The subtitle of this set tells us that it is for the second half of the 17th century, which is a bit vague, but this half-century was incredibly important for the French Army. 1650 began with a boy king in nominal charge of a country split by anarchy and civil strife, and also at war with Spain. By the dawn of 1700 France was the one super-power in Europe, with that same king now presiding over a powerful and confident country with an army that was the most modern and one of the largest on the planet. During the intervening years the enthusiasm of the king, Louis XIV, along with the genius of such men as Louvois had transformed France’s military forces, and forced the rest of Europe to copy their reforms in order to keep up.
Apart from a few royal guards, there was no uniformity of dress amongst French soldiers at the start of the half century, and what we would now call a national uniform only gradually emerged over many years. Equipment and weaponry too developed and changed over these decades, so we first need to closely examine these figures in order to more precisely ascertain their suitable dates. Most of the men wear a quite loose long coat with sleeves that only reach to the elbow, where large cuffs are to be found. Under the coat would be a shirt and waistcoat - both hidden from us - but visible are the breeches, stockings, garters and shoes. The hat is a standard wide-brimmed type, with some having part of the brim turned up. All the musketeers (top row) have a belt across their left shoulder with prepared charges hanging in wooden containers, a ball bag on the right hip and a sword hanging from a baldric on the left hip. This gives us our first piece of dating evidence, for in 1683 it was ordered that such men should have a waist belt from which the sword should be suspended, and a cartridge pouch for their charges (along with a powder horn). While it undoubtedly took several years to fully replace the bandolier and baldric, it would be reasonable to assume that by the late 1680s these had largely disappeared, so our friends here are pre c.1685. Also it looks like all the musketeers are carrying matchlocks (though detail is hard to make out on this), which again makes them look less suitable for the later years of the half century in question, when flintlocks gradually became prevalent. However no one has a rest for their matchlock, so they do not look particularly early either.
The two pikemen in the second row are fascinating. The French were slower than many to abandon the pike, and some were still being carried at the end of the century, but while one of those here is dressed much like the musketeers, the other has a breast and back plate and a helmet. Such infantry armour was disappearing during this period, and it seems few if any pikemen wore a helmet by 1685, preferring instead the same normal hat as everyone else. The cuirass too gradually disappeared, although some remained until the pike itself disappeared at the start of the next century. So while the first pikeman could serve for most of the period, his comrade had probably disappeared by 1685.
Next in the second row is a grenadier, which at the time literally meant a man armed with grenades. Such men began to appear in the late 1660s and by 1673 all regiments had them. Basically dressed like everyone else, they had a bag for their grenades, but at this stage had not yet developed an alternative headwear to ease throwing and putting the musket over the head, so this figure is late 1660s at the earliest.
Beside the grenadier is some sort of pioneer holding a strange-looking tool that is presumably supposed to be an axe. Although we could find no information on such men, it is reasonable to assume they sometimes wore armour, as this figure does, throughout the period (as they did for centuries afterwards), although again he has the coat with the mid-length sleeves, which largely disappeared by the 1690s.
The first two figures in the next row wear cassocks decorated with a cross and details front and rear, and are very obviously supposed to be the 'Guard' element of the set title. These men belong to the Musketeers of the Guard, part of the Maison du Roi, which was the unit later made famous by the Three Musketeers novels. Over this period the cassock gradually became larger and more like a cloak, and in the end got so cumbersome that in 1685 the cassocks were replaced by a soubreveste over the coat. Since these cassocks are of the old-fashioned cut and size, these men must be for several years prior to 1685.
The man with the halberd is a sergeant, and again he carries his sword from a baldric rather than a waist belt, so matches the date for the musketeers. The officer is splendidly attired, as you would expect, and while there was much pressure on officers to cloth themselves in matching colours to their regiment, there was still plenty of room for display.
Overall then this set has a date of from the early/mid 1660s to the mid 1680s at the latest, which certainly fits with the set title, although these men would look wrong for any campaign of the 1650s, or the 1690s. Having said that, there are still a couple of issues worth pointing out when considering the accuracy of these figures. The bandoliers of the musketeers have about six cartridges at the front, but none at the back, so have far fewer than the 12 or so usually issued. Also grenadiers were usually given a musket and a hatchet in addition to their somewhat dangerous grenades, but our man here seems only to have a sword (which really should be a sabre anyway, but we will discuss this in a moment). However there are some nice little details which we liked, such as the ribbons visible on some of the shoulders of the coats and the variety of ways in which the men have formed their hats (before the tricorn was established, which part of the brim you pinned up and how often was a matter of personal taste and fashion). Also one man has a plug bayonet, which is fine as this period is just before the socket bayonet appeared.
Enough of the history - are these nice figures? Well as usually you can pretty much decide that for yourself by looking at the images above, but in general they are not great. The detail is quite good but the anatomy can go a bit astray, as in the skewed head of the sergeant. One of the sprues in the box we bought was partly deformed by the plastic not reaching all parts, so weapons were shortened and one man had no head. However even the fully-formed sprues have some ridiculous scabbards - those of the unarmoured pikeman, the grenadier and the officer are so short they couldn’t even accommodate a knife, yet the standard sword of the day was around 95 cm in length. Also we stared at the officer’s left arm for ages without being able to discern a hand or exactly what the sculptor was attempting, although he may be wearing large gauntlets, like some of the men; nevertheless hands are not a strong point of these figures. There is a tiny amount of flash in a couple of places, but generally flash is not a problem at all.
A paragraph all of its own is required to discuss the pikes, which are not photographed above but are provided on a separate sprue (see sprue image). Those familiar with the Mars range will recognise the pikes as also appearing in numerous previous sets, mostly medieval, and perhaps will already know our views on this. For those that don’t, the pike sprue is essentially a solid slab of thick plastic with some pikes etched in with very little depth on one side, and virtually completely flat on the other. With this you are supposed to somehow carve out your pike, to which we would say good luck or, more usefully, look elsewhere for your pikes. Were you to take this trouble, the resulting pike would be 70mm in length, which at about five metres is a good length. However the base of the pike shaft is too ornate for this subject, and the basic cupped hand of the pikemen means gluing would be essential to keep man holding pike.
Poses are for the most part very acceptable. The musketeer with the bayonet does not look like he is using it against cavalry, so we were not impressed with that pose, and the two pikemen are reasonable but doing nothing. We liked the grenadier, partly for his simplicity, but the relative inaction of several of the figures here will not please everyone, although the sculptor has made a good job of avoiding poses that look unnaturally flat.
Compared to some previous sets from Mars these figures are not bad at all, and while the box is quite vague as to date, once you decipher all the clues there are no particularly serious accuracy issues here either. Certainly some detail, such as on weapons, is not good, but the general impression is reasonably positive, with some useful poses, although covering so many types of soldiers, including the Musketeers of the King, means you don’t get a lot of anything here. By far the worst aspect is the pikes, which are virtually useless, but there are alternative sources of pikes available, so almost despite ourselves we found we quite liked this set, which is a perfect partner for the previous Mars set of Spanish Infantry.