Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Interview with Dean West

Dean West

My friend Dean West is a gamer, ACW historian, re-enactor, and all around good guy. He is perhaps best known to wargamers for his historical consultation and development work with John Hill on the ACW miniatures rules "Johnny Reb".  I asked him if he would be interested in answering a 10 question interview for Cigar Box Heroes and he kindly agreed. Here is Dean's answer to question one.

1. Dean - please share with me a little about your background and your interest in the ACW.

I was born during the last months of WWII in the Lake Michigan community of Miller Beach in northwest Indiana. My father was a Navy fighter pilot and my mother a housewife who wanted a career in music. My interest in military history may be genetic, because my mother always claimed that one day she found toy soldiers and military history books in my crib and had no idea how they arrived there. Since those days, neither the books nor the miniatures have abandoned me for long.

I began to play war games soon after learning how to walk and talk. When I was five, my teen aged uncle Gene took me to a skeet shooting range at the beach. While he blasted away at clay pigeons, I gathered up several hundred spent blue, red and green shotgun shells. These formed my first armies; the blue one was French, and the other British. I deployed these troops on the dining room floor in opposing two-rank lines, and they fought many bloody engagements. Gene gave me several spring loaded metal cannons from his WWII collection which I used to mow down the reds and blues indiscriminately. I eventually contracted a rash from the gun powder residue on my “troops” and my first armies were disbanded.

When we were little boys, every year around Christmas time mom took my brother and me to Chicago’s “Loop” to eat lunch under the giant Christmas tree in the Marshall Field’s department store, and to visit Vaughan’s Toy and Hobby Shop, a magical place to me. The third floor of this shop was dedicated to tin and plastic soldiers and to all the paraphernalia associated with the toy battlefield. I saved money all year in order to finance a yearly spending spree at Vaughan’s. Eventually, I amassed a respectable number of lead 54mm Britains and French Minot figures. These formed the elite contingents among the masses of my Marx plastic Revolutionary War soldiers and Fort Apache troopers and Indians. I also raised a 54 mm Medieval army that included a magnificent cavalry force of “Knights of Agincourt” figures. One Christmas a wonderful handmade wooden castle appeared under the tree.

One other significant and wonderful youthful memory was when my mother would take us to watch real live British regimental bagpipe bands parade in Chicago Stadium. Imagine the psychological impact the sight and sound of the Black Watch or 92nd Gordon Highlanders could have on the psyche of a ten year old (with our interests), as they paraded back and forth in all their stately, regal and warlike magnificence.

I date my interest in the American Civil War from a copy of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 4, which is inscribed,” Merry Christmas Deany, 1955.” I was ten and recall being particularly fascinated with the orders of battle.Another book of significance in my development was The American Heritage Illustrated History of the Civil War. The battle maps in this book are gorgeously painted to resemble a tabletop miniatures game, and their quaint appeal has rarely, if ever, been equaled..

Using our Air-Fix plastic ACW figures, my friends and I spent many winter days creating Civil War battlefields and then refighting the battles on my friend Bill Neil's basement floor. The terrain contours were represented in brown chalk, the woods' scribbled in with green chalk, the creeks with blue. We had some sort of rules, but cannot recall anything about them.

During pleasant weather, we “played Civil War” in the dune land woods. I carried a dysfunctional WWII Japanese rifle which served as my Enfield, and many a savage skirmish with firecrackers and dirt clods was fought without serious injury to the combatants. Of course, Davey Crockett was big in our lives in those days too, and the wall around the Marquette Park Pavilion served well as our Alamo. Many an assault by we “Mexicans” was repulsed there by the older boys, who insisted on playing Davey and his Texan hooligans.

Finally, we were fond of playing at being knights. We had helms fashioned from metal Jay’s Potato Chip Cans, cardboard armor, and wooden swords which we named. My red wooden shield (actually a piece of 1”x8” pine), was emblazoned with the Coat of Arms of Dean, a black bear’s paw. We rode bicycles we called horses, and each of us carried a six-foot lance made of 1”x1” pine liberated from a neighborhood building site. We jousted frequently, but injuries were few or minor, because most riders chose at the last moment to avoid “Impact”, opting instead to crash into the ditch that ran alongside our “list.”

I could go on for many pages describing the experiences that presaged and may have rendered inevitable my adult interest in military history, miniatures gaming, and late-life cavalry reenacting; however, the above narrative seems sufficient to suggest the depth of my roots in this hobby.

In my next post I will outline a few details and observations regarding the early development and growing popularity of the military miniatures and board gaming hobbies in this country, and will specifically describe the early days of my association with John Hill that led to the development of the Johnny Reb rules.  

"Johnny Reb" rules versions over the years. Johnny Reb 1was published in 1983 (top left).
GDW published "Johnny Reb II" and "To the Sound of the Guns" in 1988.  "Johnny Reb III" playtest and
final editions were released in 1996.


  1. A very interesting interview. Thanks, to both of you!!!

    1. Ray, thanks! I really enjoy your blog and I appreciate your comments. May your dice always roll high (or low depending on whatever game you're playing!) Cory

  2. What a fantastic post, thank you for sharing.

    1. Michael, thanks for you comments! Your blog is amazing! It's interesting to hear how gamers get their start and our stories are usually uncannily similar!

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks Christopher, there's more to come!