The Ballbusch Experience: Sourcing Miniatures

Recently our illustrious and merciful boss lady ‘suggested’ ‘gently’ that I could discuss the finer point of sourcing historical miniatures.  I know when I was starting out on that dark path, one stumbling block was figuring out what to buy and from where, doubling so since this was before the internet was really a thing.  Fortuitously, I had a confederate to held me along; however, he also went on to take a commission with the USMC, so in hindsight he was rather more than slightly mad.  Always sad when it happens to someone you know.


Sold!  So, where do I find them?

When I first set out to write this piece, I was going to list off and discuss some of the places I buy figures from.  But, that made the post overlong, and some critical details were getting lost in the shuffle.  So, it’s getting broken up into multiple posts.  That means more, and more means best.

The singular genius is the “Warhammer” model of miniature wargaming is granting the gamer the ability to acquire miniatures in easy to understand, easy to stock bit-sized packages.  We can debate GW somewhat suspect kit contents, which always seem to leave you with not quite enough bits; however, you still have the option to buy a unit-in-a-box, what was until everyone else caught on a unique concept.  Now, for most big name games you can get a unit, warband, whatever as a single unit off the shelf.

On the one hand, this makes entry into the game very, very easy.  You want to start playing 40k, what do you need?  A Librarian blister pack (those still come in blisters?); two tactical squad plastic kits; a can of blue spray paint; individual bottles of blue, red, black, sliver, and white; a brush; and maybe some glue.  That’s it, you’re good to go from scratch.  Even the rawest recruit can figure out where to start with almost no guidance.

45569_md-Assault On Black Reach, Space Marines, Ultramarines, Warhammer 40,000

These guys make the three color standard possible.

From the retailer’s prospective unit-in-a-box is easy to stock and sell.  It’s easy to explain.  And staff who don’t happen to play or follow that specific game can quickly acquire enough knowledge to help customers.  This makes carrying multiple lines and multiple semi-complete ‘armies’ or ‘factions’ for each like possible without requiring a retail space the size of a warehouse.

This is in essence a packaging/marketing tactic.  Therefore, it works best when the game designer is free to decide what ought to go into a package.  Which is, of course, part of the advantage of writing games based on speculative fiction.  The freedom to say ‘a maneuver unit is X guys with Y weapons’ is very helpful from both a design and commercial standpoint.

Options become drastically more limited once someone else begins to dictate what goes into a unit.  This is, of course, the problem with any historical game.  Unit sizes and equipment are dictated by the regulations of governments that may have ceased to exist thousands of years ago.  Armies are based on convoluted ethnic, linguistic, geographic, and diplomatic considerations that make brief, hard, and fast rules for their miniature counterparts very difficult to achieve.  Armies, particularly in the midst of a major war, and change radically from year to year.

FoW has managed to get around this for two reasons really.  One, the Second World War was rather lacking in variety.  Riflemen made up the great bulk of forces for all the combatant powers, and their appearance changed little through out the war.  Main battle tanks changed as the war dragged on, but then then each power was generally only fielding a few models at any given time.  If anything BF has had to go out of their way to find new models to add just to keep up releases.  Secondly, let’s face it, FoW plays rather fast and loose with history, and flexibility is gained at the cost of letting players field forces that really could not have existed.

Let’s go back a bit though and look an the War of Nations (later somewhat misnamed the Napoleonic Wars).  France started the war in white uniforms and helmets.  This was changed to blue coats and bicornes in 1792.  Republican symbols were replaced with imperial ones in 1804.  Blue coasts and bicornes were traded for shakos and white coats in 1806.  Back to blue coats in 1808.  New, shorter coats and different styles of plumes and pom-poms were introduced in 1812 and persisted until the end of the war.


