War in the Age of Steam: Osprey’s ‘Steampunk Soldiers’


Since 1969, Osprey Publishing has held the title as the world’s premiere publisher of military history books. It’s well-deserved, too. With a catalogue of over 2300 books and counting, if there’s a battle then Osprey probably has at least one book about it—and more than likely several. Want to know what vikings really wore on their expeditions (Hint: It wasn’t horned helmets.), or what actually went down at the Battle of Hastings? Osprey has you covered.

I like that about Osprey, especially since I tend to draw inspiration for my games and fiction (the little I write) from ancient history. I love not having to guess what Celtic tribesmen wielded in battle, or how Roman Centurions went to war. It’s neat stuff, and I’m a huge fan of the company.

That’s not all they do, though, and it’s not the only reason I love Osprey.

Here’s a question for you: What do you do if you’re a fantasy geek with the world’s biggest library of militaria? You take all the what-if’s and could-have’s and might-have-been’s floating around in that restless brain of yours and you turn them into reality—or at least, what you think reality might have looked like. Steampunk Soldiers, for example.

It’s a given that a lot of our biggest technological advances came about from military research. The Internet, GPS, microwave ovens, even the lifesaving antibiotic penicillin all started in military laboratories. (It would’ve been great to have gotten all of that stuff without it having been a side-effect of learning how to more effectively kill other human beings, but at least it’s something.)

The same would probably be true In a steampunk world where brass, cogs, and steam-power proved to be the height of technological achievement. At least a good proportion of all of that fancy tech would have had its start in some poor soldier’s rucksack. In Steampunk Soldiers: Uniforms & Weapons From the Age of Steam, authors and illustrators Philip Smith and Joseph A. McCulloch address what these fighters might wear and how they armed themselves.

Steampunk Soldiers is part of the Osprey Adventures line, an ongoing series of books that blur fact and fiction in amazing new ways. The contents of the books are presented as actual historical fact, so every title is really a look into an entire alternative history. In the Steampunk Soldiers timeline, Earth was struck by a great meteor shower in 1862 which scattered deposits of a mysterious new mineral power source called “hephaestium”. The western hemisphere bore the brunt of the strike, and the world’s Great Powers ended up with most of this new mineral, which burned hotter than anything else on the planet and enabled the invention of all sorts of steam-powered devices. (Interesting bit of trivia Canada was most heavily inundated with hephaestium.)

With the age of colonialism being in full swing, the world exploded into war, Steampunk style. The men (and some women!) of all of the major European powers (plus their enemies and allies in China, Japan, and elsewhere) grab their sabers and rifles, change into their brightly-colored, dashing nineteenth-century uniforms and charge the battlefield. With them they bring the horrifying new weaponry of the hephaestium era: smoke-puffing exoskeletons and walkers, Tesla rifles, electrified sabers, and so much more.

Fortunately for those of us who were probably asleep when they covered this particular era in junior high world history class (Sorry, I couldn’t be bothered with anything that didn’t have something to do with Galaga or Lita Ford.), the famed British art student Miles Vandercroft traveled the world sketching these brave combatants. His beautiful paintings are collected in Steampunk Soldiers.

Steampunk Soldiers’s content is divided into sections, with each section devoted to a particular nation. All of them are introduced with a brief outline of their current position in the post-hephaestium world, including ongoing battles and intrigues with other powers. Following that are illustrations of some of that nation’s warriors and their equipment. Each is identified by his or her unit, with a short description of the equipment and weaponry he or she carries and where they’re likely to be found.

All of these are truly imaginative entries, with a lot of thought given to how their particular cultures made war in our world, and how they might have done so with steampunk technology. Some of them are a little wilder than others (the Shaolin monk in the bamboo exoskeleton and the Scottish highlander in bagpipe equipped steam armor, to name two), but that’s par for the course when it comes to steampunk. For the most part, though, our steampunk combatants skew toward the grittier end of science fiction, and some of them are downright menacing. (Russian Convict Battalion soldier on page 97, I’m looking at you… but not directly in your Helter Skelter Crazy Eyes. You have a knife.)

Osprey also publishes war games (Read my review of Of Gods and Mortals here!), among them the steampunk skirmish game In Her Majesty’s Name. I don’t know how much official cross-over there is between the world of Steampunk Soldiers and In Her Majesty’s Name, but it’s not hard to imagine that the former would be a good source of inspiration for the latter.

As a gorgeous hardcover with tight, durable stitch binding and faux-sepia, full-bleed pages, Steampunk Soldiers just screams “collector’s item”, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see it ending up on a lot of serious alternative history and art fans’ wish lists. Even if you’re not the biggest fan of steampunk, there’s just no way that I can see you not being impressed with the art at the very least. I’m posting this review a little late today because I lost a good part of my afternoon flipping through Steampunk Soldiers, and mind you, I get a lot of art books: it takes a lot to keep my attention these days. This is just that good of a book, and I strongly recommend you buy it.