1/6-SCALE MEDIEVAL, 2017

ARMOURED KNIGHTS


08/20/17- Armour has a long and rich history as an instrument of warfare and oppression during a time of great violence and brutality. As a kid, I saw the sanitized and romanticized version, and my interest is a product of this; it's quite shallow, not very historical, and focused on the look of european full plate armour in its final stages of evolution (circa the 15th century), fantasy or not.

 

IN THE BEGINNING...

1/6th scale historical/medieval armour has been around since the late '60s, when Marx released their Noble Knights with armoured horse set that claimed territory not occupied by Hasbro's GI Joe. What kid didn't love armoured knights? It competed for attention with a long list of things that kids of the era also found irresistable: military, western, robots, dinosaurs, Erector sets, secret agents, superheroes, etc... To this day, it remains a very neat-o set. It was re-released around 2000 with reproduction graphics as a nostalgic offering targeting those now-grown kids of the '60s.

During the '90s, Cotswold Collectibles, who had carried the torch for fans of the original '64 GI Joe, began offering knights with metal armour. Conceptually, these were very close to the original GI Joe-- an articulated figure that could be dressed like a doll (but never to be called a doll!), except with clothes made of real sheet metal! Except... metal clothes are harder and more expensive to make, more difficult to dress a figure with, more restrictive, and weigh a lot more... so practically speaking, it was best to leave them on the figure as they came from the factory, stick them on a stand, and be satisfied with minimal "action" posing (and periodically oil them to keep them from rusting!). It looks like Cotswold stopped selling them sometime during the late 2000s.

Unlike the original Marx knights, these were never intended for kids, so "play value" was not the focus: Grown-up kids are more concerned with things like realism and detail-- the kind of things that when we were kids, weren't essential ingredients to "fun". It's a bittersweet thing. Nostalgia is an attempt to recapture some of that joy of childhood, but it's elusive because we've changed. It's probably most accessible to gr'ups who play alongside their kids, who can vicariously tap into that authentic joy of play.

Others joined in as the late '90s 1/6th scale revival gathered steam. During the early 2000s, Sideshow Toys released the Monty Python - Holy Grail series, followed by companies like Dragon and Ignite with their crusades-era knights, Lord of the Rings merchandise, etc., all contributing to the crescendo of really cool and super-pricey high-end collectibles that we can buy today.

 

My Explorations into Home-Made Toy Armour: Inspired by Marx, Cotswold, and the fantasy armour of the John Boorman movie Excalibur, I did my first armoured knight projects in '99 which started a binge that lasted through the early 2000s. This led me to an exploration of a lot of different techniques, expanding to an interest in real 1:1 plate armor and how it was made.

For 1/6th scale, the central issues were the same as they'd always been: Play-value versus realism. Play-value favors light-weight plastic; realism favors authentic materials, like heavier metal and other mixed-media materials. Detail isn't a defining distinction since plastic toys can be cast with as much detail as the producer deems necessary. As an adult who had first been exposed to 1/6th scale as a kid, I instinctively favored a blended approach, i.e., a toy doll accurized using modeling techniques.

My first projects (Excalibur) were armor made by vacuforming and painting sheet styrene. It was possible to get a lot of detail into the pieces, and lightweight plastic worked well with the weight limitations imposed by the articulated figures of the day. Its biggest downside was that it was fragile (styrene assembly versus more durable cast plastic of the Marx knights), so it wasn't exactly "play" quality. It was more like a painted model built over an articulated figure. The other downside was that painted plastic doesn't look like real metal; most real plate armour isn't painted-- it's polished steel.

That prompted an exploration of electroforming, a jewelry-making technique where a non-metallic material could be plating by painting it with a conductive paint, followed by plating with a succession of different metals. This brought the metal finish to the plastic model-making paradigm (Athena/Minerva). Electroforming also made the styrene construction more robust by thickening it and depositing metal over any plastic-glued seams.

It too had its downsides: Obviously, it made the pieces heavier, even though the plating layer was relatively thin. It obscured fine detail-- it's similar to putting a coating of glue or resin over a model to make it sturdier. The biggest downside was that it greatly increased the amount of work and time to do it in an affordable, relatively low-tech hobby environment (versus industrial vac-metalizing). I guesstimate that I could have built at least three styrene armour figures in the time that it took to do the electroformed finish on a single styrene armour suit. Nevertheless, the metal finish was far more realistic than any painted finish that was meant to simulate polished metal.

