Sunday, November 28, 2010

War Stories

The modelling hobby loves militaria. Planes, tanks, ships, artillery, it's like the modern day hand down of toy soldiers in the days when war games were played on back lawns. Okay, that's an oversimplification, and we build our chosen thematic material for many different reasons. A love of aviation, memories of service life, tribute to those who have served, a fascination with a time or place... I tend to look on the military equipment I model as elements of history, both the social and political history of the world and the history of technology itself. Also, the subjects we model, if they are true to life and have any accuracy at all, have stories behind them, or real human lives and dangers, not just of glue and paint.

During a recent group build on the FineScale Modeler forums, three aircraft were presented by one builder, including a brief backstory for each – the historical reality of the subject matter. That crystalised the concept for me, that each and every model we build has its story. Every time someone completes a model of the Bismark or Hood, they are retelling the terrible hours in the Davis Strait when those ships duelled. When we put the finishing touches to a favourite aircraft type in the markings of an ace, we are remembering the exploits of that pilot. The same with tanks, whatever markings you settle on, for whatever reason, whether aesthetic or due to historical research beforehand, we are recalling the actions of that vehicle and its crew, valorous, victorious or otherwise.

I was struck by the degree to which the vast range of subject matter presented to modellers today is a catalogue of the ephemeral: the markings this aircraft wore for that six week period, the equipment fit that tank carried during that particular action, the camouflage scheme experimented with on ships during those months of that year... And there is the personal record.

I'm a big fan of the Bf 109 and have collected a great many decal sheets detailing the history of the type in the various theatres of World War II, and while there are markings for victorious aces who survived the war (Galland, Hartmann, etc.) there are many schemes belonging to aircraft that went down and pilots who did not survive. This became very clear when I read through the notes accompanying Eagle Strike sheet #48078, Jagdwaffe over the Sahara, a collection of Bf 109 F-4 decals. Every one of the five aircraft depicted on the sheet was lost (that in itself is not ultimately surprising), and at least three of the pilots died, possibly all five, it was not absolutely clear from the information given. It's this latter that strikes a chord. The lives that were bound up with the machines, invested in the necessity of the moment, the imperatives of the politics of the age, and which went the way of millions.

If one builds a model of the Arizona, one is remembering the dreadful death-toll in her torpedoed hull. The same with the Yamato, as well as the courageous actions that preceded the coming of the end. Tiger tanks are ever-popular, but by 1944 they were not the invincible rolling fortresses they had been, and crews died by the bushel. To build a diorama of vehicles marked for units at the Battle of Kursk, whether German or Russian, is to recall, with hopefully a due sombreness, what is by many criteria the largest and perhaps the most terrible set-piece battle in human history.

So when critics of the hobby point with a certain negativity to its fascination with military subjects, rather than with the branches that build, cars, trucks, trains and airliners, I reply thoughtfully that the hobby celebrates courage and maps the course of technological development, while also serving as a reminder of the past, which is, of course, one of the best ways to escape reliving it.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Breaking Your Dragon Virginity

Over the years I have noticed a certain progression in armour modellers, from easy scales to more challenging ones, and from easier builds to the more difficult. Dragon is a case in point, a company which from its inception some twenty years ago set out to find unprecedented detail levels through complex plastic engineering.

Many modellers call building your first Dragon kit 'breaking your Dragon virginity,' and it seems to be a somewhat accurate notion, but to be fair there is Dragon, and there is Dragon.

I have in fact already built two early Dragons, both Russian armour reboxed by Zvezda, and I was frustrated by a trend toward too many small parts and too few positive location devices. I did not really count these as they were from the company's first five years or so, and any firm goes through an evolution in approach and engineering.

I'm rating Dragons's StuG III Ausf. F/8, in the old Imperial Series, as my first genuine Dragon, and this is perhaps a less than perfect first choice as the Imperials are known for being both complex and, by many standards, over-thought. The object was to create the maximum number of variants from the same set of moulds, resulting in a huge number of parts in any box, with many sprues in common between kits and scores of parts unused on any particular project. For instance, though this is a Sturmgeschuts, there are enough parts to construct a Panzer III turret in the box, along with many other elements. My impression is that if I was to carefully inventory what unused parts I have and buy a batch of bits through Dragoncare (if they're available), I could more than likely build a Panzer III as well.

To look at the plethora of individually bagged sprues in the box is an impressive experience, then you start to build and inevitably compare the engineering with other firms and eras. The large number of parts is derived at least in part from tiny details being molded individually rather than as part of larger units, but as some variants have such details and some do not, you find either holes to open as locators (if you're lucky) or merely raised lines to indicate where the parts go. In any other context I would have rated the latter as very amateurish indeed, especially in view of the very high shelf price Dragon has always commanded. If you're paying the big bucks you expect less of a fight and better fit.

The superstructure is a case in point. Individual panels in the roof cater to the evolution of the StuG's fighting compartment so that a common core casting can be detailed for a number of marks, but the fit of those parts is far from great. While cast detail provides tight panel lines and rivet runs in some places, separate parts conjure gaps only an inch or two away which would have been fatal flaws in the real machine. Likewise, the engineering of the canon mount is weak, a multi-part structure to which the gun will glue at the end of assembly but which depends totally on the strength of your adhesive to hold the pivots in place in a friction-fit. I reinforced the assembly with strip styrene and superglue to be a bit more confident of the canon not simply falling out one day.

And what do you do when two parts are trying to occupy the same space? The instructions are not sufficiently explicit on assembly order, the way that details crowd around the superstructure and relate to the hull top, and a strip on the glacis (bullet splashguard?) which is supplied with a locator tab and slot was around 1mm too close to the superstructure for the frontal armour to fit. After filing and fiddling for a while I shrugged and ground away the strip's locating tab. It can lie 1mm forward of where it's supposed to be: no one will ever know the difference.

The Imperials did not necessarily venture into photoetch and I'll need to source engine grills for this one. Despite an inevitable negative comparison of Dragon in the 90s to Tamiya (of almost any era) when it comes to simple building pleasure, I would have to say this is going to be a good looking model on the shelf. Assuming I can conquer the individual track links... I've never tried before! I have a few other Imperials in my stash and now know what to expect, and look forward to building more recent Dragon engineering too.

I'll post a full review when this kit is finished. For now, I have some plastic to wrestle with...