With a little imagination, you can almost feel the thundering hoof beats of the British 17th Lancer’s horse as it charges down on an African tribesman during the Zulu War of 1879.
Or maybe it’s the Civil War and the rumble is coming from a Confederate cannon as it is pulled across the Virginia countryside by a team of six horses, the gunners shouting to their mounts as they take the weapon closer to the fighting.
But these soldiers and horses have never been to war. At just 54 millimeters in height, about 2 1/4 inches, they are part of a collection of 1,000 miniature military figures that belong to David H. Cotton, a retired schoolteacher in Houlton.
“I had a vivid imagination,” laughed Cotton recently, recalling his early youth when, like so many other boys throughout history, he played with toy soldiers.
“In my youth, it was World War I that the older men were talking about and I played with (my soldiers) on the floor; rolling marbles at them and that sort of thing, to knock them down to kill them.”
When he played outside, his toy soldiers would adapt to the terrain, Cotton said. His father’s garden, with its freshly tilled brown rows of earth, would become the trenches of Europe.
“I’d line these fellas up and throw clods of dirt at them and imagine that it was a big bombardment such as they must have had during World War I.”
Likewise, the St. Croix River, near where his family had a cottage, would become an ocean where his soldiers, now serving as sailors, would be launched on wooden boats made of shingles, only to be sent to a watery grave when small waves swamped their craft.
As a boy, Cotton was not into collecting the figures. They were toys, and he recalled buying a small card of four or five metal soldiers for as little as 75 cents.
Later, he bought small molds and, scrounging for lead from chimney flashing or wherever else he could find it, melted the metal and made his own soldiers, which he later painted.
Now 75, and a serious collector, he still has some of those early “toys,” which he keeps with his more expensive miniatures on shelves in his office on the second floor of his home.
“I guess I went on playing with them until I sort of outgrew them,” he said. “But I hung onto the ones that didn’t get destroyed or lost.”
An avid reader, Cotton said his youthful interest in the military was fed not only by the stories men told of World War I, but also by books written by G.A. Hearty.
Hearty’s books, he said, were about two boys and their adventures and experiences participating in the various wars that had taken place.
In high school, Cotton’s interest in his soldiers waned. He went on to college and later served almost four years with the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.
After the service and in his 20s, he became a teacher, working at Ricker Classical Institute in Houlton and later at Fryeburg Academy. Reading history books, he said, as well as the discovery of catalogs of miniature soldiers, helped rebuild his interest in his forgotten soldiers, and he began collecting them again.
As a teacher, one of Cotton’s subjects was history, and he often used his soldiers as instructional aids in his classes.
“History has a bad reputation in high school for being boring,” he said. “I found these (soldiers) to be a way of motivating kids. When it was appropriate, I’d bring these to my classes and set them on the desk. Kids would ask questions, especially the boys, who were usually the most bored, and then I could start from there.”
Military miniatures have a long history of their own, dating back to the early Egyptians, who often put carved wooden soldiers in the tombs of the pharaohs. And not many years ago, miniature terra cotta soldiers were found in China. Children of the British royalty had soldiers made of silver.
Many famous people have also collected miniature military figures, according to Cotton. Among them have been British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and actor Douglas Fairbanks. Billionaire businessman Malcolm Forbes reportedly had a collection of more that 40,000 miniatures.
In addition to collecting the figures, some people use them to set up dioramas and take pictures of model military battles, said Cotton. In fact, books can be purchased complete with illustrations and maps to help collectors set up their soldiers to reflect actual battles from various wars throughout history.
Some figures in Cotton’s collection were bought already painted, but the collector said he prefers to buy them unpainted.
“It takes the fun out of them buying them (already painted),” he said. “The history and pictures are part of the whole hobby. That’s one of the things … that got me interested. I have to do some research.”
To aid him, he has several books that provide him with the detailed information he needs to make sure his miniatures are accurate reflections of their real-life counterparts.
Books such as “Mounted Troops of the British Army,” “Collecting Toy Soldiers,” “Britain and the Empire Uniforms,” and “Indian Army Uniforms” are just a few of the books on his office shelves.
But getting the details right takes more than just looking at a picture and slapping on some paint.
“It takes forever,” Cotton said. “You usually have to have a magnifying glass and brushes that are fine enough. Of course, they never are (fine enough) and you have to (paint) them over again. If you want to sell anything that you have painted, it better be accurate.”
Working mostly in the winter when he can’t get outside, it can take Cotton up to a year to paint a soldier. In fact, last winter Cotton finished painting a 17th Lancer and a Zulu warrior he’s had for several years.
“I do some, set it aside, work at it; I lose interest and then the interest comes back,” he said.
Prices for the figures vary and many have increased dramatically in value over the years. Figures that might have cost $2 or $3 in the early 1960s now sell for as much as $40 or $50. Figures that are no longer made sell for much more.
With prices for some miniatures costing $100 or more, Cotton said he rarely buys any now, preferring instead to paint those he has purchased before, but hasn’t gotten to.
Plastic figures would be cheaper, he said, but Cotton made it clear that serious collectors only buy metal miniatures.
Information and catalogs on miniature soldiers can be obtained by writing to Stone Castle Imports, 804 N. Third Street, P.O. Box 141, Bardstown, Ky. 40004. For those who prefer to just look, the Miniature Soldier Museum in Bardstown is an option. The museum features 10,000 miniature soldiers, as well as full dioramas of Napoleon’s Battle of Waterloo and the Battle of Bunker Hill from the American Revolution.