Tirailleurs from the French Colonial Empire

French tirailleurs made from aluminium by toy maker Quiralu

All of the European colonial powers raised regiments of black African soldiers and white officers, but only France equals Britain in the variety and volume of toys that depict their colonial soldiers.

In my collection I have some excellent figures of tirailleurs – meaning “skirmishers” the French equivalent of “askari” – fromthe the North and West African colonies of France’s colonial empire.

I particularly like the aluminium figures made by French toy maker Quiralu and the solid-cast figures designed by the talented Swedish toy soldier designer Holgar Eriksson and sold by Comet, Authenticast and Swedish African Engineers (SAE).

French tirailleur by toy maker Authenticast


French tirailleur with long trousers by toy maker Quiralu


French tirailleur by unknown toy maker, possibly Cherilea


The 60mm tall plastic figure to the right displays the key characteristics that distinguish a toy soldier of the French tirailleurs from his askari counterparts in the King’s African Rifles – or the regiments of other colonial powers.   He carries his rifle on the right shoulder in the French style, rather than the left shoulder which would be more typical of a soldier from the British Empire – and like many of the figures on this page, he wears a red cummerbund.  The broad red fez, which can also be seen on the Del Prado figure below, is typical of the uniform of a tirailleur from the French West African colony of Senegal – very different from the pillar box-like British version.

Del Prado

Terailleur Senegalese circa 1940 by modern model maker Del Prado

The manufacturer of this plastic soldier is unknown.  It was attributed to Cherilea  when I brought it on Ebay in 2014 – partly because it shares the 60mm scale of many of Cherilea’s figures – but this attribution is far from certain.

On the other hand, what is certain is that this is one of the rarest toy soldiers in my collection, as it is the only one of its kind that I have ever seen – and it is also the most expensive toy soldier I have ever brought.  This confounds people who view my collection as they assume that the oldest lead toy soldiers must automatically be the rarest and most valuable not a play-worn plastic figure made in the 1950s or 1960s.




Toy Soldiers by SAE


French tirailleur by toy maker SAE

After the fire that destroyed the Authenticast factory in Ireland in 1953, some of the company’s toy soldier moulds were taken over by Swedish African Engineers (SAE) who manufactured copies of Authenticast soldiers and others of their own design in Cape Town, South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s.

The owner of SAE, Curt Wennburg, and his partner came from Sweden and were engineers before the Second World War, hence the company’s unusual name.

French Tirrailleur by Authenticast

French Tirrailleur by toy maker Authenticast

The talented Swedish toy soldier designer Holger Eriksson, who had worked for Authenticast also designed for SAE until he left the company because of his concerns over poor production quality in the late 1950s.

Compare SAE’s bayonet thrusting French tirailleur (above) with the marching figure by Authenticast (left) and the earlier Egyptian infantryman by Authenticast’s parent company Comet (below left) and SAE’s design heritage is obvious: they all have the dynamic quality that is charcateristic of Eriksson’s designs.  Other SAE soldiers look more like the original creations of a separate company – and many are very good despite the quality concerns that caused the eventual breach with Eriksson.

egyptian infantry

Egyptian infantry by toy maker Comet

The toy soldiers below were probably made by SAE, although they do not have the words “South Africa” cast into their base in the way that many of the company’s products do.

Although at first I thought the figures below were intended to represent Gurkhas, but they look more African than Asian and there is no sign of the Gurkha’s famous khukri knife.

With their pillbox caps, bandolier equipment and puttees they are probably intended to depict KAR Askari of the First World War.

Click here to enlarge picture

KAR Askari of the First World War by toy maker SAE

Force Publique by Durso

Askari of the Force Publique by Belgian toy maker Durso

Probably the biggest range of toy soldiers from an askari regiment by a single manufacturer is that of the Force Publique of the Belgian Congo, made by Belgian toy maker Durso.

The Force Publique was both a gendarmerie and a military force in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1885 when the territory was known as the Congo Free State and owned as private property by King Leopold II of the Belgians until 1908 when the Belgian Government took over direct rule which continued until independence in 1960.

Warrant officer with sword by Durso

Like similar askari regiments raised by other colonial powers, the Force Publique was formed of white European officers and locally-raised black warrant officers and soldiers.  In the Free State period the Force Publique was primarily a tool for internal repression by what is now widely regarded as one of the most brutal of European colonial regimes.

The Force’s only significant military engagement in this period was the 1892-1894 war against Arab traders led by Tippu Tip for control of the Eastern Congo.

