Modeling Notes: Couplers

When modelers get started in S-scale, they inevitably are going to face the issue of upon which coupler to standardize their locomotives' and rolling stock's coupler. This page will cover a bit of the history of the S-scale coupler, describes the ones that are available today, and hopefully provides you with some guidance as to which one or ones you would like to use in your own models.

A.C. Gilbert Non-operating Couplers

The original A.C. Gilbert American Flyer solid, non-operating couplers were generally produced from 1958 to 1960, and were used on uncataloged sets and, in a very few cases, on some low-priced cataloged sets. For years, the general rule was that, if the car number ended in a zero, then it had solid, non-operating couplers (of course, to every rule there are exceptions).

A.F. #21158, shown below, is an uncataloged 0-6-0T Docksider Switcher from 1960. Its front coupler is a non-operating, solid coupler.

(copyright © Ted Hamler; used by permission)

A.F. #24110, shown below, is a 1959 uncataloged Pennsylvania Railroad gondola, which has two solid, non-operating couplers.

(copyright © Ted Hamler; used by permission)

A.F. #24630, shown below, is what American Flyer collectors call a "Bobtail" caboose, meaning it only has a coupler on one end. In all there were only five Bobtail AF cabooses produced: #938, #24627, #24630, #24631, and #24632.

(copyright © Ted Hamler; used by permission)

You will find these in collectors' display cabinets, and on the secondary markets, but these are no longer actively manufactured or sold with new equipment. If you are interested in collecting original American Flyer equipment, this is a listing of all the A.F. items produced with solid, non-operating couplers:

A.F. #Description
211581960 0-6-0T Dockside Switcher (shown above)
211611960 Prestone Car Care Express 4-4-2 Atlantic steam engine
241061960 Pennsylvania gondola
241101959 Pennsylvania gondola (shown above)
241301960 Pennsylvania gondola
243091957-58 Gulf Oil tank car
243101960 Gulf Oil single-dome tank car
243201960 Deep Rock single-dome tank car
243211959 Deep Rock tank car
243251960 Gulf Oil single-dome tank car
244201958 "Simmons Carload" reefer
245401960 New Haven Purity flat car, cardboard pipes
246031957-58 American Flyer Lines caboose
246101958 American Flyer Lines caboose (non-lighted)
246301960 American Flyer Lines caboose (non-lighted; shown above)
(281)881959 4-4-0 Franklin "Fifty Years of Progress in RR" display model

As mentioned above, A.F. items ending with a zero in their product number have solid, non-operating couplers. Here is a list of the exceptions:

A.F. #Description
240301960 Uncataloged MKT box car (Pike-Master; part of Prestone set with #21160 engine)
240601963-64 M&StL box car (Pike-Master)
242301961-64 Peabody hopper (Pike-Master)
245501959-64 Monon flat car
247201959-61 FY&P RR coach
247301959-61 FY&P RR Overland baggage
247401960 Baggage Express combination car
247501960-61 FY&P RR combination car

A.C. Gilbert Link Couplers

Below is a photo of the top and bottom view of a 1946 thin-shank link coupler. The shank is reduced to 1/8" in thickness at the point it attaches to the truck, by means of the link pin. The link bar on the 1946 coupler is typically black, and Gilbert utilized a circular crimping method to connect the link bar to the truck assembly.

(copyright © Ted Hamler; used by permission)

Below is a photo of the top and bottom view of a 1947 thick-shank link coupler. The shank maintains its uniform thickness of 1/4". In 1947 the shank thickness was increased as the 1946 version experienced a high rate of breakage. To solve the problem, Gilbert elected to increase the shank thickness, which meant that the link bar itself had to be increased as well. The link bar on 1947 is typically silver in appearance, and Gilbert utilized a star crimping method to connect the link bar to the truck assembly.

(copyright © Ted Hamler; used by permission)

Below is a photo of the top and bottom view of a 1948 thick-shank link coupler with a brass weight. The 1948 model is the same as the 1947 model except for the addition of that weight. After correcting the breakage problem in 1947, Gilbert was faced with the problem of cars uncoupling. The weight assisted in keeping the link coupler in the down position to eliminate the uncoupling.

(copyright © Ted Hamler; used by permission)

Below is a photo of the top and bottom view of 1949 to 1953 thick-shank link couplers with a blackened steel weight. These were identical to the 1948 model, except that the steel weight was cheaper than the brass one used in 1948. Knowing the differences in these four types of couplers is a one way of dating early American Flyer locomotives and rolling stock. Many collectors believe that in 1953 the "link coupler" era was over. By 1953 Gilbert had converted a major part of their line to the newer knuckle couplers but still offered link couplers on a couple of lower priced sets and some leftover stock.

(copyright © Ted Hamler; used by permission)

Here is a close-up of the link pins used in the above-mentioned couplers. These were used from 1946 through 1953.

