The Rise And Fall And Maybe Rise Again Of 3 ¾” Scale Action Figures

by Jay Cochran
March 28, 2017
By Justin Bell:

Over the fifty plus years of action figure history, it’s actually been pretty great to be a fan of 3 ¾” scale characters and action toys. Also referred to as 1:18 scale figures, the scale itself has actually grown a bit since the classic days of the 1970’s and 1980’s, coming in closer to four inches these days, but the base concept rings true.

Throughout the first decade or so of their lives, action figures as a product were generally larger to accommodate more play features like removable accessories, uniforms and things of that nature, but in the late 1970’s a little film franchise called Star Wars revolutionized American interest in smaller figures with Kenner’s toy line which popularized the 3 ¾” scale in ways that consumers weren’t expecting. However, even with Kenner’s landmark Star Wars product, it was in 1982 when the entire landscape of 3 ¾” action figures was truly reinvented.

Classic G.I. Joe A Real American Hero Figures From Hasbro

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero was initially developed as a vehicle line with smaller figures designed to simply be accoutrements to highly detailed and accessorized vehicles. But a funny thing happened…Larry Hama started giving these “vehicle accessories” life in written word and Sunbow began giving them life in animated form, and A Real American Hero exploded into the public consciousness and once again drove huge interest in those smaller action figures. G.I. Joe had done something that Star Wars hadn’t…they’d managed to stay small, yet still have incredible articulation, giving children of the 1980’s the best of all worlds.

Mostly due to Star Wars and G.I. Joe, several other lines tried to capitalize on the interest in smaller action figures, with Lanard and Galoob becoming the most ambitious, both of them even piggy backing on the G.I. Joe “o-ring” construction format with their Corps line and A-Team action figures.

Throughout the next decade and a half, many lines would come and go, experimenting with scales, styles and designs, but G.I. Joe’s place at the top of the 3 ¾” throne remained indisputable.
But a funny thing started to happen in the 1990’s. A few funny things, actually. Several newcomers to action figure aisles experimented with size and scale, lines like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, Toy Biz’s Marvel Super Heroes, and MacFarlane Toys’ Spawn collector-focused series started developing larger figures with more exaggerated sculpting to better mimic how these characters looked in comic pages and on television screens. Suddenly, in what seemed like a very short period of time, the smaller scale figures became a thing of the past. Even Hasbro themselves bumped scale up for Sgt. Savage after A Real American Hero was deemed passé, and then ramped things up even further with G.I. Joe: Extreme, completely bypassing the smaller scale and enhanced articulation for a very MacFarlane-esque comic book look and feel.

However, along with the rest of these, Star Wars made a huge come back, once again opening the door for 3 ¾”, and with their initial Power of the Force line, they stuck to that scale, but also retained lackluster articulation.

It continued that way for a while. With the resurgence of Marvel Legends through Toy Biz and Hasbro, aside from some dabbling here and there, action figure lines strayed away from the 3 ¾” scale, and even G.I. Joe, a devoted stalwart of that size and scale for years experimented with 8” and even 2.5” scales, almost seeming to purposefully avoid the familiar four inch format.

Then in 2007, Hasbro returned to form with G.I. Joe.

Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of A Real American Hero with a new “modern era” construction format, Hasbro jumped back into the G.I. Joe brand, and whether merely a coincidence or not, the four inch scale seemed to encounter a resurgence around that same time with Star Wars working in better and more refined articulation and with Hasbro catapulting their Marvel line in a 4” scale as well, especially with their cinematic lines. For a few brief, shining years, being a four inch action figure collector was bordering on nirvana.

4" Marvel Universe Figures From Hasbro

But as they’ll tell you with all good things, it didn’t last.

There are many reasons to consider why highly articulated four inch figures started to fade away. Was it the cost of design and development of these complex moving parts? Was it a lack of sales or the increased tooling costs involved? Was it something else completely?

