What Makes a Period Worth Gaming?

Comparing the 1st Schleswig-Holstein War with the Mexican-American War

1848 Danes in a mix of old and new uniforms prepare to repel an attack from their Saxon neighbors, for reasons almost no one actually understands!* Figures are conversions of Perry's Carlist War line and Old Glory ACW Union infantry in frock coats and Napoleonic Prussian reservists, all 28mm.

    (* Lord Palmerston famously quipped: "Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business - the Prince Consort, who is dead - a German professor, who has gone mad - and I, who have forgotten all about it.")


I have recently started converting and painting 28mm figures for a period which I have always loved, but which is generally ignored by the historical miniatures community: the 1st Schleswig-Holstein War. Lasting from 1848 to 1850, it was the first of the wars which can be understood as Bismarck's path to the creation of a German Empire dominated by Prussia, including the 1864 war and the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, and culminating in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

None of these conflicts is a particuarly "mainstream" period for wargamers, but all of the wars from 1864 to 1870 have at least some mind-share among the historical miniatures community. The 1st Schleswig-Holstein War? Not so much.

To be fair, Eagles of Empire have produced a set of 28mm early-war Danish infantry in the 1842 uniform. And Eureka makes some 15mm Schleswig-Holstein infantry, along with Freikorps 15s, which has a number of useful figures, if you can find them (hint: try here. QRF now produces the entirety of this obscure line!) Pendraken has a line in 10mm, too. Irregular even makes a 42mm line (a "toy soldier" size - the old Britain's B scale, and still popular with some collectors in Europe.) These are all companies which have traditionally been pretty adventurous in their subject-matter.

And maybe things are starting to change. Age of Valor, the set of extensions to Age of Eagles for various 19th Century conflicts, has most recently released a module for 1848, including the 1st Schleswig-Holstein War.

But even so, I think most historical wargamers will agree - this is an obscure period by almost any measure. But why?

By contrast, consider the Mexican-American War, which took place at approximately the same time. We have more than a dozen different lines in 6mm, 10mm, 15mm/18mm and 25mm/28mm. Gringo 40s even makes a line in 40mm. When I look for wargaming books on uniforms, battles, and so on, I can find a number of choices for the Mexican-American War; Osprey books, dedicated rules sets, and several good detailed military histories. For the 1848 war in Schleswig-Holstein, only a fraction of that material. What makes one period appealing, and the other not?

The Mexican-American War

If we think about the Mexican-American War, we find a relatively minor conflict, overshadowed by the American Civil War, but one which offers a limited-but-reasonable set of battles which make suitable subjects for tabletop recreation. The forces are small, rarely exceeding 10,000 men per side for any of them. There is an interesting mix of mid-19th Century uniforms, combining Napoleonic styles with those which become common during the run-up to the ACW, etc. Weapons technology is a mix of old smooth-bore flintlocks with Minie-type percussion rifles and every combination in between, and featuring relatively advanced, but still smoothbore artillery. There are some colorful cavalry units, especially on the Mexican side. Tactics are essentially still late Napoleonic.

In terms of historical importance, the war led to the Mexican Cession, which transferred a large chunk (half a million square miles) of sparsely inhabited land to the US - there were about 75,000 non-indigenous inhabitants at the time, and the indigenous population had not been counted, but was not particularly dense. It was an important war in US history, but it is not a major conflict - it is known mostly for being the training ground of many US officers and soldiers who fought for both sides during the ensuing American Civil War.

Perhaps most important, the Mexican-American War gave the concept of "Manifest Destiny" a major boost, which informed the expansion of the US across an entire continent. In many ways, for good and ill, this is fundamental to what the US subsequently became.

The 1st Schleswig-Holstein War

When we contrast this to the Schleswig-Holstein War in 1848, we see a reasonably strong parallel: the size of the armies and battles was greater than that of the forces in the Mexican-American War, but not by all that much. Battles usually had something between 10,000 and 20,000 men per side, with as many as 37,000. There is again a small-but-reasonable list of actions which can be recreated on the wargames table. Uniforms and weapons are similarly a combination of Napoleonic and later 19th Century types. In addition to the field battles, we also have the invention of the first practical submarine and the use of coastal gunboats in some of the field battles. (OK - the submarine only went in one direction, and it wasn't up, but that was true of some of the early ACW efforts, too...) The Mexican-American War was not without its share of coastal actions, although it did not feature any non-functional submarines. In terms of the military actions, there are a number of similarities, partly because these wars happened during the same time period, but also in terms of their scale and the post-Napoleonic military thinking involved.