(copyright © Ted Hamler; used by permission)

After adding weights to the couplers in 1948 that solved many of the problems with lighter and smaller freight cars, some issues still existed with longer and heavier items such as passenger cars and some Alco locomotives. So, in 1952, Gilbert created what they called a "spring assist coupler", shown below. A small spring was attached to the coupler and link bar to assist in holding the coupler in the down position. In 1952, all of the 500-series cars plus the cars in the #5205W Silver Streak set, including the #405, were equipped with this coupler. A few Santa Fe #306/361 and #360/364 Alcos have also been reported with this style coupler.

(copyright © Ted Hamler; used by permission)

A.C. Gilbert Knuckle Couplers

If you have any familiarity with American Flyer at all, you will have undoubtedly seen the "knuckle coupler" (a.k.a. "claw" coupler). Some S-scale manufacturers, such as Lionel and M.T.H. manufacture their equipment with the "A.F.-compatible" coupler. It is with this knuckle coupler that they claim compatibility. This allows American Flyer and hi-rail enthusiasts who operate their equipment on their layout to be able to couple both modern as well as classic S-scale equipment.

The early riveted operating coupler was introduced in 1952, as shown in the photo below on the 1952 green #931 T&P Gondola. A.C. Gilbert introduced their new knuckle coupler into their line on only two sets that had the letter "K" in the set number, and on the locomotives, to indicate these sets had the new knuckle couplers. The two sets are the K5206W, consisting of a #K326 4-6-4 NYC Hudson, #929 MP stock car, #931 T&P gondola, #925 Gulf tank car, and an American Flyer #930 caboose. The second set was the K5210W with a #K335 4-8-4 UP Northern, #931 T&P gondola, 928 C&NW flat car with a log load, a #944 wrecking crane car, and a #945 work & boom car. Note that not all of the cars and locomotives in these two sets had the riveted knuckle couplers, as sets that were produced later in 1952 had the later style knuckle couplers. The cars and locomotives in these two sets were not sold separately.

From late 1952 through 1960 knuckle couplers were officially used in great numbers, as shown on the blue #24124 B&M gondola below. However, the B&M gondola was actually produced in 1963 and 1964, which is one of a few exceptions to the basic rule that after 1960 all rolling stock came with "Pike-Master" couplers and trucks.

From 1958 through 1960 solid, non-operating knuckle couplers were offered on a total of three locomotives and twelve cars (see discussion above, and as shown on the 1959 Tuscan #24110 Pennsylvania gondola in the photo above).

The Pike-Master coupler was used from 1961 through 1966 (the last year of A.C. Gilbert), and is shown on the 1961-through-1965 light gray #24127 Monon gondola.

(copyright © Ted Hamler; used by permission)

Referencing the photo below, the top two coupler styles were found on cars and locomotives that were produced at the A.C. Gilbert factory. The center one is the solid, non-operating knuckle coupler (Gilbert part number PA15215), which was produced at the A.C. Gilbert factory between 1958 and 1960, and mainly found on uncataloged items. The split shank is an A.C. Gilbert replacement coupler, often used by their repair center at the factory, or at authorized repair shops. The last one is an example of a reproduction knuckle coupler. Because of the split in this style coupler, it can also be used to replace/convert link coupler locomotives and rolling stock to knuckle couplers. The coupler not pictured is the knuckle coupler used on the 1952 green #931 T&P gondola. Like the early knuckle coupler, it has a split and a hole in the side of the shank to allow it to be riveted to the truck assembly.

(copyright © Ted Hamler; used by permission)

Modernday A.F.-compatible Couplers

The above discussion focused on couplers that were originally produced by A.C. Gilbert. Because there are a large number of modelers who still enjoy setting up and operating their American Flyer equipment, most major S-scale manufacturers, such as American Models, Lionel, the former S-Helper Service, and M.T.H., manufacture their cars and engines with AF-compatible couplers (as shown in the photo below of an S-Helper Service box car). These couplers are truck-mounted (see inset), to allow for the tight curves that most American Flyer-based layouts have. They are backward-compatible with the original A.C. Gilbert American Flyer's operating knuckle couplers. If you have a traditional American Flyer or hi-rail layout, these pieces of equipment require no modification, and are ready to be used straight out of the box.

(copyright © Peter Vanvliet; used by permission)

"Scale" Couplers

The A.F. knuckle couplers are rock-solid on typical American Flyer track and perform well when used at high speeds. However, if you prefer more to-scale couplers, or run your equipment at moderate, more to-scale speeds, you might be interested in "scale" couplers. These are the S-scale version of the ones that you'll find on HO-scale equipment. The equipment produced today will usually have holes pre-drilled under the model ready to accept the three screws for an S-scale "scale" coupler. This converts the car from truck-mounted to body-mounted couplers at the same time. It will only take a matter of a few minutes to make this change on most cars.

