As so often when contemplating a new set of figures we start by considering dates. The 7th US Cavalry still serves to this day, but it was first raised in September 1866, and obviously this set is concerned with those early years. The post-civil war period found the US army concerned mainly with policing the expansion of the United States westwards and, less famously, policing the defeated southern states as preparations were made for their re-admittance into the Union. The fact that this regiment is better known than any other stems from two actions during those early years. The first, the Washita Massacre of 1868, was a shameful episode that was mainly distinguished by the number of people murdered, and the second, the Battle of the Little Big Horn, was a disastrous defeat that nevertheless ensured, in books, films and other media, that the regiment would forever be associated with fighting natives.
The uniform of the US Cavalry at this time was that of the civil war, not least since vast stockpiles of clothing were in government storehouses and the army was rapidly shrinking. It consisted of a short shell jacket and the classic peaked forage cap or 'bummer', which had served the men well during the war. However conditions in the West were somewhat different, and the men found themselves facing days and weeks in the saddle in extremes of both heat and cold with little support in that thinly-populated and often hostile environment. As a result practicality was the order of the day - even more so than most other armies in history, which rarely exhibit the neat uniformity so beloved of modellers. The precise clothing would depend on the circumstances, particularly the weather, but all these men wear either the fatigue jacket, commonly called the sack coat, or the 1874 field blouse, both of which were much better than the shell jacket.
In place of the bummer, which offered almost no protection from sun and rain, almost everyone wore a brimmed hat, either government supplied or privately purchased. Here they all seem to be the official slouch hat, although this should have an indent in the crown which is lacking here. More to the point, it was reported that such hats lasted only a few weeks in the field, and the first heavy rain would cause them to become misshapen and far from neat. Whether the hats in this set are government issue or not, all are very straight, very neat and absurdly inappropriate unless these men have just emerged from the quartermasters! Straw hats were common (but not government issue), and kept their shape better, but these do not look like straw. Sometimes badges were fixed to both official and unofficial hats, but here only the officer has such an item. The first figure in the top row, who is a sergeant, wears the bummer, which while regulation was very seldom seen in the field as we have said. When we conclude that these figures look little like the subject (and we will), it is the hats that will be the principal reason.
Most of these men's kit is on their horse, but on their person each has a waist belt with a pistol holster on the right side with the butt correctly pointing forward. All also have a small pouch, which is variously placed on the belt. This would be the cap pouch, which was often used to hold pistol ammunition, or a similar ammunition pouch for either the carbine or pistol. Each man also has a carbine, which was supposed to be suspended by a belt over the left shoulder. In the case of the four figures that are not using theirs this is correctly modelled, but the two men with the carbine in their hands have instead a cross-belt that attaches to their waist belt and is incapable of carrying anything. It looks like the sculptor did not understand the purpose of this belt and took it to be a support for the waist belt, which is wrong. Finally, every man has a sword. Now sabres were certainly issued and used in action, but their use declined as the years went by and the natives were increasingly armed with firearms. Thus by the mid-1870s this weapon was routinely left behind when going on campaign, which seriously limits the use of these figures to the first few years of the regiment's existence.
Since we have mentioned weapons, let's take a closer look at those on these figures. As with uniforms, weaponry could be very varied, so there is a lot of leeway on offer here. As we have said, all the men have a carbine, which looks good for the Spencer or Springfield, or indeed others, so a good model. The pistols too look good, but things are less rosy when it comes to the swords. The standard cavalry sabre dated from around 1860 and was of typical light cavalry specification. It had a gently curved blade 878mm in length and is well illustrated on the box artwork, although naturally this image is reversed as the sabre was always on the left side. What we find on the figures is a completely straight-bladed sword of 13mm (936mm) in length, which makes it look more like a heavy cavalry sword. Although the length of the blade is too long it is not vastly so, but the lack of a curve really spoils the look enormously and in our view this is the second most important reason why these figures do not look like the real 7th Cavalry.
Officers often please themselves in terms of uniform and equipment, and nowhere was that more true than in the campaigns of the American West. The officer figure here wears a nicely-tailored jacket under which would seem to be a 'firemans' shirt - a popular item with all ranks. He wears gauntlets on his hands (something we would expect to have seen on more of the men) and a cravat around his neck, both of which are absolutely fine. Apart from the neat hat and inappropriate sword then the officer is a really nice figure with which we can have no historical complaints. In fact, more could have been done to make him stand out from his men. Many officers wore buckskins, often fringed to help them dry quickly. Custer was a particularly extravert example of this, but many officers wore little or nothing that would be recognisable as official uniform. This officer is fine but again rather smart and something of a missed opportunity, particularly as some might have liked to use this figure as Custer himself, the most famous of all the commanders of the 7th Cavalry.
The first impression of the horses is much more positive than for the men. The poses themselves - all at the gallop - are much better than many cavalry sets achieve, although the man firing from the saddle will not have much idea of what he might by chance hit. The standard McClellan saddle and bridle look good too, and so does the equipment attached to these. Usually a blanket was rolled over the front of the saddle and a greatcoat across the back, with a saddlebag each side behind the saddle. All these are present and correct, and each horse also has a brush and shoe pouch on the right side. So far so good. The nosebag in front of the rider's right knee has been done as a triangular affair, which may be a misunderstanding of an illustration where a shadow gives this appearance, but in fact the bag should have a flat bottom. Also no horse has the canteen and coffee cup which seem to have been just about universal items, and the canteen in particular was vital when on patrol in the heat of summer. One good feature to mention is the stirrups, which have been done with the leather hood on the majority of the figures and bare on the rest. Again all the horses are identical and very neat, which just fits poorly with the realities of this sort of warfare, as attested to by many photographs.
We have nothing but praise for the quality of the sculpting, with detail being lovely and clear. Slender items are indeed slender, and even the smallest objects have been beautifully reproduced. The faces are excellent if mostly lacking much emotion, but then again at least the quality is good enough to be able to comment on the expression! There is absolutely no flash or unwanted plastic and the men fit their horses very comfortably, although will need gluing to stay put. About the only disappointment here is the figures are really much too big - given that the originals were often immigrants or poor Easterners who had not enjoyed the best of diets and lifestyles.
The bottom line here is these figures are brilliantly produced but far too uniform and smart. As well as the possibilities for civilian items we would have liked to have seen more gauntlets, cartridge belts, knives and other improvisation to give a sense of realism. When we first got this set we thought there was a real need for a really good set of US cavalry for the Plains Wars. This set has many qualities as well as some less attractive aspects, but the figures just don't look or feel like the men that helped their nation to expand towards the Pacific coastline. As a result we still feel there is yet to be a really top class set for this particular subject. Anyone for downsizing the really nice Airfix 1/32 set?