This is one of those sets where the manufacturer makes no mention of campaign or time period, apart from a reference to the campaigns of the Duke of Marlborough, so we will have to start by studying the clues to date these soldiers. Clue number one is the pike. This had been a mainstay of the infantry during the 17th century, but by the latter part of it they were disappearing as firearms became more effective and more numerous. The French held on to theirs longer than most in the west, and it was still a part of the army as late as 1697. It was officially discontinued in 1699, although one or two regiments may have delayed returning theirs, and the last of them, the Swiss Guard, did not give up theirs until 1703. Clue number two is the breast and back plate all these pikemen wear. The history of this mirrored that of the pike, declining from a dominant position earlier in the century to disappearing entirely from the French inventory in the 1690s (again the Swiss Guard held out until 1703 however). The final clue is the tricorn hat. This developed over the later part of the century, but only took the rather neat form we have here in the 1690s (when the Duke of Marlborough, as John Churchill, did indeed campaign), and we therefore have here a set of figures for the 1690s – no earlier or later. Right, now that is sorted, are they any good?
The first thing that strikes you about this set is the poses. Mostly very good, we particularly liked the men walking with pike on the shoulder, but the two in the top row have huge problems. These are the two principally designed to repel cavalry, so are very important, but they are the wrong way round. While they both correctly hold the pike in the left hand and the sword in the right, they look to their right and have the left foot to the rear, steadying the pike. This never happened. The correct way is the way every other set of pikemen has shown it, and is shown on the box artwork, which is the way the drill specified. Whatever the sculptor was thinking (perhaps they thought it was down to personal preference?) they got it very wrong, making these poses useless. Another much less serious problem is with the first officer in the bottom row. He is pointing his weapon to his left but looking straight ahead. Why would anyone ever do this? Surely he should be looking where he is going? Perhaps he is in the line with his men, pointing at the foe but shouting at his unit? So not useless like the top row, but still a poor choice.
In identifying a date for these figures we have already highlighted many of the aspects of uniform on show here. The men wear coats with big cuffs and a variety of pocket styles, which partly helped to distinguish regiments, so all are correct. The breast and back plates are nicely done, as are the tricorns, although a rather less neat version with just one or two sides turned up would have been useful and equally valid for the period. All the men wear stockings and square-toed shoes – perfect – and all wear gauntlets, as you would expect of pikemen. The drummer has more decoration on his coat, as he should, and the officers have the usual distinctions such as ornate decorated hats, large wigs, a cravat at the throat and a sash round the waist. Everything here is accurate.
The main weapon here is of course the pike. By the 1690s the pike was by regulation about four metres in length, and since those here are about 49mm, which is just over 3.5 metres to scale, they are a little short, but to be honest this really does not notice. They are also a bit thick, but there is a limit to what can be done with the materials, so generally they look pretty good, and the pike heads are well done. Where the sword is visible this is nicely done, with an attempt at the style of hilt popular at the time, and the two officers both carry a half-pike, which is of a good size. The men have no other items of kit, which is fine, so like the uniforms the weaponry is all largely accurate.
The sculpting is nice too. If not quite as delicate as the very best in the hobby, it still has lots of detail and good proportions. Faces and hair are nice, and these should paint up well. There is some flash, particularly on the command figures in the bottom row, and one man (the officer with the horizontal half-pike) has a very poor pair of legs which look like they were not finished by the sculptor, or something went badly wrong in making the mould. Also the first figure in the third row has his pike merging into his face, which is not a good look.
The drummer we particularly liked, with a well-made drum positioned correctly (there is no assembly in this set), but the flag-bearer seems to have the same problems with size as the rest of the range. At this date flags would normally be at least two metres square – sometimes much more, but this flag is about 17mm square (122cm square), so much too small. The pole is correctly quite short so as to rest on the hip, as here, but even though it is not fully unfurled it still does not look good. Also it is missing the cravats (ribbons) that were always tied to the pole (by an order of 1689 or 1690 – sources disagree), although it does at least have cords.
This set has some very nice poses, good sculpting and perfect accuracy (apart from the flag). On the down side two of the most important poses are so wrong they are unusable. It is worth mentioning that when first out of the box all the pikes are badly bent. Holding them in the vapour from a boiling kettle for a few moments makes them magically straighten – a fun little exercise! This is the very first set in our hobby to depict troops for the 1690s, for the War of the Grand Alliance (1688-1697, also known as the War of the League of Augsburg or the Nine Years’ War). This is a very welcome expansion of the coverage of the wars of Louis XIV, which were about so much more than just a fight over the Spanish crown. If the designer would just stick to the script when it comes to poses and not make them up the whole set would have been good, but instead we have a decent but partly flawed offering.
Note: This set cannot be used to portray the Swiss Guard as mentioned above, since along with pikes and breastplates, that regiment also wore metal helmets until 1703, so a head swap would be required for that subject.