Britains Swoppet Knights:

Siege Engines.

Britains Ancient Siege Engines, 1967-76.

  By the mid-1960s, Britains' Swoppet Wild West range was almost overshadowed by the accessories that were meant to complement it: the legendary Concord Stage Coach, the ranch and a small town's worth of clip-together buildings, plus of course the long-lasting Herald "Indian Encampment" set. The Swoppets Knights, by way of contrast, had no such accompanying edifices. It was not until the "Knights of the Sword" era that Britains would branch into the construction of plastic castles, by which time the Swoppets were already collectors' items. In retrospect, this seems a strange omission by a company with a justifiable reputation for not missing a chance to exploit a gap in the market.

  There was, however, one set that was brought out at the height of the Swoppet period which is worthy of attention: the "Ancient Siege Engines". Though not Swoppets themselves, they were placed next to the Knights in the Britains catalogue, and were clearly intended to appeal to the young collector who had amassed the set of Knights and was wondering what to buy next.

  Both the Catapult and the Balista (note the unusual spelling - "Ballista" is more common) were released in 1967. Each had two crew members who were of Hong Kong origin, and, to judge from their dress, were more likely out of the earlier Middle Ages than the Fifteenth Century - the helmets look strikingly Norman in design. It would perhaps not be unfair to say they more closely resembled the (Hong Kong) Herald Knights than the Swoppets in their overall meagre use of plastic and lack of realism. Nevertheless, they augmented many a Swoppet Knight collection, and thus merit a page to themselves on this website.

  The Siege Engines represented the first work for Britains of sculptor Ron Cameron, who would later be hailed as the creator of the "Deetail" series. If the soldiers were disappointing, his efforts on the engines have been rightly praised, most notably the finer carving which suggested the natural grain of hard wood. As with Selwyn-Smith's attention to detail on the Swoppets, the Siege Engines themselves looked authentic and "real" - at least to the eyes of a child.

The Siege Engines make their debut in the Britains Catalogue of 1967.
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Britains catalogue, © Britains Ltd 1967

  This is what the 1967 Britains catalogue had to say about the new releases:

  "Ancient Projectile Engines is the name given to these mediæval siege machines, a type of which it is believed was used as early as BC 808."

  "Extensively used by the Greeks and then by the Romans when their value in warfare was fully recognised. They had a range of between 400-500 yards and the weight of the stones were up to 57 lbs."

  "These handsome replicas of ancient siege machines can be used in exactly the same way as they were when invented."

  "A new series of historical models made in strong plastic. Designed with the maximum degree of authenticity from available records. They will prove an exciting and educational asset for children's battle layouts."

#4675 - The Catapult

Catapult box, 1967-72 Catapult with figures, 1967-72
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  To quote from the writing on the back of the box: "In nearly every great siege from 214 B.C. to the end of the 14th Century, the Catapult was used to hurl missiles at the besieged town or castle. The tension of the tightly twisted horse-hair cordage gave a tremendous spring to the missile arm which when released could hurl a rock weighing about 57lbs [26 kilos] high in the air for a distance of 500 yards [457 metres]. Built with heavy wooden beams, the smaller Catapults had wheels for mobility, whilst the bigger ones were built at the site of the siege. This model accurately portrays one of the many siege engines used in those turbulent days."

  The year 214 B.C., by the way, is the date the Great Wall of China was begun. Rome and Carthage were engaged in the Second Punic War at this time.

  The Catapult did actually fire the plastic boulders which were included in the set, though they required the intervention of an incongruous-looking elastic band to achieve this effect. The attendants were a chap in a red tunic who appeared to be firing the missile, and one in sky blue who was carrying a rock. They had the numbers 1 and 2 respectively on the underside of their bases.

#4676 - The Balista

Balista box, 1967-72 Balista with figures, 1967-72
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  "In nearly every great siege from 214 B.C. to the end of the 14th Century, the Balista was used as an engine of war. It could fire heavy arrows either at the besieged or besiegers of a town or castle. Balistas were built in many sizes and the tightly twisted cordage of horse hair or sinew gave a terrific velocity. The bow-string was drawn back by a windlass on the stock and the range of a large Balista was 400-450 yards [365-412 metres], easily piercing armour. The Balista probably suggested the later invention of the Crossbow. This model accurately portrays one of the many engines used in those turbulent days."