The British Army has always had an odd aversion to anything approaching consistency

At least the French had a standardized uniform.  Every regiment in the British and Hapsburg armies had their own, unique distinctions.  Going back 100 years this becomes even more pronounced.  Beyond, maybe, a suggested national coat color uniforms in the late 17th and early 18th centuries were designed by a regiment’s colonel.  And flags were often left up to the aforementioned colonel’s to design and stitch whatever she wanted.  Likewise the quality of needlework in flags from the period is highly variable.

Going further back you do come to a point when everyone sort of, more or less, wore brown.  But, they you come to the difficulties of understanding various material cultures.

Historicals come in two flavors.  Periods where we know, more or less, what troops looked like and how they were organized.  And those that are varying levels of guesswork.  The fun of the former is researching the history and getting your tiny armies ‘right.’  The fun of the latter is creating your interpretation of history on the tabletop.

The problem then, is how you even begin to package that.  GW can say ‘Space Marines are blue!’  BF can put together a semi-actuate painting guide (everyone wore some variation of khaki or olive drab, so it really isn’t that hard to get right, though people still struggle with the fact that feldgrau is green, not grey, I disgress).  However, beyond that there are so many ifs, buts, and maybes that simple painting guides and pre-boxed unit sets become very difficult, if not impossible to do.  The Perrys make a valiant effort with their plastic boxed sets.  Including a basic painting guide (which still stretches multiple pages) in a kit that kinda-sorta makes a battalion (or Regiment in the case of Americans) at the 20:1 scale.  But, that’s limited to the 18th century and then then it rather strains around the edges.


Looks legit to me…

The upshot of this is that historical wargaming really cannot be supported the same way other games are.  The possibilities are too vast, the required amount of information too deep (and too debatable).  No gaming store could ever hope to properly support the historical market.  Someone needs a box of 28mm American Civil War Zouaves, but how big is that market in a give geographical area?  From what I’ve seen miniature stock turn over is fairly slow.  There is really no economic wisdom in keeping such things in stock.

This means you’ll never seen the sort of store based gaming communities for any historical wargame (expect for FoW, and maybe SAGA but these are generally referred to as ‘historical’ in scare quotes).  Now, every game store I’ve been to has been perfectly happy to let me and my associates use their space to play historical games, but they can’t really support them in a commercial sense; and I pay for sucking up space and oxygen by buy lots of paint.

The would be historical game is really forced to source his own figures.  Normally, I say try to support the local clubhouse/store and buy from them, but that almost certainly isn’t an option, as I’ve said.

Part of the problem, as I’ve eluded to before, is that we really can debate what a figure should look like.  What on Earth is a Gasgan?  Did Napoleonic soldiers fight in parade or fatigue dress?  What ethno-cultural group did the Huns belong to?  How you answer those questions is going to dictate what kind of figures you go after.  This is also why historical wargaming is never going to be that popular.  You have to want to and enjoy at least some level of research.

So, not only does the prospective gamer have to locate a retailer who sells X he must find one that sells X in the style he thinks proper.  This is less of a problem with 15mm where you can fudge a bit and paint on details.  25/28mm is pretty unforgiving.

drill_sergeantYou’ve been shot?  No excuse for missing a button, soldier!  Gimme 20!

Personally, I tend not to be married to more own personal interpretation of history, and for my own figures I tend to take any reasonably accurate miniatures.  Little extra details are nice (like clean shaven Goths), but I’m not inclined to reject a figure just because something is maybe technically wrong.  For one thing, knowing for sure that’s right is tricky.  For another, even when we know what the regulations were, we don’t know to what extent they were enforced.  On campaign how closely a unit follows rules for equipment and appearance is largely a matter of how preoccupied its sergeants are is extraneous details.  Granted, being a crazed disciplinarian utterly obsessed with enforcing minutiae is something of a prerequisite for promotion to sergeant in the first place.

Next up I’ll be doing some ‘reviews’ of various companies I get my figures from.  Since we’re generally talking about manufacturer-retailers it’ll provide a good opportunity to review ranges in toto.


