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Terrible Swift Sword

Some Thoughts on American History School Projects by Chuck Theidel”

“A terrible swift sword has been drawn and no one can find its scabbard  .  .  “


So the teacher has spoken.

You need to construct a diorama, or small scene, for your history class. Do not panic. Many people have done this before, and have come through with satisfying results. These hints will make the task easier, and your experience will be much more enjoyable. So all that is needed is a good imagination, and the willingness to learn about the subject matter.


American Civil War

The American Civil War was a war that everyone said would last only 90 days; it stretched across five Aprils. There were over 10,000 battlefields – – with names like Chicamauga, Shiloh, Keneshaw Mountain, Chattanoga, Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, Cold Harbor, the Crater, Missionary Ridge, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania – – – located on American soil, fought with American soldiers, drenched with American blood.


One of the most written about of these battles is Gettysburg with Pickets’ fateful charge being the most inquired about action. I feel the best part of this action to depict in a diorama for a school project is the final moments of the charge when the Confederates reach the stone wall only to be repelled by the devastating fire of the Union forces. Here is a list of materials that one would need to make this diorama.

    • Ospreys’ book Gettysburg July 3rd 1863
    • Imex 1/72nd scale Union artillery set, Union infantry set, and Confederate infantry set.
    • For the stone wall use Woodland Scenics Tallus (rock debris) #C1281.
    • For the groundwork use the Woodland Scenics Lightweight Hydrocal #C1201 with their grass covering, which are available in various colors.
    • The best glue to use for the scenery would be Woodland Scenics cement, #S191. It is easy to apply either by brushing or spraying it on to the groundwork.

Once dry it is also a good idea to detail to the rocks by painting them with earth toned acrylics. If you are planning to paint the figures it is also best to use acrylics because of the type of plastic they are made of. Remember – when it comes to dioramas one does not have to represent the entire action. Pick out a particular part of it and put as much detail in as possible.



This 1/72nd scale diorama (built by Ross Burkenstock) is a good example of how to use groundwork to enhance a scene.


Note the difference in height elevations and the stone wall (with various earth tones applied to the rocks). Also the grass is not just one color of green. The tree placed in the background gives depth to the diorama.




Here is the photo of the same diorama, but from the Unions’ view point. Notice how nice the detail of the rock wall stands out, and the natural effect of the groundwork.


Take note on how the rocks are not just sitting on top of the ground but actually are embedded into the groundwork giving it a natural look.


Other Osprey Reference Books:

First Bull Run 1861

Chickamauga 1863

Vicksburg 1863

Antietam 1862

Gettysburg 1863
Shiloh 1862

Chancellorsville 1863

Fredricksburg 1862

Word War II  –  –  Normandy

When the Allied forces decided to invade Europe during the Second World War, Normandy was the location that was chosen. On June 6, 1944 American, British, and Canadian troops poured ashore on the Normandy Beaches code named Utah, Omaha, Sword, and Gold. They fought against stiff German resistance from the “Atlantic Wall” that Hitler had constructed to keep invaders out. And behind the beach, the United States 101st and 82nd airborne parachuted in to destroy encampments and artillery behind the lines.


After the Allies overcame this “wall”, and established a beachhead, they began to fight in the Hedgerows of inland Normandy. Hedgerows were large rows of bushes that grew very tall, and the enemy could be right on the other side without you knowing it. Close in fighting was commonplace and carpet bombing was used extensively by the allies. These hedgerow scenes are some of the most interesting to construct because of the close proximity of the fighting. Because of this, you are allowed to have Germans and American in the same scene, fighting right in front of each other.



This W.W.II diorama of German troops shows good use of figure placement and a vehicle with the road signs to help bring continuity to a scene.





Another W.W.II diorama (also built by Ross Burkenstock) uses a building as the main focal point of interest. Note the extent of damage to the building: The bricks can be seen where the stucco has been blown away.






The amount of rubble that lies around the area gives it a more realistic look. The torn window curtain and the picture on the wall add a nice touch to the diorama.







Not all dioramas have to be large and complicated to tell a story. Just by using a German gun crew and their gun a very interesting diorama has been achieved. This diorama (built by Jerry Schroeder) shows the action of the gun crew as it prepares to fire a shot at the enemy. It depicts a scene which was often seen in Normandy, 1944.





American Revolution

The American Revolution provides countless possibilities for dioramas:

    • Benedict Arnold (when he was a good guy) and Ethan Allen capturing Ft. Ticonderoga
    • Burgoyne leading the British forces south out of Canada while Howe sails up the Chesapeake hoping to encircle the rebel forces
    • The stalemate in the snows of Valley Forge
    • The British siege of Charlestown where they dug ever-closer trenches parallel to the Americans
    • Washington and Rochambeau’s 40,000 allied troops surrounding Cornwallis’ 10,000 men at Yorktown, forcing his surrender and the close of the war




Companies like Imex offer accessory kits that can come in handy when working on a battlefield scene.


Additional trees are available from various companies in a wide range of styles and colors.




Reference books:

Boston 1775

Yorktown 1781

Saratoga 1777


War of 1812  –  Battle of New Orleans

On an open field outside of New Orleans, British forces attempted to overrun a fortified line of American troops and irregulars for control of the Mississippi River. Although the British outnumbered the Americans, the Redcoats were consistently repelled by 8 artillery batteries along a mud and log rampart stretching from the river to the swamps.

A diorama possibility would be to show a few of the American artillery positions and the earthworks around them placing a few defenders in the area. Portraying a small section of the battle will allow you to more detail into the project than if you were to depict the entire battle.
For further information on building dioramas and painting figures, visit Scenery & Dioramas  in the Hobby Hints section on our site.


Photos by Phil Novak and Chuck Thiedel