Warrant officer with map and binoculars by Durso

Following the takeover of the Free State by the Belgian Government in 1908, the Force Publique was reorganised into twenty-one separate companies, along with supporting artillery and engineers.  This grew to fifteen battalions in three mobile brigades during the First World War, during which the Force Publique fought against German colonial forces in the Cameroun, Rwanda and Burundi – and alongside the King’s African Rifles in German East Africa (later Tanganyika, now Tanzania).

The Force Publique fought alongside the KAR again in the East Africa Campaign of the Second World War – although after the surrender of Belgium in May 1940, the main contribution to the Allied cause by Free Belgian Forces in the Congo was primarily an economic one in the supply of rubber, copper and other strategic minerals, rather than military.

Askari in action pose by Durso

The askari of the Second World War period are depicted by Durso in a set of twenty-five different figures in both ceremonial and action poses, designed and made between 1938 and the mid-1950s.

These figures are made of “composition” – a mixture of sawdust, casein, kaolin and glue moulded around a wire frameon a rectangular base and are 75mm tall, which is larger than the 1/32 (54mm) scale that is the standard for most old toy soldiers and modern military models.

Belgian Colonial Infantry by Durso

Bugler of the Force Publique by Durso

Durso also made a similar set of white colonial infantrymen wearing sun helmets rather than the fez worn by askari.

Between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and the independence of the Congo in 1960, Belgium continued to organise the Force Publique in the traditional manner of a colonial gendarmerie – separate from the people it policed and officered entirely by white Europeans.

Tightly disciplined and drilled the Force Publique impressed visitors to the Congo with its smart appearance.  Durso reflected Belgian pride in their colonial army with a new set of post-war figures made on round bases from 1956 until the late-1960s.

Askari of the post-war Force Publique

Unfortunately, even as these figures were being produced, the culture of separateness within the Force Publique, encouraged by its Belgian officers – combined with the arrogance of these same officers in denying any change to their soldiers when they remained in command after Congolese independence – contributed to the outbreak of uncontrollable violence that engulfed the Congo after independence and has continued with varying degrees of ferocity to this day.

All of the Durso figures are rare and expensive to collect in the UK, but they definitely reward the collector with their quality and variety.

Askari and bicycle of the Force Publique by Belgian toy maker Durso

Britains Special Paintings and Conversions

A small number of Britains KAR sets have been found with an unarmed African effendi (warrant officer) and askari with rifles but without bayonets.  These were probably special paintings made on demand for sale at Hamleys – the famous London toy store.

Britains standard KAR (left) and special painting with warrant officer (right)

Egyptian infantry – special painting of Britains KAR figure

Special paintings of the KAR figure in blue with white puttees were also sold as Egyptian Infantry.

A single set with an officer wearing a peaked cap has been found painted in olive-green and labelled as Portuguese East African Native Infantry, but it is not known whether this is a special painting or Britains’ prototype for a set they did not subsequently produce on a commercial scale.

Portugese East African Native Infantry by toy maker Britains

Amateur model makers also make conversions of the Britains figure.  Similar to Britains own special paintings, the most common conversion is for a standard KAR figure to be converted into an officer or effendi – as in the seven-figure set below, which has had a sword-carrying officer added.

Britains KAR with officer conversion

Amongst the most interesting conversions I have found are the askari pioneers below, marching with pickaxes, spades and sledge hammers and their rifles slung over their right shoulders. The East African Pioneers were a sister unit of the KAR in the Second World War.

Britains KAR converted to pioneers

Britains KAR with rifle and sling, from left

Britains KAR with rifle and sling, from right

Some conversions are very straightforward but create unique, interesting figures, like this Britains KAR askari that has simply had the standard rifle and bayonet exchanged for a rifle on a sling – the whole figure has also been re-painted.

Military Bands of the KAR

Band of 3rd (East African) Bn KAR in pre-WWI uniform by modern model maker Beau Geste

The predecessor regiments of the King’s African Rifles all contained fife and drum bands when they were amalgamated to form the KAR in January 1902.  From the end of the First World War onwards the regular Battalions of the KAR’s peacetime establishment retained bands of various sizes for most of the time until Britain’s Central and East African colonies came to independence in the early 1960s.  However, it is very difficult to follow these bands through the limited historic records that still exist.

Band of 4th (Uganda) Bn KAR band by modern model maker Dorset Soldiers – painting and photograph by John Firth http://www.beatingretreat.com

The band of the 3rd (East African) Battalion KAR was probably the largest, longest-lived and best-known KAR band. In the inter-war years the 3-KAR band expanded to the size of a full military band with forty musicians.

In the Second World War many of the band members joined an entertainment unit that was formed to entertain troops in Burma with popular music.

