Friday, April 27, 2018

How Airfix Created a Hobby

Comet / Authenticast Panzer IV wit hbox
There is no doubt that Airfix (and ROCO) changed the hobby. Prior to them, the only small scale vehicles and figures were metal castings. Comet / Authenticast and Denzil-Skinner produced military identification models in the 1/96 to 1/109 scales, Authenticast also produced three ranges of figures about HO size: US , German and Soviet infantry. Each sets had a prone rifleman, kneeling rifleman, charging rifleman. charging submachine gunner, 2-man prone machine gun team, and small anti-tank gun with 2 crewmen. German set had one extra charging rifleman and a kneeling panzerfaust man. The US had a bazooka man.
Authenticast US Army

About this time, Britains also offered a “Lilliput” line about this time which was about 20mm scale. These were miniature copies of the Herald  post-War khaki infantry.

There were a few companies making unpainted 20mm figures. These were close to HO size. Most were Civil War figures.
Size comparison: Authenticast M4 (left). Airfix Solider, ROCO M4 (right)
At the time, most miniature figures sold via hobby venues were model railroading figures scaled for O (1/48 to 1/43) and HO / OO (1/87 to 1/76).

Original Airfix Box, circa 1961
When Airfix launched its initial run of small figures, it caused a stir. They were imported into the US. There were model railroading sets (Civilians, Farm animals), Marching troops (Guardsmen, Colour Guard Party) and combat troops (Infantry Combat Group, German Infantry). Introduced with the first run of ROCO Minitanks, these were an instant hit. They were attractive, affordable, and allowed for dioramas and battle games. Model railroaders were also pleased to find a good set of civilian figures and animals at a low price.

Airfix did not rest on its laurels. Following quickly after its first offerings were Civil War infantry and artillery, cowboys, wild Indians, the 8th Army, Afrika Korps and US Marines. ROCO also  began expanding its line. Small scale military modeling and Airfix went mainstream, unlike earlier makers who purveyed onto to the niche elements among hobbies.
Airfix US Marines, original series
It did not take long for wargamers to latch onto the small plastic figures and tanks. Previously, small-scale wargamers relied on cast metal figures from a handful of manufacturers. These were not widely known beyond the small wargaming communities in the US and UK. The wide availability of Airfix took wargaming from a limited, specialized hobby to the mainstream. Wargame proponents such as Featherstone, Morschauser and Grant used Airfix figures to illustrate games in their books. Had it not been for the affordable, widely-available Airfix soldiers, wargaming might have remained a small hobby for many years,
ROCO M47 (first version)

Indeed, Airfix was dynamic. Its next series of 1/76 figures were more detailed and covered a wider spread of history. Starting with the Russian Infantry, Japanese infantry and Arabs, Airfix’s figures made a large leap in realism. They also spread into other genre. Already established in World War II, the Wild West and the Civil War, Airfix expanded into World War I, Ancients, Medievals, the Napoleonic Wars and the American Revolution. Cheap, available figures were met enthusiastically by hobbyists.
1/32 Man-at-arms

Airfix also expanded its line of model kits to meet the needs of the toy soldiery. 1/76 scale military vehicle kits appealed to wargamers, military collectors and diorama makers. The original kits were very basic, but more vehicles were added. Most were World War II-era tanks and support vehicles. A few Cold War era vehicles were added, as well as vehicles for dioramas. Just as it pioneered the popularity of small-scale soldiers, so Airfix was the catalyst that launched 1/76 - 1/72 scale military vehicle kits. (This was followed in the 1970s by Matchbox, Fujimi, Hasegawa and other makers) Without Airfix, this may never have happened.

The next coup by the British hobby maker was to enter the 1/32 field. Their first set was make by pantographing their 1/76 Paratroopers into 54mm scale. They were nothing spectacular. Not content to try that again, the company issued all-new figures. The first set I saw was the British Commandos (29 figures for about $3.00). Soon after came the Russian and the German infantry. The detail and realism exceeded that of the toy manufacturers. Airfix took plastic army men to a whole new level.
Airfix 1.32 - 54mm British Commandos

Several of the early HO / OO were upgraded soon after the introduction of 54mm figures. The German Infantry, Infantry Combat Group, US Marines, French Foreign Legion, 8th Army and Afrika Korps were replaced with more detailed figures. Several of the figures in each 1/76 set were copies of the new 54mm figures. These were supplemented with new poses. The 54mm sets themselves were mostly limited to 7 or 8 poses. Additional new poses were not added to them.
Airfix 1/32 -54mm Russian Infantry

To its credit, Airfix kept making new sets. Modern soldiers entered the inventory. These were 1980s-style US (billed as NATO), British, West German and Soviet troops. There were also Sci-Fi figures, and 54mm US cavalry, Indians and Cowboys. Soon afterward, the introduction of new sets stopped. Airfix ran into hard times. Heller, the French model kit company, bought the molds. Lately, Hornby took over and moved production to India.
Airfix 1/32 - 54mm US Infantry

