The Red Army’s #1 workhorse of the Great Patriotic War, this is an iconic tank. I recently built its big brother the T-34/85, and now have added the earlier model to my Soviet garage. The 85mm tank was a Warlord model, while this is a Rubicon kit.
Pretty regularly you’ll hear people calling the T-34 “the best tank of the war”, and when they do they’re often referring to the later T-34/85 model. And while I don’t at all agree with the hype, arguably the combat debut of the earlier T-34/76 was a pretty significant historical event. There was a time from the start of Barbarossa to mid-42 (when the Germans started getting the upgunned Panzer IV F2/G) that the T-34 was (at least on paper) the king of the tank hill.
At the start of Barbarossa the Red Army had something like 3,000 T-34s, all packing a 76.2mm gun that could kill any German tank it hit, and with enough armour to bounce rounds from the German’s 50mm guns over the frontal arc. This was a tank that could kill them, but which they couldn’t kill from the front. Worse, the Germans didn’t even have 3,000 tanks of all types, even if you throw in the assault guns. Although the Germans were blissfully unaware of just how many of them the Reds had, it’s fair to say that these tanks gave the Germans a real shock and lit a fire under German tank design. The Panzer III and IV were upgunned and uparmoured, and work began on the Panther in earnest. The only thing that saved the German tank arm from a real crisis was the general ineptitude of the Red Army in the early stages of the fighting. If Red Army T-34s had been well-crewed and well-led they could have curb-stomped the Germans on many occasions. As it was, loss rates of T-34s were actually extremely high; it was a dangerous vehicle, but was rarely employed well and the Germans were able to kill a lot of them.
It wasn’t all due to mishandling though; the design had some serious flaws. Much is made of the lack of radios in the early days. It also made the common pre-war mistake of only having a two-man turret. The tank commander had little situational awareness due to the lack and poor quality of his optics, and both his gunnery duties and Soviet doctrine prevented him from fighting head out. Worse, operating the gun himself distracted him from searching for targets and threats and meant the tank could either shoot or be aware of the battle, but not both simultaneously. This was how German tanks and AT guns would often defeat the T-34; they got their shots off first, and more rapidly. They were more likely to spot and identify the T-34 as a threat before it spotted them, and any tankie will tell you that often it’s who shoots first that wins (especially if they can use that situational awareness to move to the right spot before firing). Of those 3,000 T-34s that the Red Army had in 1941 a staggering 2,300 were lost in 1941. So it’s not hard to understand why Soviet industry focussed almost entirely on rapid replacement of losses, at least until the Army could re-organise and re-train to improve performance.
It’s worth pointing out that Soviet designers were very much aware of many of the T-34’s faults. They were just brutally pragmatic about the cost-benefit analysis on fixing them. Some, like the two-man turret were indeed fixed on the later T-34/85, but many others (such as poor welding and casting quality) were deliberately not fixed as they would have slowed down production. If fixing the welding improved combat performance by (say) 3% but slowed production by 5% then they simply wouldn’t do it. That sucks if you’re a tank crewman, but ultimately it was an approach that won them the war. They were more interested in devoting their engineering time and effort to measures which made the tank easier, quicker and cheaper to produce. And they did: throughout its run the build time and cost of a T-34 dropped, even when they made improvements like switching from the L-11 to the F34 76.2mm gun the cost kept coming down, and even the much-improved 85mm tank was cheaper than the early models.
The Rubicon model
I recently made a Warlord T-34/85, so it was interesting comparing the approach the two companies have made to a similar plastic kit. In my opinion Rubicon have consistently produced the best standard of kits, but Warlord has definitely raised their bar and there’s now very little between them. Typically a Rubicon kit has slightly more options and they do the tracks differently. That was certainly the case here; this kit has the standard Rubicon-style tracks with the tracks themselves moulded as one piece with the wheels, while the Warlord kit has separate tracks that you glue to the wheels. In this case the Rubicon kit doesn’t actually mean fewer parts: all the road wheels have an inner and outer half that has to be glue together. You’ve also got two different road wheel options: those with rubber rims and without. I went with the latter because it’s different, a very Soviet look, and to be honest it saves a fiddly bit of painting! Steel wheels began to be fitted for a period starting in 1942 when the USSR was short on rubber, so I guess these wheels date this vehicle to that middle period and not Barbarossa. If you want a model you can use for anything 41-44 maybe go for the rubber wheels.
With your tracks assembled and glued onto the slightly odd two-part lower hull you’re well on your way to being done. As you’d expect from a Rubicon kit you’ve got multiple options for the rest including two different turrets (cast and welded, I went for cast), two guns, and a multitude of different hatch, light, smoke gen, storage bin, and aux fuel drum options. The excellent instructions do spell out clearly which options are typical for different sub-variants of the tank, but they also encourage you to mix and match. I like that. Like other vehicles mass-produced in crazy numbers (eg: Sherman) there was a vast variation in small details as vehicles were produced in multiple factories, and designs were refined over time, as well as tanks being modified or repaired in the field. There really is no “wrong” way to build this kit.
While you do get plenty of gun tank options, once nice feature of the Warlord kit that this Rubicon one lacks is the option to convert this into the OT-34 flame tank. Shame as that would have been a single part…
I’ve experimented with some new techniques on this vehicle. I got some AK Interactive Dark Streaking Grime. This is an oil-based weathering product, you paint lines of grimy scunge onto the model and then using an old brush with a little white spirit on it you can drag the oily grime into streaks that should look like they’re caused by oil and water. There’s a bit of a technique to using it properly and I’m not totally happy with my work, but I think it’s worth persevering as it does produce quite a nice oily effect (well, it should, being oil…). It could be a useful tool to have in the box, for sure. I wanted this vehicle to look a bit more ragged than the T-34/85, and did briefly consider some really heavy chipping using the hairspray method but in the end I just painted some chips on using rust and then a little bit of Vellojo’s excellent “oily steel”.