Sunday, September 26, 2010

Artillery Grumbles

After putting together a very nice looking 155mm field gun, I am embarrassed to discover that this impressive looking cannon actually has mediocre range when compared with some of my other pieces. Compared to my first cannon, which just resurfaced, it's a true weapon. When compared with my Britain's 25/18-pounder, though, it falls short.

To be honest, I was stunned by the range of the little diecast gun. Not only does it throw rounds better than the 155, it does so forcefully. The secret is apparently the spring, which feels much stronger. The problem, though, is that the 25/18 is the wrong period, being more a World War II piece.The same cannot be said of my BMC 18-pounder. It is the correct period, and with its current spring can still out range the 155. Even the ancient Barclay can.

What gives?

Probably a couple of things. First of all, the firing mechanism drags on the inside of the barrel. That means lubrication is needed, probably graphite powder. Secondly is the spring itself, from an ink pen. Might need to acquire a stronger spring for more range.

Couple this to the fact that my first cannon has actually resurfaced. Compared to the 155, it is a bit primitive. Still, it might make a nice fortress cannon. Still have two more of those kits.

I suppose I need to think things through a little more on those. Meantime, work has begun on the 8-inch Mk. I. That should be fun.

The Guns of Late September

Before any conflict begins, during the run-up to the first shots echoing across the countryside, there must be an arms race. So it is with our little conflicts that will take place upon the floor.

Troops are only part of the equation. Since we are choosing early 20th century land warfare as a model, we must have the weapon of choice for that period, and that would be artillery. At this time, one working cannon has been built, another earlier attempt has gone missing, and another is in the planning stages with a few parts made.

That's not to say that there isn't artillery in the collection, for truth be told I have a decent start on lighter artillery.

The first weapons acquired were from my good friend Doug, basically surplus pieces from his huge collection. Foremost among these is a plastic British 18-pounder, possibly from Atlantic but currently from BMC.

It looks decent enough, except for those wheels; They're simply dreadful. They look like plastic bottle caps with spokes carved out of them. On the upside, though, is the fact that it's springloaded and capable of lobbing a small round eight or so feet. The newer ones are not so equipped, but little doubt that this is an easy fix. The wheels are best replaced, and indeed that is the plan.

Doug also gave me a number of diecast "pencil sharpener" cannons, and the one amongst these that works looks like either a Whitworth or Armstrong gun, 12-pounder size.

The spring is a real beast in this gun. It takes a bit of pull, but the result is yet another weapon capable of eight or so foot range. Aside from the colors, it looks quite handsome, right down to the 14 spoke wheels.

A short time after acquiring those, I managed to find a Britain's 25-pounder online.

Many places refer to this as a 25, even Britains labeled it thus. However, it looks more like a later 18-pounder, the ones made between the wars. Its paint is chipping, it is a bit stiff, due in no small part to the dirt it has acquired from years of play. Unfortunately, it is also a bit too modern.

Then there is a very beat up Barclay.

This was an eBay purchase. It looks sad, and one has to wonder what sort of stories it could tell. One wheel is broken, the barrel has a piece knocked off the muzzle and the shield is misisng the entire upper half. But the spring was intact, and a little work got it to move freely again. There is quite a bit of work needed here. Since its collectors value is in the tank, I'm going to make changes to it. Not quite sure how I'm going to tackle the wheel, but the shield will surely be replaced, the muzzle repaired, and ultimately the gun repainted. It appears to be based on the M1906 4.7" field gun, which will serve as the prototype for the repairs.

There are more guns as well in my collection, namely cheap little cannons from BMC.

I'm sure one of these is destined for something. But they can't fire, something I'm sure I might be to address.

We'll see.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bring In The Artillery!