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  • MerryVulture

    I like it when the Historical articles come out. I have always been interested in historicals, but between my laziness and a lack of other players interested* in them… I can only live vicariously through those fortunate(un?) enough to play some. Looking forward to the next one.

    *I’m also a liar, as I know of a shop less than 30 minutes from home that is almost nothing but historical players. I also have met some of them and know they are good folks. As I said, I’m just too damned lazy.

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      Historicals are balkanized to the point that you really, really have to want to play them in order to get into them. The effort is too much for a good many people. Sometimes too much for me.

      • Bit late to this, but the balkanization is a really important thing which restricts the size of the historical market, and the ability sometimes to even get a game.

        And this balkanization applies in many ways – there is a huge variety of games, covering many different command levels, with different game design goals, supported by a huge range of miniatures in many different scales, with different levels of availability. I would suggest that for many people therefore they have something that excites them (First World War 6mm big battle with Companies as units, and regiments as manoeuver elements, or 28mm Medieval Skirmish or whatever) but cannot find anyone else also interested in this niche of a niche of a niche and so never actually get to play.

        It reminds of being in Auckland, New Zealand and popping into a game store to see if they had any historical miniatures (at that point I was looking for 28mm Dark Ages) and they had no historical at all bar Flames of War. I asked the owner about this and his response was that he got historical games in, and they would convince him to carry say a 15mm ancients range, they would buy the two elephants they needed, and then the rest would sit on the shelves forever.

        Looking forwards to your review of some of the multitude of ranges out there.

        • Cedric Ballbusch

          You’re right. This does create a limit on the size and overall success of the historical wargames market.

          Most historical wargamers either build armies as part of some pre-planned group effort (I build the French you build the British) or accept that they’ll have to build multiple armies for a single conflict and loan out the miniatures of another player.

          The sheer variety makes stocking for the potential historical market impossible for a storefront.

  • Drathmere

    I think you nailed an important point. Painting historical miniatures feels more onerous to me. I love it, but loads of research is necessary. Artistic license is much easier had on imaginary forces.

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      One thing to keep in mind is color distortion at distance. A mistake a lot of people make is trying to get shade of color right. The problem is that the right color, translated on to a tiny figure often looks off. So, you have to go with something brighter than the technically correct color.

      Personally, I draw the line at worrying about anything deeper than light blue vs. dark blue. Of course, I also devoted some hours to researching dyes of the ancient Near East, so I’m reasonably obsessive.

      • Drathmere

        That is a very good point. The homogenizing effects of filters is essential to AFV modeling as is color modulation. Without those, models look like toys instead of actual vehicles.

        • Cedric Ballbusch

          And right there is where a lot of very historical minded people mess up. In the 19th Century the United States, Prussia, and France all wore uniforms that we would describe as ‘navy’. The problem is on a 15 or 25mm figure navy is just going to look like black. Add to that the fact that it’s more or less impossible to control the exact color that comes out when using natural dyes on natural fibers.

          The upshot of this is that prior to the 20th Century the notion of a ‘correct’ color for a piece of equipment is fatally flawed. Of course, with most everything being produced individually or by cottage industry the idea that soldiers were actually anything approaching ‘uniform’ as we would understand it is probably a modern projection.

          So you can justify a lot of wiggle room.

  • Dragons Claw

    Attention to minutia of detail is probably why I never reached the lofty heights of seargeantdom (busted back from corporal twice😨) that and my inability to keep a shirt tucked in however I blame variously god my parents and genetics for this someone was having a proper chuckle at my expense when they built me 6’3″ tall and out of that only 29″ is leg I’m all upper body so I only have to lift my arms up and out pops the shirt. Well that and a chronic inability to keep my mouth shut (known as gobshite my entire army career)

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      The untucked shirt (genetics are no excuse) will earn you some demerits right there. Besides, proper sergeant material would stitch his shirt to his underpants (which he would also iron) just to avoid this sort of problem.

      • Thuloid

        Pretty sure my infant son wears clothes like that. The Sergeant Onesie sounds delightful.