Monday, September 19, 2016

Railroad book review: Conrail Guide to Freight Equipment Volume I: 1976 - 1987 by Larry De Young

Back in the 1970s, the major Northeastern railroads were facing a dire future. Penn Central was falling apart after the merger that created it. The Erie-Lackawanna was overburdened and poorly maintained. The Jersey Central was barely holding on. Enter the USRA and the result was Conrail, a government sponsored merger of the Penn Central, Erie-Lackawanna, Reading, Lehigh Valley, Jersey Central and Lehigh & Hudson River. The Conrail Merger created a super-power railroad.
Granted, Conrail was not as colorful as its predecessors. The Conrail colors were blue with white lettering and a curious white logo that looked like an old fashioned opener. Actually, it was supposed to represent wheels on rails.
Conrail painted its locomotives and cabooses the same blue with white lettering. Most freight cars were in conventional colors such has boxcar red. That is, the cars that were repainted. Many cars from roads that Conrail absorbed had their logos and names painted over, and then a white CR added.
The Morning Sun Conrail Guide to Freight Equipment Volume I: 1976 - 1987 by Larry De Young did quite an extensive look at Conrail equipment. And though some may complain that there was a lack of revenue-earning passenger equipment - Conrail handled the old commuter lines until NJ Transit and Metro North took over - that would have been redundant. None of the passenger service cars had been repainted by Conrail. They carried the liveries of their respective former roads. The book focuses on Conrail-painted equipment and spares us the rest. Also absent were cars whose original logos and names were painted over with a blue patch with white CR letters. This book is strictly Conrail paint.
The one thing that amazed me was the number of cabooses that were illustrated. These had been repainted Conrail Blue and have a variety of origins. After all, Conrail had inherited the fleets of six roads. The rail historian and model railroader is treated to a great assortment backed with good information on the origins and other particulars of the various cabooses. There is also plenty on boxcars, insulated boxcars, hoppers, covered hoppers, flats and more. Also included are non-revenue equipment, cranes and business cars.
In all, The Morning Sun Conrail Guide to Freight Equipment Volume I is a useful reference with great photography. Good editorial decisions have kept the focus on Conrail and spared the reader any redundant materials. This is all original Conrail paint. And it is mostly from the early years when Conrail was establishing its identity. Railroad modelers and railroad historians interested in Conrail and Northeastern railroads will find this a great reference.
I like the Morning Sun Color Guides and have the ones for EL, DL&W / Erie, CNJ / LV, NYC, NH and Conrail. The color photography is superb and they are a great reference. Though I am not the rivet-counting collector, I enjoy seeing the various car types and such. Then again, I am the same way about armored vehicles and have several references books to them. Whether it’s an Erie-Lackawanna 40' boxcar or an M3 Medium "Lee" tank, I enjoy those details.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Starcraft. Bag O' Terran Marines and Bag O' Zerglings

I am pretty much unfamiliar with Starcraft and Warcraft. The only thing that caught my eye were these figures, which Billy Hill posted in the Army Men Homepage FB page. What with my recent work on sci-fi topics, I had to have them. They looked like superb characters for a sci-fi skirmish game.
Starcraft Terran Marines
I ordered a bag each of Terran Marines and Zerglings. What I gathered from a Starcraft fan site is that the Marines are armored and use weapons that fire metal spikes. The Zerglings are creatures with sharp appendages that can do great harm in hand-to-hand fighing. They seem to be a mix of insectoid, crustacean and reptilian features.
Terrna Marines and Zerglings
This reminds me of a starter set for Warhammer 40,000 from ten years or so past. We carried it in a hobby shop where I worked at the time. The game set had Space Marines versus a swarm of buglike critters. Starcraft’s Marines and Zerglings seem like a similar kind of nerdware.
On pages and sites of those selling the figures, each stated that each bag has nine figures. One said there were nine figure and six poses of the marines. He was mistaken. In reality, there are three each of three poses. The marines have one pose rushing with rifle pointed, one standing with rifle up, and one rushing with shield and rifle. There are three Zerglings in three poses. (Zergling sounds like something they would name a Pennsylvania beer). The figures have a lot of overhangs, which means they were originally molded in parts that were assembled prior to packaging. Marines are in light blue; Zerglings are brown.
Marines and Ajax Spacemen. Marines are shorter but just as thick.
Despite their thickness, the marines are about 54mm to 60mm size. It is their overall thickness that dwarfs Star Wars and Galaxy Laser Team figures. These guys are thick. The Zerglings have all sorts of appendages and it takes a while to figure which part is the head. Detail on marines and Zerglings is very nice. They could easily be fit into a game like Laserblade. (When I finish the Sci-Fi supplement for OMOG, I will have to accommodate figures like these. They are too cool!)
Marines with Galazy Lasrer Team. Marines are much larger.
The Terran marines resemble the space-marines of popular nerdware Warhammer 40,000. Of coure, they are not the same. I am sure that nerds who play both Warhammer and Starcraft can point out all the differences.
Zerglings with Galaxy Laser Team
These Terran marines and Zerglings would both look great if they were painted.
Marines and Hasbro Star Wars 54mm figures. Similar height, but the thickness of the marines makes the Star Wars figures look smaller.
Even if you do not want to add elements of Starcraft to skirmish games, you could use both Marines and Zerglings for other things.
Zerglings and Star Wars figures.
Good plastic sci-fi figures are a treasure. In 2015, we had Hasbro’s excellent Star Wars Command figures. These were 54mm size and had a nice variety of types and poses. An interesting set was a 40mm scale bag soldier set of Aliens Colonial Marines and Aliens. Though far from ideal, they gave fans of the Aliens franchise something with which to work. An old favorite, reissued by Tim Mee is the Galaxy Laser Team. The team is a source of various figures, from turtle-monsters to conventional astronauts. Throwing the Terran Marines and Zerglings into this mix could provide some intriguing scenarios for space skirmish games.
Marines and MPC Astronauts (Mercury - Gemini Type). Marines are massive compared to astronauts.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Review: The Lionel Fastrack Book by Robert Schleicher

