by John Norman


Juvenal x 158

Although there is doubt as to whether elephants actually carried castles or towers, various coins and pottery have been found during excavation to reveal that certain commanders of armies did have their elephants with towers, possibly including Hannibal, others did not.  Hannibal probably used his elephants to batter and charge their way through enemy lines of infantry, probably using a Mahout to guide the beast and a bowman or spearman riding behind for some kind of defence.  Towers were used to impress dignitaries at ceremonial occasions but a bit of artistic licence from Andrea surrounding Hannibal gives we modellers a figure to stir the imagination and conjure up wonderful images of ancient battles.


When Andrea released their 54 mm War Elephant in 1996, with me being a huge war elephant fan, I immediately wanted to build and paint one, but the cost at that time (£179.95) was too much for me so I had to drool and wait.  I consoled myself by picking unnecessary fault with it like “the tusks don’t look right” etc, and I waited . . . 

Several months ago, and eight years on, my interest was rekindled and, by a bit of 'wheeler dealing', I at last had my elephant! 

I ordered it from Historex and their usual brilliant service prevailed - ordered on Monday, delivered on Tuesday.  The courier stood on my doorstep and handed me this huge box and I though ‘this can’t be my kit, it’s too big!’  But it was.  I immediately sat down and carefully opened up this box to reveal a plethora of goodies.  My partner’s comments were “are you drooling over that elephant again?”  Over the next couple of weeks I sat down and kept looking at the elephant, planning how I could change it and almost reluctant to start it.  I had another figure to finish so I patiently waited until I had completed it and then lift off!

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Having painted lots of flat figure elephants my initial thought on looking at the kit was how I could convert it to build a unique piece so I decided to make, or attempt to change, the following:- 

A.      Change the tusks taking off the metal points and extending the length to create a more fearsome beast.

B.     I decided to change the raised leg to a more natural position as I planned to make my own base to lower the stance of the elephant, making the leg more horizontal.

C.     Alter the head both by turning it more to the left and also lowering it to a more horizontal position.

D.     Reconstruct the trunk where it was cut away to accommodate the figure being lifted; this figure will be converted to be impaled on the tusk of the elephant.  (UGH!)

E.     The tower or castle looks too high off the elephant’s back so I will cut this down to fit more snugly against the elephant to give it a more authentic look.

F.      Add extra figures to the diorama to create a more crowded scene, including replacing the Carthaginian Officer in the tower with a figure of Hannibal.  This I later changed to include Hannibal and the officer to increase the crew to five. 

These changes were quite a challenge and somewhat daunting but, as I had waited a long time for this kit, I determined to have a go as my enthusiasm was boiling over.


I decided to assemble the elephant first as that was the area with the most conversion work.  I filed the tusks and carved away the metal points to the natural ivory and also, using plastic tubing, extended the tusks by about ¾“ (20 mm).  I also bent each tusk to slightly straighten them to look more natural.  At this stage I also glued the two halves of the elephant together and the ears onto the head using a two-part epoxy glue as this is a big HEAVY figure! 

Next, take one hacksaw!  I cut off the three lugs used to fasten the elephant to the base as I intended to create my own scene.  I also cut off both right legs of the elephant; the front raised one to lower it to a more horizontal position and the rear one to enable the foot to stand flat on the ground.  This major ‘surgery’ was a bit daunting but I had this picture of the finished diorama in my mind, therefore the surgery was necessary.  As I had a hip replaced in March 2004 I know just what the poor beast was going through!  I re-attached both feet to the body using nails with their heads removed and filled in the spaces with scrap metal and finished with Milliput. 

The head assembly was attached to the body at a more lowered angle and bent further over to the left.  This attaching caused me a few headaches as there was only a small area to support the head assembly which was heavy, so I had to strengthen and close the gap using balsa strips and superglue.  I then used a two-part epoxy glue, again for strength, and filled in with tissue liberally soaked in the epoxy and also used superglue for good measure.


The tower was assembled as per the kit but with approximately ⅜“ sawn off the castle supports to enable the tower to sit closer to the elephant’s back to give it a natural stance.  Chains and hooks were suitably shortened to accommodate the changes and a Milliput mat was used to ‘bed’ the tower on to the blanket.

At this stage I assembled all the figures that come with the kit and stuck them onto temporary painting bases.

The elephant was given a first undercoat of grey matt car primer which highlighted mould lines, defects etc that I had missed during construction.  These I rectified and gave the beast his second undercoat.  At this stage I was happy and could proceed painting.  The figures were also undercoated.


I usually use oil paints supplemented with enamels and I painted the elephant first as I thought this posed the biggest challenge.  I mixed a combination of lamp black, titanium white and softened the resulting grey mixture with burnt sienna to produce a basic grey colour tinged with brown. 

