Iron Wind Metals is known today for its Battletech miniatures and its continuation of some old Ral Partha miniature lines. Today, roughly a third of IWM‘s income comes from distribution and wholesale, another third from its online store, and another third from producing or fulfilling miniature lines for other companies.
Iron Wind Metals was formed from the remains of famed miniature company Ral Partha. The history of IWM, Ral Partha, and the Battletech miniature line is somewhat convoluted. Here is a small portion of the story, ignoring many other product lines and ignoring many other versions of the Battletech licenses, such as RPG, CCG, and electronic:
Tom Meier forms Ral Partha, together with Jack Hesselbrock, Marc Rubin, Rich Smethurst, Glenn E. Kidd, and Chuck Crain. Ral Partha pioneers certain productions processes and produces popular miniatures under a D&D license from TSR.
At the time, Tom is in junior high-school, only 16 years old. The company is founded to promote and produce his sculptings. He remains the only sculptor until 1980, and the primary sculptor until he starts a new company in 1988.
Citadel Miniatures, a subsidiary of Games Workshop, acquires the UK Ral Partha license. Citadel promotes Ral Partha in the UK, and in turn Ral Partha promotes Citadel in the US.
Jordan Weisman forms FASA, a company that will eventually acquire Ral Partha.
Michael Noe, eventual factory manager of Ral Partha and of Iron Wind Metals, joins Ral Partha.
Also at this time, Citadel forms a US division, using Ral Partha as manufacturers for their miniatures.
Fantasy Productions (FanPro) is formed. FanPro works into our story later on.
Ral Partha takes over the Citadel US division, marketing them as Ral Partha products. FASA creates the Battledroids board game.
Ral Partha begins producing Battledroids miniatures for FASA.
Tom Meier, as a result of some disagreements over copyright issues and a deal with RawCliffe Pewter, begins looking for alternate venues to market his miniatures.
FASA renames Battledroids to Battletech, owing to a trademark dispute with Lucasfilms. Minifigs acquires the UK Ral Partha license, as well as a Battletech license.
Ral Partha drops the Citadel US line.
Tom Meier forms Thunderbolt Mountain Miniatures to do personal projects. He continues to work for Ral Partha on a freelance basis. He continues to retain stock until the company is dissolved.
FASA creates Shadowrun, a fantasy RPG system.
Ral Partha begins producing Shadowrun miniatures. Over the next several years, Ral Partha earns numerous awards for its Battletech and Shadowrun miniature lines.
Wizards of the Coast acquires TSR, shortly thereafter ends Ral Partha‘s D&D license, and orders all existing D&D molds destroyed. Pthhhffft. Revenues from other Ral Partha lines also begin to drop, leaving it with only one successful line: Battletech. Update: Shadowrun and fantasy were still making some money, too.
In desperation (Update: or for personal reasons), Ral Partha sells itself to FASA and Zocchi Distribution.
FASA gains sole ownership of Ral Partha. Hasbro buys Wizards of the Coast.
While still at FASA, Jordan Weisman founds WizKids to sell MageKnight, which becomes massively popular.
FASA unexpectedly ceases operations. Various explanations are given as to why, such as exiting the market while things are good. The licenses remain valuable commodities.
WizKids buys Battletech and Shadowrun licenses, as well as many of the original Battletech and Shadowrun miniature lines, although Tom Meier keeps control of many of his lines. WizKids licenses BattleTech and Shadowrun to FanPro LLC, a US division of FanPro.
WizKids spins off Ral Partha, which, owing to various legal issue, becomes Iron Wind Metals. IWM continues to create Ral Partha, Battletech, and Shadowrun lines, as it still does today. IWM‘s management includes Michael Noe and Marc Rubin.
Also at this time, Topps buys WizKids.
InMediaRes creates HoloStreets in order to create Shadowrun branded fiction. WizKids licenses Shadowrun to InMediaRes.
Jim Fox forms Fox Miniatures to produce certain Tom Meier lines of miniatures. [Update: Tom says: I’m making a 1/48 WWII line for him he’s not marketing them for me. I’m selling the copyright to him, they will be his completely, I’m just doing the sculpting and initial mold making.] While IWM pimps itself at GenCon and Origins, Fox Miniatures jointly pimps their own products together with IWM at other game conventions. Tom also creates figures for Dark Sword Miniatures, who outsources production to IWM.