I came across the Lionel Fastrack Book in Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago. The mark-down price was $8.00 and change. I bought it. I had read a couple of other books by the author, Robert Schleicher. They were reviewed here a few months ago.
The original list price of The Lionel Fastrack Book was over $25. In my opinion, it was not worth the list price. This was mostly a book about building layouts. Many of the track plans were cribbed from older Lionel publications such as The Manual for Model Builders. Most layouts used wider radius track. Obviously, the preferred audience is people who have a lot of space to build a very large layout.
Large layouts by hobbyists were used for illustrations. These were basic green tables with a little scenery and a few operating accessories. The impression I got was that the layouts could be changed on a whim. The book took the time to discuss TMCC far better than Schleicher’s prior work, the Big Book of Lionel. In that book, mention was also made of Fastrack but no layout plans were offered.
Not bad for a beginner to use, but he would still have to learn to use TMCC or Legacy as well as get a handle on the track system. Though conventional blocks were discussed and illustrated, the author pushed TMCC and Legacy.
The talk on scenery, accessories and other accompaniments was all too brief and lacking. For the most part, scenery was stuff just placed on the table. There was little reference to serious scenic effects. The emphasis was on temporary or quick-change layouts rather than realism.
Frankly, the book lacked that indefinable quality that would have given it weight. It did not make me enthusiastic about making a layout or using Fastrack. Almost all of the information could have been gotten from Lionel’s own manuals and instruction sheets.
Not bad for $8.00 and change. Not worth $25. Aside from the emphasis on Fastrack and a but more detail on TMCC, there was really nothing new here. It does not do for Fastrack what the old K-Line Track and Accessory manual did for tubular rail and conventionally-operated trains.
The emphasis on large layouts using wider radius curves means that layouts will have to be bigger, and that requires having the space and the money to do it. The author claims that wider curves allow operators to use Lionel’s largest locomotives.

I run my trains conventionally and use O and O27 tubular rail. I have a lot of it and see no point buying other track. These new systems do not offer me enough of an incentive to change. Ditto for TMCC. I had tried it a few times and found it was not as much fun. The price of a TMCC or Legacy or even DCS system is daunting. So are the prices of locomotives equipped for them. The Lionel Fastrack book reminded me, by comparison, that it’s all about enjoying the trains. For me, that means transformer control and tubular rail.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Review: Morning Sun Books: NH Color Guide to Freight and Passenger Equipment

Morning Sun Books: NH Color Guide to Freight and Passenger Equipment
by David R. Sweetland, Stephen Horsely
The New York, New Haven and Hartford railroad connected New York City with Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Commonly known the New Haven, it was the largest and most powerful of the New England railroads. I first learned of the New Haven through Lionel Trains when I was a child. The black boxcar with NH in block letters was very appealing. Over 55 years later, it still looks fine.
The New Haven was a very attractive railroad. Its original color was green with yellow trim. Its logo at that time was New York, New Haven and Hartford in cursive script. The color scheme changed under a company president named McGinnis. Though a failure as president, he introduced the bright color scheme of black, white and orange with block letters. Known as the "McGinnis Scheme", it made the New Haven the most colorful Northeastern railroad.
I have no personal connection with the New Haven, except for having ridden Amtrak from New York to Boston’s Back bay station a couple of times in the 80s. Amtrak followed the old New Haven route. My interest was due to the attractive boxcars, locomotives and passenger cars. It was a big part of Northeastern railroading for many years, until it was absorbed into the Penn Central merger.
This week, I received the New Haven Color Guide to Freight and Passenger Equipment by Morning Sun Books. It covers the era of color photographs: 1940 to 1967. Most of the photos were taken between 1955 and 1967. Some show older equipment that was still on the line. Most photos are of equipment that was current at the time.
The quality of the photos is excellent. This has been a constant through all of the Color Guides I have seen: the Erie-Lackawanna, CNJ & LV, Erie & DL&W, New York Central and the New Haven. This volume covers boxcars, flat cars, hoppers, gondolas, MoW, cranes, cabooses, cars converted to head-end or MoW, and passenger cars. Because of the interest of the authors and the involvement of the New Haven Historical and Technical Association, there is information of rebuilt wood boxcars and captions with specific details of most cars.
Other companies have published photo galleries showing New Haven rolling stock, but they are not in color. This color guide is in crisp, sharp color. The photos are excellent and they give you a much better feel for the equipment. Good photography is a standard in Morning Sun Books. I have ten of their books and the color images in each are superb.
I recommend NH Color Guide to Freight and Passenger Equipment to fans of the New Haven Railroad.
I am primarily an operator of O and O27 trains. I have a few railroads that I especially like. One thing I enjoy is running models of trains in the livery of those railroads. I like having good references to the motive power and rolling stock of those roads. The Morning Sun books have been useful to me. They average about 130 pages and are chock full of excellent photographs.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Review: Tim Mee's Desert Patrol Set

