What is a Rivet Counter?

Following on the heels of the infamous ‘Blue-Helmeted Fallschirmjäger Debacle of 2018’–a debate in which I took no part but have heard from everyone about ad nauseum–I have wondered about the term ‘rivet counter’ with both interest and concern.

I say I am interested and concerned, but in truth I am interested because I am concerned.  There is bullying going on from both ‘rivet counters’ and the anti-rivet counting bunch; it isn’t everyone, but there is a chance that this spills over in a negative way. So before it all goes horribly wrong–like when someone adds ketchup to their chicken noodle soup (the horror!)–I thought it might be helpful to analyze the whole thing. Granted this is from my limited perspective and often based upon my opinions. I’m sure it will be fine. Right?

This will be a controversial, but hopefully a respectful, discussion of a topic in the modelling community. At least we’ll try.

What is a ‘Rivet Counter’? Two Opposing Views

In plain terms, a ‘rivet counter’ was originally a label applied to certain modelers, wargamers, or hobbyists who berated, criticized, or mocked others for not painting up their historical miniatures or models to a historical (or what they interpreted as historical) standard. For example, a ‘rivet counter’ may chide a wargamer for painting the wrong type of camouflage on their Tiger I tank for a particular theater of war.

Maybe a part on a vehicle wasn’t assembled correctly, or maybe a Napoleonic figure was assembled with the wrong type of headgear, or someone kitbashed something and–even though it looks cool–has the wrong period of clothing for that particular historical period. A ‘rivet counter’ might publicly call that out. They might even get hostile about it.

I have even seen some extreme examples of this sort of thing, where an individual feels so strongly about rigid historical accuracy to a period that they refuse to acknowledge any game which might deviate from historical events–like Dust, Konflikt 47, Bushido, or other weird games which take the historical periods as inspiration but add a science fiction or supernatural element to them.

However there has been–understandably so–a reactionary movement in the hobby community against rivet-counting. And while I can appreciate the motivations, sometimes it does tend to get out of hand. That is people oppose it to the point of fault.

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To be truthful, the situations involving rivet counters like those mentioned above are uncommon. Some topics (like the aforementioned blue helmet debate) take off and become a staple in hobby folklore, but most of the time comments which come across as rude are actually meant to be helpful. And the categorical phrase ‘rivet counter’ is meant to be hurtful and derogatory and I personally feel it has been used a little too fast and loose. At times it does more harm than good.

For example, the label has begun to be applied to anyone who raises a historical question or concern when modeling or painting, to the point where you could be accused (honestly) of being a rivet counter just for asking what color would work best for ‘x’ uniform for ‘x’ army.

The worst reactionary example is when a person posts a model and asked a historical question and one of the first comments to follow is something like, ‘watch out for the rivet counters’. This leads to the thread devolving into a bash on ‘rivet counters’ and the person who initially posted does not get any help. Why? Because anyone who might offer help is afraid of being labeled a ‘rivet counter’!

This does two things: It stymies actual helpful historical dialogue and also stalls out productive conversations about painting techniques from which we all could benefit. Why would I explain how I painted that really historical peadot camo to you when I will just be labeled a ‘rivet counter’? See how that is problematic?

People should be allowed to ask questions without the thread or conversation derailing into a flame war because one person thinks Vallejo Afrikakorps Highlight is a better color than Vallejo Desert Yellow for German Tropical Uniforms for whatever potentially valid reason. At the same time, a person should be able to ask historical questions and people should not be afraid to answer for fear of being belittled by the opposite view. Nor should a person following the ‘Rule of Cool’ with their own models be subjected to abuse.

So let’s look at the good and bad of ‘rivet counting’ and see where we can find some common ground.

The Value of ‘Rivet Counting’

Vitriol and mockery aside (and to be discussed below), there is a value in people who are obsessed in a sense with historical accuracy. It should come as no surprise to anyone, but those who spend the time to research the historical sources are a treasure trove of information for those who want to paint historically, but do not have access to the same source materials.

That is a pretty big deal, especially for game developers and sculptors who want to make sure that they are producing products (specifically historical wargames and models) that meet that rigid test of accuracy. The Perry brothers for example are best known for paying homage and strict attention to the historical details. And it pays off for the hobbyist. Their models are beautifully made and have a place in dioramas just as much as they do on the tabletop for gaming.

And for game developers, having access to a hive mind of history enthusiasts means they will have products that meet basic vetting. You won’t have a rulebook full of inaccuracies or have to worry about misspelling a type of Italian soldier–even if you can’t pronounce it (Bersaglieri is pronounced Ber-sal-year-ree; the ‘g’ is silent, dangit!).  And let’s face it, if you play historical wargames, you probably want to have a rulebook that meets at least some basic historical vetting.

For the players who like to be immersed in the wargaming going on, historical accuracy assists in that immersion; inaccuracies can take one out of the game–particularly glaring ones.

And those so-called ‘rivet counters’ who excel at painting often produce some high quality miniatures in painted period correct-clothing or uniforms down to the buttons, insignia, and more. They can absolutely be appreciated and respected and admired for the work and research that went into them.

The Problems with ‘Rivet Counting’

So to start, most people who might be considered ‘rivet counters’ are really good folks who just care a lot about the history. They often try to accommodate or help new historical wargamers and that’s pretty cool. I think we need to lay off these folks.

But like most things in life, ‘rivet counting’ becomes a problem for others when one of three things happen: (1) the ‘rivet counter’ imposes a ‘my way or the high way’ mentality when someone asks for help, (2) they take their interpretations to an extreme, and/or (3) they belittle another person and/or their work because their models or miniatures aren’t historically accurate.

