The Imperial Guard (Or Astra Militarum in High Gothic*) has a long and storied history both in and out of universe within Games Workshop. Whilst Space Marines are the poster boys, the Imperial Guard are the ones finishing the job. Numbered in the billions they take worlds through sheer numbers, grit and a bayonet. Thematically if Space Marines can be seen as the Special Forces of the Imperium of Man then the Guard are the General Infatrymen.
Debuting in Rogue Trader back in 1987 (the very first edition of 40k, more of a RPG then a wargame) the Imperial Guard were called the 'Imperial Army' and had a very obviously sci-fi look about them. As can be seen in the image below the Uniform was more standardised, with individual regiments etc being represented through Campaign badges and shoulder markings rather then their equipment. Like most of 40k in this era things were markedly different. Guardsmen had Land Speeders, Rhinos, Land Raiders, Devastators, Jetbikes, Thud Guns, Rapiers, Mole Mortars and a sprinkling of Squats.** They were mostly metal though there was a trooper plastic kit and plastic arms for weapon options.
Whilst they were certainly Oldhammer their rarity combined with the numbers required for an Imperial Guard Army was off putting to say the least, adding that they lacked many of the units utilised in modern 40k meant that I turned these guys down almost immediately.
By second edition though things had changed, under the care of the up-and-coming superstar sculptors The Perry Brothers.*** They had taken their innate love for military history and had infused it into the Forty-first millennium. No longer would the Imperial Army –now renamed the Imperial Guard-- have equipment standardised across the far reaches of the galaxy, the Imperium of Man was supposed to be a crumbling edifice held on by the barest of margins after all. Now each regiment would have equipment manufactured on the planet or within the system suited to their particular environmental needs or preferences no matter how inefficient it may be in other battlefields. Their also in a curious state at the moment, whislt technically Oldhammer most of the regiments are still produced today in metal by Games Workshop due to high demand. Only the most popular of the Imperial Guard troops tend to get plastic units.
First to appear in 1994 were the Catachan Jungle Fighters. Hailing from the infamous Death World Catachan these men and women were naturally hardy, having survived so long on a world where every creature can kill a grown adult and every plant is poisonous. As can be seen in their design they were influenced by the Vietnam War, or to be more exact the perception of it through the Sylvester Stalonne 'Rambo' series. They had the honour of being the first 'modern' Imperial Guard regiment to have plastic troops which are still in use today.
They are an incredibly popular regiment, with Games Workshop producing unique characters and plastic kits to this day. I myself found them amusing but lacking in story potential. Afterall there's only so many ways you can imagine a battle led by gruff, hyper violent soldiers whom are inevitably let down by callous commanders as is so often with their thematic ties to the Vietnam conflict.
Next was the Tallarn Desert Radiers. The world of Tallarn was once a lush Agri-World, unfortunately during the Horus Heresy (when the Imperium descended into a brutal Chaos led Civil War) the planet was virus bombed into a desert wasteland. This led its soldiers to adopt its current garb, clearly a nod towards the Arab Rebels of WW1 led by T.E. Lawrence.
Whilst popular many of their units are OOP (out of print) and due to said popularity are difficult to obtain second hand. Not only that but I couldn't gel with the theme too well.
The Mordian Iron Guard are famed for their combat drill and discipline, with a dour dispostion and an unflinching loyaltly to the chain of command they stand in perfect rifle drill and hold off the enemies of mankind. The Praetorian Guard also have a similar love of drill and discipline however this is not an inborn trait but forced into them due to their homeworlds squalor and degradation creating a hardened gang society.
Why are these two regiments together ? Simple, the Praetorians are the Mordians with pith helmets sculpted on. They were created for a display at the Warhammer Games Day in 1997 called 'Massacre At Big Toof River' and were insanely popular leading to a limited release. As is fairly obvious the Mordians are based off of US Marine Dress Uniform whilst the Praetorians are Imperial British Redcoats in Africa. Neither appealed to me. Not only that but the Praetorians are one of the most sought after regiments so i'd have to fight tooth and nail to get even a few squads together.
Next up is the Valhallan Ice Warriors and Armageddon Steel Legion. Both regiments despise Orks for attacking their worlds. They differ in their responses though. Whilst the WW2 Red Army Inspired Valhallans swarm their foes with an endless grind of bodies the Steel Legion utilise Mechanised Warfare to its fullest, as is to be expected from the regiment created by hyridizing the Whermacht and WW1 Britain. The issue this time was that their historical inspiration was a tad too on the nose for me. If I wanted to play with WW2 Soviets i'd just buy some of the numerous WW2 Kits out there.
Finally there was the Vostroyan First Born and the Cadian Shock Troops.
The Vostroyans are interesting in that they really espouse how weird 40k is, with a look that is clearly out of place even on a twentieth century battlefield. Designed to be a mixture of Napoleonic troops and Russian Cossacks they are both archaic and modern in the forty-first millenium, a massive fuzzy bearskin helm combined with a intricate respirator system for example. Unfortunatly due to said weird look they were hideously popular, even buying them from Games Workshop themselves could be difficult.
The Cadians on the other hand are the ideal Imperial Guard regiments, seen as the best-of-the-best in the Imperium when it comes to Guardsmen. They have the most plastic kits, the most lore and are generally best represented out of universe. Of course there's a twist, before they were seen as the most popular of regiments they had metal minis like all the other regiments I've mentioned. Not only that but they actually looked quite different with a clunkier design compared to their current plastic kits. These guys caught my eye, just the difference in uniform alone gave them so many storyhooks. Were they disliked ? Out on the frontline ? Did they resent their fellow Cadians whom had better equipment ? Not only that but they were the least popular of the previous reigments I mentioned, seen as incredibly vanilla, this lead to them flooding second hand websites by gamers whom wanted new forces.
With this a new regiment was created, The Cadian 580th !
*High Gothic is described as humanities 'Noble Tongue' used by those with great power and importance. In the lore its audibly referred to as a hodpe-podge of Latin and Old French. Low Gothic is the more common tongue and universally spoken, its roughly described as English though obviously affected by native accents. This is Games Workshops way of merging older sillier lore with the more serious lore of today. As an example is the Space Sharks Space Marine chapter, it's not a particularly imposing name but in High Gothic they are referred to as 'Carcharodon Astra' giving the formally comical title an air of mystery.
** Squats were GW's infamous attempt at 'Space Dwarfs', they have an interesting history which I may go through one day but needless to say they didn't survive the transition from second edition 40k to third.
*** I could wax lyrical about these artists but frankly it'd save you time to check out their Wikipedia page. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_and_Michael_Perry. If you ever go to any of the bigger conventions then there's a chance you can meet these thoroughly nice chaps.