Saturday, August 15, 2009

Borodino or Bust!

...In which our protagonist is fairly enthusiastic about doing the Battle of Borodino in 6mm, but beyond that remains pretty much clueless.

The French are coming!

It's been over a month since my last post, so I figure it's a good time for an update. The larger part of my lead pile currently consists of 10mm Ancients, but the appeal that led me to accumulate so many of them in the first place has since deserted me. What this means, of course, is it's time for a new project!

As might be inferred from the intro, the subject of said new project is the Battle of Borodino. Fought on the 7th of September 1812, near Moscow in Russia, Borodino was one of the bloodiest clashes of the Napoleonic wars, despite being one of the least decisive. For almost two hundred years historians have struggled to make sense of the battle, to explain why Napoleon's genius seemed suddenly to desert him and why the French battle plan called for nothing more sophisticated than a head-on collision with a Russian army near enough its own strength. Even at the time, it seemed like a foolish idea-- much like my own plan for this project!

The Beginning Stages

This Borodino idea has been in the back of my mind for a long while now, although my commitment to working my way through at least some of the lead pile kept it from ever manifesting. Much like Napoleon, however, I have no real compunctions about ditching an army that isn't getting me anywhere, and so I managed to sell enough unpainted metal to meet my previously-established quota. Then, with the proceeds-of-sale in hand, I went out to purchase some little men in shakos.

Adler Napoleonics, as supplied. From the looks of them, you might expect that they'd require a lot of prep-work to get them ready for painting. And you'd be right.

There are currently only three companies who produce 6mm Napoleonics: Irregular, Baccus, and Adler. As you can see from the pictures, I decided to go with Adler, despite being a committed Baccus fan by this point; I've got my eye on enough other Baccus ranges to know they'll be taking more of my money in the future, so I hardly feel like a turncoat!

Debris from cleaning 500-odd Russians; that's a 60x60 mm base for comparison. I figure there's enough metal here to cast a couple hundred more figures! Maybe Adler should start some sort of recycling program...

The advantages that attracted me to Adler were a) the ability to purchase figures by the strip, and b) the availability of poses other than marching with muskets shouldered. I thought the 'advancing' poses would look great en masse, being a good deal more dynamic.

The Grande Armee

The Army that Napoleon took into Russia was very much a multinational force. All of the French Emperor's allies and satellites (which at the time consisted of most of the European states) were convinced, cajoled or coerced into fielding troops to join in the expedition. The varied, colourful force that resulted from this is one of the reasons I chose 1812.

Adler FN 32B - "Fusilier, shako, BR adv (1812)". Adler product codes can be pretty crypic sometimes; the "BR" for instance denotes Blanket Roll, but as far as I can tell what it means in practice is that French "BR" figures are sculpted without their rolled-up greatcoat tied atop their backpacks.

...Of course all that variety can be pretty overwhelming as an intro to Napoleonics. For simplicity's sake, I opted to ignore the French allies for the moment, and start with some basic French and Russians.

Adler FN 29B - "Elite inf, shako, adv (1812)". This code is very, very similar to FN 31B - "Light inf, shako, adv (1812)". So similar, in fact, that I have a hard time distinguishing between the two, and can see absolutely no reason why they couldn't be used interchangeably.

Another issue with all the choices Adler offers is that it's difficult to plan exactly what you'll need. Baccus Nappies, by contrast, are tailored for their own Polemos ruleset, and are generally sold in the appropriate unit sizes. Since Napoleonic armies tend to feature a somewhat bewildering array of elite troops, there's something to be said for being able to buy pre-packed units!

Luckily Adler has its own selection of pre-packs. These are designed to represent (I believe) paper-strength formations at a ratio of 1:20. Now, I like pre-packed units for the above reasons, but I have no intention of modelling Borodino at 1:20 (that would amount to something like 13,000 figures!). Nevertheless, my impatience to get started overrode all legitimate concerns, so I ordered a couple of division packs and a bunch of extra command stands and skirmishers, figuring I'd sort the mess out as I painted.

A random selection of command figures. From left to right, a French NCO, a French mounted officer, a Russian drummer, a French standard bearer. Have I mentioned yet how great these figures are?

Long story short, dealing with Adler was painless despite their archaic and user-unfriendly webpage. My emails were all returned promptly, and if the speed-of-delivery wasn't quite up to Baccus standards, my shipment still arrived within two weeks of order. Not bad for a country on the other side of the Pond.

The Russians

Speaking of simplicity, the Russian army seems downright bland when compared to the French. All of the Russian infantry wear pretty much the same uniform; sure, the light infantry has different coloured turnbacks, and the grenadiers have shako plumes -- but for the painter (and, for that matter, the sculptor), the differences are trivial.