That eventually led to hammering sheets of metal, using some techniques employed in real armour construction, like what Cotswold had been doing. It took a lot of work and time (though a fraction of that of making real 1:1 armour), and while not any easier than electroforming (just different), I enjoyed the challenge of using simple tools and my instincts to tap sheets of metal into shapes. Although heavier than vacuformed styrene, the hammer-shaped metal armour could be made slightly lighter than electroformed styrene, mainly because it could be made thinner without becoming brittle. In my opinion, sheet metal is the preferred material for 1/6th-scale amoured knights because it's most like the real thing.

Naturally, there are limitations from working at the small scale: It's much easier to sculpt fine detail than to hammer it into metal. Real steel was too hard to pound and shape with tiny hammers, so I used much softer copper (which could be plated with nickel to resemble steel, or just polished to a shine). I found it difficult/impossible to achieve deep dished shapes needed for helmets that real 1:1 armourers could get by heating steel, hammering, and an abundance of skill and patience.

I regret not having bought any of Cotswold's armoured figures (I couldn't afford them). Although their earliest releases looked funky (with poor proportions and greatly out-of-scale chainmail), judging from pictures, they got better, making some impressive fluted armour. I believe that Cotswold's armourers (in India?) probably had specialized metal pressing and stamping machinery that was unavailable in a home-hobby environment. Generally speaking, making doll armour like this is a very labor-intensive endeavor, with a high parts count involving many steps to assemble it.

It was a fun journey and satisfied my desire to make 1/6th scale armoured dolls. By the time I'd made my last one in '03, no 1/6th scale manufacturer had taken up producing a line of full plate armoured figures; There have been a number of crusades/templar knight figures with surcoats released (i.e., Monty Python & Timeline), where plastic castings and metal are used to depict a few key pieces of visible armour, but none of an articulated, full plate armoured knight (as far as I know), until now.

 

The point of this long preface was to show some of the issues of making 1/6th scale plate armoured figures, and suggest why there have been relatively few attempts to mass-produce them.

For an example of the 1/6-scale armoured knight concept fully-realized, you should check out the work of a true artist, Nigel Carren. I only recently learned of him, although he's been doing it for quite a while. He makes historically-accurate 1/6th scale armour made of steel, articulated just like the real thing, with helmets pounded out of a single sheet of steel! He accepts commissions for work, but be prepared to pay (and wait) for the privilege of owning one of his masterpieces. This should give you an idea of the cost of owning the ultimate 1/6th scale armoured knight, and why mass-market products would have a nearly impossible job of achieving comparable quality at an affordable price.

But ya gotta luv 'em for trying. As far as I know (and I haven't been paying close attention), Coo Models appears to be giving it a go with their Royal Knight/Empires Imperial Knights series, released this year, and their Gothic Knight and armoured horse, slated for release later this year. Brown Art has released shiny gold and silver gothic knights to the Asian market; slated for US release later this year. These appear to be competing directly with each other, targeting the same audience (me).

 

COO MODELS ROYAL KNIGHT

 

To be honest, the Brown Art Gothic Knight caught my eye first-- I learned of the Coo Models knight from a secondary search inspired by that. I'm not an expert on historical medieval armour, but I didn't see Coo's knight as a representation of any actual 1:1 armour that I'd seen (with the visor down, it looks sort of like a Cylon from the remake of Battlestar Galactica), but it seemed passable as a generic fantasy representation without the skulls and junk of an over-the-top fantasy interpretation (despite its huge, magnetically-attached shoulder armour). Most importantly, it looked good, which was good 'nuff for me. It's advertised as being 80% metal, which to me, was a big selling point, initially.

With it in hand, I've come to see that as purely a sales gimmick. It's die-cast metal which is thicker, sturdier and heavier than plastic, but like plastic, has to be painted to look good. I'm not an authority on the varieties of cast metal so I don't know what the bare, unpainted cast metal looks like... but I'm sure that it doesn't look like steel or any sheet metal that can be polished to a reflective shine. So there's no cosmetic benefit to being made out of this metal.

