In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” the romantic trials of an unfinished toy soldier end in molten-metal heartbreak as the character is consumed by fire. Fortunately, countless other diminutive soldiers, made primarily in tin, lead, composite, and plastic, survived their battle-filled days of youth to become treasured keepsakes for children and adults alike.

The term “toy soldier” generally refers to any miniature human figure that represents a military or combat character. Unlike modern action figures such as G.I. Joe, most are measured in millimeters and stand between 45 and 75 mm tall, or no more than a few inches in height. Though miniature warrior figurines found in Egyptian tombs have been dated to 2500 BC, those were created for ritual purposes rather than as playthings. Similarly, across Medieval Europe, generals and monarchs had miniature armies crafted for them in silver, porcelain, or wood for use during war-strategy sessions.

The earliest soldier figurines designed specifically as children’s toys appeared in Europe during the 18th century, aimed at the affluent aristocracy who could afford a product with expensive detailing and fine craftsmanship. Those carved from wood rarely survived their owner’s childhood, while costly silver soldiers were invariably melted down for their raw material value after their owners grew up.

Toward the end of the 18th century, metalworkers building household items and doll house furniture sometimes produced cheap tin figures in their spare time. Known as “flats,” these two-dimensional soldiers were sold unpainted. The first mass-produced toy soldiers were made in Germany during the 19th century. Like their two-dimensional predecessors, these engraved characters, produced by companies such as Heinrichson, Heyde, and Gebrüder Riechewere, were also depicted in silhouette. Johann Gottfried Hilpert established an early assembly-line for his soldiers; female painters applied a single color on each figurine as it was passed around the workshop.

In the late 19th century, the growing market for toy figures allowed companies to invest in more realistic, three-dimensional or “solid” products. These models were made by pouring molten lead into a mold and extracting the solid figurine after cooling. Heads were often made using a separate mold and later attached to the figure, which was then carefully painted by hand. Companies like Mignot and Lucotte in France or Heyde in Germany created these solid toys to resemble members of various European militaries, often in ceremonial dress and posture. Heyde’s range soon expanded to include military cooks and nurses in addition to troops in uniform.

The miniature soldier market was completely transformed in 1893 when William Britain invented a process for hollow-casting lead. Britain's hollow-cast system involved pouring molten lead into a mold that was turned as the metal cooled, with a small opening allowing for excess lead to escape. The finished product was a hollow figurine considerably cheaper and lighter than earlier designs.

Some of the company’s most interesting figures are its foreign military series, like the Egyptian Camel Corps or Indian Cavalry of 1896. Britains became the leading producer of toy soldiers, though its methods were soon imitated by companies like A. Fry, BMC, Reka, C.D. Abel & Co., and Hanks Bros...

The company’s primary rival, John Hill & Co. or Johillco, was established by George Wood, who learned the hollow-casting technique as an employee at Britains. Though Wood relied on the same production process, his designs were completely different, and often featured soldiers in realistic action stances, unlike Britains’ more formally-posed characters.

Meanwhile, in Vienna, a company named Pfeiffer developed a new technique for combining sawdust, glue, kaolin, and casein into a composite material that was applied to a simple wire frame and hand-painted after drying. During the 1930s, German companies like Hausser made figures from similar composite mixtures, mostly designing figures of Third Reich Nazi troops.

British manufacturer Riviere & Willett, and later the American firm Miller, each created larger-scale figurines from composition as well. Because of their size and delicate nature, these soldiers were treated less like playthings and more like decorative statuettes.

The largest toy soldier producer in America was Barclays of New Jersey. Founded in 1924, Barclays focused on U.S. and North American fighters, from uniformed Revolutionary troops to Native American warriors, and sold its products at five-and-dime stores across the country. The company’s strength lay in its unusually creative poses, like those depicting a nurse offering her patient iodine or a searchlight operator scanning the skies.

During the 1930s, Barclays created a line of home-casting sets which contained a bar of lead, metal molds, a ladle, and a melting pot, allowing hobbyists to build toy soldiers themselves. Other American companies producing dime-store soldiers, like Manoil and Sachs, sold home-casting kits, too.

World War II had two major impacts on toy soldiers. First, metal figures resumed production after being halted during the war. Many of these postwar toy soldiers were explicitly marketed as “connoisseur figures” for adult collectors. High-end retailers like Hummel and the London Collector’s Shop sold lines made by firms like the American-based Authenticast, Italy’s Figur, or British companies such as Charles Stadden and Rose Miniatures.

Meanwhile, Timpo hired noted designer Roy Selwyn Smith to develop some of the most realistic hollow-lead figures of the era, such as its Knights of the Round Table. Hollow-casting was also used by smaller French companies like Mignot, GM, and LP, all of whom released figures based on regiments from France. In the United States, the hollow-cast method was adopted by Edward Jones of Chicago, whose short run of high-quality toys are very desirable today. A few companies based in Asia also created hollow lead models aimed at the American toy market, such as Minikins and Trico; those marked “Occupied Japan” are of particular interest to collectors.

The other postwar impact was the movement toward plastic. Shortage of metals during the war had led to improvements in plastic technology. By the 1950s, most toymakers were using a plastic injection-molding system that was much faster and more affordable than metal casting. The American firm Beton began selling its unpainted plastic soldiers through dime-stores in the U.S, while new companies like Airfix, Reamsa, and Starlux produced plastic figures for the European market. Holger Eriksson designed a particularly intricate set of plastic figures for the short-lived British company Malleable Mouldings, whose soldiers are now very popular.

More established companies like the venerable John Hill & Co. stumbled in its transition to plastics; Hill was forced to close by the early '60s. As it turned out, Hill and others would not have lasted long in the metal toy-soldier market anyway. After 1966, Great Britain prohibited the manufacture of lead soldiers because of the material's toxicity, jump-starting the collector's market for those figurines.

Zang Products of England, which changed its name to Herald in 1953 before being bought out by Britains, made some of the highest-quality plastic soldiers of the postwar era. In the late 1950s, the company debuted its Swoppet line, a highly successful series whose characters had interchangeable plastic parts and accessories. Others imitated the style, and by the 1970s Timpo built a machine that could sculpt, paint, and assemble a complete figure. Innovation alone couldn’t sustain the company, however, and Timpo closed its doors after releasing a final series of dramatic Viking Warriors in 1978.

Known for its complex themed playsets, the American toy company Marx took a more generic approach with its unpainted green-plastic figures, which are probably what most people picture when they hear the phrase “army men.” These posed playset soldiers came in large groups, with many identical figures for recreating massive battlefield scenarios. But even Marx has high-end lines such as Warriors of the World, and its “Put-to-gether English Soldiers” kits included individual plastic body parts that children assembled by hand.

After the popularity of G.I. Joe and other action figures in the 1960s, a revival of classic toy soldier designs in non-toxic materials took place in the 1970s and '80s. Entrepreneurs like Giles Brown of Dorset Soldiers and Jan and Frank Scroby purchased original molds from defunct businesses to reissue popular toy soldiers for collectors. Dorset also developed its own designs, featuring atypical subjects like a miniature group of little boys playing with their own even-tinier set of toy soldiers. During the 1990s, most manufacturers, like King & Country, switched from glossy enamel paints to matte-finish acrylic ones, which helped to increase the level of detail and realism that could be achieved. Today, King & Country continues to produce toy-soldier sets based on contemporary military engagements, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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