FanPro LLC loses the licenses for Battletech and Shadowrun. InResMedia creates Catalyst Game Labs to acquire these licenses to create game expansions. CGL includes employees from FanPro LLC.
Also at this time, Tornante buys Topps.
Near the end of the year, Topps shuts down WizKids, citing the economic climate. A scramble ensues to secure the Battletech and Shadowrun lines, as well as other important WizKids lines.
After wrangling, Topps decides to keep the Battletech and Shadowrun licenses for themselves, and sell the rest of WizKids to NECA. Catalyst Game Labs and Iron Wind Metals continue to license Battletech and Shadowrun.
Michael Noe of Iron Wind Miniatures
Battletech is a story about combat in a fictional future universe. Several companies license the rights to create products in this universe, including fiction (BattleCorps, a division of InMediaRes), war / role playing books and technology descriptions (Catalyst Game Labs, a division of InMediaRes), and miniatures (Iron Wind Metals). In the past, there have also been a CCG, cartoons, and other products. An online gaming version is being handles by Smith & Tinker, headed by Jordan Weisman.
IWM creates the figures to match new technologies, arms, humans, and vehicles as defined, described, and illustrated by Catalyst Game Labs. In the past, such as when IWM was working alongside FanPro LLC, IWM would have to figure out what was new by looking at the new product catalogs put out by FanPro LLC. Nowadays, CGL gives IWM a heads up over what’s new before their new products hit the public.
To me, it seemed like a natural idea for CGL and IWM to cross-promote each others’ products, but somehow this hasn’t happened, yet.
IWM also does work for Wyrd Miniatures, Impact Miniatures, Dark Sword Miniatures, and Crocodile Games, among others. Oh, and you see those words “Paints and Accessories” in the logo at the top of this post? They tried that, but they don’t do that right now; Reaper Miniatures apparently did/does it better.
Iron Wind Metals uses spin casting to create miniatures. Starting from sketches, a “green” model is sculpted from hard resin or another material. Larger miniatures might be broken into components, with multiple models for each component. The pieces are all cast separately, and must be assembled and painted by the consumer.
Impressions from the green models are stamped into a heavy rubber layered disk mold. Grooves are scored from the impressions to the center of the mold, so that when pewter is poured into the center of the mold and the mold spun, the pewter travels along the scores to the impressions.
The pewter is heated to a scant 600 degrees. While spinning the mold, pewter is poured in, hardens, and cools in less than a minute. Each piece is inspected, and any pieces not exactly correct, and any extraneous pieces of metal, are tossed back into the pewter soup.
The figures are sorted, sealed into plastic boxes, boxed up for shipment, and FedEx arrives once a day to carry the products to distributors, stores, or partners.
A design released this week, the Oppie, a Battletech vehicle.
Parts of the “green” model for the Oppie, as received from the sculptor. The green model is used to make the molds.
Creating molds from green models. The model is placed between two hard rubber disks and pressed. The shape of the model leaves a permanent impression in the mold. This is done several times, so that each mold can create several figures at once.
All the equipment you see here is fairly old and was manufactured, and amazingly still supported, locally.
One half of a completed mold.
Two complete molds, created using several models. After creating the impressions, lines are scored between the end of the mold to the central hub, into which the pewter will be poured.
A stack of molds done for Wyrd Miniatures.
The archive, containing thousands of molds. I estimate around twenty thousand molds, give or take.
Bars of pewter.
Melted pewter, ready to be poured into molds.
The two rubber disks of the mold are clamped between two silver disks. The disks are spun and the pewter is poured into the center. The pewter fills out the impressions in the mold though centrifugal force. The minis are ready and cool within a minute.
A minute after pouring in the pewter. All the pewter, other than the final product (the disks as the end) is chucked back into the pot.
Plastic boxes and items are placed into this machine to be sealed into shippable products.
(Edit: Shadowrun spelling)
One detail that was left out is the existance of ralpartha europe, who are still selling battletech miniatures (and other ral-partha lines).
