The most popular armies from these genre include World War II Germans and both sides of the Civil War and the Revolution.
I had wondered why conflicts such as the Crimean War and Austro-Prussian, Franco Austrian and Franco-Prussian wars were not more popular. They had a wide variety of troop types and uniforms Also, what with the popularity of British Regiments in the hobby, why so few French troops here in the US? The French have an awesome assortment of attractive uniforms and troop types from 1840 to 1925. And what of conflicts such as the Seven Years War?
I have answers:
From the Old Kingdom of Egypt to futuristic Science Fiction, there are figures and people who like to model them. “Niche” is a relative term when discussing any genre of miniature soldiers. Every army and era has its fans. Most hobbyists, myself include, enjoy several eras and armies. Some of the discrepancies can be explained by location. The Seven Years War is mainly a European matter and so is most popular among German, British and French collectors. The facet of it fought in North America and know nas the French & Indian War has a following, but nowhere near as large as in Europe. As a counterpoint, the American Revolution is big in the US but has a small following elsewhere. If you are British or European, ti is the Seven Years War. For Americans, the Revolution. One might say, “Six of one and half a dozen of the other.”
The American Civil War is very popular in the US. Contrary to the “Blue versus Gray” thing, the uniforms varied and some where quite ornate. There is also a smaller but ardent following in Germany and the UK.
Napoleonics are also a large genre, even if they have waned a bit among US collectors. Napoleonics are popular throughout Europe. Part of that is the fact that most European countries got caught up in that conflict in one way or another.
But why not Crimea or the German wars of the 1860s and 1870s?
For a genre to be popular, a few things are necessary:
1) The war must have lasted more than two years.
2) There must have been a variety of units, troop types, uniforms and equipment.
3) There must be lingering controversies about the war, its conduct (strategies, tactics), or events surrounding it.
4) The war must have been well-documented
You will finds all of these elements in World War II, the American Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Seven Years War and the American Revolution. Things are less controversial with the German-French-Austrian Wars of the 1860s and Crimea. Also, none of the latter wars lasted long enough.
A friend brought up Vietnam,, which is still controversial and lasted over 10 years. However, there is no great variety of uniforms, equipment or troop types. The gear and uniforms on both sides were pretty much standardized. We had M113s, Hueys., Cobras and M48s, green uniforms and M16s. The VC and NVA had PT76s, T55s, green, tan or black uniforms, Ak47s and the SKS. Not much variety. The same can be said of World War I. Though some uniforms in 1914 were ornate, by 1915 they were pretty drab. Tactics were limited mostly to trench warfare. There is not much controversy there as compared to World War II.
The American Revolution lasted eight years, had a variety of uniforms and some aspects are still up for discussion. The Seven Years war lasted seven years, had a wide variety of troops, uniforms and nationalities. Ditto for the Napoleonic Era. The American Civil War lasted four years and had an immense number of units and militias. We are still arguing over its ramifications.
Of course there are a few flukes in there. Nonetheless, it all boils down to length of conflict, variety, documentation and controversy.
One remaining issue is why the British regiments are more popular in the US than the French. France was the oldest ally of the United States. Here I can only speculate. The US hobby was fed by British makers such as Wm. Britains Ltd, Johillco and others. Few lines of French figures were imported. Then there is the matter of language. France never supplied our hobby as much as Britain, specifically England. Had French makers more enthusiastically promoted and exported their miniatures here, I am sure France would be much more visible in the American toy soldier hobby.
The most popular World War II figures are Germans. That army has the widest variety of everything, from belt buckles to tanks. They remain the most controversial. American, British, Soviet and Japanese armies where much more standardized and had far less variety.
The American Revolution has a wide variety of uniforms and non-uniforms. Different militias that could afford uniforms varied greatly. Consider also the Hessians, who actually came from six different German states. Each group included several different troop types, from fusiliers to grenadiers to jager and artillerymen. It was not a matter of Blue versus Red, but every color in the book. Even the British varied. having Rifle units, Rangers in green and Scottish troops.
The Civil War used standard troop types such as Light Infantry, regular infantry, cavalry and artillery. Each state sent several militia units, and many of these varied insofar as uniforms and equipment. There were standard uniforms for Federal and Confederate national troops,. Militia uniforms were varied, and many were influenced by French military fashion. These included various types of chasseurs and Zouaves.
Medieval and Ancient armies, have large followings, but they are not as popular as the armies from the 18th through 20th Centuries. A most interesting variety are the Heraldic K nights. These figures feature authentic historical heraldry of real warriors. The heralds of old kept great records of crests and liveries.
One French unit that has a following worldwide is the Foreign Legion. There is a mystique to it and a lot of controversy about its many conflicts. Movies, novels and televison series helped popularize the elite French unit.
Among Medieval collectors, the later centuries appear to be most popular, circa 1350 - 1550. The Hundred years wars and Wars of the Roses dominate, thanks to well-documented histories and heraldries.
Ancient Collectors tend to favor Hellenic Greek and Romans armies and enemies, but close on their heels are Egyptians, Assyrians and Persians.
Viking Age collecting focuses mostly on Vikings and Normans. There are fewer Saxon figures. Irish figures from the era are notably absent.