When Kadee® came out with their Magne-Matic® couplers, S-scale modelers looking for that extra bit of realism started using the HO-scale Kadee #5 couplers (shown on the right). The only issue with the #5 coupler is that it is designed for HO-scale, so the metal pin doesn't bend down far enough for it to be used in S-scale with the under-the-track magnet system. Kadee eventually produced an S-scale version, the Kadee 802 coupler which subsequently became a standard within the "scale" community of S. Their #808 coupler is identical except it is molded in brown plastic. They are ever so slightly oversized when compared to a true coupler, but they offer the same benefits as the HO-scale couplers. The #5 and #802/808 couplers mate with each other, so it is possible to have a mix of these couplers in your trains. If you run long, heavy (especially all-brass) trains, you might want to prefer the #802/808 couplers over the #5. S-Helper Service came out with their own version of the coupler (part #01295, shown in the photo below), which mates perfectly with the Kadee #802/808 coupler (and with the #5). The S-Helper Service coupler has a slightly smaller knuckle (closer to scale), doesn't have as much slack as do the Kadees, and has a slightly smaller draft gear box, making it easier to install in some cars. The S-Helper Service couplers can sometimes still be found on the secondary market. However, now that MTH has purchased the S-Helper Service product line, they have their own version of the coupler available as part #35-1110, readily available from any authorized MTH dealer.

(copyright © Peter Vanvliet; used by permission)

If you are on a budget, Proto Max couplers by Walthers (product ID 920-6001), shown below in the 20-pair package, are HO-scale couplers. They are oversized couplers for HO-scale, so that makes them a good match of S-scale. They are a good alternative if don't like the larger Kadee 802 (and comparable couplers), or the relatively expensive Sergent couplers (see below). Assembly is required, but it is easy to do. However, do note that only the center hole of the draft gear box lines up with the pre-drilled holes in the bottom of S-scale cars, so some custom installation may be necessary. They have less slack in them than the Kadee couplers do.

(copyright © Peter Vanvliet; used by permission)

True-to-scale Couplers

The ultimate true-to-scale coupler are those produced by Sergent Engineering. These are an exact 1/64th reproduction of the real thing. As shown in the photo below, some assembly is required. These are not available pre-assembled. It is not difficult to do, but does require a bit of patience. The current production of the EC64K coupler is a redesign from the earlier Sergent couplers, and has been available since April 2015.

(copyright © Peter Vanvliet; used by permission)

The knuckle opens when you hold a special magnet above the coupler (which pulls up a metal ball inside the coupler, releasing the knuckle). When cars couple, the ball falls back down, and locks the coupler. The advantages are that accidental uncouplings are nearly impossible, they can be coupled on a curve, have no slack to them, and they lead to true-to-prototype operations. The disadvantage of these couplers are their cost, the fact that assembly is required, they don't self-center, they don't couple with any of the other couplers mentioned above, and operations can be tedious, especially if access to the coupler space is restricted. They don't come with a draft gear box, but they fit perfectly into those of the Kadee 802 (separately available from Kadee if asked). The photo below shows two scratchbuilt flat cars with the Sergent couplers installed. The one on the right has been weathered with the Bragdon Enterprises weathering powders shown in the photo. The powder didn't affect the operation of the coupler, and gave it that fantastic realistic look (in the real world couplers aren't allowed to be painted so that cracks and other potential defects can be quickly spotted; this means that they tend to rust).

(copyright © Peter Vanvliet; used by permission)

S-scale Narrow-gauge Couplers

Most Sn3 modelers use the Kadee #4 coupler (an HO-scale coupler that is now discontinued). If you are an old-time modeler (as in modeling era, not your biological age!), Wiseman Model Services produces link-and-pin couplers that fit in the Kadee #4 draft box.

Sn2 modelers can use the Kadee #714, which is an HOn3 coupler.

Which Coupler Should I Choose?

If you enjoy operating A.C. Gilbert American Flyer equipment and you want to be able to couple to them items produced in recent years, you will need to standardize on the A.F.-compatible knuckle coupler. It is certainly possible to convert older A.F. equipment to use "scale" couplers, but that will require a bit of creative, custom work. Port Lines Hobby Supply produces reproduction couplers, if you are interested in those.

If you are a "hi-rail" modeler, you can go either way. Some hi-rail modelers prefer the backward-compatibility and so they standardize on the knuckle coupler. Others prefer the more realistic look of the scale coupler.

For "scale" modelers, your choices are the Kadee #5, #802/#808, M.T.H. coupler, Walthers ProtoMax, or the Sergent couplers. All of these, except for the Sergent ones, are compatible with each other. If you like the looks of the Sergent coupler, be sure to purchase at least two pair and try them out for a while. Several modelers have enthusiastically bought them, but found them hard to use in their normal operations on their particular layout. It seems that being able to see the couplers from higher up is very helpful. If your layout is more at eye-level, you are going to want to "live" with them for a while. If you are entering models in contests, the Sergent couplers are a "no-brainer"; they are beautiful and very realistic.

If you still can't decide, you might want to consider a "conversion" car. This is one that has one type of coupler on one side and another on the other side. This will allow you to run your equipment in a train regardless of with which coupler the other equipment is supplied.

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