Tim Mee Desert Patrol

When I see some of the low-grade toy soldiers and vehicles from China, I wonder who is going to raise the bar. Then another of the new Tim Mee products comes along and sets things straight. The new Tim Mee has several advantages. Top among them is quality. Superior plastics, better colors and for the multi-piece items, superior construction.

A few months ago, I reviewed Tim Mee’s Combat Patrol set. The set included two of the Tim Mee jeeps and cannons. They have been around for over half a century. The new releases are a quality item. Not your average plastic toy soldier vehicles, at least not these days. Everything is better that the cheap stuff coming from China.

Now, Tim Mee has released this same set as Desert Patrol. The difference is that it is molded in tan plastic. Those of us of a certain age may be reminded of a television series called Rat Patrol. And those who have watched the news over the years have seen tan vehicles similar to the ones used by every Middle Eastern army. There were tan jeeps used by the British 8th Army, the Israeli forces, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and a host of others. We saw them on the news in footage from a dozen little conflicts and incidents.

The Desert Patrol is perfect for those wishing to arm their Tan armies in the battles of Green Versus Tan. The color is just right. Each set also comes with stickers to place on the jeeps and guns. And again, it is the quality that stands out. Knockoffs, clones and cheap copies cannot stand up to these recasts of the original Tim Mee jeeps. They are sized just right for 2" to 2 1/2" soldiers (1/35 to 1/30).
The header card of the Desert Patrol set depicts a jeep with a 37mm antitank gun.  The actual guns included in the set are the same ones that Tim Mee has made since the 1950s. They are small field guns, rather like the infantry guns used during World War II. I surmise that they could be used as field guns or howitzers of 75mm to 105mm bore. I am also reminded of the British 25 pounder field gun. Tim Mee used to include the same gun in their Civil War sets of bagged soldiers. Instead of the tires, the Civil War guns were fitted with red spoked wheels. They looked like World War I vintage French 75mm guns.

The field guns, like the jeeps, are sized just right for 2" to 2 1/2" soldiers. They go well with the Tim Mee Vietnam-era soldiers, as well as the old World War II troops. You can easily make a crew for these guns by converting other toy soldiers. They are among the best cannons for army men ever made.
For toy soldier enthusiasts, the Tim Mee Desert Patrol is a great addition to your collection and your army. This is a quality product that stands far above the general run of Chinese and Mexican made  vehicles.

(Thanks to camera problems, I had to borrow pictures from the Tim Mee site. These accurately depict the Desert Patrol set and what is in the bag. As you can see, the guns and jeeps are nicely colored in tan. )

Would you liek a set of your own? Here is a link to Victory Buy and Tim Mee on Amazon:

Friday, July 1, 2016

Navy Train Layouts: Track Plans for O27

Navy Train Layouts for O27

I was thinking of military trains and small layouts. Many train makers have produced Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force trains. Lionel and Marx made them in O and O27. American Flyer had a few military type cars in S gauge, and Model Power made an HO Army Train.

As an Army veteran, my first thoughts naturally go to the Army type trains made by Lionel, Marx and Model Power. Marx made olive-drab military trains in both tin-litho and plastic. Many of these are expensive thanks to the collectors.

When looking for inspiration for a military layout, inspiration was almost in the neighborhood. Earle Naval Ammunition Depot is a few miles from here in Colt’s Neck, NJ.  Ar least, that is the main base. Earle also has a smaller installation with a large pier near Leonardo, NJ, on the Bayshore. The pier is used to load military ordnance to ships. It is connected to the main base by a private rail line and a private road called Normandy Road.  The base and the pier are about 15 miles apart.

Making a full scale layout would require 900 feet for 1/87 HO, 1650 for 1/48 O and 1237.5 for 1/64 O27 and S.

I like to design layouts for small spaces. The Earle Ammunition Depot gave me an idea of how to make an interesting O27 layout. It revolves around the concept of a facility at each end.  The loop-to-loop design allows for continuous running and a point-to-point operation.

