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Airfix First Type Figure Sets

The history of toy soldiers goes back hundreds of years, but the use of plastic to make them dates from the 1930s, and after World War II these became very popular, with many plastics companies making them in various scales. One of the early producers in the UK was Airfix, which started making figures in 'OO/HO' scale when they released their sets of British ceremonial guards in 1960. Given their size, the quality of these figures was quite good, and their success prompted Airfix to release more sets over the next few years, but they soon realised that producing a higher-quality product would greatly expand the market, and in time many of their earlier sets were completely retooled to a much better standard. In most cases, these newer examples are the sets that can still be found today, and in our reviews of these sets we include a link to our review of the earlier version, but this short article brings together those retooled but not forgotten early sets.

The following OO/HO figure sets were retooled by Airfix, often to the by-now common 1/72 scale (a little bigger than OO/HO), and always with great improvements in sculpting, poses and historical accuracy.

01703 - Infantry Combat Group

Infantry Combat Group appeared in 1960, and was the first battle set. With more than a nod to the Britains Lilliput set of combat infantry, it made no claim as to nationality, or even to campaign, and its design was more generic 1950s than any particular combatant. Quality was basic, and in time Airfix decided to remake the set as British Infantry for the Second World War.

01705 – German Infantry

German Infantry was the first Airfix set specifically identified as for World War II, and was presumably meant to be deployed against the Infantry Combat Group. Poor sculpting and some bizarre design ideas meant this version has not stood the test of time, but the retooled version has remained popular ever since.

01709 – Eighth Army

The choice of Eighth Army for one of the early WWII sets was probably based on the fact that this was a campaign well known in the UK as primarily a British action, before the US and the Soviet Union became heavily involved. The first version appeared in late 1961, and was of the same, basic style as the previous releases. Modellers had to wait over a decade for a much improved type two to appear from the Airfix factory.

01710 – Foreign Legion

The famous French Foreign Legion is another unit that is so widely known to the general public, thanks to books and films, that it must have seemed like a natural choice for a set. While the sculpting was of the usual soft and basic standard, clearly the decision was a good one as the set was retooled in the 1970s. Perhaps the fact that the supposed 'opposition' for this set, the Bedouins, were of much better quality, despite only appearing a couple of years later, encouraged the retooling as it would never do for the natives to look better than the colonials!

01711 – Afrika Korps

Having made a set of Eighth Army, it was only natural that a set of Afrika Korps would follow, and so it did. Very similar in style, with the same basic quality, wide range of poses and fantasy weapon choices, this set endured like the British equivalent for over a decade before Airfix replaced it with something of infinitely superior quality.

01716 – US Marines

The first Airfix set of Americans for World War II, US Marines focused on the Pacific campaign, and indeed Airfix never made a set of US infantry for the European theatre of operations, which is a very strange omission. These first Marines fared no better in terms of quality than those that had gone before, although there was an impressive number of poses plus accessories, so it must have been a great relief when Airfix produced their second, far better version of this set in the 1970s.

Something Missing?

Those that know their Airfix will probably say that we have forgotten a set - 01732 WWII British Commandos, and yes, in a way they are correct. When Airfix first made this set in 1968, the sculpting was again quite basic, and items such as weapons were pretty crude, making it a prime candidate for a proper retooling. Happily, in 1977 that is exactly what happened, and as with several other sets, when Airfix tooled their new 1/32 figure set, they used the same masters, plus a few more, to create a much better type two of this 1/72 set, our review of which can be found here. When Airfix was bought by Palitoy in 1981, records show that this set had two moulds, both of which were shipped to their factory in Calais, but after this it was the first version mould that was used, and has always been used, in subsequent reissues. When Airfix were asked about this in 2013, they said there was no record of any second mould in stock, so it must be assumed that the mould for the second version of this set was destroyed or lost many years ago. As a result, our main review of this set is of the first version, and the type two figures are sadly now quite rare.

Other Candidates

Were there other sets that could have been retooled? Well that will depend on your point of view, and certainly many of the later sets made in the late 1970s or after are still very fine figures today, if sometimes light on number of poses. In our view there are still many sets which could be greatly improved with a retooling, although of course whether any have a good enough economic case for such an expensive exercise is another matter entirely.

To begin with, there are some sets where Airfix did not adopt their usual strategy of using masters for a new 1/32 scale set to make an improved 1/72 set relatively cheaply. The 1/32 scale British paratroops was originally filled with poses from the disappointing 1/72 set, and when these were quickly replaced with much better sculpts, the 1/72 set was sadly left unchanged. In our view both the WWII Japanese and Russian infantry sets could have been much improved with a retooling based on their larger scale counterparts, and as fans of their 1/32 Napoleonics, we would have loved to have seen 1/72 retoolings based on their Waterloo British, Highland and French line infantry. The same applies to their 1/32 American West range, where figures from their Cowboys, Indians and US Cavalry sets would have looked great in 1/72, seriously upgrading the existing products, which as a result tend not to be put back into production these days. Finally, the production of the 1/32 Medieval Soldiers box could perhaps have been the basis for a retooling of the Sheriff of Nottingham set.

Probably least likely to be retooled are the very old Guards and civilians, but there should still be plenty of interest in good quality retoolings of the Airfix ranges of American Civil War, War of Independence and Napoleonic cavalry and artillery. The Airfix Romans leave much room for improvement, and in an ideal world we would like to see better, more accurate versions of their World War I range too.

Airfix have made some great sets over the years, and as they continue to trade energetically under the Hornby umbrella, it is not unrealistic to wonder if they might not make more figure sets - either new or retooled - in the future. That they have improved and upgraded their product line in the past is to be loudly applauded (most recently their 2011 tooling of WWII British Infantry), and as they continue to intermittently release many of these sets today, including some that have not aged particularly well, they must feel there is still a market for the right product.

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