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 Vintage Lead Farm Or Village Rare Prewar Golfer #562Set Of 5 Britains Soldiers The Queen's Bays No. 44 (2nd Dragoon Guards) W/ BoxBritains Pre-war Painted Lead No5f Farm Wagon Set CompleteSet Of 13 Britains Historical Series Soldiers No. 1307 In Original BoxVintage Band Of U.s. Marine Corps No.2014 21 Pcs. Box, Tie CardThe Life Guards 5 Pc Set Of Britain's Lead Toy Soldiers W/ Original BoxBritains Toy Soldiers Set 2085, Household Cavalry Musical Ride 23 FiguresBritains # 200 Motorcycle Despatch Riders Motor Machine-gun Hollowcast Lead CcSet Of 11 Britains Historical Series Soldiers No. 1307 In Original BoxBritains Vintage Lead Farm #564 Man With Swing Water Barrow - 1930'sVintage Lead Britains Toys Soldiers, Lot Of 22 Ld-0635Britains Pre-war Painted Lead No523 Elm Tree About 5.3/4" High - ExcellentBritains Vintage Painted Lead Model Home Farm Box No125f + ContentsVintage Britains Ltd Deetail Cowboys And IndiansBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Farm No747 Girl With Feeding BucketBritains Set #74-the Royal Welch Fusiliers In Original Box% 2002 Britain Knights Of Agincourt Lead Figures Mint In Original BoxBritains Afrika Korps Kettenrad And Cannon With Driver, 1:32 ScaleVintage Rare Collectible Britains And Linsey Toy Soldier (43) Piece GroupGroup Of Britains Deetail 1970's German Infantry Soldiers, And A Mortar SetBritains Vintage Lead Prewar Farm Or Hunt # 600 Boy In Blue On Shetland PonyBritains Vintage Painted Lead Model Home Farm Box No53f + ContentsBritains 7460 Acw Civil War Swoppet Set In BoxBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Farm No744 Man With Jointed Arm Sewing SeedVintage Britains Painted Lead No129f Model Farm Timber Trailer + LogBritains 1/32 Deetail 1971 Ww2 8th Army (desert Rats) Vickers Machine Gun & CrewBritains #44 2nd Dragoon Guards ObBritains Ltd, Set 118 Lot Of 13 Gordons Highlanders Shooting Hollowcast Lead CcVintage Britains Toy Soldiers Ld-0675Britains Style Female Salvation Army Figure - Excellent ConditionVintage Britains Lead Hunt Mixed Mounted Figures X2 For Spares 1416Lot Of Vintage Britains 3 Farm & Garden Pieces All Horse Drawn.Vintage Britains Or Other Lead Lamp / Sign & Bollards Ok For Model Railway 1413Britains Swoppet 15th Century Mounted KnightBritains/john Hill Pre-war Painted Lead Farm Chicken Coup + 8 HensVintage Hugar/britains Wooden Hen House + 5 Painted Lead Hens & Farm MaidBritains State Coach - Boxed - Beautiful Condition 50's Soldiers Collectible ExcBritains #2009 Le Regiment Des Belgian Grenadiers ObBritains Ltd, Set 11 Lot Of Black Watch Highlanders Charge Hollowcast Lead Cc4 Vintage Britains Lead Mounted Canadian Governor Generals Horse GuardsVintage Collectible Lot Of Lead Soldiers Britain's Soldiers - Assorted Types - Excellent Condition - Total Of 22Britains & John Hill Pre-war Painted Lead Rustic Table-log Seat And 2 FiguresThe Herald Polar Explorer Dog Sledge Team 1958 Britains Herald Dog Team Ski SnowBritains/other Pre-war Painted Lead Farm Baby Chicks-gosling Etc - Good LotBritains/others Pre-war Painted Lead Foot Bridge+farmer-farmers Wife + 2 DucksVintage F G Taylor & Sons Lead Hen Coop With Britains Chickens & Some ChicksBritains/similar Pre-war Painted Lead Farm Lot Of Five Pigeons/dovesBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Farm Lot Of Nine No515 TurkeysBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Farm No599 Jersey Cow & AnotherVintage Britains Lead Soldiers Mixed Mounted Hussars 1574Vintage Britains Or Other Lead Recast Street Lamps X2 Ok For Model Railway 1409Britains 1971 Deetail 1/32 Medieval Turkish Soldiers - Set Of 6 Foot + 1 MountedBritains Vintage Lead Military Prewar Horse Drawn Ambulance & Machinegun SparesVintage Lead Farm And Garden Pixyland Spitting Cat Rare 1923 -1931 Britains EraBritains 1/32 American Civil War Mounted Officers X 3 VgcVintage Britains Ltd Plastic Swoppets Era Knights + Horses Lot EtcBritains Toy Solders Delhi Durbar Range 1998 Special Collectors Edition Ref#2Vintage Barrett & Sons Painted Lead Hen Coup + A Good Lot Of Britains HensBritains Pre-war Painted Lead Farm Lot Of Three No620 Hares - Good Lot