Our first railway is a simple 3 by 8 foot dogbone type with a pier on one side. Each loop also has its own siding. The area between the loops is where I diverge most from the prototype. Earle’s railway runs through woods and open spaces and past small towns. Our model has two bridges over a small inlet. Bridges over water help contribute to the nautical theme.

The next two are a 6 by 6 by 3 and a n 8 by 6 by 3. They are meant to fit in a corner. Two have the bridges.

Finally there is a 6 by 6 by 3.  It has neither bridges nor pier, but they could easily be added.

These simple track plans allow plenty of action in a limited space. They are ideal for smaller locomotives and rolling stock. Marx train enthusiasts have a choice. on one hand, each layout would do well with tinplate and the 6 and 7 inch tin litho cars. Scale fans could use most of the plastic and tin scale cars. Most of the tin steamers would be fine, as would the 400 and 490. and the diecast 999. For diesel, the 70 tonner and S1 are Ideal.

Those using Lionel type trains might consider the old O27 trains, the smaller K-Line O27 (recasts of Marx) and Industrial Rail cars. K-Line and RMT’s version of the Marx S3 switcher would be ideal. Both the k-Line and Lionel O27 Alcos and the O27 Boxcab would also be good choices.


Making a Navy train ought not be too difficult. One can find cheap cars at shows. The cars will need some work, such as removing rust and general repair and repainting. The Navy paints a lot of its vehicles Battleship Gray. Some of their switchers were painted Engineer Yellow. You can find photos of Navy trains online

Lionel made several Navy and Coast Guard trains.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Review: Color Guides to Freight and Passenger Equipment, Morning Sun Books

Morning Sun is a publisher of high-quality, color railroad photography books. I first came across them when I got back into the O gauge hobby in the mid-1990s. They were pricey even then. I bought one on the Lackawanna railroad and a couple for the Erie Lackawanna. The quality of materials and photography and printing were first-rate.

Back in the 1990s, there were not many railroad pictorial resources on the Internet. Pictures from the Net opened at excruciating slow speeds. For the railroad fan, books were the way to go. Several publishers served the hobby. Railroad Avenue Enterprises produced mainly black-and-white photo books of Northeastern railroads. Carsten’s and Quadrant offered both black-and-white and color books. Morning Sun published hardcover books with excellent color photography. Other publishers added to the field.

 One series of Morning Sun books is its Color Guide to Freight and Passenger Equipment. Each guide is devoted to a specific railroad or railroads. Each has color photographs of passenger cars, freight rolling stock, cabooses, non-revenue and maintenance-of-way cars. The color pictures cover cars in use in the 20th century. Some of the cars still running in the 1960s and 1970s had been built decades earlier. (The books I have cover railroads which were absorbed into Conrail in 1976, hence no 21st Century rolling stock.)

The Color Guides I have cover the Erie-Lackawanna (1960 - 1976), New York Central (up to 1968), Lackawanna and Erie (up to 1960), and Jersey Central and Lehigh Valley (up to 1976). The pictures are clear and crisp. They cover most, if not all, types of rolling stock and the various paint schemes used when these cars were photographed. They are a handy reference for the railfan and model railroader. I am impressed how the publisher tried to get as many variations of paint schemes and rolling stock as possible. Considering that the books were published years after the actual railroads disappeared, it is a noteworthy achievement.

The New York Central Color Guide is my most recent acquisition. It was published in 1994. The book covers the common variety of New York Central rolling stock prior to the Penn Central Merger. Most of it is post-1940. Some of the cabooses that were still in use were built in the late 1800s. They are included. This is a good, basic book of the Central’s rolling stock. I understand that other volumes had been added. (For my purposes, this one is enough.)

I have been told that some of the Color Guides may be missing a few elements, such as the steel-sided Reading streamliner cars. Be that as it may, the Color Guides are still an excellent resource. Be aware that like all of Morning Sun’s books, they are expensive. Current book prices for all of Morning Sun’s inventory ranges from $44 to $59. They average about 100 to 135 pages


For my kind of railroad interests, the color guides of my favorite roads are a useful asset.  They contain enough information and imagery to satisfy my interests. Scale modelers might use them to supplement the more detailed car books with blueprints. O / O27 operators like myself will find the color guides more than adequate, at least for those who are interested in the prototypes as well as the models.


Morning Sun aims mainly at the aficionado of railroad photography. Its books each contain hundreds of color images, each devoted to a specific railroad or theme. They average about 128 - 130 pages. Of course, these books cover railroads in operation since color photography was available. A railfan interested in roads from the 1940s to the present can usually find his favorites. Some roads get more coverage than others. For instance, there is a LOT of material on the Erie-Lackawanna. One series on that railroad is up to at least Volume 9. Books like these are for the serious rail photography buff.

