We could not afford a lot of miniatures. We often used the redcoats and continentals you could order from the back of comic books, since they were small. We we lucky if every player had a miniature of their character.
We used Ral Partha mostly. I know there were a lot of companies doing them back then. You would pick up a package of goblin archers, some orcs. Slowly those who DM’d the most built up a collection.
Miniatures were not needed most of the time. Usually we only used them for the party to show marching/riding order or where we were relative to each other. A big piece of paper or wet erase mat would then have marks for the enemies, or a unique die, Lego, small Lincoln Log, etc.
We have played with nothing more than X’s and O’s or initials on the mat or paper to distinguish players from monsters.
Not all miniatures were painted, and not all that were painted were painted well.
[EDIT] – Here are pictures of my entire miniature collection. All but one is from Ral Partha, 1979. The skeleton, I am not sure of, and I can’t read what is on the bottom of the three-pack minis. They all have lead, and the warning on the back of the box mentions it. the cool thing about the three stage minis is that you could change your character’s pose mid-game, or you had three minis for whatever you needed.
I have also participated in the Hero Forge Kickstarter at the level to get my own mini. This will be fun! It has four days to go as of February 13, 2014.