I love big guns. Be they the classic medieval lombards or World War II era howitzers, I'm pretty fascinated by them. My favorite guns are Great War era, or just slightly before.
You know, the ones the model and toy companies ignore.
That's not to say that they aren't out there. Britains made a number of lovely weapons before the start of the Great War, and these remained in production a rather long time. But when cheap plastic models began to be produced in earnest, most of the pre-World War II guns were basically ignored for the new. Even Britains phased out their older guns.
And of course, this is the era I chose.
I did manage to land a few weapons. BMC makes what appears to be a knock off of an earlier Atlantic piece, which in turn is a plastic copy of a Britains original; an 18 pounder howitzer. My friend Doug surplussed it to me. Making this piece into one that can fire is easy, and in fact the earlier Atlantic piece could. The wheels, however, are atrocious and best replaced.
Another weapon I manage to acquire was an ancient Barclay field gun that also happens to be spring loaded. It appears to represent something like a 75mm. But this model was had for a song because I was somewhat damaged. It will be repaired.
Doug also gave me pencil sharpener that is also a cannon. This looks like a Parrott gun of the Civil War era. It too can fire.
Finally, I managed to find a Britains howitzer, apparently a World War II era 18 pounder. It fires, but looks very rough, as if someone played with it on the beach.
What is really needed, though, are bigger guns, heavy artillery, capable of lobbing rounds across the room. None of those can. I decided to set out and build one.
My first attempt was based on a wooden toy cannon from Michael's Arts & Crafts. For the princely sum of $1, you get this...

Admittedly, not a great looking item, but certainly loaded with possibility. So, I picked up four of them. The first one that was built taught me a few lessons, namely that 1.) the bores on these things are hardly ever centered and 2.) Chinese pine is hard and soft in turns. The firing mechanism was made from springs from the hardware store and various bits. Did it work? It did, but not great.
And then it vanished. No idea where it is.
So, around the 7th of September, I decided to make another cannon using the parts from one of the kits. I chose to model the famous French de Bange 155mm Model 1877 as it might have appeared in early 1914. References abound to this gun, but mine is more of an approximation, a fun scale model if you would. It would be designed from the start to fire.
The barrel is ordinary printer paper that was wound around a 3/16" dowel and cemented with a glue stick. Separate layers were used for the breech end, even producing a graceful taper. The trail was widened from 3/8" to 1/2" inch with basswood sides. These in turn were covered with additional basswood sides that were laminated with a cardstock "skin", which had rivets embossed using a pouncing wheel.
I had planned on using the kits wheels, the goal being to make them look like the solid ones that were coming into use. However, I managed to locate a wooden kit wagon that had better looking wheels.
Additional details were made with wire, small dowels and cardstock strips. Once I was satisfied with the appearance, I made a firing mechanism from a retractable ink pen spring, a 1/2" length of 3/16" doweling and a straightened out paper clip. This was cranked in such a way that the cannon can effectively be cocked and loaded. Firing is done by pushing the paper clip wire down, and with a snap, your round is flung twelve or so feet. The wheels were glued directly to the slightly shortened axle with 3/8" wooden plugs added to the outside to represent hubs. The steel tires were made from cardstock.
The basic model was assembled, though I basically jumped the gun and added an aluminum trunnion before the additional barrel details were added. This meant I mounted the barrel to the carriage a bit too soon, and was afraid to undo the work. Also, the elevation mechanism is still being worked.
Nonetheless, I pressed on and completed the model. I primed it with a heavy coat of automotive primer, and then sanded many of the details smooth. I then painted the carriage dark olive green, the wheels yellow ochre with tan hubs and brushed steel tires. The barrel was painted flat black, and then painted with a wash of silver acrylic paint for a gunmetal look. The final detail, elevation wheels, were created from black 1/2" snaps.
I think it looks nice enough.

With that finished, time to move on to the next piece... whatever that may be.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Building a Small Army