Adler RN 2B - "Musketeer, kiwer, advancing". This is the basic Russian infantryman in the 1811 uniform, and in fact the code RN 1B - "Grenadier, Kiwer, advancing" is the exact same figure but with a plume stuck above the pompom.

Despite the slow preparation/cleaning process, I found the Adler figures to be everything I hoped for. Detail is excellent, and the largely complete range negates the need for paint conversions or other frustrations of the sort. The good detail also makes painting a breeze. Admittedly, my first few test pieces took an agonizingly long time to complete, but most of this can be put down to figuring out which colour to paint what pieces of Napoleonic frou-frou, as well as some unnecessary work on my part. What I mean is that all that frou-frou actually breaks up most of the smooth, flat areas on the figure, making shading and highlighting largely unneeded.

Adler RN 3B - "Jaeger, advancing". Aside from the strap on the musket, this figure's uniform and kit are essentially identical to that of the grenadiers (with a different paint job, of course).

Adler figures are cast in strips, but designed to be clipped apart for basing. I know many people are turned off by this, but I actually like it better; getting my paintbrush between the tightly-packed figures on Baccus strips is always an annoyance for me, and more than once I've actually contemplated cutting them apart for easier painting!

Adler RN 21A - "Mounted officers, kiwer". Mounted figures come only two to a strip, but the horses are beautifully sculpted. This code had some miscastings, however; the figure second from the left is missing his sword and part of the horse's tail.

Another predominant criticism of Adler figures are their disproportionately large heads. Yes, their heads are large, there's no denying it. I guess it's one of those things that either bothers you or it doesn't; as for me, I'm not bothered.

Adler XRN 1 - "Russian inf loading, standing & kneeling firing (3)". Codes containing "X" are considered "collector's series" figures. These include skirmishers, casualties, additional officers, etc. depending on the nation. The Russians, unfortunately, are limited to skirmishers for the moment.

So all the main criticisms of Adler don't bother me. On the other hand, I do have one big problem, specifically with the Russian figures. I've gotta say it. Each Russian line infantry or grenadier battalion is supposed to carry two flags -- but the Adler command strip only comes with one standard bearer. I've only got half the flagpoles I need!

The Great Dilemma

So within a few weeks I had my figures and I knew how to paint them (well, more or less; French uniforms in particular seem to consist mostly of exceptions). The question now was what to do with them?

To cover both armies for Borodino without going insane and/or broke, I had to think big. Or small, depending on your perspective. What I mean is that my units would necessarily have to be abstracted, using a very few models to represent very large bodies of men. My painting kept getting faster with practice, but even so I only had so much free time. There were far too many battalions and squadrons present at the battle for me to cover all of them; I would have to even more abstract than that, sticking a regiment (or more) on each base!

My first base: the Smolensk and Narva line infantry regiments from the Russian 12th Division, 7th Army Corps in Bagration's 2nd Army. I made a few newbie mistakes with this one -- technically only grenadier drummers had red plumes. More embarrassingly, I accidentally switched the flags so that the two regiments are carrying each other's colours. Oops.

What basing format I would use was another question. I gave myself two main requirements: firstly, that each base would be a unit unto itself -- I'd grown disillusioned with the multi-base units I'd used for my ancients. Secondly, I wanted empty space around the edges of my formations. Aside from looking more attractive (in my opinion), this "buffer zone" also helps to protect the figures from clumsy fingers. Going with the advancing poses actually conveyed the unexpected benefit of putting fragile bayonets in the best-possible spot for avoiding wargamers' from-above-and-behind grip; but it was also immediately obvious that bayonets overhanging the base edge would be in dire danger from box walls during storage.

My second base: the 30th and 17th regiments of French line infantry, from Morand's division of the 1st Army Corps. As a test piece, I kept this deliberately conservative, but aside from glueing the tricolors on backwards, I was generally satisfied with the result.

To meet my two criteria, I needed big bases. The bigger the better. I considered going with 60x30mm (the Polemos standard for battalions, except I would use them for regiments). The huge 75x75mm bases used over at The Painting Shed were even more tempting, opening up all sorts of possibilities for diorama-esque formations. Of course bigger bases eventually lead to storage problems, as well as cost problems -- the more space you've got, the more temptation there is to fill it with figures!

Base #3: the Alexopol and New Ingermanland line infantry regiments. In the straggling line you can start to see the benefits of having individual figures instead of strips. Lines can be made fluid rather than rigidly straight, while slight changes in figure spacing can produce different effects.

Ultimately I decided to compromise by using 60x60mm squares. The clincher was that I had a few of these lying around (can't remember what for, but you don't look a gift horse in the mouth!), and so I duly set about basing the figures I'd painted up.