Here is a link to Morning Sun  

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Ready Made Trains / Ready Made toys closing June 30

RMT Trains (Ready Made Toys) is closing next month. The owner want to retire. RMT made its place recasting KMT, Marx and K-Line trains and accessories. Their remaining stock is being sold here:
I met Walter once at a show in Elizabeth, NJ, around `05. He was expanding his line of trains to include new road names. Back then, most of what he had were recasts of the KMT trains. After K-Line folded, Walter brought out new versions of some old K-Line freights (Mostly Marx recasts, and some KMT), locomotives, Budd cars, passenger cars (K-Line O27s) and a few accessories and track. He was doing business with the Chinese company that had acquired all of K-Line’s tooling.
From he way things are worded on the notices - tooling has been "repositioned" or not for sale - another company of companies will be making the RMT items in the future.
We wish Walter Matuch a happy retirement. He brought many good and affordable trains to the market.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Airfix Soldiers: Where It all began

Along with the ROCO Minitanks came Airfix figures. these were imported by Associated Hobby Manufacturers, better known as AHM for their dark blue boxes with yellow trim. The importer got its start bringing European-made HO trains to the states. Back then, scale was a looser fit that it is today. Some of AHM/’s trains were pure HO at 1/87 scale. Others were made to British OO standards: a 1/76 scale train made to run on HO track. Airfix handled the middle ground between both by promoting its figures as HO / OO.
The difference is conspicuous today. HO is 3.5mm to the scale foot, and OO is 4mm per scale foot. A 40' boxcar body in HO is about 140mm long as opposed to OO at 160mm. Even in figures a 6 foot man in HO is 21mm tall. In OO, he is 24mm. In 1/72, he is 25.4mm. The differences do show, at least to us who have been acclimated to scale.
I am of the impression that AHM’s motivation for importing Minitanks and Airfix "Minimen" had everything to do with HO model railroading. They probably did not realize that these would become a hobby in themselves. Airfix produced six sets of figures at the time: Guards Band, Guards Colour Party, Civilians, Farm Stock. Infantry Combat Group and German Infantry. The Guards were Coldstream Guard types that would be useful for parades in a model railroad setting. Farm stock were typical farm animals one might find the Britain. There were pigs, horses and cows for England, as well as sheep for the Welsh and Scots. Civilians were typical everyday people of the time. It even had a motor scooter. They might be a bit big for pure HO, but they fit well enough. They were especially welcome at a time when HO scenery was less well supported.
The Infantry Combat Group and the German Infantry were different. These were miniature soldiers in combat poses. The Infantry Combat Group were molded in a medium green drab. Their equipment was along the lines of British troops, along with the late-war Tortoise Shell helmet. At that size, they could pass for other Allied troops. Cast in a blue-grey, the Germans wore the standard helmet and uniform that were issued from 1938 onward to 1944. Both sets had stretcher bearer medic teams. The Germans also had a peculiar antitank gun very loosely based on the PAK 42 "Squeeze gun". I doubt the sculptors checked the TO&E for either army. Conspicuously missing were the light machine guns that were part of every infantry squad during World War II.
There was not much else out there. Authenticast had made some 20mm scale figures of American, German and Soviet infantry. The sets included one or two advancing riflemen, an advancing submachine gunner, prone and kneeling riflemen, and a man with an antitank weapon. In this case, it was a Panzerfaust for the Germans and a bazooka for Americans. Each set also had one-piece castings of a two-man machine gun team and a 37mm antitank gun with two crewmen. However, these were not well known. Few shops carried them. Airfix was the first most of us saw of small-scale soldiers.
The combination of Airfix soldiers and ROCO tanks enthralled budding young hobbyists. The tanks had excellent detail in a small size, and the soldiers looked good. Price also had its due. At 50 cents for a box of Airfix soldiers and a quarter for a Roco Minitank, a lad could have a platoon of infantry and two supporting armored vehicles. Additionally, those early ROCO tanks came with a pair of decals: white stars for US, red stars for commies and panzer crosses for the Germans.
AHM billed the Airfix soldiers as Minimen to accompany the Minitanks. The small boxes of soldiers had cellophane windows though which you could see the figures. On back of each box was a list of all the poses and figures enclosed. Boxes were brightly colored with drawings of their contents.
The original owner painted his to match the box art
And if you look at the picture on the Infantry Combat Troops, you can see that the artist was inspired by Herald’s Khaki Infantry. Two of the men are carrying SLR rifles and charging like the Herald figure, which is not replicated in the Airfix set.
The fun started when the box was opened. Out came sprues of soldiers. Each had to be detached with a little twist and turn. Each new pose was interesting. Soon there was a small pile of diminutive army men just waiting for their first battle.
The German seemed exotic to us. They had those odd grenades and other weird equipment. Most of us had only seen German troops in the movies. Handling toy German soldiers up close brought us into contact with their unique uniforms and equipment.