Will Airfix ever start expanding its line again? That is hard to say. Its variety of models and figures is already vast. Airfix kicked off the small scale military hobby and the raised to bar on 1/32 scale figures. It launched the 1/76 - 1/72 military model genre. The company also produced a vast range of model aircraft, mostly in 1/72 scale, as well as ships and space models. Perhaps a new management might expand things, but that remains to be seen. There is a lot of competition in both the 1/76 and 1/32 scales.  Even at that, Airfix is not likely to fade away. The are still the favorite of many. (That includes this author)


A sad. part of the hobby is willingness of Chinese makers to copy or clone better figures. The most copied and cloned set of modern soldiers is the Tim Mee Vietnam-era troops. Following closely on its heels are the 54mm British paratroopers and  German Infantry, who have been copied and cloned for over 20 years. In other genre, the Airfix Cowboys & Indians have been pillaged mercilessly by Chinese copyists. Clones and copies tend to be undersized, less detailed, and increasingly disproportionate.

Matchbox figures have also been cloned, mainly by toymaker Hing Fat. These are the US, German (Infantry and Afrika Korps) and British 8th Army sets. Atlantic Japanese were cloned, as well. As the cheap Chinese molds deteriorate ,figures get smaller and less detailed.

The fact is that serious hobbyists should avoid clones, if possible, and get figures made from the original molds. This assured detail and scale consistency. Leave clones to the kids.


I have seen Airfix from its first sets in `61 or `62 to its current status. I like the product as much now as ever. When I need small-scale figures, that is where I look first. Through Airfix, I was introduced to small scale hobbying and historical wargaming. My original collections of figures and kits was lost over 30 years ago. (Of course, I wish I still had them.) Nonetheless, I have always liked their products.

One thing I miss are the old structure kits. Favorites were the knightly castle, Roman fort, Western cavalry fort and Foreign Legion fort. A smart hobbyist could take two or three of those kits and built a larger fort.

Favorite sets? Hard to say. I will always have a find spot for the original Infancy Combat Group and German Infantry, as these (along with the ROCO tanks) introduced me to a wonderful hobby. Thanks to the hobby, I made a lot of friends and had many good times.


I remember scrambling to the hobby shop with some change in my pocket, hoping to buy another ROCO tank or box of Airfix soldiers. There would be other boys like myself, looking at the display and trying to decide what to buy next. When you were a little boy in the early 1960s, 25¢ was good money and 50¢ was a major expenditure. We drove the hobby shop owner crazy as we tried to make that decision. Do I want another Sherman tank? A Panther? Or maybe a box of Airfix Marines. Decisions, decisions.*
AirfixInfantry Combat Group, circa 1961

Airfix and ROCO came out with new things every few months, so it seemed. My friends and I were thrilled to see each new set. The Sheriff of Nottingham set was a change because it included knights rather than Western figures, Civil War guys or 20th Century troops.  We took releases of World War II figures in stride....Russian Infantry..Paratroopers...Commandos. The Romans and Ancient Britons were thrilling to see.

While we tried our hand at our made-up games with the small figures, we were not very good at it. A friend lent me a copy of Featherstone’s War Games. That changed everything. We could have little battles for World War II, the Civil War and Romans versus good guys . Half the fun was painting the model tanks. We could also paint faces and details on the Airfix figures.

One big side effect: friends. Lots of them. Building models together, painting figures, sharing modeling tricks. We liked to show off our stuff. People developed all sorts of tricks for making their small models more detailed. Things like “stretch sprue” antennae and handmade bundles made our models look better. That somehow improved the games.

Time certainly have changed. The old model-building and wargaming pals are scattered to the four winds. Adulthood brought other concerns that sent us hither and yon. I lost touch with them long ago.

( Perhaps that is why I could never get into the micro tanks at 1/285 and 1/300 scale. They were too small to make enhancements worth seeing. Kits from the 1/100 Roskopf to 1/76 Airfix were preferred because we could make them look great.  )

1/32 - 54mm Westerm Indian
1/32 - 54mm - US Cavalryman


  1. Great piece of Airfix history! thank you Thor.

  2. They were among the first figures I ever painted.

  3. I discovered Airfix at age 10 in the multipose blister pack kits- 1776 US Soldier- been a fan ever $1 I spent in 1977!

  4. I still play wargames now with 1/72nd scale plastic figures and HO vehicles. Only now there are dozens of companies making each of these two scales.

  5. I loved was great they had so many historical sets. My first sets were Germans, Afrika Corps and 8th Army. I still have them all (I painted some) but most are in boxes. I keep my Rouke's Drift (made from WWI German soldiers) and my American Revolution American and British flag bearers nearby.

  6. May I repost this blog to my toy soldier shop facebook page?

  7. You may post a link to this site. You may "share" on facebook. You may NOT copy this blog and post it on your FB page or other site.

  8. I had a friend who made home castings from plastic figures. he was into metal figures but didn't know much about plastics. Consequently, sometimes he made his metal copies from inferior plastic clones instead of the originals (which I could have supplied him).

  9. Nice post. I am 60 and had the same experiences you describe. I had some original 60s HO figures but they became brittle and exploded when touched. Still wargaming, though, with Featherstone and Grant on the bookshelf.