Band of 4th (Uganda) Bn KAR by unknown modern model maker

The band of the 4th (Uganda) Battalion KAR was also well-known for wearing highland dress and is therefore particularly popular with modern model makers. The bands of the Central African and East African Rifles became the bands of the 1st and 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalions and the 3rd (East African) Battalion KAR. 

Drum band of 1st (Nyasaland) Bn KAR by modern model maker The Colonial Factor

The only band in my collection made as toy soldiers rather than models for modern collectors was made in Spain in the 1950s by Julio García Castresana, to represent the Regiment of Regulares of Melilla – the Spanish city enclave on the north coast of Morocco.


Horn player



Band of the Regiment of Regulares of Spanish Melilla by toy maker Julio García Castresana

Indian Troops in the KAR

Sikh Soldier by toy maker Comet

Before and during the First World War the KAR and its predecessor regiments contained contingents of troops from Britain’s imperial Indian Army.

The 5th (Uganda) Battalion claimed to be the senior KAR battalion because the Indian contingent of the Uganda Rifles was the first to be formed of the KAR’s predecessor regiments.

Indian soldiers have long been popular subjects for toy makers – and generic figures without the uniform details or equipment of specific regiments, like Comet’s marching Sikh or Authenticast’s superbly-modelled Indian soldier, could easily represent the early Indian contingents of the KAR.

Indian soldier by toy maker Authenticast

Britains’ Royal Indian Army Service Corps, below, would also be an authentic reinforcement for a KAR column marching on the Mad Mullah’s Dervishes or taking punitive action against tribesmen for cattle raiding in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District (now South Sudan) – although the white officer who came with this set would probably be out of place, because his metal helmet would have been unbearably hot in East Africa!

Britains’ Indian Army Mountain Battery, which used many of the same figures as the Service Corps but is much rarer, would also have seen action against the Mad Mullah.

Royal Indian Army Service Corps by toy maker Britains

As well as Indian soldiers being in the King’s African Rifles, units from Britain’s imperial Indian Army and from India’s Princely States also fought alongside the KAR in their own right during both World Wars and the Mad Mullah campaign in Somaliland (modern Somalia), where Indian units provided camel cavalry, artillery and logistics support for the KAR infantry.

Indian Army Mountain Battery in Khaki by toy maker Britains

One of the most well-known Indian units to fight alongside the KAR was the Bikanir Camel Corps, which was deployed to Somaliland between 1902 and 1904 to help suppress a major Dervish uprising.

Bikanir Camel Corps by toy maker Britains

The usefulness of camels in the arid Somali hinterland led to the formation of the Somaliland Camel Corps as a separate regiment within the King’s African Rifles.

Sowar (Trooper) of the Bikanir Camel Corps

KAR by Lone*Star

1. Officer

Lone*Star was the name used by British company Die Cast Metal Tools Ltd. for its toy products.  These started with die-cast metal toys in 1939 and extended after the Second World War to factory-painted plastic figures, which the company made from 1955 to 1976.

2. Radio Operator

The set of ten plastic KAR figures show an officer and nine askari in the Australian-style slouch hat which was adopted for undress and field headwear early in the Second World War.  In fact, the same toy soldiers were sold with white-painted faces as Australian infantry.

3. Marching

The first soldier in the set is a pistol-wielding officer; unfortunately, the officer’s black-painted face does not fit with his Second World War uniform, as it wasn’t until the last few years before independence in the 1960s that black officers were commissioned in the KAR.  Ugandan Dictator Idi Amin was one of the first black Africans to be made a commissioned officer, in preparation for the army of an independent Uganda in 1962.

4. Rifle at the Ready

The second toy soldier is an askari speaking into the microphone of a large radio that he carries on his back.

5. Standing with sten gun

The third soldier is marching with his Lee Enfield 0.303 SMLE rifle slung over his shoulder.  This is my favourite toy soldier depiction of a KAR askari.

The fourth soldier thrusts his rifle and bayonet forward in a ready position.

6. Kneeling with sten gun

The fifth and sixth soldiers carry sub-machine guns – almost certainly intended to be British 9mm sten guns – one askari stands and the other kneels on one knee.

7. Kneeling and Firing

The seventh soldier is also kneeling as he fires his 0.303 rifle.

The eighth soldiers is poised in the act of throwing a Mills hand grenade…

8. Throwing Grenade

…and the ninth has his hat slung on his back to keep it clear of the Bazooka he is firing.

9. Bazooka

The tenth and final soldier in the set is another very nice figure, crouching low over his Bren light machine gun to provide fire support for the rest of the platoon.

10. Bren Gunner