While its sturdiness is a good quality, the weight isn't-- it takes advantage of most collectors' belief that heavier=quality/lighter=cheap, so it helps to sell the product. Practically speaking, it just adds more weight for the figure's ankles to support and a more pressing need to use a doll stand, just in case.

Another case where the metal is a dubious choice is the weapons: The pollaxe's business end is cast metal and heavy, while the shaft is a painted wooden dowel with a plastic decoration at the other end. The hands are made of a PVC (flexible) plastic to both grip the weapon and retain the hard plastic wrist pin. This is the weakest link: The weight at the end of the pollaxe is most likely to cause the wrist pin to unplug from the hand as you handle the figure. It's an unnecessary annoyance since a light plastic axe head painted the same would look the same and be easier for the figure to hold. It's not a particularly fragile piece that benefits from thick cast metal.

One way to look at this is to question whether another material could have been used to achieve as good or better result. Certainly, it's a large step up from the Marx knights that are unpainted and colored by the slippery plastic that they were cast in. However, the Marx knights are well-detailed and proportioned, so if cast in a resin or rigid plastic and painted, would probably look as good. In fact, from looking at the promotional pictures of the Royal Knight, it's hard to tell which parts are made of metal. (Besides the figure, the plastic pieces are the hands, feet, upper arm, and knee armor, plus a few miscellaneous parts.)

This isn't priced as an ultimate high-end collectible (and probably wouldn't sell very well if it were). Manufacturers have to carefully weigh features that sell against the bottom line. Clearly, the "80% metal" is a selling point, even though it's nowhere like the sheet metal construction of real armour. Constructing the armour with sheet metal, even with production time-savers like presses and stamping, would have cost much more: That's not the typical tooling found in modern mass-market toy collectibles manufacturing. Mass production favors the metal casting process. It makes it easy to produce pieces like the tassets (skirt plates) as a single casting instead of being constructed as individual parts and articulated like real armour. It's a way to shave production costs in an area that most collectors would accept. To their credit, Coo's knight has a number of separate parts that are fastened together with straps and buckles.

1/6 scale chainmail faces a similar cost/benefit assessment. The most realistic chainmail would be made of tiny metal rings. The weight and construction would give the most realistic drape and movement. However, accurately-scaled chainmail rings would be expensive to produce and likely very fragile. A compromise would be to use larger, out-of-scale rings (like Cotswold did), where the scale look would be sacrificed for scale physics.

Doll manufacturers have been looking for a solution to this for a long time. Dragon models has used flexible rubber castings which gave a proper scaled appearance, but in no way replicates the proper flexibility and drape of scale chainmail. Most manufacturers (like Coo Models) have pursued a fabric solution, using woven metallic and cloth fibers, to produce a texture that attempts to approximate a chainmail pattern. In many cases that I've seen, the results look cheesy and neither look like nor act like real chainmail. However, Coo Model's is some of the best I've seen to date-- the fabric's "rings" look open, and are around the right size, and they didn't overdo the metallic thread. The material is sufficiently flexible, but lacks the weight to drape or act properly for the scale. It's an acceptable trade-off since it helps make the product affordable to collectors.

I thought I'd seen mention of "real leather", but I didn't find it in the sword or dagger belts: They're pleather, feel cheap, and the leather-ish finish is prone to cracking if you stretch it too much. (Mine may be from an earlier production before the change was made.)

 

BROWN ART GOTHIC KNIGHT

The sales pics of this really caught my eye-- it looked like a miniature representation of museum armour (with a few wrongly contoured/oversized pieces), but the shiny metal made me believe that it was polished sheet metal, like Cotswold's knights, but with better shaping. I wanted to believe. That would fit my idea of the ultimate 1/6th scale armoured knight. I eagerly awaited its arrival.