In terms of historical impact, the Schleswig-Holstein War was arguably more important. Although it did not result in a massive transfer of control over huge acreage, it probably impacted a much larger number of people: the war resulted in Denmark retaining control over the duchies of Schleswig, Holstein, and Lauenberg. When we consider that the population of Denmark at this period was about 1.4 million (according to the 1850 census), and extrapolate that population density to the duchies concerned, we see that the 1848 war in Germany and Denmark concerned a population which was several times larger than that of the entire Mexican Cession territory.

The 1st Schleswig-Holstein War was inconclusive, and lead to further conflict in 1864, but it was extremely significant in how it revealed the plans Bismarck and his opponents had around the future of Germany as a unified national/imperial entitiy. (I would point out that being inconclusive is not generally a deterrent to historical miniatures wargamers. WWI could be seen as similarly inconclusive, leading as it did to further conflict in the 1930s and 40s...)

When we consider that Kiel - the Baltic port which controls access to the North Sea via the Kiel Canal - is in the area which was being contested, we can begin to appreciate why Bismarck was interested in this particular piece of real estate from a strategic perspective, and why it was worth going to war for not once, but twice. (Note that the canal in its later form was constructed at the behest of the German navy after the 1864 war, but that the importance of this area for such a canal was already clear from the late 18th century, when the Danish King had built a lesser passage along much the same route.)

Thus, it is possible to assert that while the Mexican-American War helped shape the destiny of a nation and a continent, the same is true of the 1st Schleswig-Holstein War: Germany became a major driver of conflicts throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe, and this was at least partly influenced by the events in Denmark and northern Germany. In neither case are these the most important wars of their era, but both can be seen as having a fair degree of significance.

Who Cares?

The Dominance of the US and the UK

Most miniatures wargamers are not actually choosing periods to game based on their historical significance, but on whether or not they capture the imagination. Part of this, of course, is whether the gamers themselves feel a connection to the conflict in question. What this means in real terms is that two sets of wars are far more popular than they should be if we judge them by their historical significance alone: wars involving Britain, and wars involving the US.

I noticed early in my wargaming career that the British seemed to set the agenda for a lot of historical miniatures wargaming: they published the glossy magazines, they produced a disproportionate number of rule sets and figures, etc. The popular periods seemed either to be British ones, or wars involving both Britain and the US (WWII, WWI, etc.). Of course, there are popular periods around major wars like the ACW which are purely American, but not very many. As you go back in time, you find that popular wargaming periods become (mostly) European in flavor, as we see for Medievals and Ancients, even though there are lots of wars in Asia, Africa and the Middle East which do not get the same attention unless they involved Europeans.

I learned something, too, as an American who had to spend time in the UK for work. In absolute numbers there are almost as many British historical miniatures gamers as American ones. In relative terms, historical miniatures gaming is a much more popular and common hobby in the UK than it is in the US. Ultimately, what seems to be true is that when we consider the entire world, these two countries are the ones which really drive the historical miniatures wargaming hobby overall. Yes, there are miniatures wargamers in France and Australia and Italy and everywhere, but the majority of them - and thus the biggest market for rules, miniatures, and related items - are to be found in the US and the UK. The periods which resonate with gamers in these countries are the ones which make money, and which get all the attention.

It may well be that the 1st Schleswig-Holstein War is perceived as being too Napoleonic - who wants to paint even more figures in coatees and shakos? The Mexican-American War seems to escape this fate by featuring an American army which didn't wear shakos (at least not in combat), and by being set in Mexico, which no one associates with that era. And for UK gamers, it perhaps has the appeal of being more exotic than Denmark? Certainly US gamers who are fascinated by the American Civil War will end up in Mexico (mentally) at some point, if they decide to really study the military history of these American wars. It is hard to be exactly sure what attracts gamers.

