Converting a toy paddle-steamer into a colonial gunboat


The maritime element of colonial wargaming normally brings to mind armed steamers on the Nile. But people often forget that gunboats were also used in many other theatres during the 19th century.

My own interest is the colonial New Zealand Wars, which included the use of  a flotilla of converted and purpose-built ironclad gunboats to support the invasion of the Waikato in 1863. A couple of years ago I posted a review of a book about this riverine aspect of the New Zealand Wars. However, until recently, I had never tried adding a river steamer to my army.



A few weeks ago I stumbled across a plastic kitset of a paddle-driven steam tug on Ali Express. Whilst 1/150 scale is too small for 28mm wargaming, I thought this toy could possibly be converted into a smaller paddle-steamer in a larger scale.

And at only US$22 – which even included free shipping to New Zealand! – it wouldn’t be a big loss if my project didn’t work out.

I’ve now received the model, and think it will indeed work to be converted into the armed paddle steamer HMCS Avon, as depicted in the foreground of Andrew Burdan’s painting on the cover of Grant Middlemiss’s The Waikato River Gunboats.


According the the New Zealand Navy Museum, the Avon was arguably the first naval vessel purchased by the New Zealand Government. Originally constructed in Glasgow as the Clyde, she was subsequently shipped to New Zealand in pieces and re-assembled at Port Lyttelton.

She was purchased by the Colonial Government in November 1862, and in early 1863 was modified for service at Onehunga. The modifications involved the installation of iron plates, each six feet long by three feet wide and ¼ inch thick, along the bulwarks and down to the water line.

She displaced 43 tons, was nearly 18 metres in length, and mounted a single 12-pounder Armstrong breech-loading gun on her bow. Her shallow draft of just one metre made her ideal for river operations.

Avon even had her own rudimentary self-defence system: pipes were fixed in connection with the boiler, so that a stream or jet of scalding water could be thrown upon any party attempting to board.

In 1864 she was re-deployed on the Waipa River with reduced iron armour, as depicted in the drawing below by the late Harry Duncan for Grant Middlemiss’s book..



To convert the toy into Avon, I plan to ignore the window stickers, so the current wheelhouse and cabin will look more like the top of the boiler housing.

I’ll add a bridge to link the two paddle-boxes, and scratch-build the double sentry-box armoured wheelhouse. The funnel will need to be taller, too – not a hard job to find something that’ll suit.

I’ll then add armoured plates along the bulwarks (and if I choose to make the later version of Avon, will build a wooden deck-house at the stern).

The hardest job will be to turn it into a waterline model – I’ll have to use a jigsaw to carefully cut round the hull, and then also trim the bottom of the paddle-wheels and rudder.

I’ll also need to find a model of an Armstrong gun of the period, mounted on a two-wheel naval truck. Any suggestions?

I’ll keep you posted on how this project goes.




17 thoughts on “Converting a toy paddle-steamer into a colonial gunboat

  1. Hi Roly

    I did not know gunboats were used during the New Zealand Wars. I shall have to follow up and read about them.

    Good luck with your conversion project.

    Can you use sand from Cathedral Cove to make a Waikato beach 😊

    1. My great grandfather was a qualified sailor and enlisted in the Imperial Commissariat Corps in Sydney in 1863 . He came to New Zealand and participated in the invasion of the Waikato. He would have served aboard one of these craft. I must find a copy of this book.

  2. Interesting. I’ve not seen this particular model before. I will have to get one. My current project is turning a model tug into a Rendel gunboat. To get the gun (11pdr) I put a piece of dowel into my pillar drill and various files to thin the shape out. Seemed to work OK. When I sort the photos out I will probably put them into my (neglected) blog. Good luck with your conversion.

    1. Yours sounds an intriguing project, too. Converting existing hulls has the potential to result in much more realistic wargaming vessels than the rather blocky models most often seen in wargames.

  3. This is a fun looking project Roly. You do not have to be dead accurate with your waterline cut if you are applying a water effect. Remember that water is an uneven surface so if you are a millimetre or so out in your cut you can apply a slightly deeper “wash” with the water effect to cover up the sin.

  4. Looking forward to seeing the end result, Roly. I was giving my games room a wee tidy up yesterday and came across some long-forgotten unpainted Eureka 1860 Maori War figures and thought I must get around to giving them some colour. Your post has given me some inspiration to finally do that. Keep up the good work!

  5. Looks like a fascinating modelling project! These days hardly anybody knows armoured boats were used in the Waikato war – though the Pioneer was pretty much the decisive weapon of that conflict in many ways. For me the comparison is the near-contemporaneous US Civil War and the technologies used there.

    1. Interesting comment about the decisiveness of ‘Pioneer’. You’re right that not many people know about the flotilla of gunboats used in NZ, nor how much they were examples of the latest modern technology of the time – ‘Avon’, for example, was the first steam powered vessel on the Waikato.

      1. It was incredible how powerful that ship was on the scale of such things – Maori couldn’t touch her and the whole riverine fleet gave the regiments the ability to flank any defence. Maniapoto was only too well aware of the issue. There’s an intriguing map I found in Turnbull with pencilled soundings down the river so they could navigate Pioneer, particularly (and she still ran aground every so often). Can’t remember the reference now off-hand, but it’ll be buried somewhere in ‘Two Peoples’ endnotes.

  6. Looks like a very nice conversion Roly. Cut down to a waterline model and hit with flat drab colors it should very much look the part.

    I’m keen to see this one finished – nice work.

    Happy Wanderer

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