toy Soldiers Khaki Infantry Machine Gunners Lot 15 Vintage W. Britain Toy Soldiers #75 #329 Scots Guards Swords Rifles FlagsLot Vintage W. Britain Field Guns Artillery Army Beetle Lorry 7 Empty Boxes1980's 1/32 New Holland Tr85 Combine For Tractor Britains Toy Nh Sperry RandVintage Britains Lambretta Scooter & 2 Riders Original & In Original BoxBritains Rare Set 1584 Cheshire Regt. Famous Regiments Pre War 1937-39Britains Antique Soldiers- Large Lot Of Greek Evzones, 54mmMixed Lot 17 Vintage W. Britain Toy Soldiers Scots Guards Colour Party Flags Vintage Britains Concord Overland Stage Coach Complete Mint In Box Lot 15 Vintage W. Britain Toy Soldiers Grenadier Guards 3 Mounted 1 FlagPrewar Britains Lead Soldiers Mounted Life Guards X6 From Set 43 1579Britains Deetail Mixed Lot Of Men , Soldiers, Horses , Cannons ...Mixed Lot 23 Vintage W. Britain Toy Soldiers #12 Somerset Infantry +others Britain's Hospital WardVintage Britains 54mm Metal Knights Of Agincourt #1661 Mounted Knight W/ SwordLot 8 Vintage W. Britain Grenadier Scots Guards Gray Winter Coats 3 Sentry BoxesVintage Britains Diecast German Wwii Motorcycle Toy & Dispatch Rider 1:32Vintage Britains Lead Soldiers Mounted Bandsmen X4 Of Life Guards 1585Britains Tin Plate R.o.a.n. Advertising Sign For Toy SoldiersVintage Britains Lead Soldiers Boxed Set 107 Irish Guards X9 Officer Fault 1606Vintage Britains 54mm Metal Knights Of Agincourt #1663 Mounted Knight W/ SwordVintage Britains 54mm Metal Knights Of Agincourt #1662 Mounted Knight W/ FlagBritains British Waterloo 1815 Cannon W/ Gun Crew And Ammo Ob Britains 1:32 Scale Ford 6600 Tractor Vintage Britains 54mm Metal Knights Of Agincourt #1664 Four Knights On FootVintage Britains Painted Lead Pre-war Lot Of Seven Military BandsmenAntique Britains Lead Soldiers Mounted Hussars Short Carbines 1901 X2 1580Vintage Britains Lead Soldiers 2x Bearers One To Restore 1608Vintage Britains Lead Soldier Mounted Officer Tin Sword Blank Base 1582Britain's Hospital Series Emergency Ward 10Vintage Mixed Lot Lead Britains England, France, Animals , PeopleLarge Lot Vintage 54mm Lead Farm Models - Britains / John Hill / Timpo EtcBritains Army Green Toy Truck And Trailer Antique England Vintage LorryVintage Britains Ltd.diecast 155mm Howitzer Field Cannon With Tow BarBritains Deetail Mixed Lot Of Men , Soldiers, Horses , Cannons ...Vintage Britains Diecast Motorcycle Toy & Dispatch Rider 1:32Britains Lead Toy Soldier Black Watch Highlander Marching OfficerBuilt Diorama"d-day "1:35/32 Finished Model Base-king & Country,britainsPlastic Toy Cowboys And Indians 1 Britains Toy Soldiers Vintage Britains Lead Soldiers Guards Marching X5 & Arm Less Officer 1609Britains Deetail Herald Livery Cow Shed Mint With BoxBritains Lead Zoo 5 PiecesVintage Mounted Knight + Flag Britains Metal 1/32nd Scale EnglandVintage Britains/other Makers Painted Lead Pre-war Lot Of Twelve SoldiersBritains 1:32 Scale Ford 5000 Tractor ModelsVintage Britains Lead Soldiers X4 Highlanders 1602Britains Swoppet Knights Lot Swoppet Knight Archers Horseman Mounted Sword Lance2x Vintage Britains Lead Toy Soldiers Lot ~ Imperial Tradition Trophy HockerBritains England Cast Metal Army Military Tipper Lorry Truck 50's V Rare NiceBritains 1971 1/32 Deetail Waterloo French Carabiniers X 2 - Both Poses