Tamiya's T-34/76 1943
The T-34 is arguably the most important tank of the Second World War. And while it may not have the pop-culture cachet as the Tiger I, it certainly makes up for that in ubiquity. In total, some 84,000 T-34s were produced by Russia and the Soviet Union over an 18-year period making it the second most produced tank series of all time.
With these figures in mind, I wanted to understand what effect T-34s had on the battlefield and how such a large quantity were produced. And the perfect springboard to answering these questions was Tamiya's 1/35th scale legacy T-34/76 1943 kit.
Editor's note: Choose your own content! Click here to be taken to the kit and build, or continue reading to learn about the tank's background.
By the late 1930s, Soviet armored units were primarily comprised of the T-26 and BT series of tanks. The T-26 series was intended to fight alongside the infantry in slow and grinding assaults, while the BT was optimized for maneuver warfare. Neither tank was a ground-up Soviet design. The T-26 was based on the British Vickers tank, while the BT series was based on a chassis and suspension developed by the American, J. Walter Christie.
Border skirmishes with Japan at the battles of Lake Khasan (1938) and Khalkhin Gol (1939) revealed fundamental inadequacies of the existing Soviet armored stock. Soviet encounters with the modestly armed Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go often resulted in Soviet tanks bursting into flames due to their gasoline engines. And if a Soviet tank was not completely knocked out, its crew could expect ruptured rivets zipping through the fighting compartment. Not great.
Concurrent with the events of the border wars, confectioner turned engineer, Mikhail Koshkin, was developing a prototype to replace the BT series of maneuver tanks. However, the full accounting of Lake Khasan and Khalkin Gol led Koshkin to propose a new prototype for a "universal tank". The existing prototype, the A-20, was therefore set aside in favor of the A-32. The A-32 featured more armor and armament. But it wasn't until a second dose of armor and an even more powerful gun that the A-32 was deemed production worthy. The year was 1940, and it was called the T-34.
Historians generally agree that the T-34 was incredibly innovative. But from my research, it's not that the T-34 introduced new technologies, rather it's how they were combined. Think HMS Dreadnaught, or the iPhone.
In terms of a tank's Iron Triangle, the tradeoff between the competing demands of mobility, firepower, and armor, the T-34 combined the following:
Mobility: Utilized a derivation of the Christie suspension and a 500hp 12-cylinder Kharkiv model V-2 engine. Both of these can be directly traced to the BT series. Crucially, the T-34 also featured a set of relatively wide tracks to negotiate the "rasputitsa", or mud season.
Firepower: The T-34 initially mounted a 76mm L-11 gun. However it was discovered that this platform was underpowered. It was replaced by the F-34 76mm gun featuring a higher muzzle velocity. Later variants of the T-34 went even further and sported an 85mm gun in a new turret. These would be called T-34/85s and the former referred to as T-34/76s.
Armor: 45mm sloped at the front. That's what most people think of when they think T-34. And indeed it was taken from elsewhere, the BT series. Sloped armor is often considered as a means of deflecting incoming shells. Additionally, it is also a means to increase the effective armor thickness. See Pythagorean theorem. This combination of deflection, and relative thickness allowed the T-34 to use less material, which means less weight, which means more maneuverability.
Impressive as the above characteristics were, there were also flaws. For example, crew comfort was sacrificed. This is partly the result of the sloped armor which creates smaller crew compartments, and partly the result of Soviet doctrine. Optics were also limited, and inter-tank communications were reduced to radios for platoon commander tanks, and signal flags for the rest.
When the Germany army launched Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 they did so with confidence. Their Panzer I, II, III, and IV formations had already proved their worth in the blitzkrieg campaigns of Poland, France, and North Africa. But Soviet tanks like the T-34 caught them by surprise. To counter the new T-34 threat, the Panzer IV was quickly up-gunned to a long-barrel 75mm gun, and development of the Panther tank, a German tank explicitly influenced by the T-34, commenced in haste.
Despite setbacks at the squad level, the German army was able to gain the strategic initiative and advance their forces to the gates of Moscow. This in turn caused Soviet forces to move entire factories, workers, and families involved in producing the T-34 east of the Ural Mountains. The distances involved are incredible. This begs the question: How can tens of thousands of T-34s get produced when their entire industrial base is uprooted in the middle of the world's largest war?
The answer lies in the relentless pursuit of efficiencies. According to the Tank Museum's T-34 Tank Talk linked below, the only modifications considered for T-34 design were those that sped production or reduced cost. In fact, there are anecdotes of T-34s being sent to combat without paint and without driver seats! By 1942, approximately 1,200 T-34s were produced each month. Now compare that to the 1,300 Tigers produced during the course of the entire war. It's simply staggering. Moreover, the T-34's armor would roughly double, its firepower roughly double, and see its unit costs roughly halved. Talk about a way to combat inflation while we're at it! And in all seriousness, the more I read about the industrial side of things, I wonder if the T-34 is best described as a process rather than an object.
In terms of combat record, it is my opinion that the T-34's results are mixed. In addition to being the most produced tank of WW2, it was also the most destroyed. Records suggest 44,000 were lost in combat, and the tank-exchange ratio with German forces never fell below 1:1. I'm not going to try and disentangle the reasons for such losses, although they can generally be attributable to early reliability issues, a Soviet focus on attrition-based warfare, being surpassed in capability in the second half of the war, and the general brutality of the Eastern Front.
