Dragoons Of The Grande Armée: Glorious 54mm French Infantry

Shane Palmer

Napoleon could mount only part of his dragoons. That fact, combined with Napoleon’s modern ideas of combining fire power and mobility, led him to the conclusion that units of foot dragoons should be formed.

Vive l’Empereur!

I’m fascinated with the Napoleonic Wars. They’re the peak of classical warfare. The colours, the uniforms, the strategies, the technology; the period feels like the melting point of old and new.

Tradition and innovation. Ancien Régimes and Revolutionary Republics.

Led by L’Empereur Napoleon Bonaparte, the Grande Armée either conquered or controlled most of continental Europe for stages between 1790 and 1814; his Eagles marching from Iberia to Moscow.

The Dragoons formed part of Napoleon’s new theories of rapid, lightning warfare. However, the decision to only mount a portion of each regiment ruffled a few moustaches.

“The assignment was sensible, but troopers caught up in the shuffle remembered that veteran dragoons, who hadn’t walked farther in years than the distance from their barracks to the nearest bar, ended up in the dismounted units, while their mounts were assigned to raw recruits. The results were rough on everybody: hospitals filled up with spavined veterans, recruits got saddle sores.”

Colonel John R. Etling

And when regiments bivouacked together, tensions would reach boiling point.

“The limping veterans crowded over to check on their old horses and found them neglected, sore-backed, and lame.
Blood flowed freely, if only from rookies’ noses.” 

J.A. Oyon

The Old Way

Growing up in a family of military history nuts, the period is my earliest memory of gaming.

In hot tin shed, on top of a hill above the apple orchards in Harcourt, country Victoria, a group of collectors and gamers would regularly gather to re-enact classic & imagined battles of Bonaparte.

The group was led by Uncle Alan Watson – an eccentric, kind and generous local benefactor of all things great in life.

Alan, my Grandfather Peter Palmer and their close friend Ken Pryor kicked off the group in the ’60s with a shared love of model soldiers and gaming.

This particular day in Harcourt saw a sprawl of thousands of 20mm Napoleonic’s engaged on the floor of the Shed.

Ever the purists, the miniatures on the green concrete floor were individually based, in large regiments of 40 or more miniatures. Movement trays were considered sacrilege.

Needless to say, a single turn would take roughly an hour to complete.

I think the 5 year old me lost interest pretty quickly, and ran off to shoot imaginary baddies with my plastic Kalashnikov in the mud and dirt down the hill.

Fast forward to 2015, when I returned from living in the UK and renewed my interest in the hobby, I noticed that the figures had grown in size!

Inspired by a few collectors in the Australian Collectors of Toy Soldiers (ACOTS) group, 54mm historical figures now dominated the board; and they looked bloody brilliant!

I’ve got these for you…

And when the 3rd lockdown (or 4th, 5th … we’d lost count by then) hit Melbourne in 2021, I received a box of 54mm Napoleonic Foot Dragoons [made by] from the Old Man, as a painting commission.

These plastic miniatures are a gorgeous cast, full of lovely detail in firing ranks – and with splendid Dragoon moustaches!

I set out to paint this company as the 13e Regiment de Dragons (13th Dragoons), who were formed in dated back to 1676, and won honours at the battles of Hohenlinden, Austerlitz and Jena.

The green jackets with pink facings was completely unique to my colour palette, but exactly the kind of challenge I needed during a lockdown.

Painting the uniforms

I loved the idea of mixing the colours of the breeches, based on some of the reference artwork I’d looked across. The Foot Dragoons seemed to wear a mix of browns and tans – probably based on what sort of fabric they could come across while on campaign or even when garrisoned.

Starting with a sprayed on white primer, I worked by building up each layer, starting with the green jackets.

With the size and relative smoothness of the sculpt, I didn’t want to go overboard with hard edges or detail in the cloth. So I worked up from the dark base coat, mixing in lighter shades of green (with a black wash) to gently highlight the coats.

Green, then pink, then tan, then brown…

After the breakthrough with my Dark Angels Captain – I continued using a wet palette with the Dragoons, especially as they’re dominated by smooth, soft edged fabrics (unlike Space Marine power armour)

Work in progress Dragoons
The first batch of the company.

The jump in scale – 28mm to 54mm – is noticeably different in painting time, as of course there’s so much more surface area to paint!

A key detail was the brass / gold buttons and piping on the jackets.

Splitting the green and pink, the brass / gold really makes the figure pop – and is the truly satisfying “ahh there it is” moment of painting.

However, being able to see and paint the larger details is a pleasant change, especially in the faces.

The regiment takes shape.

Têtes d’or

The Dragoons are instantly recognizable for their brass, neo-Grecian style, helmets, with black horsehair plumes.

As the only piece of armour in their uniform, the eye-catching helmets really stand out. I started with a bronze base, and worked up to a nice shiny gold finish. The turban wrap around called for a stark cloth contrast, detailed with some leopard spots. The spots where quick and easy – dark orange rounds blobs followed by the dark brown edging (on only 2 or 3 sides).

Foot Dragoons Helmets
Golden Dragoon helmets for days!

I can’t wait to see the company on the table top. The wide range of uniform colours of the period always look stunning in a game.

Prêt, en joue, tirez!

Le Tricolore

The next challenge was to create a standard bearer for the company.

First I found a couple nice high quality JPEGs online. Then I resized the designs to scale in Photoshop, and then fired up the printer.

Having achieved a nice and smooth flowing effect from the wet palette when painting the uniforms; naturally I repeated this with the flag.

Or not.

After some unknown twist of the brain , I painted the reds of the first flag attempt with an un-thinned coat. It instantly looked like paint. (I’m blaming lockdown. It’s made us all a little less sharp). Drat!

Following this up, surely a nice brown wash would give the flag a strong, weathered and earthy look?

Wrong again. The wash completely dissolved the printed detail of the flag, and left me with a smudged mess.

So out came the scissors, and off with attempt #1.

Attempt #2 learned quickly from those mistakes.

I used a thinned coat of PVA glue to attach the flag to the pole. I carefully painted on a single side of the inner fold of the paper flag. Then as the paper dried, I gently moulded and bent it into shape, to create the effect of wind.

Taking the time to thin every coat of paint on the flag, I picked the details out as best as possible. First the blue, then the red, the white center, and then the gold details – which were given a thinned brown shading to highlight the detail.

It worked. I’m thrilled with the result. It fits the look and aesthetic of the Dragoons, without looking to sharp or clearly printed.

Smokey Eyes

A favourite detail for me is the eyes. A welcome change after working with eyes twice the size of GW miniatures, however the same painting technique worked here too.

After finishing the skin, I start the eyes with a black base. Once dry, I apply a careful smaller white oval shape. To finish, I pick out the dark iris / pupils with a black point.

Having the extra size to play with is great. Each individual Dragoon can have a unique point of focus. Some are looking straight down the barrel, some have noticed something off to the side; and some have caught something utterly terrifying!

Maybe the eyes are a subconscious nod to the mid-2000s Emo era? (Dark heavy guy-liner all round!). However I like to think these guys have been campaigning through Italy, Austria and Germany for months. Copious litres of brandy drunk. Boxes of cigars smoked. Living off the “liberated” land, taking and eating what they need or want. These aren’t the pampered aristocrats of the European courts. Earthy & gritty to them, while cutting a striking image in green & pink.

Finished 13th Dragoons
Liberating a Duchy near you!
Finished 13th Dragoons

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