I really enjoy the uniforms of the early 20th century. You had none of this camouflage, which just looks, I don't know... overdone. Effective, yes, but overdone. When the first guns of August 1914 echoed across the frontier in western Europe, the French marched into battle with uniforms that looked similar to those of the American Union Army of the US Civil War; the fact is both the North and the South's uniforms were based on French designs. Interestingly, there are not too many French troops available.
There are period soldiers available, though. Armies in Plastic makes a series of World War I soldiers, as well as late 19th - early 20th century troops as well. These easily lend themselves to the combat being planned. But, many of these soldiers have helmets, and for the early phases of the war are out of place (to my knowledge, only the Kaiser's armies had helmets, possibly the Italians as well). The other Allied armies didn't start wearing the steel helmets until a year or so into combat (though the Brits may have obtained them earlier). If one wishes to model earlier troops, say French infantry wearing kepis, there's some customizing that needs to be done. If you need plenty of them, you may need to make compromises. Which brings us to BMC's inexpensive Civil War soldiers.
For many of the troops, just a simple paint job is enough to make them look "French" (and for the vast majority of them, this will be the route I take). However, there are some anachronisms that will need to be addressed to make them look more accurate, if even a little.
The first is the cap itself. Both the Union and the Confederacy used hats that were based on the French kepi, as were the uniforms in general. The French kepi, though, was generally stiffer than its American cousin and more often stood up. As time and battles went on, the kepi may have deflated somewhat, resembling more the American hat. Making a more French kepi would probably involve cutting off the hat above the brim and replacing the cap with one made from Sculpey or FIMO, or even epoxy putty. If you need plenty of them, you may be able to make a simple mould for the task.
Another problem is footwear. The French wore either boots or ankle boots and wrappings. Either way, the trousers were tucked into them. The BMC Civil War troops have the trousers hanging over the boots (which, I might add, looks rather sloppy). This is probably left up to the modeler's discretion; I might modify a few, but not many.
The last problem has to do with facial hair.
The beards that were common on American soldiers during the Civil War just weren't common on French and Belgian soldiers of the opening months of the Great War. Some probably had them, but they were probably the exception, not the rule. Most, if not all, of the BMC soldiers have them. Discretion again; you could end up trimming them off for days. Perhaps it would be better to keep some beards.
I've already finished one soldier.

He came out adequately enough.
I didn't bother trimming the mould seams and left the ejection pin marks. My manner of painting this soldier was experimental. Rather than using a spray primer or PVA glue (which is a popular method for softplastic figures), I used craft store acrylic satin varnish. This gave a little more bite to the acrylic paint to follow. After the colors dried hard, I sealed the figure with Testors' DullCote. Once that had dried, I painted over the black "leather" with satin varnish to give it a slight sheen.
I'm pretty pleased with the effort. I've not done a 1/32 - 54mm scale soldier in years, and this was really meant to be a fun project. And, to be honest, it was.

Playing With Toy Soldiers

This has been a long time coming.
I remember my first set of toy soldiers (more accurately, plastic army men). It was back in 1970, and they came to me with some model tanks that somebody had built. I was seven, and they kept me busy during a rough time in my childhood. I was even playing with them on a Sunday in April that year, when a Cessna 172 ended up on its back in our backyard.
We did a lot of moving over the next few years, so it was no surprise that my first soldiers disappeared into the fog of history. I wouldn't have my next set until the summer of 1975, and again those were your usual plastic army men. Soon on their 54mm heels, though, arrived Airfix 1/76 troops. I had discovered scale modeling.
The toy soldier bug bit again, but not as hard as it did during the summer of 2010. I had known of H.G. Wells' "Little Wars" for sometime. As a teenager, I did a little wargaming and it is revered amongst some participants. After finding an online copy and reading it, I was struck by its simplicity, its near naiveté.
It's hard to apply the rules for "Little Wars" to anything post Great War. In fact, the book was published just a short time before, in the relative calm of 1913. This was during a time when infantry and cavalry charges were still common; the early months after the start of the Great War saw the end of that style of combat. War is hell to begin with, but any sense of nobility there may have been in combat soon faded in the trenches of northern France under a barrage of heavy artillery.
In fact, that war is hell was what Wells was trying to convey in play. Compared to the wars to followed 1914, the sort of combat depicted in "Little Wars' is manifestly childlike.
That is where the interest is for me.
So, with that in mind, I'm setting out to build miniature armies in 1/32. I doubt I'll go any further past 1917, when the first tanks rumbled across the no-man's land towards a rather surprised enemy. There may be some other deviations and scenarios, but the horrors of the Great War and the coming wars will be, hopefully, neglected. Besides, trench warfare in miniature plays hell on the flooring.