Available from HobbyLink Japan: http://hlj.com/product/DRABL3554/Mil
The Dragon Roars…
Dragon is an interesting company which has been ‘bubbling under’ the front rank of the model kit and figure manufacturers for a few decades, always just on the radar, but often (not always fairly) dismissed as one of those budget chop-shops which always seemed to pop up and vanish without a trace in the model/toy boom years of the 1990s.
Founded in 1987, the company was originally little more than an attempt by the Hong Kong based model shop Universal Models Limited. In the 1980s, owing to fluctuating currency prices, market stress, and simple disdain for Hong Kong, UML often had to cope with a serious lack of models from foreign distributers. UML turned to this Dragon Models idea as a way of plugging this gap, by initially turning out models which would satisfy the local market – especially with regard to military vehicles and figures, most often in 1/35 scale – owing to the popularity of Tamiya’s range of military kits.
It soon became apparent that the choices that Dragon was making with regard to kits were also popular overseas, and Dragon was able to expand production and began servicing the budget markets in Europe, the US, and Asia, which seems to have worked. The company fostered a position as an ‘Eternal No.2’ (which is more flattering than it sounds), and generating a perception that they were not willing, or able to challenge companies like Tamiya, Revell or Airfix at the higher end of the market, and this certainly made the process of overseas distribution easier, as shops were always willing to take on cheaper product. Moreover, Dragon entered into cross-distribution agreements with other manufacturers – in which these companies would get favorable terms for their own kits in Dragon/UML’s own growing network, as well as the right to distribute Dragon models under their own labels. Dragon further secured a foothold in the market by these actions, and did something that few companies have been able to since the founding of the ‘industry’: become one of the recognized names of the model world, which still numbers only a relatively small handful of manufacturers to this day.
Not Resting on Laurels
Through the 90s, the company continued to develop, improve their molding and actively seek out niches in the market into which they could expand. This led them in 1997 to the creation of the Dragon Wings label, a label which supplied commercial airline diecasts not only to the collector market, but also airlines which had begun merchandising their own IPs in this decade. Today, of course we expect such things to appear in every airport, but in 1997 this was an interesting departure for Dragon, and proved so popular that the line continues today, the biggest such line in the model world – currently covering 108 airlines and in excess of a 1000 different diecast models.
This was just the first of a series of intriguing product investments, and though it raised some eyebrows, it was not the most unusual jump which Dragon took in these years of growth.
In 1999, seemingly on the back of the British popularity of the Action Man and GI Joe line of 1/6 toy figures with modelers and collectors in Hong Kong, who worked to make these historical toys more accurate, Dragon launched its own range of historical dolls.
Well, that is only partly true.
In the UK, and Australia the toy distributer Palitoy merely repackaged Hasbro GI Joe dolls for sale in their region, with all their US WWII and Korean War identity intact. However in the 1970s the Action Man line began to move towards a more British and Commonwealth identity, and company began releasing more and more dolls/uniforms based on many different services and nationalities – from Australian SAS, circa 1944 to Wermacht staff officers.
It is this range of historically diverse uniforms and figures that collectors loved to work on improving, especially after a combination of political correctness and changing child demographics (and perhaps a little corporate insanity) turned Action Man from a historical line of toys into gaudily-colored superheroes (a trend which is clearly not that unpopular, as it continues to this day).
However, for the collectors of the world, Dragon brought – and still brings – the relief they needed, in a broad range of 1/6 scale figures, equipment and even vehicles (tanks, too). Though companies such as Medicom/RAH and Hot Toys have rather carved up the market now, Dragon’s range of dolls cannot be underestimated, as they set something of a standard.
Home Run, from Behind… And a Smart One, Too
There can be no doubt that injection molding for model kits has become exponentially better in the last decade or so.
Since the advent of rapid pro typing technologies, and the increasing reliability of CNC milling machines, the durability of soft metal molds and so on, it has become possible for manufacturers to take on the most extreme kit challenges that would have been impossible, or extremely costly only a decade ago. One only has to look at flagship kits like Fujimi’s 1/350 ‘Akagi’, Volks’ series of 1/32 fully detailed aircraft, Tamiya’s new line of 1/32 warbirds and Dragon’s own Black Label and Smart Kit designs to see this.
Traditionally, with steel block molds, a kit would have to be guaranteed a massive market life to justify the money invested in the creation.
See this fascinating article for more background data – http://www.oldmodelkits.com/blog/plastic-model-kit-history/a-brief-history-of-revell-plastic-model-kits/
However, the modern mold of today, as often cut by CNC-controlled millers from digitally-created images are masterpieces of multi-part assemble which might have half a dozen components (rather than the simple two-part clamshell of old) to allow for far more intricate moldings on a single sprue (from multi coloured parts, to pre-drilled barrels, molded as a single unit).
However, for some companies, the increase in complexity of molding has not only meant the creation of master kits for the best modelers out there, but also kits of real worth for beginners and journey-folk alike.
The Smart kit Range from Dragon is one of the most appealing in my experience, and the Saladin under discussion today an excellent example of that range.
According the Dragon itself, “‘Smart Kits’ are designed to be easier to build, without sacrificing the level of detail. Extra engineering has been invested in these kits, so that the construction of the models is more straightforward. Extensive use of slide molding techniques means crisply detailed parts are reproduced without the need of photo etched parts. Hence the kits can be built out of the box by most modelers using standard construction techniques. A ‘Smart Kit’ generally costs less than ordinary Dragon kits, because of the inclusion of fewer metal parts. However, Dragon emphasizes that the model has not in any way become simpler—only the assembly is less tedious.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon_Models_Limited#Smart_Kits)
I have built a number of the kits in the last few years, and find them to be far less fiddly than comparable Tamiya kits. I cannot wholly agree that they do not sacrifice detail, as few kits even attempt to include internal details, or carry quite the level of surface molding which more expensive kits might have, but I’ve never been unhappy with any of the builds to this date, and especially not with this one: The Saladin.
Please note: Sadly, owing to some technical problems, a number of the building and painting images failed to process in the camera. As a result, this piece will be lighter than normal on images. The fault is my own, and I apologize for the deplorable state of matters.
As you can see, the general state of the moldings on these Smart kits is more and sufficient to produce and effective effect, despite not being nearly as sharp, or complete as they might be on a more expensive kit.
Note the cement marks? This is where we get into one of the big problems with all the Smart Kits – the visual instructions. Dragon uses an exploded diagram as many do, but often do not make things as clear as they might be and if one is distracted it is easy to mistake one part for another…
Mind you, here one has to put greater blame on the maker. After all who cements without a dry, test fit? 😉
Rubber compound tires too, as well as working suspension… So far, color me impressed.
Whilst the range of options in the kit is lower than one might have hoped for (only two opening hatches, and no engine details for example), I am not displeased. One has to go into such kits with eyes open.
I’m very pleased that the vehicle expressed weld lines. I’m currently heavily into them, and feel the need to get out Milliput at the drop of a hat… 😉
And here is where I apologize again. So many pictures lost… 🙁
In closing… Cheap and cheerful, but not trashy or tawdry.
Dragon still keeps to its seeming desire to be an eternal No.2, with its current kit range, balancing budget against build to give us a decent kit for a decent price. I’m a fan, and have been for years. Here sits the result of an afternoon, and a good one at that.
If you are looking for a nice, quick kit, give a Smart Kit a go. I think you shall be pleased.