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 Farm No.6f General Purpose Plough Painted Lead Toy Britains Ltd. Vintage 1960's Fordson Super Major Tractor Rare Item Very GoodBritains Pre-war Painted Lead No587 Village Idiot - Very Good Original ItemVintage Lead Farm Early Britains Lead Farm Pin Fencing 30f Box - Box Only 1930sBritains/hugar Farm Cottage Diorama With Hedges+fence-lead Figures-animals EtcBritain’s Ltd. Antique/vintage Soldiers–roan, 5th Dragoon Guards 2087,8 Orig BoxVintage 2-1/4" Britains Hand Painted Lead Toy Soldier Band & Pipers Lot#4Britains - 9783 Ww2 German Scout Car Kubelwagen Deetail *global Shipping*Vintage Britains & Crescent Lead Lamp Ladder & Figure Mixed Lot Uncommon 1393Vintage 2-1/4" Britains Hand Painted Lead Toy Soldier Mixed Lot#7Vintage Lead Britains #1859 Senrty Box W/ Sentry Active Service Toy Soldier VgcBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Farm No525 Fallen Tree + Three Figures & A DogBritains & Others Pre-war Painted Lead Village Pond+log Seat-ducks-figures EtcBritains Lead Mounted Soldier Moveable Arm OfficerVtg Britains 1725 Cast Metal Model Royal Artillery 4.5" Howitzer Toy Cannon NibBritains Lead Miniature Garden Rustic Arch Climbing Rose Man Dove 1920 - 30sBritains Vintage Painted Lead No126f Farm Cart With Figure+ Milk ChurnsBritains # 6a Cowboys And North Americans Indians On Foot- BoxedBritains Vintage Diecast 1970's #9780 German Kettenkrad Half-track With CrewVintage Timpo Britains Wild West Hopalong Cassidy Lead Cowboy Toy SoldiersW Britain Britains Metal Model British Soldiers & Machine Gun No ReserveHuge 60 Figure Lot Of Britains Ltd 1940's Lead Toy Soilders 1W.britain Foreign LegionBritains+john Hill Pre-war Painted Lead 2 Blacksmiths-horse For Shoeing+2 AnvilsBritains Vintage Fox & Hunt Dogs 5 Pieces Made In England Lead Figures AnimalsBritain Scale Vintage Wendal Aluminum Toy Cowboy Western Figures Indian In CanoeBritain Scale Vintage Lead Toy Farm Figures Rare Fox Running With Chicken JhillBritain Scale Vintage Lead Toy Farm Figures T&b Bunny Rabbit Den With 2 RabbitsBritain Vintage Lead Toy Farm Figures Chicken, Rooster, Hens, Chick 8 PcsAxis & Allies War At Sea Miniatures Game / Hms Glorious / 7/39 / Britain / RareTimpo 1/32 (britains Scale) Vintage Arab Fighters X 20Britains #8848 The 1903 Delhi Durbar (the British Army In India; Mib; C. 1997) Britains England 54mm Washington Crossing #17229 Painted 11figs 2000 Mib OopBritains Limited Deetail Toy Soldiers Lot17 Britains Metal Soldiers 1 Cannon 1 Flag American Civil War 2001 Excellent ConBritains American Revolutionary War 16046 Woodland Indian Ambush MibBritains 17947 World War I German Infantry Machine Gun Firing Set 54mm Sold Out Vintage Pre-war Britains 5 Lead Horse Figures 21st Lancers No.100 ~1900Boxed Britains Prairie Schooner Lead Covered Wagon W/ 2 Riders & 4-horse TeamBritains 5187 Toy Soldiers The Bahamas Police Band 1987 Limited Edition NumberedVintage 11 Pieces Britains #34 Grenadier Guards Half Boots Firing + Scots GuardsBritains 1971 1/32 Ww2 British Infantry Soldiers Set Of 6 + MortarBritains Deetail Toy Soldiers Mixed Vintage Lot Mostly 1971 + Cannon Horses FairAntique Prewar Britains Hollowcast Lead Soliders 19021971 Britains Ltd. Detail Set Of Civil War Union SoldiersBritains Limited Deetail Knights Horses - 98 Piece Lot - CompleteMarvel Legends Giant Man Series Set Of 7 Kitty Warbird Britain Thor Sentry XVintage Britains Swoppets Civil War Confederate Soldiers & Cannon Corgi No 261 Aston Martin Db5 James Bond 007 - Gt Britain - W/boxSet Of 2 Britains Deetail German Infantry Soldiers 7356Britains William Britains 36060 Waterloo Campaign British Scots Grey Trooper Mtd Corgi Forward March Us59108 1:32 Scale Raf Battle Of Britain Scramble, LiBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Garden Six Piece Flower Bed With Grass BordersBritains American Revolutionary War 18046 British Royal Irish Grenadier MibMozart Music Concert With Orchestra And Guests - Possibly Made In BritainVintage Wm.britain Hispania (spanish) Soldiers-in Original Box (no Top) MintScarce Britains Lilliput Fox Hunt Set - Complete In The Original Box - ExcellentVintage Corgi Juniors Batmobile Batboat And Trailer Gt BritainBritains American Revolutionary War 16007 Woodland Indian Running Musket MibBritains 54mm European Tactical Farmhouse Diorama