The decades leading up to the opening of the War of the Spanish Succession had seen the French artillery, which had been considered as civilians with specialist skills, gradually placed on a more permanent and military footing, and by 1701 the Régiment Royal-Artillerie was a vital part of the army with the King himself as its colonel. Bringing the artillery within the military structure proved very effective, and soon all other powers would follow suit. At the same time Louvois had initiated a standardisation of French guns into a set number of calibres, greatly improving the ability to supply them in the field. Again this was a trend that would be continued during the 18th century, and copied by the other powers.
In several ways this set resembles that of the British Artillery already reviewed. To begin with, it contains 10 figures, which is nowhere near the recommended number required for the two guns that are also included. Nevertheless many such sets have fewer men per gun, and at least the poses on offer in this set offer better coverage of the roles of the crew. The first man in our top row is handling what looks like a cartridge (a linen or paper bag containing a fixed charge of powder), although it could also be case-shot, and the other three are all engaged in moving the gun, which needed to be done after every shot and so was a vital role. Two men in the second row hold a sponge while the man in the middle holds a worm, necessary for clearing residue from inside a barrel or extracting detritus. The first in the last row holds up a match on a short linstock, and the next is holding his powder horn, perhaps ready to set the gun for firing. Finally we have an officer in charge, holding a half-pike. This is a much better selection of poses than the set of British, and about the only major piece missing is anyone handling the normal ammunition – the roundshot – which is also missing from the British set. Of course others too could have been included, such as men using handspikes or levers, but given the limited numbers these poses are pretty reasonable.
The uniform of these men for the early part of the 18th century is accurately depicted on the box artwork, and also on the figures. They wear the tricorn hat and coat with large cuffs, breeches, stockings and shoes. Some have their coat open to reveal the long waistcoat underneath, and several have removed the coat entirely. Serving any gun is hot work, even on a cool day, so we are very happy to see this sort of informality – indeed we think most artillery sets throughout history are better when they show the crew partly stripped and ready for hard physical work. Apart from the mentioned powder horns, some still have their hangers (short swords) or a bag, all of which is fine, but many also have a pouch attached to the front of the waist. The question here is why? What exactly would they be keeping in this? At this time infantry often had such a pouch for keeping cartridges for their musket, but gunners would not have this, and even if some of these men are fusiliers, temporarily seconded to the guns to assist the gunners, it seems unlikely they would have kept the belly bag on, which would only interfere with their work. Plus, we could not find even one image, contemporary or modern, of gunners of the age with such an item, so this must be marked down as a mistake.
The style and standard of sculpting of these figures is exactly the same as the rest of the Strelets WSS range, so there is plenty of detail, and while the figures are not as slim as some others, they are still very appealing to look at with natural poses. With a subject such as this, the sculptor must have spent a great deal of time putting buttons everywhere, but the result is worth it and looks very good. It is also pleasing to report that we could find no flash on our examples.
The two guns in the set are identical to those in the corresponding British set of artillery, so we will largely repeat our comments from that review. The smaller first one has a barrel that is 18 mm in length (130 cm, not including the cascabel), and the second gun has a barrel measuring 27 mm (194 cm). This implies the first is suitable as a four- or eight-pounder, while the second might be a twelve-pounder. In the later 17th century there had been a fierce debate in France on the merits of different gun designs, which eventually resolved into two classes, the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. The ‘old’ type had a long barrel roughly 322 cm to 338 cm long, regardless of the weight of shot. This was so they could be used in fortifications, and the barrel would be long enough to avoid damaging the surrounding superstructure as it was fired. Of course this made the gun much heavier, especially for the smaller calibres, and so less mobile, so both guns in this set, with their shorter barrels, are clearly of the ‘new’ type. This is valid, although we suspect there were more of the ‘old’ type in service even during the later wars of Louis XIV. It must be noted that both barrels are devoid of decoration at a time when French cannon barrels in particular were a riot of engraved decoration, with the coat of arms of the King, those of the Grand Master of Artillery and details of the gun like the name and place of manufacture. More seriously, the dolphins (the handles used to lift the barrel onto the carriage) are placed well to the rear of the barrel (they should be at the point of balance), and they are almost flat (to allow the mould to form them), and while we understand why this was done, it does not look good.
The carriages are also of two sizes, 30 mm (216 cm) in length and 40 mm (288 cm), to match the barrel lengths (although it did not always follow that longer barrels were placed on longer carriages!). The wheels are the same for both, about 19 mm in diameter, but they have 10 spokes when we could only find illustrations showing 12 as the norm. In fact both the wheels and the carriage itself are hugely simplified, lacking all traces of the ironwork. While providing all the necessary iron fittings is difficult, these lack even the tyres on the wheels, which most other sets manage and are relatively easy to do. The result is a bland and unconvincing model that could have been quite a bit better. Also we found a certain amount of flash on the gun components, and this particularly matters for the wheels, where flash in the central hole prevents the axle from being inserted. In fact we found we had to expand these holes with a drill, not just remove the flash, before the axle could be persuaded to fit. At least that meant the fit, when achieved, was very firm.
Since the guns are shared with the British set, this one too has the coynes (wedges) with which the gun barrel elevation was set, plus two mystery items with an eye which we have absolutely no idea what they are (perhaps a bung to stop dirt getting into the barrel when on the move?). So in conclusion this set is all good apart from the belly boxes on the men, the lack of poses with ammunition and the over-simplified guns that are in need of almost all detail. For many these defects can be remedied, making this a useful set that certainly has its attractions, but for our money the guns in particular could have been much better done and are a let-down when the figures are so nicely made.