Whatever the reason, around the time of the Avengers film and Iron Man 3, something started happening. These amazingly articulated four inch figures started going back in time to the days of five points of articulation, limited paint applications and a far narrower cast of characters being chosen. Hasbro seemed to be funneling who they viewed as their premium collector crowd to the six inch Marvel Legends toy line and a few years later the six inch Star Wars Black series, once again appearing to confirm that they viewed four inch scale to be more for the kids or the casual buyers.

5 Point Of Articulation G.I. Joe & Marvel Figures From Hasbro

Even the flag bearer for impressive articulation, G.I. Joe, leaned back on the five point philosophy for many of their vehicle drivers in the G.I. Joe: Retaliation line in 2012 and 2013. That seemed to be an especially harsh blow to fans of the smaller scale figures, as G.I. Joe had always felt like that last vestige of articulation and playability in the smaller size.

In recent years especially, many once robust 3 ¾” or 4” lines have dialed things back considerably, relying on reused parts, the same core characters repainted countless times, articulation reductions, poor distribution and just an overall appearance of phoning it in rather than fully standing behind that scale product. Once again it feels as if most of the retail manufacturer muscle for collector product at is being focused on six inch figures and the four inch figures are more afterthoughts than anything.

G.I. Joe has been relegated to a Toys “R” Us exclusive line that uses many existing parts with minimal paint applications, the Marvel Infinite line is mostly reused characters, scant repaints and blah packaging, while Star Wars’ supposed “collector focused” four inch line is full of downright bizarre character choices, strange design aesthetics, and unpredictable distribution.

So, at this point you’d think it would be a really bad time to be a collector of four inch action figures. Walking into your neighborhood Wal-Mart or Toys “R” Us would certainly indicate that.

But thankfully, that’s not necessarily the case. While retail provides what seems to be little salvation, there are some aggressive, creative entrepreneurs who see opportunity in what the major manufacturers appear to be ignoring. For every retail line that fails to ignite excitement in a four inch scale collector, there are some key recent and upcoming Kickstarter campaigns that are doing just the opposite.

Marauder Task Force Figures

Starting a few years ago with the amazing Marauder Task Force Kickstarter, there was a definite resurgence of attention towards highly articulated four inch figures geared specifically for collectors. At this point Marauder has released their initial Task Force and is smack in the middle of distribution for their follow up Valkyries line, with a promise of a brand new mech suit and other gear in a Kickstarter launch this year. Eagle Force Returns and Captain Action by Zica and Fresh Monkey Fiction both met their goals with little difficulty and both lines are deep into production right now, with Eagle Force follow ups Heroes vs. Villains and Monster Force slated for Kickstarters over the next few years. Hell Screamerz hit their goal late last year as did Dime Novel Legends, two more very nicely articulated action figure lines done in smaller scales.

Vitruvian HACKS By Boss Fight Studio

Among all of this group are the folks from Boss Fight Studio who not only do some design work for some of these other lines, but also successfully Kickstarted their now legendary Vitruvian HACKS action figures, which at one point was the most highly funded action figure Kickstarter in history. Not only did it successfully ignite the Vitruvian HACKS brand, but it allowed them to begin production and distribution of future product out of their webstore, with the final wave of figures in their first series of Greek Mythology just posted.

It feels like bright days are here, and more bright days are ahead, which is very strange considering the state of smaller scale action figures on retail shelves. Granted, as smaller companies with lower production runs, collectors have to be prepared to pay a slight premium for the quality product that they’re getting, but I know as I evolve as a collector myself, a focus on quality over quantity has helped offset those fears somewhat.

It’s a strange feeling leaving my local Wal-Mart with a sense of angst and depression over the state of four inch scale toys, but as I check my phone on the way to my car, the announcement of the latest wave of Vitruvian HACKS crosses my screen, and the angst is gone. It’s all at once a frustrating time to be a four inch collector, and also one of the most rewarding times, it just depends on how you look at it.
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