"S" was the name given by the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) in 1943 for modeling in a ratio of 1:64. Meaning, real-world measurements are divided by 64 to provide the scale model dimensions. The scale is also known as "3/16th scale", because a prototype English foot is equal to 3/16th of an inch in S-scale. Conveniently, each 1/64" tick mark on a ruler represents one scale inch on the model. This makes modeling in S-scale very convenient.
S-scale sits in the middle of all the popular model railroading scales.
Many people consider S-scale to be the perfect model railroad scale, because it doesn't take up much more space than HO-scale, but it does provide the heft needed in locomotives to make them run better. As modelers get older, the fine details in N- and HO-scale modelers may become harder to see, and working in those scales may become more difficult. S-scale makes working on your cars and engines much more fun. The larger O-scale and G-gauge would make working on those details even easier to see, but because those details are clearly visible, they almost have to be modeled. This makes modeling in those scales a lot of work. Further complications ensue when dealing with multiple or larger motors inside those engines, or with wanting to build full-size structures in our limited spaces.
S-scale has also been called the "builder's scale". This used to be very real in the early days, but much less so today. Many items are available ready-to-run, or in kits that are easy enough to build. Nevertheless, if you enjoy building, "S" is a good scale to be in. Many people purposely switch to S-scale, precisely because there isn't as much available as there is in N- and HO-scales. It helps you keep control over your hobby budget, and it also challenges you to learn some new skills that the other scales don't require. S is something different, something new, something challenging.
Ultimately, if you are interested in the hobby of model railroading, it is an individual decision as to which scale to use. We feel that S-scale just looks right to the eye, and, from those who have switched from N- or HO-scale, the feedback has consistently been that it is much easier to build things in S-scale, from track to structures and even scratchbuilding cars and engines.
The photo below is a great shot of comparing a similar 40-foot box car across the various scales.
Throughout this web site we refer to modeling in 1:64th scale as "S-scale". You will find magazines and other web sites using the term "S-gauge" or "S gauge". That terminology is not correct. That terminology has its roots in the early days of when the model railroading hobby started. You will find similar terminology used in other scales as well (e.g. "N gauge"), so this is not an S-scale-only problem.
The word "gauge" refers to the distance between the rails (standard-gauge vs. narrow-gauge), while "scale" is the ratio of prototype size to the modeled size (e.g. 1:64). So, other than for legal or historical reasons, we will always use "S-scale" on this web site. Yes, post-war American Flyer is "S-scale".
Past NASG presidents Roy Hoffman and Bill Winans have publicly expressed that we should start to use the term "S-scale" instead of "S gauge". Also, past NASG Vice-President Dave Heine wrote an article in the February 2009 issue of the NASG Dispatch (pg 20), explaining the difference between scale and gauge.
In the photo below, note how the volume of the On3 car (back row, center) is almost the same as the S standard-gauge car (middle row, left), and how the HO standard-gauge car (front row, left) is almost the same as the Sn3 car (middle row, center).
S-scale has its roots in the American Flyer brand. Before World War II, A.C. Gilbert bought the American Flyer product line, and made trains that could operate on the Lionel O-scale track. The equipment was made to 1:64 scale, but the wheels and trucks were gauged to the wider O-scale standard. After WWII, to be able to better compete with rival Lionel, A.C. Gilbert developed the more prototypical-looking two-rail system, and spaced the rail gauge to that of S-scale. Lionel, in its O-scale track, uses a third rail down the center of the track, since it primarily used AC power for the engines. A.C. Gilbert won the battle of which of the two had the most realistic-looking track.
There are four distinct groups within the S-scale community, namely "American Flyer" (typically abbreviated as "A.F." or "AF", sometimes also called "tin plate" especially when referring to pre-war items), "hi-rail", "scale" (usually referring to standard-gauge track), and "narrow-gauge". All model in S-scale, or the 1:64 ratio, but with some slightly different flavors. Because of the American Flyer roots, there are a lot of people who still have and perhaps operate original A.C. Gilbert American Flyer products. Lionel now owns the American Flyer brand name, and they continue to manufacture products under that name. These are compatible with the older A.C. Gilbert A.F. products. "Scale" modeling covers both standard-gauge and narrow-gauge. This is similar to the popular HO-scale. Models have finer details and are more delicate.