Typically, I ran into problems immediately. Based on my experience with figures 10mm and larger in scale, I'd counted on "advancing" figures to take about twice as much space as their "marching" or "standing" equivalent. In the event, the advancing Adlers take up a good deal more than that, owing to long bayonets and forward-leaning posture. All of a sudden I had a lot less space than I expected; the leading figures on the base had to be a good 10mm back to avoid a dangerous overhanging of bayonets. I'd planned a skirmish screen of three or four figures on each base, but there wasn't room for them, and so they had to go. Of course less figures per base means lower cost, so I wasn't too disappointed; but some of my more elaborate ideas for diorama bases certainly weren't going to happen.

Base #4: the French 13th light infantry and 85th line infantry regiments, again from the 1st Army Corps. In 1812, the regiments in the 1st Corps were actually beefed up to 5 battalions each (166% of normal size), and generally operated individually rather than in the usual two-regiment brigades... but I conveniently ignored this fact to make things easier for myself in the long run.

The other big problem I ran into was with the different poses. The Russians were fine in this regard, but the figures supplied for the French elites (grenadiers, voltigeurs, and carabiniers) came in different poses than the standard fusilier/chasseur troops. Since by this point I was intending to represent each entire regiment using only 18-20 men, including command, the consequent mixing of different sculpts didn't quite fit my vision of the lethally-efficient French war machine. It wouldn't do. Scrapping the idea of proper proportions of elites for the time being, I opted to use a single basic pose for each French regiment, while for the Russians I continued to mix musketeers and grenadiers. My plans were really taking a beating!

The two Russian bases together. Despite being rather stingy on the figure count, I think I still managed a decent mass effect with these.

And that brings me to the current state of affairs. I know how to make bases that I like the look of. But... I'm still not happy.

What's really bothering me about these is how long this basing process takes. While the individual Adler figs have all the advantages I've outlined above, every gap between them needs glue and sand, and more glue and more sand, and several layers of paint, then possibly more glue and static grass. Getting a paintbrush in there without making a mess is tediously slow business, not helped by the mutually-interfering presence of two big clusters of troops per base. I keep brainstorming ideas on how to make this whole process easier. There are ways, certainly. But I don't want to detract from the overall appearance, either.

The two French bases. For the base with the light regiment I couldn't resist sticking in a few skirmishers. Even with the leading regiment pushed back to make room, the skirmishers' bayonets still ended up protruding past the base edge-- with predictable results already.

So I still don't know what to do. The 60x30mm bases I'd rejected initially are looking more appealing again. I can see them eliminating a lot of my basing difficulties, and of course there would be the added advantage of being able to produce a finished product twice as often.

On the other hand, halving the base size would eliminate most of the "diorama" potential in this project. Looking at the four 60x60mm bases I've already finished, all of them would have figures in the crack (so to speak) if they were divided into two 60x30mm. And I had so many ideas for using that space on other bases...

The quartet of Russian line regiments. Add a third brigade of two Jaeger regiments, and you've got a division. Of course I don't want to base any of my Jaegers until I've settled on basing.

The quartet of French regiments, three line and one light. This was a standard French infantry division, although of course the 1812 army consisted almost entirely of exceptions ;)

I can't make up my mind.

Thoughts, anyone?


  1. Great post Mike! I'm a big fan of Adler Napoleonics too but also had problems with basing, as the strips they come on are quite thick compared to the figure. When it comes to painting the bases I find it helps to paint around their feet before you base them up. You can see pictures of how I've done mine on my blog;


  2. Hi Mike

    Nice work onthose bases. I'm confused as to how you think mine ore on 75mm squares as I use 60mmx60mm the same as you!

    Keep up the good work

    Steve (Paintingshed)

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Tom - Great painting. I was admiring your voltigeurs over at the Angel Barracks forum, and am quite envious that you've got so many well-painted figs. Backpack straps and cockades are going to be forever beyond my attention span, methinks.

    As regards your advice, I actually paint around feet before basing already. For that matter, the thing that makes basing difficult isn't actually the individual figures, but the pose (lowered muskets impeding brushstrokes between the ranks) and the sheer number of figures on the base (blocking all the angles of approach to the problem areas). I think you've unknowingly saved yourself a lot of work by going with the poses and bases sizes you have!

    Steve - I don't know what I was thinking. I could have sworn *somebody* was doing some really nice Naps on 75mm squares, and I thought it was you. Apparently not (sorry!). Your work just looked so good I thought you were using bigger bases, I guess :D

    Anyway, those Russians you're rebasing better not look better than mine (although we all know they will)!