In all the pictures I have seen of elephants, the colours range from dark grey to light brown so the resulting mixture I had fell into this category at about half way.  I completely covered the beast with this colour and started to highlight and shade all the creases on its skin.  After about 30 minutes I sat back and thought, “this is going to take for ever”.  So I repainted the beast with my original colour and decided to let it dry thoroughly and then resort to the old wash and dry brush technique to finish him off. 

I applied different coloured washes and, when dry, highlighted by dry brushing with Naples yellow hue.   

The eyes were painted to give a wild appearance and the tongue and mouth glossed to represent moisture.  The tusks and toenails were painted using Naples yellow hue, the tusks starting off brown and finishing white at the tips.  The armour and decorations were painted with a gold printers’ ink supplied by my mate Daz and all the chains and rings were painted with a metallic enamel to give a steel finish.  The tassels were painted with a scarlet oil and attached to the head and blanket. 

The blanket itself was finished with a combination of red oil mixed with a touch of black and I left the finish slightly shiny to represent a silk appearance.  The straps and trappings used to fasten the tower to the elephant were painted burnt umber to give a leather appearance.  The tower itself was painted burnt umber to represent wood and washed and highlighted.  The rivets were painted with steel enamel paint and, when dry, the complete tower was glued onto the blanket on the beast.  This completed the elephant.


All the figures were suitably painted in oils and acrylics for the correct period (202 BC).  I added a further ten figures bought from other manufacturers to create a crowded battle scene.  A figure of Hannibal (complete with eye patch!) was added to the tower to personalise the scene.  The four figures in the tower were first given a dry run regarding fitting, as it was quite a tight squeeze.  Once I was satisfied with the final positions they were glued into place on the finished elephant and put on one side while I painted all the Romans.  I was quite pleased that El Veigo Dragon make two dead Romans, as I wanted to depict casualties around the scene.  This saved me converting standing figures.  The Romans were painted on a production line basis and, once finished, were again set on one side.  Now I considered my base. . .


This had troubled me from the start of the project as I knew, to create the scene I wanted I would have to have a very large and, potentially, expensive base.  In the end it measured 22” x 19” and I also wanted an oval instead of a rectangular base.  After getting various quotes on this size and type of base I decided to make my own.   

I first glued and dowelled two large pieces of pine and, after leaving this to set over night, I jigsawed an oval shape and sanded it smooth.  I then routed an edge to the oval to give a better finish and, again, sanded until I was happy with the finished article.  I wanted the base to stand on four feet and I thought long and hard on what to use.  In the end I remembered that I had three wooded rolling pins (ie six ends) in the garage, which I had used to move a washing machine!  (It’s a long story!,,)  So I cut off the ends and glued and screwed them to the base.  This gave it height and looked better than the usual flat bases I normally use. 

Several coats of a mahogany stain were applied and the base was left for a couple of days to dry.  At this stage I decided to leave the finishing gloss until the scene was nearly finished as I knew that there was going to be a lot of dust, sand, plaster etc, in building the ground work.  So I masked off the edge and started to build the groundwork.  I first added and screwed strips of old wood to give height and a rough terrain.  I wanted to depict a dry riverbed or wadi so I left a curved strip bare to fit this into the scene.  On top of the wood strips I added wall plaster, building it up to a rough finish.  Before it dried I stippled it all over using an old paintbrush. 

As the battle of Zama was fought on a sandy barren plain, once the plaster was dry I added small rocks and stones; also fine sand, dust and plaster chippings and even a product I discovered by accident: dried and powdered carpet underlay!  We took up an old carpet recently, that had been laid many years and all the foam underlay had disintegrated and turned into a very light brown power, just like fine sand.  This has now become another diorama accessory that sits on my shelf.  I also added dried grasses and shrubs to give to impression of a dried arid landscape. 

Once all this had dried and set I applied several washes of oil colour and thinners to give variations to the groundwork.  The dried riverbed sides were darkened to give depth and I now sat back and took stock.


Before assembly I had had several dry runs changing the figures, angles and position of the elephant before I was satisfied with the arrangement.  I then started to assemble the piece starting with the elephant first.  I used a two-part epoxy glue for strength and all the Romans had a panel pin inserted into one leg to ensure that they remained in place on the diorama.  Various shields, spears, swords and general battlefield debris were scattered around the scene and I glued arrows and a pilum into the elephant.  The edge of the base was then given several coats of gloss varnish to finish it off.


This has been a very rewarding project; when you plan, scheme and plot a diorama with all the many challenges it throws up to finish what, for me, has taken five months to complete and eight years of dreaming is very rewarding.  I have a diorama that is different from the usual WWII one sees at many competitions.  This, for me, has been a dream come true.  Hannibal is one of my boyhood heroes and I have waited a long time to bring him and his mighty war elephants to life.


Andrea War Elephant from Historex Agents.  Other figures from Beneito, Pegaso, Andrea, Soldiers and El Veigo Dragon.  To all these manufacturers I offer my thanks - without their figures I would not have been able to produce this diorama.

© John Norman - 2005

War Elephant