Visual History of the Tank

A century of war wagons, from the Renault FT to America’s trusty Abrams.

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Visual History of the Tank © Visual History of the Tank

The battle tank came into its own during WWI, but the basic idea—armor up a self-propelled vehicle and fill it with soldiers—existed long before that. Leonardo da Vinci and H.G. Wells both explored the idea in fanciful ways; engineers in Europe and America played around with tracked agricultural kit into the first decade of the twentieth century. The revelation of trench warfare, and the lengthy stalemates that followed, created a demand for a vehicle that’d plow through no man’s land, wiping out machine gun nests with their own weaponry and clearing a path for infantry behind them.

France, Russia, and England all set about developing armored conveyances to punch through the lines, with each prototype more bizarre than the last: R2-D2-like turrets on tractor chassis, skeletal irregular pentagons, landships shaped like miniature Tatooine sandcrawlers. By the Great War’s end, all three European superpowers had settled on the basic structure that would define the tank for next 100 years: caterpillar treads under a boxy, armored body.

Since then, nearly every other aspect of the tank has changed at one point or another. They’ve sprouted turrets, tougher armor and larger, more powerful guns. Engines have become more potent, bodies wider and longer and heavier. But those elemental feature, the stuff that makes a tank a tank, they’re still the same after all these years.

Mark I (United Kingdom)

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The first tank to roll into combat, the Mark I came in two versions: Male and Female. As you might expect, the male version was the one with bigger cannons. Because compensation was a thing even in 1916.

Renault FT (France)

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Entering service in 1917, the FT was ahead of its time. It was the first with a fully rotating turret, and its basic layout—crew up front, engine in the back, weaponry up top—became the standard configuration for the next century.

Tank Mark VIII, a.k.a. “The International” (United States and United Kingdom)

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A joint project between superpowers, the Mark VIII was the last mainstream tank to use the wraparound tread design you remember fromIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Intended to blast through German defenses in a planned 1919 offensive, it wound up going largely unused after the war ended.

T-28 (U.S.S.R.)

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Developed in the interwar years, the twin-turreted T-28 proved ineffective in combat during WWII; its armor was insufficient, and it suffered from numerous mechanical maladies. Nevertheless, it served as a valuable test bed for many concepts—such as integrated radios—that Soviet designers would incorporate into later tanks.

M2 (United States)

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This boxy tank was the first American-made production model to feature a rotating turret. While it saw limited service during WWII, mostly in the Pacific theatre, it spawned variants like the M3 Stuart and the M4 artillery tractor, which would continue on to more widespread use.

Panzer II (Germany)

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Conceived as a temporary weapon to hold the line while more advanced tanks were created, the Panzer II wound up being used extensively in the early days of the war, leading Hitler’s charge into France in 1940.

T-34 (U.S.S.R.)

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Widely cited as one of the most successful tank designs of WWII, the T-34’s balanced combination of armor and agility made it superior to its German foes for much of the war. The massive quantity produced made it a battlefield mainstay through the end of the twentieth century.

M4 Sherman (United States)

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Through the Lend-Lease program, the wedge-faced M4 found its way to British and Russian forces, as well as the U.S. Army. Simple, inexpensive and reliable, it was the workhorse of the North African campaign; when equipped with flamethrowers, it played a critical role during offensives against Japanese forts in the Pacific.

Tiger II (Germany)

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69 tons of Wehrmacht whoop-ass, Germany’s second Tiger tank packed an 88mm main gun that could fire a 23 pound shell at nearly Mach 3. Fortunately for the free world, the tank was made in limited numbers only reached the battlefield in mid-1944—too late to make much of a difference.

T-54 (U.S.S.R.)

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The T-54 hit production lines too late to fight the Nazis, but became the backbone of the Warsaw Pact’s armored divisions in the decades to follow. Between the original T-54 and the updated T-55 model, close to 100,000 copies were churned out, making it the most-produced tank in history.

M46 Patton (United States)

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The M46 only saw combat during the Korean War, where it kicked sand in the faces of North Korea’s Soviet-made tanks. But its descendants would have a greater impact: The M47, M48, and M60 tanks based on it would serve America all the way into the Gulf War.

T-72 (U.S.S.R.)

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Smaller and lighter than NATO tanks of the time, the T-72 was designed to improve on issues that had arisen with the T-64. With a cheaper, more reliable engine and an improved autoloader for its main gun, the T-72 proved suitable for mass distribution, finding a home in armies from Finland to Iraq.

M103 (United States)

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This monster was a tactical piece, a precaution against ground troops surviving the nuclear fallout of a hypothetical World War 3. Weighing in at 65 tons, it packed a 127mm main gun that could crack open Soviet armor from a mile away. But its underpowered 12-cylinder Continental engines meant it couldn’t hit 25 mph.

Type 80/88 (China)

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The PRC’s first truly successful non-Soviet design, the Type 80 combined old design basics with Western-style technology. The main gun was a locally-made version of the NATO 105mm cannon, but the bowl-shaped turret was more like Warsaw Pact weaponry.

T-80 (U.S.S.R.)

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The T-80 looked fairly similar to previous Soviet armored vehicles. But, under its skin, this was the first Russian tank to pack a turbine engine instead of a diesel. Cranked out from 1975 through the collapse of the Soviet Union, it remains in service to this day—among other places, on both sides of the current Ukraine–Russia conflict.

Challenger 1 (United Kingdom)

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Designed in the Eighties, the Challenger 1 looks every bit the high-tech Cold War killing machine you’d expect from Thatcher’s Britain. Sleek and sexy (at least by tank standards), the Challenger 1 achieved a new record for longest-distance takedown during the Gulf War by sniping an Iraqi tank from over three miles away.

M1 Abrams (United States)

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America’s main battle tank in more ways than one, the Abrams was the first production tank to feature Chobham armor—a secret blend of ceramics, metal and elastic with unparalleled protective properties. Designed to counter Soviet forces in the Eighties, it too remains in service to this day, albeit after repeated rounds of upgrades to keep its teeth sharp.

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