In no time, our toy soldiers were coupled with the toy tanks. Our tabletop battles began. We could have a complete battle on half of a kitchen table with the tiny figures. And what fun they were. Both sets had the classic posed: grenade guy, kneeling shooter, standing shooter, crawly guy, the charging guy. The Infantry Combat Group had one pose for a bayonet charge. None of the German weapon sported bayonets, so they better not run out of ammo!
We could put soldiers in back of little HO size half tracks and army trucks. Some could hitch a ride on back of a tank.
Of course, it got even better.
Our local hobby shop made a diorama using the tanks and soldiers. They also used a set of small European buildings, known later as "Village in a Bag." There were four cottages and a small church. Using a soldering iron, they had some "battle damage" to the houses. A combination of model railroad scenery and other items made a battle in a small town, complete with a creek running across it and bridges. The diorama maker had painted the faces, belts and weapons of the soldiers. Little boys thought it was amazing. I am sure that diorama, placed in the shop window, sold many a toy tank and box of Airfix soldiers.
In time, Airfix and Roco expanded their lines. ROCO added various tanks and vehicles, both modern (at the time) and World War II vintage. Airfix made more Minimen. Cowboys and Indians came next, cast in a russet color. In the following years they produced Civil War troops, British 8the Army, the Afrika Korps, French Foreign Legion and US Marines. Each new set was a welcome addition. We eventually had Japanese troops, paratroopers, Russians and commandos to supplement our tanks. There were also historic sets such as Romans, knights (Sheriff of Nottingham), ancient Britons and Medieval peasants (Merry Men) For some reason, the Revolutionary War guys were not that popular. Nor were the Napoleonics. The World War I sets went over well, however. I wonder how much Snoopy and the Red Baron had to do with that.
And how many of us busily built and painted Airfix’s 1/72 Sopwith Camel and Fokker Dr 1 Triplane? More than a few!
Four Airfix Second Version US Marines
Later, we started building the Airfix 1/76 military models. There were a handful of them before 1970, after which more vehicles were added to the list. The Airfix kits were nice enough. They seemed to dwarf ROCO and the other brand of pre-built tank, Roskopf. Nonetheless, we loved them all.
Airfix updated several of its older sets. I first saw these after finishing my time in the Army. The company re-sculpted its German Infantry, British Infantry, (Infantry Combat Group), US Marines, 8th Army, Foreign Legion and Afrika Korps. They were a little bigger and the poses were more realistic with better details. The larger size made them less compatible with ROCO. Meanwhile, other companies were competing. Matchbox had a series of World War II soldiers. An Italian company called Atlantic arrived with a variety of ancient warriors, Wild West figures and World War II troops. Fujimi and Hasegawa made hard plastic kits of World War II troops. Later, Esci entered the market. For most of us, Airfix was the standard by which all others were judged.
A Few of the Airfix Second Version British Infantry
Come the 1980s my circumstances and responsibilities changed, and I had to put hobbies aside for a time. My collections got lost later in that decade. When I again had time and space for hobbies, it was the mid 1990s. New makers were adding to the realm of small figures. Today, the variety is overwhelming. Many are from Russia and the Ukraine. The variety of armies and eras and troop types is astounding.
For all the variety and quality, those of us who were there when it began have a fondness for those two original sets of Airfix army men. The Infantry Combat Group and German infantry were our first and the ones that got the ball rolling.
Five Airfix First Version US Marines
Airfix might not have gotten all the details correct in some of their sets, but the animation of poses and assortment of figures made most sets a charm. They made a hard standard to match. In my opinion, Matchbox came close but was not quite as good. Esci ran hot and cold. Some sets were great and others were rather blase. Atlantic had its ups and downs, too. I have seen some of the current sets from various makers in recent years and it is quite amazing. Quality and variety are truly astounding. Even then, a set of Airfix soldiers usually costs a few dollars less than the others.
I think that I would like to use troops closer in scale to ROCO. Most of the 1/72 are too large. Granted, I have lost touch with 1/72 figures because I spend most hobby time making the 1/32 and 1/30 figures I hand cast.
For those interested in games with HO size soldiers and ROCO tanks, here are some rules you might want to try:
My game "Tankplank" was inspired by that diorama in the old hobby shop. It is an armored and infantry battle in a town. You can get Tankplank and Tankplank Advanced Rules here:
Battle by Charles Grant was one of the early sets of World War II games with HO miniatures. You can download a copy of the book when it ran in serial form in Meccanno Magazine from this page here:
We have several small games that derive from Charles Grant’s system. They are World War II game "Hans und Panzer," a version of Hans und Panzer for the war in North Africa, and a Cold War version called "Krunch a Commie." they can also be found on this page:
Phil Barker’s ruels for infantry and infantry armor games can be found here, as well as Ancient, Medieval and other rules.:

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Of ROCO Minitanks and Hobby Shops