While it is not impossible to run miniatures wargames for periods which are not directly supported by the manufacturers, it does require some dedication, research, and (usually) a tube or two of green stuff, not to mention time and money. And you will have to raise armies for both sides in their entirety, because you know for sure that no one else you game with already owns the figures.

I have been through the exercise of researching and raising 28mm armies for both the Mexican-American War and the 1st Schleswig-Holstein War. The first involved a lot of catalogue shopping and painting, but no green stuff at all. The second featured very few units which did not require at least a modicum of conversion. At the end of the day, I put their relative popularity down to the simple fact that the 1st Schleswig-Holstein War involved Germans and Danes, but no Americans or British.

Popularity is Overrated

That said, I know that there is a significant portion of the historical miniatures crowd which shares my passion for obscure periods. There is much to be said for raising armies for a period which is different from others you have done: new uniforms, new rules, and learning about an era of history which you didn't know much about. Some of us enjoy having to dig to find uniform information and good references, and to have to do conversions of figures to get them to look right. This used to be much more typical of the hobby, and maybe this kind of thing is not so much appreciated by younger historical wargamers, but I know I am not alone in deriving a certain satisfaction from putting a unique period on the table.

While I am in no way denigrating the Mexican-American War (it is a fascinating part of US history, and it looks great on the table) I would like to point out that the 1st Schleswig-Holstein War has just as much to recommend it. While it has some resemblance to the Napoleonic era, that similarity may be less than it seems. The standard infantry firearms were percussion smoothbores, giving way to the "pillar"-type forerunners of the Minie rifle. These guns were far more potent than the flintlocks which they replaced - they were generally more reliable, for one thing. And the artillery used in this war was a definite improvement over what was used in Napoleon's day: the Danish "light" batteries featured six 6# guns and a pair of 12# howitzers, while the "heavy" batteries had six 12# cannon and a pair of 24# howitzers. These heavier pieces were made practical by improvements in the design of guns and carriages dating to the 1830s, and bear more resemblance to the smoothbore pieces of 1859 and 1866 than they do the artillery of the Napoleonic era. There was even a very early attempt at a rapid-fire machinegun-like weapon called an "espignol," which was employed by both sides.

With increased firepower came the lessening of cavalry as a strike force. While there were cavalry clashes during the war, it was generally found that unsupported, cavalry was unable to hold its own against infantry. Much of the fighting in this war revolved around fortifications, too, which may account for the lessened importance of cavalry. And while there were mounted infantry units, they played a relatively small role (as compared to the ACW, for example).

The tactical elements of this war will feel familiar to gamers who are used to Napoleonics and the ACW, but they are identical to neither - the closest comparison I would point to is the Crimean War. And while the 1864 Schleswig-Holstein War garnered some recent popularity due to the TV series 1864, to my mind the earlier conflict is much more appealing in terms of the variety and the nature of field actions. Granted, the later war featured the first significant use of the needlegun (the Prussians had them in 1848, but few if any put in an appearance in Schleswig-Holstein), but most of the fighting was one-sided and too much of it involved entrenched positions. The 1848 conflict had some of that, but also featured much more interesting battles of maneuver.

When it comes to uniforms, there is a lot to choose from. The Danes wore both a more-colorful version of the Union uniforms from the ACW, and a bright red Napoleonic one dating back to 1842. The Schleswig-Holsteiners tended to copy the Prussians (albeit with the then-current tall picklehaube we see on Russian troops of the Crimean War) but the German Confederation fielded a mixture of many different troop types, some Prussianized and other still distinctly Napoleonic in flavor. The tabletop is definitely more colorful than those for wars such as the ACW or the Franco-Prussian War, if only due to the variety.

Here are a few images of the conflict, if you are interested in an "at-a-glance" impression (these mostly from the Danish Military History 1848-1990 site, which gives an excellent general overview in English).

The first battle at Bov, 1848.

The Battle of Schleswig in 1848.

Fighting at Duppel in 1848 (later the site of much fighting in 1864).

Street fighting at Kolding, 1849.

The Danish Guard at Isted, the last major field battle of the war in 1850.

Fighting at the siege of Frederiksstad, 1850.

The victorious Danish army parades through Copenhagen at the end of the war.