Yet even with these losses, the T-34 was undoubtedly the right tank, in the right place, at the right time. Its design was uniquely informed by British, American, and Japanese interwar tank engineering, and consistently improved under the direct pressures of WW2. Their sheer battlefield numbers ensured they would produce positive effects on the battlefield. Quantity is a quality onto its own. It's legacy is clear, too. T-34s fundamentally changed the art of tank design and helped to establish the main battle tank concept. They would go on to serve in dozens of countries around the world, and several may remain in service as late as 2023. Today they are an enduring symbol of freedom and perseverance to the people former Soviet republics.
According to scalemates.com, Tamiya first tooled their T-34 series in 1975. Over the decades, several kit variations were released. These include representations of different T-34 production years and different turret designs, remember the continual manufacturing improvements and 85mm gun. The one I am building represents a T-34 with the 76mm gun as may have been built in 1943. Crucially, this old tooling was meant to accommodate a motor. As a result, certain compromises were made to the lower hull at the expense of accuracy. For example, there are voids between the lower hull and side fenders. There is also an interesting arrangement involving a metal screw and the front idler wheels that enable track tension adjustment.
The kit does not have a large number of parts and the molds are basic by today's standards. Rubber band style track are included. That being said, there is no shortage interesting build possibilities because a large number of accessories are featured. A small decal sheet and several crew members round everything out.
The build was very straightforward. Wheels, lower hull, and upper hull assembly were all completed in four simple steps. The turret was a whopping three steps including one that focused on the main gun. Some builders might find this kit "too simple", but the expedited construction is exactly what I wanted. And remember, the real T-34 was optimized for ease of assembly. So why shouldn't the model?
As I mentioned in the section above, there was a lot of room for customization, and we already know that the T-34 was not a static design. The road wheels are a great example. Two types are included in the box. One type has rubber rims and the other type is all steel. Interestingly, they can be used in combination! Investigative research from the igluemodels Historical Bureau revealed that there was a rubber shortage during the war that led to the use of all steel wheels. Then there was the realization that steel wheels caused too much wear and tear on the tracks and suspension. So what to do? Compromise! It was found that using rubber-tyred wheels in the leading and trailing locations, with steel-tyred wheels between, led to satisfactory resource and performance trade-offs.
There was only one part of the build that caused great horror. The tracks. They were very tight. Usually rubber band style tracks have enough slack so that you can heat-fuse them off the tank, and then stretch them over the running gear. Not these. I decided to heat-fuse the tracks while they were already on the running gear. Big mistake. As I let them cool, the tracks literally started to pull themselves apart. What a blunder.
Fortunately, I was able to perform surgery. I started by cutting away the ruined track links, and then I used UV glue to splice in links of accessory styrene tracks. The repair job was not pretty, but it was strong. Repainting, weathering, and careful placement, hid everything to my liking.
Up till this point, I've generally painted tanks using a black and white pre-shading method like on this Panzer II. But because this build was so quick, I decided to focus a little more on painting, and that let me consider post-shading.
Post-shading, as its name suggests, involves a relatively darker base color that is progressively highlighted in smaller and small areas. Think of a "paint pyramid": darker and wider at the base, lighter and smaller towards the top. For a better idea of how this works, you can check out this post detailing how I painted the T-34's wheels, and this post, by the incredible Night Shift, which was the original inspiration.
Once the main paint pyramid was completed, I went back and used Tamiya X-19 Smoke to darken certain areas. While not perfect execution on my part, I was extremely pleased with the end result. I know this is a technique I will revisit.
As is customary, I used a gloss varnish to seal in the tank's details and make a smooth surface before adding decals and weathering. And despite there being only four decals, I was really surprised how much life they gave to the otherwise green tank (post-shading can only excite us so much).
To add even more color to the tank, I decided to rust the exhausts and engine deck. The exhausts were done using a technique that I detailed in my Tiger 131 build. Rusting was also done in a familiar way by leveraging Vallejo's Rust, Stain, and Streaking set. Start by using a sponge or fine brush to add Dark Chocolate Brown chips to the model. Then add depth to a subset of chips with Chocolate Brown. Finally add rust to a further subset of chips with any number of rust tones. Less is more. The best advice is to do a little, step away, and repeat as needed. An oil dot filter, pin wash, and streaking effects rounded out the weathering.
A number of techniques were used to weather the tracks on this beast. The goal was to bring out as much detail as rubber-band style tracks allow. My favorite tip is to pre-paint individual links with different colors. Think pre-shading before adding the top coat. Doing this will immediately bring definition to individual links. Various washes for rust and depth were also added. Pigments tied everything together.
I'm a bit torn on this kit. On the one hand, it was simple to go together, and even if it lacks accuracy, owing to its motorized-toy-like origins, I think it provides a nice representation of a T-34/76. The accompanying accessories and figures give the modeler excellent opportunities for customization out of the box. On the other hand, those tracks! It was very demoralizing to get to the end stage of the build only to realize that the tracks were way too tight. Then to have one break. Sigh. Maybe that's the lesson here? Test fit tracks earlier, or ditch the rubber band tracks in favor of aftermarket.
On the painting front, I'm very glad I tried the post-shading. I enjoyed the process and I'm eager to try it again. How do you think it looks?
Thanks for reading,
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