The first time I entered a hobby shop, I was five or six years old. We were there because some older boys on the block had new toy soldiers. They were tiny. My mother had asked where they got them, and they told her about the hobby shop.
The hobby shop was a little storefront on Central Avenue. It was a small shop. There were display windows on either side and a door inside at the center. The windows displayed various models and trains and those tiny soldiers.
We entered a typical store of the time. There was a counter on one side with shelves behind it and some display items. The other side was a wall of wooden shelves with models and trains.
In one of the glass counters was a small display. I think it was white, or maybe a light gray or pale blue. The display was terraced, like steps. On each step were three or four tiny vehicles. They were a very dark color. Most were tiny tanks. Beside the display were boxes of the tiny soldiers.
To buy a tank, you had to tell the counter man which one you wanted by saying its number. He would look through stacks of gray boxes on shelves in the back counter. Each box had six or more tiny vehicles, each wrapped in a small plastic bag. Packed with each was decals: white stars for American vehicles, red stars for Soviets and Panzer Crosses for German tanks. The tanks were 25 cents apiece.
There were two kinds of soldiers in cardboard boxes with cellophane windows., They had a picture of soldiers on the front, and a list of the figures on the back. Only two kinds of soldiers were available. The green drab Infantry Combat Group looked like Allied soldiers. Blue-gray German Infantry had figures of World War II German troops. Each had 48 pieces. For a dollar, you could buy two tanks and a platoon of infantry.
There were other figures for model railroaders by the same company. I remember Farm Animals and Civilian figures in "HO / OO" scale. There was also a marching band set and British guardsmen.
At the time, ROCO only made a few different vehicles. I remember the US M47 and M48 Patton tanks, a US M4A1 Sherman, at least two different Panzer IVs, a German Panzer V "Panther", a Soviet JSIII "Stalin" tank, a 2 ½ ton truck and some other items.
We did not know much about tanks then, except for what we saw in movies, read in comics, or heard from older relatives who were veterans. Our play wars included a few tanks that were from a later era. We did not care. For little boys, close enough is good enough.
Of course, we could afford the little Roco tanks and Airfix soldiers. I remember one year when Halloween fell on a Saturday. My friends and I were out all day trick or treating. Along with candy and apples, some folks gave money. W e gathered nickels and dimes and pennies. One old woman even gave out quarters. That money was enough to buy some tanks at the hobby shop, which is just what we did. Then we returned to trick or treating to get more loot.
ROCO and Airfix continued to add new sets over the years. They all ended up at the little hobby shop. I remember the Airfix 8th Army, Afrika Korps, US Marines, Cowboys, Civil War guys, Indians and French Foreign Legion. Then came new sets with more detail, such as the Japanese Infantry, Arabs, Robin Hood, Romans and Ancient Britons. ROCO added more modern tanks and upgraded a few others, as well as expanding their World War II lines. In our youthful enthusiasm, we had toy-tank arms races where both sides had too many King Tigers and nothing lighter than a Sherman.
A couple of things changed the way we enjoyed our mini-tanks and min-men. One was a book titled War Games: Battles and Manoeuvres with Model Soldiers by Donald Featherstone. The book showed us a better way to play games with our tanks and troops.( A later book by Featherstone used specifications made to fit Airfix’s inventory of 1/76mm kits for a more advanced type of game. We loved it.)
Another change came over a decade later. Summer of 1972 was spent at the Jersey Shore. I made some friends and found a hobby shop: Air and Armor Hobbies in Belmar, NJ. We had a lot of fun, played our wargames and built models. At Continental Hobbies out by Freehold, I was introduced to the Roskopf mini-tanks. Of course, soldiers were the least of my concerns at the time. Like many youths my age, I would drop everything if a female entered the picture. (She was a skinny Irish chick and we had a lot of fun.) And so it was until mid-Autumn of that year, when I went into the Army....
My collection of tiny tanks and soldiers and other wargame figures were lost in the mid-1980s. A couple of disastrous moves followed by unexpected circumstances upset everything. I had little time for hobbies after that. Many other things needed my full attention. One needs a stable place to work with miniature hobbies. It took another ten years before I got back into them.
I have to admit a disappointment in miniature hobbies these days. There is little incentive for young people to get involved in them. Model kits are very expensive. So are trains. The little tanks sold by Herpa, many of which are reissued Roco models, are very expensive. While the Airfix soldiers are priced reasonably for these times, the tanks and other vehicles are not.
ROCO had competition. Eldon, UPC, Aurora and Marusan made kits that were pretty much knockoffs of Roco vehicles. They were all affordable. The same went for the Roskopf tanks. They were all priced fairly for the time. When I see the price of Herpa kits, I balk, Sure, some are updated and have extra detail. That tooling might have been expensive. However that may be, how does an item that went for 29 cents in 1966 sell for over $20 in 2016? And how are we going to attract young people to the hobby when a single piece costs more than one of their video games?
We need to bring back those competing kits!
One of the things this hobby gives is the satisfaction of doing it oneself. I remember how I felt the first time I did a full paint job and decals on a ROCO tank. That is just one of the satisfactions this hobby has. There was the fun of learning about the real vehicles and how they were used. More fun came by painting soldiers and arranging miniature units. There were also dioramas and little battlefields we made, using the old "Village in a Bag" houses. We learned to paint and assemble small things, and to use our creativity with tangible results.
The fellows running the old hobby shops were more than merchants. They knew their products and how to work with them. In our local shop, the owners showed us how to camo-paint our ROCO tanks and told us what paint set to buy. (Testor’s Military Flats). The same guys could tell you how to set up switches on an HO railroad, what track you needed to expand an HO slot car set, and what tricks to use building model kits. I can think of a few other shops offhand where the folks behind the counter could offer expert advice on using the shop’s products. Sadly, all of them are long gone.
I believe that one day, people will realize what they are missing and will again seek activities that require making something. At least, I hope so. The virtual world and video games are ethereal and intangible. People may again seek to make something tangible, They will want that which has physical reality. Likewise, I hope they regain the satisfaction of making something.. For us who know the pleasure of the job well done, the benefits are obvious. Perhaps one day young people will rediscover those benefits for themselves.
Most hobby shops were fun, but there were always an odd few where the owners were less than congenial. We called them "Hobby grumps" and "Hobby grouches". Those surly individuals acted as if customers were at worst a nuisance, at best an occupational hazard. Most of them also thought they were the best hobby dealers on Earth and deserved total customer loyalty. As soon as a competing shop opened close enough to them, their customers headed to the new place. Should any ever stop back in the grouch’s shop again, they would hear a derisive remark about being a disloyal customer or some such rubbish.
The hobby grumps were especially unfriendly to younger hobbyists. Instead of seeing children as the future of the hobby, they were rude. By the time those kids became older and had more to spend on hobbies, they were already someone else’s customers.
Fortunately for me, the folks who ran the hobby shop in my neighborhood were friendly to all of their customers. That inspired many to invest more interest in hobbies. Most shops were the province of good-natured fellows who were more than happy to share their expertise. That personal insight is something that cannot be gotten on the Internet. On the other hand, the grumps were a rare hazard in an otherwise pleasant field.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Review: The Corps Elite 120 Pieces Army Playset