  The Balista's attendants were a blue-clad soldier who was either firing or adjusting the windlass, and a figure in an orange tunic carrying one of the arrows which again were provided in considerate quantity - four if memory serves. The numbers on the underside of the bases were 3 and 4 respectively.

  A word about the authenticity of the Siege Engines might not be inappropriate, though of course the reader should bear in mind that, as with the Swoppet Knights, they were intended as toys rather than replicas, and therefore plausibility was far more important than accuracy.

  The modern dictionary definitions of "catapult" and "ballista" are virtually identical - essentially "military machine for hurling large stones, etc" - and the overlap between the two terms is confusing to a student of history, never mind a child. Various sources contradict each other as to whether a catapult is a type of ballista or vice versa, and which evolved from the other.

  Most people today understand the catapult to have been a device for hurling stones at the enemy, and the ballista to have been a machine that fired arrows. A catapult was originally a Greek device which used tension derived from stretching a rope or other cord in order to propel an arrow-shaped projectile over distance, essentially a giant crossbow (although of course the crossbow itself had yet to be invented). Over time, different types of catapult were invented, notably the Roman Onager which used torsion (power derived from twisting) rather than tension as its energy source, and this concept was developed into what the Romans called a "Ballista", which was still a stone-throwing machine, similar in design to the Britains Catapult. In Europe during the Middle Ages, the Ballista was developed into a tension-powered engine for firing large arrows, essentially an anti-personnel weapon rather than an engine intended to destroy fortifications, and it is the medieval version of this which was made real by Britains.

  Catapults, as in hurling machines, also were still used of course in the Middle Ages, though the bucket used by the Britains model to hurl the rocks was a touch inaccurate, as there would more likely be a sling at the end of the arm for holding the missile. The missile could be a rock, or perhaps some flammable substance, or a disease-ridden carcass. Most catapults would not be made to travel on wheels like the Britains version, but assembled in situ at the site of siege. The two types of real-life catapult that were in use were the Mangonel, which used the beam-sling principle, and the Trebuchet, which used counterweght technology. The Mangonel was the earlier invention, and it was this device that led to the claim about 400-500 yards. The lever-and-sling Trebuchet made used of the effects of gravity, firing its cargo by means of a counterweight being released. Though more accurate than the Mangonel, it had a lesser range.

Britains catalogue, © Britains Ltd 1973 The Siege Engines in the Britains Catalogue of 1973.
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  In 1973 (the year after the Swoppet Knights had disappeared), the Siege Engines' display format was altered from the yellow, white and black closed box pictured above to a gold, white and black window box, with an coloured insert that depicted a medieval siege. At the same time, the engines switched to a slightly darker shade of brown. For no discernible reason, the numbering was inverted on the catapult attendants: the red figure now had 2 and the sky blue figure 1. The two sets were deleted in 1976.

Catapult box, 1973-76
Catapult inner box with figures, 1973-76
Balista box, 1973-76
Balista inner box with figures, 1973-76

  The Siege Engines, and their attendants, were re-introduced in 1986, as part of the "Knights of the Sword" range. The plastic was now very anaemic in appearance, and, though the shapes of the engines remained substantially unaltered, the sculpted "woody" texture was now replaced by a smooth and frankly unconvincing finish. Both the catapult and the balista were issued in sets along with pairs of Knights, either black or silver according to whether they were "Storm" (i.e. black) Knights or the "Silver" Knights who opposed them. In this format, the balista lasted a couple of years, the catapult slightly longer, its lifespan eventually overlapping with the Siege Tower and the Lion and Sword Castles of the early 1990s. The attendants now had black armour, for some reason, and there were other changes, such as the figure firing the catapult now being clad in yellow. But by this time, they no longer form part of our story.