[…] For mini lovers, even if you’re not into wargaming…and thanks to shadejon for some very interesting mini history. […]
Very interesting stuff. I think you may have an error at the very beginning, though. From what I recall Minifigs had the first D&D license in the 1970s, and the license was dangled in front of Heritage models USA (which did not get it but did produce a line called Dungeon Dwellers which would have been their D&D line); in 1979 or 1980 Grenadier Models got the D&D (actually AD&D) license, and then in 1984 or so Citadel got it for a while but did not do a lot with it. Then TSR decided to make their own D&D minis, and that did not go well, but finally Ral Partha got the license and produced the most extensive & longest running D&D line (in metal). Although Citadel lives on as part of Games Workshop, all of the other companies that had a D&D license went bust.
Iron Wind has been a great vendor/supplier relationship. We used 5 different casters before we found and settled on using Iron Wind for all our needs. Took a tour of the facility on February 5th and this write-up gives a good basis for what the company looks like. Cool to see one of our moulds in the pictures as an example (3rd from the bottom). Tom Anders – President – Impact! Miniatures
When I go to Cincinnati, I usually just settle for a trip to Skyline Chili. Awesome article!
Another left out of this convoluted history is CGL beginning to produce their own multi-part, hard plastic Battletech miniatures. Not much has become of this yet except two minis released at Gen Con and online, and a couple more promised to be in the near-mythical 25th Anniversary Box Set.
[…] this is a story I wish I had done. Purple Pawn takes an in depth look at Iron Wind Metals with pictures of their base of […]
[…] Oh if you ever wanted to know how miniatures get made, particularly pewter ones, or the history of Battletech and Iron Wind Metals check out this story. […]
The production steps mentioned are missing a couple of steps:
1) The “greens” are grouped together to create a master mold.
2) Once the master mold is finished it is used to create “masters.”
3) The masters are used to create a production mold.
(The picture of “the archive” is all of the production molds. The master molds are stored elsewhere under lock and key.)
4) The production mold is used to make the miniatures that we buy.
I’m an engineer and I had the opportunity to do a Six Sigma project for IWM last year. They are a great bunch of people with an interest in serving the customer. What was really surprising going in was that they have been using lean manufacturing processes, to a degree, for years before it became *the* goal for US manufacturers to achieve.
If you would like some Lean Manufacturing / Six Sigma improvements done for your company contact me at mattd (dot) murray (at) yahoo (dot) com and we’ll see what I can do for you.
You forgot to include history for the RPG / wargaming spin off: Ral Partha Publishing!
Will Nesbitt created the first Edition of BattlestorM! for RPP, ran a program for demoing the products (stormriders), before the parent company’s demise fractured the support. RPP’s IP sold several times, last landing with Interstrike (i believe) in Florida, who contracted with yours truly to write Battlestorm 2nd Edition, before they also folded :(
As an addendum – at some point after 1984, the Australian game company Military Simulations got distribution rights for Battletech minis, which were produced by a company called Supplyline located in Glen Waverley, Victoria. This must have happened early, because I still have a number of the initial “Battledroids” minis purchased on the familiar (to old Aussies) orange-backed blisters.
There’s precious little hard info to be found; Supplyline kept producing minis at least to the point of the Clan invasion (1990 or thereabouts), and prior to the Unseen issue (which might also be worth including). If I can find any hard info, I’ll post it here.
I have had the pleasure of working with Mike and crew to bring various miniatures to life. Its great to see an arcticle like this promoting them and to show they do more than just Battletech miniatures.
[…] pics here (scroll down to about 1/4 from the top of the […]
[…] those of you who may have missed it the first time around, you can read the full article and see lots of great pictures over at Purple […]
[…] correctness spilt all over it and is just too “nice & tidy” on what happened and why. This timeline page however I prefer; A slightly different version of events, of how Ral-Partha “became” IronWind […]
[…] see and learn. I was able to find another post about the history of Ral Partha and Iron Wind Metals here, but if you are really interested in learning about the history of Iron Wind Metals, I would highly […]
You guys rock. One of the coolist write ups on the history of minnis.