These are the reasons why ‘rivet counting’ has become a bit of a bad stigma. Let’s look a little closely at them.

(1) “My Way or the High Way’ mentality:  I am sure we have all come across this particular attitude at some point in our hobby. This is where a concerned hobbyist wants to get the paint scheme right, so they ask in a group and are met with a comment like “all men from this regiment had white trousers and therefore you can not ever paint them in any other color.”

This sort of rigidity towards historical knowledge is a little jarring to me.

Historians will be the first to tell you that academic knowledge–especially about certain time periods–is like water flowing in a river rather than stagnating in a dam. In other words, our interpretations and understanding of the past is in flux, constantly changing, constantly moving. It intersects with streams (parallel topics) or breaks into forks (deviating but relevant topics). What I am trying to say is that I am really thirsty and I can’t stop thinking about getting a drink of water.

But also that history is not usually based upon certainty. There will be flexibility. And so scholars will generally posit a competing interpretation. Sure, maybe historical records suggest that this particular regiment was issued white trousers. What about when those trousers wear out and they need replacement trousers and the only ones available were grey? What about different dye lots? Maybe ‘white’ was a generic term to refer to any dye lot in a particular color range which included light grey? How would we know? So maybe then we can be a little more forgiving with our suggestions?  Maybe take a little more care to answer in a way that reflects the uncertainty?

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An example might be, “Well extant evidence seems to imply white trousers, but there may be some variation in dye lots. So if you want to be as accurate as the evidence suggests, try aiming for white trousers on at least most of your miniatures for this regiment.” See how that advice isn’t demanding, aggressive in tone, demeaning, or belittling? It takes more words, but they go a long way.  It also gives a little push for the askee to dig for themselves to see what the evidence is that is out there and gives them the opportunity to ask more questions. They aren’t being belittled into silence.

(2) Extreme Interpretations: Oh you know what I mean. These are the folks that take a light-hearted hobby to some extreme for the sake of ‘getting the mood right’ or because ‘this is how it was historically’. They feel obligated to drape a Nazi flag over their tanks or paint up slaves to include on their ACW board. There is no real need to include these on wargaming pieces. And sometimes we are left questioning their motives–do we really need to see men hanging from nooses tied to trees in order to play this game of Black Powder?

Do not get me wrong. I think elements like this can really enhance a diorama or museum piece. I believe they add teachable moments to models meant for that purpose. They can tell a story or impart feelings or emotions to a viewer that can be quite powerful.

But I don’t need to be reminded of some of those emotions when I just want to play a 500 pt game of Bolt Action. Unless ‘rescuing civilians’ is a scenario objective, leave out the scene where the Wehrmacht is murdering a bunch of accused resistance fighters. Yes, I know it happened. But for Pete’s sake, it’s a game and I am here to have fun, not reminisce about the brutality of war,

And speaking of brutality…

(3) Brutality for the sake of Criticism: This is by far the biggest criticism of ‘rivet counting’. This is when a person posts up their newly varnished miniature or model and is immediately attacked for its inaccuracies. They didn’t ask for advice, they didn’t care whether it was historically accurate. Nevertheless, a half-dozen commenters will berate or belittle the person and their work because they painted an element of the uniform wrong.

The worst offenders will criticism nonhistorical miniatures as well. Yes, it is a thing that happens. “You painted that Weird WW2 walker the wrong shade, so it’s not accurate.”  The shock! You mean this completely fictional vehicle for my diesel punk game isn’t painted in the correct shade of Dunkelgelb?

We all pay a lot of money for our miniatures and therefore we should have the right to paint them up how we like. And we should be able to appreciate them–be it a Panther tank painted pink (get it?) or a peadot camo pattern that includes purple, orange, and yellow; we should not have to worry about being criticized about displaying it.

What Can Be Done?

I don’t know. If you came here for solutions, I only can think of one: H2O. Or is that a solvent? What do you mean you don’t care? Oh, that wasn’t the sort of solution you were looking for? Ugh, sorry! I am still thinking about water. Why did I have to eat all those salty chips?! Sigh…

Okay, serious problem solving going on here. Right.

The takeaway from this blog post is three-fold. First, you should never start a land war in Asia. Second, there are two sides to every issue and this one is no different. There are extremist views for and against historical accuracy in miniature painting, and both views can lead to unhelpful and unpleasant situations.

Third and finally, and this might be the most relevant: If you weren’t asked for historical painting tips, don’t just think you can offer them. If you feel the mistake is glaring, stop and think about how you answer. Are you going to criticize or are you going to first ask them if they want your opinions? Maybe consider the latter.

Consider also if you can appreciate the work of the hobbyist; did they create something beautiful? Maybe instead of criticizing, be positive and encouraging.

Are they potentially new to the hobby? Nothing irks me more than when a ‘rivet counter’ berates someone just starting out. If you cannot say something nice, then say nothing.

If someone asks for advice, offer it to them considerately. If they don’t, you can ask if they want advice, but don’t be mad if ultimately they don’t care. If you feel really strongly about it, maybe message them privately. Just don’t get obsessive or abusive. Remember that these aren’t your models.

The trick here is to treat each other well. We all love this hobby for our own reasons. And we should all be able to respect each other’s work without it turning into something ugly.

Conclusions?

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I didn’t set out to accomplish anything groundbreaking with this post. If you are still reading, chances are you probably agree with me. Or you are planning my assassination.

Either way, thanks for reading. Please leave your thoughts in the comments. And be sure to like, subscribe, and share. Also bring water.

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