The Armory was, if not the first, certainly one of the greatest distributors of RPGs back in the “golden age” of the early 1980s. If you are of a certain age, you’ve probably seen the full-page, sometimes multiple-page, ads in Dragon Magazine with line drawings of various dungeon adventurers and critters. In most cases Asgard miniatures were depicted, but the Armory buying guide, published in 1983, provided line drawings of every nearly fantasy miniature available at the time. You’ll notice that is numbered “Vol. 1, issue 1” but as far as I know this was the only one published. It is hard to believe that there was a time when it was more cost-effective to make line drawings than to photograph products for a catalog, but that was back when the home computer was a Commodore 64 or Apple IIe with a big 64K of memory. I don’t think most of my blog posts would fit in 64K, let alone the images. Publishing then was a serious and expensive proposition, and reproducing line drawings must have made more sense than attempting to take photographs (on expensive film, that needs to be developed!) and trying to get them to reproduce.
Anyway, the buying guide is obviously meant to be a catalog (the Armory sold everything listed!) but it is also an incredible resource for identifying classic figures. The book has two sections, first a listing by type of figure and then a listing by manufacturer. Because every figure is listed twice, you may need to do some flipping around to find the illustration. But you do know that if, for example, that a Ral Partha troll is listed but not illustrated on the “Troll” category in part one, it will be illustrated under Ral Partha in part two.
The guide was assembled just after Heritage Models went bust, so ironically their figures are mostly not included. I say that this is ironic because Heritage Models had catalogs with most of their figures drawn by hand too, and they would have been fairly easy to add to the lists. But the guide is a catalog too, so out-of-print minis generally didn’t make the cut, which is too bad. There are no Minifigs Greyhawk figures listed, for example, no Valley of Four Winds, no Grenadier Wizzards & Warriors (except for those that were carried over into later lines– many of Grenadier’s W&W figures became AD&D figures, for example). Citadel would provide line drawings in their catalogs for a while too, and of a much greater artistry. In fact many ads for various companies in old Dragon Magazines are line drawings, but the Armory’s buying guide is unique in that almost all the drawings are by one hand — Greg Barrett. A few Heritage figures are listed with their own drawings from the Heritage catalogs, with a note that that Heritage Models had just gone out of business.
You might find an original print copy of this at Abe Books or Amazon (selling used for a boatload of cash). But a PDF is available for download here. (on the left side bar) I printed out a copy as a digest-sized booklet, which saved some paper but in hindsight full-size would have been better, since the illustrations are mostly “life-sized.”
The Armory merged with Chessex in 1998 to form Alliance Distributors, but I think the internet pretty much put the end to that venture. UPDATE: Actually Alliance are alive and well. Chessex is still around too, selling dice, a few games and accessories, and even a few “Dragonskin” book covers (I miss their old fantasy Dragonskins…) The Armory is still connected to a line of paints, the last I heard, but sadly that is all that is left. You can see a little about the decline of the Armory in the documentary Darkon, which profiles one of the sons of the founder. (By the way, do watch Darkon if you get a chance! A fascinating look at some serious LARPers!)
I very vividly remember a family vacation to Baltimore we took when I was about 11 or 12. We visited the famous Aquarium, and paddled around the harbor in paddleboats, but the highlight for me was a trip to the mall which had an Armory retail store, with cases and cases of figures on display from all manufacturers. It was not until years later that I’d find out the store was the same Armory company that ran those ads.
Since you made it all the way to the end of this post, here’s a little bonus — a link to a thread on the Cool Mini or Not forums where a guy in England goes through a tub filled with old lead. On the 2nd and subsequent pages, he identifies many of them with Armory Buying Guide pics. I am so freaking jealous of this old lead!