Upon arrival, the first clue that I was wrong was the weight of its box: It was much heavier than I'd expected. It only took a second after opening it to see that it too was a cast metal, finished to look like polished steel. The metal parts were thick and heavy, and accidently dropping the helmet on your foot would hurt like hell. All the fluting was sculpted, not pressed. When the weight of an outfit causes a figure to fold at the waist, any hope of "play value" is immediately extinguished. All the pics of them posed in fighting stances were a little misleading, not because they couldn't be done, but because you'd have to work really long and hard to pose them, then snap the photo at just the right moment before everything came crashing down. This one, even moreso than Coo Models', was born to live in a museum pose, in a stand-- it's much heavier. The discrepancy between expectation and reality was pretty disappointing, but it was my fault-- The fact that I could afford it should have been the tip-off.

Still, there's no denying that it's an eye-catching piece with a lot of quality features. The finish does make it look more like real metal than Coo Models' painted armour. The sword is awesome, with the thinness, flex, and sharpen-able edge of a real sword: Coo's looks best left in its sheath, where you can't see how porky it is. The pollaxe's staff and stand's base look like and are made of real wood; the sword belt is made of real leather. The strapping system is ingenious, relying on a system of tough plastic straps with "belt holes" and sturdy tiny brass pins that are pressed into them. It really works well for holding the parts in place.

There's a lot to like about it, but there are some things that are simply unloveable-- like the gauntlets that make the arms too long because the wrist pin is positioned too high in the gauntlet (and can't be positioned deeper without resorting to arcane customizing sorcery).

Like Coo Models' pollaxe, the business end is metal, just heavy enough to make it difficult to pose higher than shown here. To fit it into the rigid metal gauntlets, twist off the lower metal end-- it's got a long pin that plugs snugly into the wooden shaft.

The "chainmail" is a woven fabric that doesn't attempt to look like tiny rings; very little of it shows, so it's not whinge-worthy. Similarly, I don't mind the headsculpt's forehead tattoo (?) and modern hairstyle, because they're unseen under the helmet. However, I was greatly disappointed that the sallet's visor was sculpted, and couldn't be raised. The bevor (chin/neck armor) locks the helmet in place (like it's supposed to), which means that the head/helmet can't be rotated or posed looking up or down. This removes the option of doing anything interesting, pose-wise, with the head/helmet, except tilting it back on the head. A moveable visor would have given it some posing fun.

My main beef with the cast armour is that it's just too thick and heavy, so the figure has a hard time holding simple poses, even standing. It makes some pieces look too bulky and the thickness needlessly restricts movement of the arms. While this is true of real armour to an extent, movement isn't as restricted because the flesh underneath is compressible and the plate steel isn't as thick for the scale.

 

CONCLUSIONS

Both of these products look great and I look forward to future releases. Based on these two samples, Brown Art seems more "adult art" than Coo Models, when comparing details like the stands (Brown Art's is wood, Coo Model's is plastic). This tracks with my general observations about playability/realism, since Coo Models' knight seems to have more "play value". It's, lighter, holds poses better, and looks more natural posed with other figures (supported in a stand, of course). Brown Arts' knight isn't about fun: It's all about finding a good-looking pose that it can hold, then putting it on a shelf (and muttering "Good riddance!").

Both products are very tall: Coo Models' is almost 13 inches tall, and Brown Art's is approximately 12-1/4" inches tall. When posed with shorter, average-sized figures, they tend to make themselves the heroic focus of attention. Good if you're after that effect, not so good if you aren't.

Under the skin, they're both the same thing-- despite differences in finish and attachment details, the cast metal is what makes them the same-- very heavy. Both manufacturers use figures with relatively tight articulation, but it takes very beefy articulation to handle the weight as it adds up throughout the entirety of the figure and concentrates at the legs and ankles. The weight of the metal weapons can seriously test the articulation's ability to hold them where posed.

In my opinion, die-cast metal is the adult-"click-bait" version of injection-molded plastic parts. It has a more respectable aura, which in the minds of many people, elevates them above plastic toys made for kids. The heft feels impressive when you handle it, but is a liability when you pose it or stand it. If it's going to spend most of its life admired in a stand behind glass on a shelf where the heft can't be experienced-- it's all about how it looks. A vac-metalized or artist-painted Marx figure detailed with leather straps, quality weapons, and reasonably good faux chainmail would probably look pretty classy at a fraction of the weight... plus, you could play with it.

(Despite that, I'll probably get Coo Models' Gothic Knight when it comes out.)

 

-08/26/17

 

 

 

 

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