[…] invaded the Inner Sphere and robbed all the cool mystery from the setting, and then FASA was sold or something and several businesses each added ridiculous crap to the game and its history in turn, completely […]
That was absolutely fascinating! I had no idea the legendary Tom Meir was the founder of the company either, I guess that explains why for the longest time they werte the only company doing such large scale models some of them haven’t aged at all either, more han can be said for alot of other compabnies sculpts!
[…] more affordable than the Iron Wind Metals minis (though Iron Wind puts out a great product; read here for an explanation of how BattleTech minis and their licenses have evolved). I am a bit biased, […]
[…] pics here (scroll down to about 1/4 from the top of the […]
Hi where can i get a rack of minatures and starter set for battle tec minaturs for my store?
Pick a distributor, many of them stock IWM.
Not only can you get Battletech miniatures from a distributor, you can also call / email Iron Wind Metals themselves. I’m sure Mike and Crazy will be happy to help you.
One thing that is not clear from the article: Who owns the licenses for the Ral Partha fantasy miniatures that were not official Dungeons and Dragons miniatures?
If WOTC ordered all existing Dungeons and Dragons molds destroyed…what happened to ownership of all the other Ral Partha molds?
You don’t need a license to make generic fantasy miniatures. Nobody owns the concept of a dragon, an elf, a goblin, or any other basic fantasy idea – So anything that Ral Partha / IWM has made that is a basic fantasy miniature does not need a license and RP/IWM can crank out as many as they like.
IWM has made before, and continues to make, miniatures that are fantasy that are related to specific licenses. These are seperately considered from generic “elven rangers” and the like beause they are directly related to and contractually produced under those licenses.
Now, anything that was originally made and marketed under the Dungeons and Dragons brand / contract / license is effectively gone, but as mentioned earlier that does not include all fantasy products.
I guess maybe I have asked the wrong question. Probably what I meant to ask is who owns the original molds and who is allowed to use them? Are they still in use?
So, for instance, the All Things Dark and Dangerous line: Is Iron Wind Metals still making these specific figures? Do the molds still exist? Are they retired and just sitting in a warehouse? Is Iron Wind still making, packing and shipping these? Are they available for retail somewhere? If you order something from the Iron Wind Metals website, do they ship you out of old stock or do they make the figures to order?
See what I mean?
Also, I am really curious about the Dungeons and Dragons molds. When a company is ordered to destroyed the molds, do they really get destroyed, or are they quietly packed away in a box somewhere for posterity. (If that is what happened, then obviously I don’t expext a straight answer. I just wonder.)
Iron Wind has been producing some of the old RP line, and Thunderbolt Mountain (Tom Meier’s current outfit) produces new minis that look a lot like his old RP work, only a little bigger. Somehow WizKids got the right to produce a few of the RP fantasy minis in plastic for their pre-painted “MageKnight” line.
Those would be the only official releases I know of. The guys on the “Collecting Ral Partha” Yahoo group might have more info.
Regarding the molds, another factor to consider is that RP was casting the AD&D line in “Rallidium” which was mostly zinc and had a higher melting point that lead pewters, so the molds would wear out faster. I would definitely not hold my breath about the molds turning up. Probably someone who worked for RP at the time would be able to confirm that they were or were not destroyed, but like you said, if they weren’t, no-one would admit that and if they were, well no-one wants to believe it!
I bet the masters were not all destroyed, just because some would have belonged to the sculptors. But I suppose the right to produce more molds would belong to Wizards of the coast, if they care.
Try an origonal scp-2 scorpion with optional tops:
bridge layer for ICE units
hollow box parts holder for raiding
dozer blade front peice
and origonal Golaith legs with scorpion body and crane.
Engineer mechs for construction units.
So glad I stumbled across this article. Back in the 80’s we’d drive down from Columbus and visit the Ral Partha factory (and Skyline and LaRosas). Seeing racks full of bulk figures was an amazing sight for us high school kids, and a bargain…always need more orcs. I don’t know if tours weren’t available or if it never dawned on us to ask. Wish we had. Amazing to see some of the original people are still active in the industry. Thanks for a cool article.
(Someday I’ll build my Imperial Dragon…someday).
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