The significant difference between A.F. and scale is that A.F. uses the larger knuckle coupler, deep-flanged wheels, and the wheel thread is wider in AF. The couplers are incompatible with Kadee-style couplers used by scale modelers (but can generally be swapped out fairly easily). The AF deep-flanged and wider wheels will, generally, run on straight or curved track, if the rail height is tall enough. However, due to the wider width of AF wheels, they will not operate on "scale" turnouts. However, "scale" wheels should operate just fine on AF or "high-rail" turnouts. "Scale" wheels and trucks are available and can be used to replace AF trucks, if so desired. AF modelers usually also enjoy the A.C. Gilbert style of accessories, such as animated structures and signs. The "hi-rail" group of modelers fit in between true AF modelers and true scale modelers. These are usually people who started off with American Flyer and are slowly transitioning to more scale-like modeling.
The modeling style is an individual choice; whatever gives you the greatest enjoyment out of this hobby. After all, that is the objective of a hobby. All "flavors" of S-scale modeling are actively supported within the S-scale community and by the NASG and on this web site. The "united" word in the NASG logo refers to the fact that we are all still 1:64-scale modelers.
As a side note, lest you think these issues are unique to S-scale only, N-scale used Rapido couplers that are incompatible with the Micro-Trains or Kadee-style couplers, as well as deep-flanged wheels; HO-scale used to have the old horn-hook couplers that are also incompatible with Kadee-style couplers; O-scale is very similar to S-scale, in that it, too, has claw-style couplers that are incompatible with Kadee-style O-scale couplers and deep-flanged wheels. Additionally, O-scale has the issue with their rail gauge being five feet wide, not the correct 4' 8-1/2", and they use a center rail to conduct electricity.
Modeling in narrow-gauge in S-scale is a lot easier than in the smaller scales. The engines track better. There is more space inside for DCC, sound, and/or battery power. The details are easier to see. P-B-L is the main Sn3 equipment manufacturer. Sn2 is primarily supported by Portland Locomotive Works. Bar Mills, the structure kit manufacturer, has an Sn2 layout in the foyer of their business office, built by the owner Art Fahie and some of his friends. There are a few people who model in Sn42 (a.k.a. 3-1/2' gauge). Railmaster Exports is one manufacturer how provides locomotive kits (both steam and diesel). These are primarily intended for New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada modeling of 3-1/2'-gauge prototypes.
There is also a small group of S-scale modelers who use the Proto:64 standard for track and wheels. This standard uses an exact down-sizing of the real track dimensions. This requires very accurate track components and track-laying disciplines, and matching exact-size wheels on both locomotives and cars. There are a few companies that make Proto:64 parts. If done with the required accuracy, this will yield very realistic-looking track and wheels.
If you are S-curious, you do not need to ditch your existing models and layout. Start off small. Buy an S-scale box car, ready-to-run or a kit. See if you like the size. See if you can see the details better.
If you still have some American Flyer left over from when you were a kid, take it out of the boxes, clean it up, and see if it still runs. Again, see if you like the size now that you are older.
If you are interested in seeing S-scale in person, consider looking for an S-scale club. Click on the "S Clubs" button on the right, and look for one near you. Contact the club to see if they have an upcoming club meeting or show. Almost all clubs will welcome you and be glad to show you around. Most clubs have meetings at members' homes, so you will be able to see their layout in person, if they have one. You might also see if there is an upcoming model railroad show in your neck of the woods, by clicking on the "Events" button on the left. We try to list only shows that have or likely to have an S-scale presence (club layout, S manufacturer, etc.).
One reason for the existence of the NASG is to bring people together who have a common interest in modeling in 1:64 scale. Whether or not you are an NASG member, the NASG's regional vice-presidents are here to help you with whatever questions you have. If they don't have the answer themselves, they certainly have the contacts to get you the info.
Contact the Eastern Vice President, Jeff English, if you live in Alabama, Delaware, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, District of Columbia, Canada (Maritime Provinces, Quebec, Ontario), or Europe.
Contact the Central Vice President, Jay Mellon, if you live in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, or Wisconsin.
Contact the Western Vice President, Peter Gehret, if you live in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, Canada (Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, Yukon), New Zealand, or Australia.
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