Our Walmart usually does not have much in the way of Army Men. I was surprised, therefore, to see this large clear plastic can of troops. It was The Corps Elite 120 Pieces Army Playset. The set claimed to include "soldiers, bases, vehicles and more..." I could see that these were army men unlike any others in my collection. I had seen similar figures shown on our Army Men Homepage Face Book page by several members.
Getting the can home, I opened it. Not an easy feat, as it was triple sealed. Inside I found a cardboard cone in the middle. Around it were soldiers in three colors, a tiny tank, small attack helicopter, tiny jet and odd "robot" thing. There were also two sandbag walls, two stands for machine guns, a three-piece wall that looked like a refueling station, six fences and three antitank obstacles.
The tank was about 1/76 scale and was loosely - very loosely - based on the Abrams tank. The helicopter was between 1/100 and HO and very loosely inspired by the Cobra. The jet was small and the robot was about twice the height of the soldiers. Frankly, the vehicles were not much.
Tank obstacles, Wall, machine gun post

The terrain pieces were passable. The sandbag walls each had a machine gun. The odd three-piece wall had an industrial look to it. It would fit Starship Troopers or Aliens. The fences were good enough. There were three each of two different fence types
Sandbag Wall with Machine gun
Soldiers come in three colors
Included with all this were 96 soldiers. These came in eight different poses. There were equal numbers of each pose in three different colors: light green, tan and terra-cotta. The troops are uniformed along modern lines, but more in the manner of futuristic action figures. They remind me of troops from Starship Troopers, Aliens (Colonial Marines) and Space-Above and Beyond. Weapons have a boxy look to them, except for a man-portable mini -gun. So far as I know, there is nothing comparable in the real world to these weapons.
With these troops, we are blurring the line with science fiction. In fact, they would be excellent for near-future combat against aliens, zombies and monsters. A little paint and other touches could produce Colonial Marines or Starship Troopers. A plain paint job is all that would be necessary needed to make Space Above and Beyond Marines.
Figures are in the 45 to 50mm range. Because none of the poses are standing fully upright, I had to get creative. A measurement was about 50mm size. They are larger than the 45mm Colonial Marines included in a recent bagged set of Aliens figures. (The Aliens marines look equal in size only because their bases are thick.) The Elite figures also have a much better look. Of course, the Elite figures are shorter than the Tim Mee M16 soldiers. The Elite figures have a thicker look than the Tim Mee figures.
Elite compared with Tim Mee soldiers
Elite compared with Aliens marines

Where do these troops fit for toy soldier games? In my opinion, they are too futuristic for playing current scenarios. The Corps Elite figures look very much like the Starship Troopers and Space Above and Beyond. They could also be used as Aliens. Characters similar to these figures are often found in post-apocalyptic and dystopian type films. The "vehicles" are pretty much useless. but the fences and walls make for good diorama and gaming scenery. Scale is between 1/35 and 1/40.