This may be the most ubiquitous toy ever produced. They are everywhere. They are virtually indestructible and easily lost (due to their two inch height), which explains their ability to pop up anywhere. I’m sure if someone scoured my parents’ house, they’d still find a few in the nooks and crannies around. There are probably dozens half-buried and hidden in the yard as well. This is one toy almost every boy has had at one time or another. I’d be hard pressed to find anyone who didn’t have at least a few. Hell, I remember getting a couple while trick or treating one Halloween.
These things were so cheap to produce that it is difficult to determine a lot of the history behind these little guys. I’m not sure at all what company produced what figures. I know I had hundreds at one point from several different companies. Even something as inexpensive as these toys, the quality of the various companies was extremely varied. I had some that could withstand being hit by the lawnmower (a regular occurrence) and others that couldn’t even stand up right out of the packaging.
It appears that Beton was the first company to produce the little plastic soldiers in 1938. By 1942 lead toy soldier production was halted permanently (turns out lead was bad for you & children’s toys being made from lead was probably a bad idea). Beton’s plastic soldiers were of a higher quality than succeeding companies. They were individually painted, like the lead predecessors.
Louis Marx and Company was dominating the market by the 1950’s in large part due to their elaborate playsets to accompany the soldiers. Rival producers, MPC also released playsets and started producing little plastic men beyond the army figures (police, spacemen and cowboys).
Marx continued to push out playsets into the 70’s and 80’s. One of Marx’s final playsets was Fortress Navarone. It was enormous and quite elaborate considering the origins of these little guys. Marx decided to bow out of the little plastic army men market with a bang, that’s for sure.
I never had the Navarone playset, but did have Pork Chop Hill. It was produced by DFC (Dimensions for Children) in 1981. It was a fun playset and I enjoyed the vehicles (except the planes, which just sucked). DFC appears to have concentrated more on the fantasy side of this market. They produced a lot of sword and sorcery playsets. I found very little information on their military sets outside of this one.