Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Building an Army

Oddly enough, this army has been under construction for a long time; nearly 30 years since I first put brush to plastic.
I started out in the late 60's (I know I'm dating myself here) as a lad playing along with a neighbor with early Airfix WW2 figures and Matchbox vehicles. I received for one Christmas an Aurora "Rat Patrol" set that yielded a Pz IV, a Panther and (of course) two Jeeps with .50 cal MG's. These gave many happy hours in the sandlot next door, sculpting fortifications, terrain features and the like.
At that time the War Memorial Museum in nearby Newport News sold ROCO Tiger I's, Shermans, PZ IV's and T-34/76's for 99c apiece (ah, those were the days!). Also, Airfix figures were a dollar a box. One could truly amass an army on the cheap. Eventually an epiphany came, an idea of putting my FFL troops in two-rank formations outside of their desert fort to "volley" at the onrushing Arabs on their horses and camels on the coffee table; hence, a habit is born! Up to that point I hadn't though of actually painting them, though.
A serious setback happened in my teens when my mom threw out by mistake a large shoebox filled to capacity with all of my collection of troops and vehicles of various types. I was in such a blue funk over the loss (and also began unhealthy habits like driving and dating girls) that I forgot about reconstituting my "armies". Later, while attending college in Norfolk, my Army ROTC instructor showed me his copy of "Charge!" (thats it lads, I was hooked!) I was absolutely fascinated with the book, its style, the ideas of OS gaming and of the concepts of fictional countries and armies. While borrowing it to read, the book accidentally fell onto a copy machine with a handful of dimes (remember, Amazon.com was still two decades in the future) and I at least had the rules summary. It would be almost 20 years before I finally found and bought an actual copy for myself.
About the same time, a friend introduced me to D&D and I began to frequent a local gaming shop. Here I observed fellows playing "Empire" rules 15mm Napoleonic games, huge ancients battles, and WW2 company-level 20mm engagements. I thought, "Wow! I could have a decent sized army if I still had my box of stuff!" Finally, all of the elements of a gaming habit were in place. I never did get into lead figs though; I supposed that I'm just a cheap bugger, but most plastic figures had a sufficient level of detailing and of course one can't beat the price!
Over the course of a couple of years, I accumulated several brigades of Napoleonic troops in the Young/Lawford 1:10 scale, all from the Airfix line of figures and painted from Philip Haythornthwaite's Waterloo color plates. I quickly learned how to convert figures("Frankenstein-ing" as I call it).
With just Airfix Waterloo figures, I was able to
- swap the tarletons for busbies on RHA to get Artillerie a Cheval de la Garde (I got a lot of complements for those)

- put the tarletons on French line to get Bavarian infantry
- trimming the shako plates from British line to get 61st, 95th and 60 th. light bobs
- put excess French shako heads on the RHA drivers, trim the harnesses from the draft horses, separate the bases and get 16th Lt. Dragoons.
- Put AWI grenadier caps on cuirassiers, trim the breastplatestraps, and paint heavily on the torsos to get the 2nd RNB Dragoons.
- Trim the horsehair plumes on cuirassier helmets to get LifeGuards/Blues.
- Put shakoes on hussars for French, British, Prussian or Brunswick hussars.
The list goes on, but you get the idea. I kept painting at every opportunity, and by about '78 I had about 1500 figures, stored in a motley variety of boxes. After joining the Coast Guard and being assigned to a ship, I'd keep my collection in my "coffin locker" underneath my mattress (you'd be surprised at how much stuff you can hide in one of those). After getting several of my shipmates hooked on the hobby, we'd have "battle royales" in the helicopter hangar on improvised tables of stacked equipment boxes covered with green army blankets. On one duty weekend in a nearby barracks bay we held a marathon multiple-table event with (by then) nearly 3,000 figures. It was a truly awesome spectacle.
During this period, I also resurrected my collection of WW2 ROCO armor and Airfix troops. While in Connecticut on assignment, I found a hobby shop having a clearance on ROCO vehicles, with dozens in a wire-mesh bin by their front door. There were tanks, trucks, half-tracks, almost everything you could want for a collection. Whatever I could not buy, I converted with sheet styrene and model part trees. I scratchbuilt drop-on casemates. turning T-34s in to SU-76's or SU-100's, PzIVs into StuG 42's and modifying searchlight halftracks into SdKfz 251's. I even converted an M-41Walker Bulldog to a M-24 Chaffee by shortening the gun and cutting down the rear of the turret. I had several Avalon Hill board games, and a favorite of mine was Panzer Leader. I adapted the rule set for use with the miniatures with success. Two friends and I had many an enjoyable battle with those.
While on a cutter in NewYork, I met a young ensign who showed a mild interest in my painting troops, and he dabbled in a regiment or two. After we parted ways, I figured he wouldn't do much with the hobby. Imagine my surprise over a dozen years later when he, by now a commander, called me at my office. I asked him if he ever gamed anymore; he laughed and told me his wife would probably put out a contract on me for introducing him to the hobby. He laughingly called me Dr. Frankenstein to his monster. He said I should see his garage, overflowing with thousands of all kinds of miniatures, and that some vendors now send him samples to paint and show at HMGS events. DoctorFrankenstein I was indeed!
When I was made Chief in '88, I had a lapse of sanity and sold off all of my collection for a song (I still kick myself for that today). I figured that, now that I was a senior enlisted my days of miniature gaming were over; foolish me! A hiatus of 5 years ended with assignment to a sea-going cutter, once again out of Governor's Island.
During my dry spell, Revell began to produce their SYW series, which was from the time-frame that "Charge!" interested me in originally. I found a hobby shop in Manhattan and began to reassemble an army. Since then, I have amassed ten line/grenadier battalions, five light/militia Bn's, eight cavalry Rgt's, and eight field batteries. Whew! It's been many a year since I started down this road, and it's a relief to know that I'm not the only one who has traveled it.


Bluebear Jeff said...

Personally it was "The War Game" that got me started on the SYW (although I shortly acquired a copy of "Charge" as well).

Welcome to the wonderful madness of imaginary 18th century gaming.

-- Jeff of Saxe-Bearstein

MurdocK said...


Your tales of doctoring another massive mini's gamer is wonderful.

We should all try to be so 'surgical' in pursuit of our hobby!