The fusil, or flintlock, had been around for a long time, but it was only very slowly introduced into the French Army. In 1670 it was decreed that four men per infantry company were to carry fusils, while the rest retained their traditional matchlock muskets. Both weapons had good and bad points, but the fusil was lighter and quicker to load and fire, so was popular with the men. In the early 1670s the French raised units of fusiliers, naturally enough armed exclusively with the fusil, but these were to protect the artillery, and lend a hand where necessary, so having lighted matches around large amounts of black powder was an obvious danger. The conservative leadership of the Army however wished to retain the matchlock, and even in 1692 the number of fusils in each infantry company was only 21, less than half the company strength. However after the Battle of Steenkirk the merits of the flintlock became too obvious to ignore, and by the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1701 much of the French infantry was so armed, although the last matchlock was not withdrawn from front-line service until 1708.
Since these are specifically fusiliers, every man carries a flintlock which has been nicely done in this set. The lock and trigger are quite clear, as is the barrel with no barrel bands but with the loops for the rammer. Every weapon has a socket bayonet attached, and on the left side of the barrel all have a sling. This was on the left side because when slung on the back this was the side nearest to the body, but in time it became usual to have the sling underneath the barrel. Not all flintlocks were provided with a sling during this period, but all here have one, though it is modelled tight to the barrel, which is not entirely realistic but much easier to sculpt.
It was during the wars of Louis XIV that the idea of a standard uniform really took hold, although throughout the period and beyond, the authorities struggled to get the colonels to conform to such regulations as were laid down. Every man here however wears typical costume, principally a knee-length coat with no collar or turnbacks but large cuffs to reveal the lining. Regimental distinctions were in the colour of coat and lining, the number and location of buttons, the shape and orientation of pockets and finer details of decoration like the lace used. The men here have a wide variety of button and pocket configurations, which for the optimist means they cover many of the regiments, but for the purist means they can’t all belong to the same unit. Doubtless for many this small detail will not be an issue anyway. Some of the men have the coat partly or fully open to reveal the waistcoat underneath, which is also well done, and all seem to wear stockings and shoes, which may help explain the ‘early war’ label for these men as long gaiters gained in popularity later in the war. Historians continue to debate various aspects of the look of Louis’s infantry, including when the tricorn was fully adopted. Some think the proper tricorn, as worn by all these men, did not become widespread until well into the war, which would argue against the ‘early’ label, but as so often there is no certain answer to this, and we were pleased to see the tricorn in this set. Interestingly none have a cockade on their hat, but many have the button to which the cockade was later attached.
The men are fairly lightly equipped, having presumably laid aside knapsacks and other baggage before the fight, as was common. Each man has a cartridge pouch attached to the front centre of his waist belt, which is another feature that attracts considerable disagreement amongst experts as to date. While such a pouch in this position seems to have been introduced in the 1690s, it only replaced the old hip-positioned pouches as they wore out, which was very slowly, and may have taken until around 1710 to be almost universal. So in the early years it may have been fairly uncommon, though it certainly was to be seen on some. Also attached to the waist belt are the sword and bayonet scabbard, which here are adjacent and may be a combined frog, though this was not the only arrangement. The only other item of kit is the flask for the priming powder that hangs by a narrow strap over the left shoulder. Again this varied in design, but the single design on these figures is typical.
So much for the ordinary fusiliers in our top three rows, but what of the special command figures in the last row? This section begins with the fifer, who is playing his instrument and has a clearly more ornate version of the coat. He has a sword and the case for his fife, and looks good. Next is the officer with the flag, who doubtless wears a finer version of the coat as well as a more decorated hat. He has a sash around the waist tied at the front, and a full wig as befits a gentleman. He carries a sword of much better quality than the men, and looks every inch the part. Unfortunately the flag itself presents some problems, because it is much too small. The real thing varied in size, but the one in this set is about 20mm by 15mm, which to scale is 144cm by 108cm. Even the smallest of the real things was much larger than this, with many being well over two metres square, so this model just doesn’t convince at all. Although the staff is held correctly, supported by the waist sash, and has the correct spearhead finial, it is naturally too short, and while it has decent cords it has no scarf or cravat, which was attached to the top of the staff and became the defining feature of French flags of this period, distinguishing them for similar designs carried by opponents.
The remaining two figures in the bottom row are officers, and dressed much like the man with the flag. They too have fine coats, (very) long wigs and richly decorated hats. They both carry a spontoon, which is correct for the early years of the war, although here it has been made a bit shorter than the proper length of at least 227cm. Although officers tended to please themselves in terms of appearance, much to the frustration of those in charge of the Army, these both look good but with one glaring omission – neither sports a gorget at the throat. This seems to have been something insisted upon by the higher authorities, so doubtless there were times and individuals without a gorget, but it seems likely that having a gorget was the norm, so it is disappointing to see none here.
Having discussed the appearance at some length, we turn to the quality of production, which is on the whole pretty good. The detail is nice, including all the many buttons that correctly festoon these men’s coats. However in a handful of places some detail is missing, so for example the thin strap for the flask disappears in some places, and one man’s bayonet scabbard is only half the length it should be. The style of sculpting is slightly stockier than some recent Strelets issues, and the heads are a bit bigger too. We have already discussed the flag being much too small, and the spontoons of the officers also being a shade too short. This applies also to the sergeant at the end of the third row, who holds a halberd (correctly shaped like a partisan but still called a halberd) which is also a bit too short. We were also disappointed to see a fair amount of flash on these figures – a good deal more than was to be found on the corresponding sets of British infantry released so far. In places this is quite substantial (such as the pointing officer), although some of the seams are very neat.
Having looked at the box artwork, we were saddened to find no drummer here, since they were so important to the proper functioning of a company in the field. However the Strelets track record of producing multiple sets gives us hope that this will be forthcoming in a future release. The basic infantry come in a range of useful poses, and we note both firing figures hold the flintlock in the correct manner. The various men in the act of reloading are really nice, including the kneeling man apparently in the act of cocking his flintlock. We were not sure why there were two fairly similar marching poses in the set however. Such a pose is welcome, but having two seems a bit wasteful. Of these, the first man with his right arm swung back is very natural, but the second with the stiffened right arm looks uncomfortable and poor. As poses all the command figures are good too.
There has been much to say about this set, so well done for sticking with it to this point! Our fundamental reaction to this set is very positive, with good poses, good accuracy and appealing sculpting. The problems with the flag size and lack of cravat will cause many to substitute one of their own, but the only other accuracy problem is the missing gorgets. Sculpting is good without quite reaching the highest standards this company has produced in the past, and the poses are also good but not quite excellent. The highly variable amount of flash, with some seams perfect and others quite poor, is annoying, but in essence this set is really good but just not quite good enough to be worthy of top marks in any one category. Still a fine start for a promising range of soldiers for the Sun King, though why it is labelled as ‘early war’ we really do not know.