It is perhaps inevitable that as historical miniatures gamers mature in the hobby, they go looking for more obscure periods to game. The recent popularity of plastics and 3D printing no doubt contribute to the affordability of raising new armies, and the possibility of gaming more obscure conflicts. It may be that the 1st Schleswig-Holstein War will finally get the recognition it deserves (or not...) Ultimately, wargamers will find a way to field the conflicts which appeal to them, regardless of what is or is not popular or available commercially - this is one of the great things about our hobby!

Like the Mexican-American War, this is a mid-19th century period which mixes Napoleonic and later influences. It may well be that the rules you use for the Mexican-American War, with a few specific modifications, will also work for this one. Generic sets like Black Powder undoubtedly will, and my own Republic & Empire is specifically designed for gaming this kind of thing at the battalion level. For grand-tactical actions, Age of Valor is likely the best choice, as it specifically addresses the conflict. (One can easily imagine modfying Regimental Fire & Fury for the purpose, too, if those rules are to your liking.)

All I can do is to encourage you to pursue this particular obscure conflict if it appeals to you, and especially if you are looking for something just a little bit different. To that end, I will recommend those few resources which are must-haves for wargaming the period, or simply items which I have found that are especially nice to know about:

    The Armies of the First Schleswig-Holstein War: This is one of Ralph Weaver's really excellent books, published by Partizan Press and distributed through Caliver Books in the UK. This is essential stuff for uniform information, which is extremely hard to find otherwise. (This war marked a transitional period in a lot of German armies, and the usual uniform guides based on Knoetel can be very misleading.)

    The First Schleswig-Holstein War 1848-1850: Nick Svendsen (a Dane) has penned this invaluable account of the fighting. His maps are pretty crude, but it is easy to find good ones online - this book pulls it all together in a thorough narrative, and is supported by good orders of battle. Readily available and very worth owning.

    Stone Windmill for 28mm Gaming: Nothing is as classically Danish as this stone windmill, based (to all appearances) on the well-known "Danish Windmill" which is to be found in Iowa (naturally), but was built in 1848 in Denmark. The STL files are free, sized for larger figures but easily scaled down for smaller ones. An easy print, and a very typical terrain item for the conflict.

    Trench System: If you are planning to do any of the battles featuring redoubts or siege lines - and there are several possibilities - a good way to get an excellent trench system which looks right for the period is to print these free STL files. Really nice work!

Finally, a note on finding 28mm miniatures for conversions (my own scale of choice). I have found that while it is easy to make Danes from ACW lines that have infantry wearing kepis and frock coats, the best place to find figures to convert for the 1842 uniform is in the Perry's Carlist line (many of the Isabelino figures make good material for conversions, as they have the characteristic bell-topped shako.) A source for figures in the tall picklehaube of the Prussians, Schleswig-Holsteiners, and some of the other German states is in the Great War Miniatures Crimean line, which has Russian infantry and dragoons in greatcoats. This helmet was actually built to the same specifications as the original Prussian design. You can use later Prussian figures, but the picklehaube will be too short (if that kind of detail bothers you.) Franco-Prussian Bavarians can be used almost as-is, if you don't mind filing off the shoulder rolls.

Another excellent source of figures is to be found in Napoleonic ranges, especially Prussian and Russian ones. Russian dragoons have a tall combed helmet which can prove useful for Danes and some others (Saxons) if you don't mind doing the work to re-style the comb, and various Prussian reserve and landwehr can provide good figures for the various forces (Schleswig-Holstein volunteers, Danes in field cap and greatcoat, and various of the German States' troops.) And, of course, Mexican-American War figures can be useful (my Danish Guard in the 1842 uniform are conversions of Mexican Supremo Poderes...)

One nice aspect of this war is that you can generally fake some of the units on one side or the other from your Napoleonic, ACW, or Franco-Prussian collections while you do the work on the conversions. Nothing like a game or two to provide some inspiration!

At the end of the day, we choose the periods we game for our own reasons, and there is no way of measuring right or wrong when it comes to matters of taste such as these. And I will probably never know what makes other people choose one era over another, I have learned something, though - whatever it is that makes a period worth gaming, this one most certainly has it!