With 11,213 toy soldiers, Shelbyville man takes his wargaming hobby seriously

jbrammer@herald-leader.comDecember 25, 2013 

SHELBYVILLE — Frank Shanly says he has 11,213 "kids" but has never been married.

He is referring to the 1-inch-tall, plastic military figurines he has collected for more than 40 years, which have provided him countless hours of entertainment.

To Shanly, a native of New Zealand who has lived in America for nearly 10 years and in Kentucky for a year, the plastic figures are more than toy soldiers that would delight many a child on Christmas morning.

He uses the plastic figures to study and re-enact historic military battles, mostly by himself.

Shanly, 53, owns dozens of military books about famous battles, ranging from the Punic Wars, a series of three wars fought between Rome and Carthage from 264 B.C. to 146 B.C., to the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865.

The figurines, which cost about $15 for a box of 40 to 50, also are used for war gaming, a hobby in which miniatures he has painted using toothpicks represent a certain number of troops. Dice are used to determine the results of battle actions.

Sometimes in the heat of battle on a 4- by 6-foot table in his home in rural Shelby County, Shanly will find dramatic music — or even just static — on a radio to represent the noise of war.

"I will look eyeball level at the soldiers on a big board, and you feel like one of them. You imagine all the sound and the fury," he said. "Most games last two to three hours. The longest one I ever played went for 10 hours. I've never been married, am a bit to myself and this is my passion."

Miniature wargaming typically involves the use of painted metal or plastic miniature figures for military units, and model scenery placed on a tabletop or floor as a playing surface.

Shanly buys and paints his model scenery.

Miniature wargamers generally prefer rules that can be used for any battle in a particular era or war. It is similar to the 1957 board game Risk, Shanly says, but he noted that rules can be changed.

"Sometimes Gen. Robert E. Lee wins my Civil War wargames," he said, adding that wargaming is more popular in Europe, although there are pockets of popularity in the northern United States.

Shanly enjoys painting his miniatures in the authentic colors of their military costumes. They usually come in solid gray, and toothpicks allow him to put the different paints in tiny areas of the figurines.

"I paint them in batches. I can do a good 20 in a weekend," he said.

Shanly keeps detailed computer records of each military outfit. For example, he has 176 soldiers for the American Civil War Union side painted in blue and 203 for the Confederate side painted in gray.

Shanly, who describes himself as a "lifelong history nut," sometimes lets the public enjoy his collection. During the past year, he has held exhibits featuring them for the Shelby County Public Library and Shelby County Historical Society.

He hopes to present an exhibit of them at Frazier History Museum in downtown Louisville.

Shanly said he became interested in world events when he was in the fourth grade in New Zealand.

"Like most boys, I played with toy soldiers. But I seemed to take it more seriously," he said. "I bought my first soldier when I was 10 years old and have been collecting them ever since."

In the States, he has been a radio show host, a sports writer and news reporter in Ohio and Indiana.

A friend in Ashland encouraged him to move to the Bluegrass State. He now works as a free-lance writer and at temporary jobs in factories.

His favorite time is spent with his military figures, which he has never sold or traded.

"They're like my kids," he said with a laugh. "Somebody may have more than I do, especially guys in England, but I don't know them."

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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