The canton of Uri was one of the original communes to sign the Federal Charter of 1291, which is seen as the foundation of what is now called Switzerland, and by the 15th century others had also joined the Confederation. The original purpose of the federation, to defend themselves against the expansionist Habsburg Dynasty, was still an issue in the 15th century, although they would also find themselves fighting Italian, French and Burgundian troops amongst others, as well as serving as mercenaries in various armies.
In the fifteenth century the reputation of Confederation troops was initially built on their use of the halberd in well-disciplined ranks, and later the similar use of the pike. The pike was in use throughout the period, but was much more significant after the Battle of Arbedo (1422), so the first observation to make on this small set is the complete absence of pikemen. As the major weapon for much of the century we find this omission very strange, but note that this is only set one of a series, so must assume that pikes will follow later. What we do have is five of the eight poses carrying a halberd, which is certainly very appropriate, since this weapon too was used throughout the century. The man marching and the man on guard are useful and nicely done poses, leaving three men with halberds more or less levelled as they advance. The poses are fine, though naturally they don’t begin to represent the massed formations actually used. The crossbowman is a necessary inclusion, and a fair pose, but the man in the top row holding a man catcher is much more unusual. The last figure, holding the banner of his canton, is surprising as he also has a horn at his waist. Small horns were used for signalling, and larger ones simply to generate noise and intimidate the enemy (Uri was one of several cantons particularly noted for these war horns), which begs the question of how he would be able to use this horn without dropping the banner? The answer, of course, is logically one man would not do both, and there is no evidence to suggest they did, despite some modern reconstructions to that effect, so this pose is a combination of two and so much less than ideal.
Situated between the two major armour-producing centres of Europe, Germany and Italy, these men took their taste and influences from both, and from elsewhere, and the Confederation soldier would have dressed no differently to any other in the region. The level and quality of armour depended on wealth and other factors, with the better-protected being in the front ranks. Most of these figures have some form of armour, either mail or plate, and in a variety of styles, all of which are suitable, especially as armour was often worn for very many years even if no longer in fashion. Helmets include examples of sallet, pot and kettle-hat, some having a turban wrapped round them. One man wears an ordinary peasants hood, and the other soldiers wear elements of ordinary clothing too such as tunics and hose, which well reflects the unhomogenous look of such troops. The man with the banner wears a hood with ‘horns’ and ‘ears’ attached, which reflects a figure painted in the Lucerne Chronicle, made around 1513 and depicting the Battle of Morat (1476). Such a costume must have been worn to draw attention to the man, who also has a horn, and the horns may refer to the canton’s bull symbol, but it is impossible now to say whether this was common wear, or simply a one-off which was recorded by chance. Several of the figures have a cross on their clothing, which was the Swiss field sign, and all clothing and armour here is suitable and well done.
The heads of the halberd took many forms, and all those here are fine. The crossbow is also nicely done thanks to it being conveniently held sideways, although it has no stirrup by which it might be held as it was being loaded. Not all crossbows had a stirrup, but we would have preferred to see one here. Also missing, and rather more important, is the cranequin, a device for loading the crossbow which was very popular with the Swiss and likely to be the type seen here. Finally on the crossbow, it should be noted that the bow is fully drawn, yet naturally has no bolt (since it is sideways), so presumably the man is about to load it. The last device is the man catcher, which was designed to snare and pull a mounted man from his horse – just one more way in which a humble infantryman could overcome an elite mounted knight. There were many variations on design for such things, but the one included here seems reasonable if lacking the spikes often seen.
The quality of these figures is very pleasing, with lots of nice detail and realistic proportions. Flash is minimal, and there are only a few areas where extra plastic has had to be left by the mould in difficult areas, none of which significantly detract from the figure. The banner is engraved on both sides with the appropriate bull symbol for Uri canton, though this banner is very thick and almost completely flat, suggesting it may be wooden or similar. This seems unlikely, so as fabric the banner is not convincing.
We liked some of the subtle touches on these figures, like the bird hanging from the waist of the first man in the bottom row – presumably tonight’s dinner, but the flask carried by the crossbowman was interesting because such vessels usually carried powder for firearms. We mostly liked these figures, all of whom are accurate apart from the highly unlikely combined banner man/horn blower. Sculpting is mostly great too, and none of the poses gave us any concerns, although we thought too many were looking at us rather than where they were going. What did concern us is the small number of poses for such a wide subject, especially the lack of pikes, though clearly other sets will build on this foundation and may fill all the gaps in time. The pity is that there are three of every pose, which gives us as many banner men as crossbowmen in the box, which will mean a lot of wasted figures for many customers, especially given the relatively small number of figures in the box. So despite doing little more than scratch the surface of 15th century Swiss soldiers, what this set provides is mostly well worth having for anyone interested in the period.