Army Men

Army Men

Some say it’s hard to keep a good man down. Nothing more true could be said about Army Men: green plastic soldiers fixed to a molded base, which stand defiant in the face of oppression, tyranny, and latent childhood aggression – as they have for over fifty years. Let’s take a look back at these valiant toy servicemen from yesteryear.

The history of Army Men almost predates America, as European countries such as Germany, France, and England produced their own versions out of metal alloys such as tin in the 1800s. Like any good army, these two-to-three-inch soldiers were sold in their own small battalions. Although they generally came brightly painted, many hobbyists preferred to paint them themselves. Toy makers didn’t skimp on style either, expanding beyond the state-of-the-art infantryman all the way back to Roman and Egyptian warriors. With their popularity came the essential accessories such as wagons, artillery, and even themed buildings.

With the emergence of the United States as a viable military power during World War I came the inevitable influx of toy soldiers in the states. “Doughboy” soldiers and Civil War fighters fabricated of iron – and later, regrettably, lead – made their way off the assembly lines. The possibilities were as endless as the history of war itself, and soon cowboys and Indians became a popular variation rolling out beside other miniature conscripts. One of the more telling design features of Army Men began when a New Jersey manufacturer gave the metal figurines “pod feet,” or a flat, oval platform designed to help the soldier remain standing.

When concerns over lead-poisoning in the fifties threatened to disband Army Men for good, their durability and immortality was saved by the arrival of plastic. With this innovation came the iconic World War II themed troopers we know and love as the quintessential Army Men. Because plastic made it possible to produce them cheaply and easily, toy companies often deployed them by the bag or bucket. One of the first to produce them was a company owned my Milton Levine. (You might know him better by his nickname, Uncle Milton, creator of the Ant Farm).

The properties of plastic also allowed a level of detail not available in earlier metallic versions. With this high level of detail, purchased in bulk, children could not only stage massive campaigns from sofas to sandboxes, but they could send wave after wave of soldier to a gruesome death with the economical toll costing mere pennies. Army Men faced death in the form of Slingshots, BB guns, magnifying glasses, even black cats and bottle rockets. Still, they persevered.

No one toy company held a monopoly on Army Men, and several companies produced them over the years. One company that managed to distinguish itself was Marx Toys, which sold their plastic cherry bomb fodder in play sets that featured accessories such as bunkers, vehicles, and larger-scale weapons. History itself provided ammunition for creativity and versatility: Knights vs. Vikings, the Alamo, Fort Apache, Blue vs. Grey (Civil War), and Battleground (World War II) were some of the popular variations. Other manufacturers put their own little spin on Army Men. Timmee made plastic soldiers from old lead-based molds while MPC modeled their soldiers with hands capable of grabbing any number of interchangeable weapons.

Military advancement itself helped keep Army Men current and popular with additions like the M-16 rifleman in the 1960s. But as companies such as Marx went under in the 1970s, fans and collectors turned from scarce shelves to plentiful magazine ads. Memorable appearances in films such as Toy Story and Small Soldiers (as well as those films’ inevitable video game franchises) have helped Army Men do what they do best…survive by dying….but an honorable death it is and will always be.

Tell us about your own battalions of plastic warriors. What gruesome war crimes did you commit against them? Perhaps, massive agent-orange-esque attacks via ignited model cement? Did you replenish your troops by ordering them from the back page of your favorite comic book? Share your Army Men memories with all of us in our comments section, as we salute their tireless service over the years.

2 Responses to “Army Men”

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  1. Eddie says:

    I was still playing with army men up until high school!! they definitely got set on fire in the later years. my best friend had an array of american and german tanks, halftracks and the like — and don’t forget the palm trees fake mountains (one with a hidey hole for a sniper!) and those rolled up barbed wires. we set up massive battles for years. the germans included goose steppers and potato masher throwers. the americans had a dude throwing and hand grenade, and even medics with rounded grips made to carry a stretcher. and there was the prone wounded guy sans standing pod, also with no helmet. he rode the stretcher.

  2. Steve Chesney says:

    I remember ordering one of those army sets like the one pictured above for $1.98 (except it was the revolutionary war version). After waiting six weeks, I opened the matchstick-sized box (they called it a locker!) and what a huge disappointment. Cheap dime-sized plastic things that would not even stand up on their thin base. They were nothing like the picture from the comic book and nothing like the description.

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