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Zen and the Art of Building Model Kits

Since I rediscovered the joys of building model kits a few years ago, I have wondered on more than one occasion why I find this hobby so absorbing? I don’t enter competitions, I certainly don’t try to sell the finished kits and I don’t even tend to show them to anyone other than my long-suffering wife who, I suspect, has come to dread hearing the words “Hey, look at this…” 

So, why do I do it? This ramble represents my thoughts about this hobby and what I like about it. You may agree. You may not. Either way, please do feel free to add your comments.

So, why do we do this?

On the face of it, the process of kit building is more than a little absurd. A manufacturer carefully produces a scale representation of a particular aircraft, vehicle or ship. Then, they spend a great deal of time, effort and money breaking this down into component pieces so that we can buy it and build it back up into something (hopefully) resembling what they started out with.

This is a perfectly reasonable 1/76 Churchill by Oxford Diecast. If you buy one of these, you won’t get glue on your fingers or paint on the carpet. But, IMHO, you won’t have nearly as much fun either.

Now, wouldn’t it cut out a great deal of mucking about if the manufacturer simply gave us a complete model instead of a box of parts? And if they’d paint it too, then I could avoid getting the marks on the carpet that cause my wife so much distress. But there’s the thing: the mucking about is what this hobby is really about. I don’t know about you, but I generally lose interest in a kit as soon as its finished. This is clearly about the process, not the product. But what is it about building and painting a kit that gives so much satisfaction. I suspect there are several parts to the answer.

Learning about what you’re building

I love learning new stuff, particularly on topics I’m already interested in. I suspect most people are the same. And if you’re building a kit of, for example, a Panzer III Ausf. L, well, you’re going to want to know what a Panzer III is and how an Ausf. L version is different. And how and where it was used and consequently, how it was painted and used.

That’s the Fleeting Cloud camouflage pattern. Not a lot of people know that.

That applies to any kit you’re building. One of the kits I have most enjoyed building in the last 12 months was the Tamiya Chi-Ha. Partly, that’s because it’s a decent kit but it’s also because, when I started out, I knew very little about Japanese tanks. Learning about this tank led me to discover, amongst many other things, something called the “Fleeting Cloud” camouflage pattern. I shared that particular interesting fact with my wife, though she seemed surprisingly ungrateful.

You’re an artist!

However much we might want to deny it, if you go past basic construction and painting, creating tiny versions of large aircraft, vehicles and ships is an art form. Unless you’re building in 1/1 scale, you can’t simply paint a kit in precisely the same way as the original and expect it to look right. Colours look different at small scale as do things like the effects of light and shadow.

Particularly if you’re working in a small scale, you have to consider these things. That’s why techniques like dry-brushed highlights and washes that emphasise shadows can make such a difference to how a finished kit looks. They aren’t there on the original, but once you have tried them, you won’t go back to flat painted kits.

Dry-brushed highlights and an oil wash to bring out the shadows. Does that make this Italeri Marder III a work of art? I’m not certain, but it’s about as close as I will come.

And while there are lots of guides available, the amount of this type of work (plus things like paint chipping and weathering) are entirely up to you. You’ll be working with acrylic and/or enamel paints as well as oils and pastels to achieve an effect that looks right to you. Face it, you’re an artist! And that’s hugely satisfying.

Making them better

Few kits are perfect out of the box, particularly if, like me, you have an interest in older kits. These often lack detail or sometimes they’re just plain wrong. I actually enjoy the process of researching how accurate and complete a particular kit is and in trying to improve it if I can. I’m not aiming for 100% accuracy, because I’m not even sure that’s attainable.

The Airfix 1/76 Tiger from 1964 is pretty crap by modern standards. Even with a few improvements, it’s only marginally less crap. But for reasons I can’t really explain, I enjoyed the process of trying to make it better.

But I do think there is a great deal of satisfaction to be had in attempting to improve a kit. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’m less enthusiastic about some recent kits. They’re just so damn good that there is really very little you can do to make them better. I think that’s why I often find myself drawn to cheap-and-cheerful older kits that give me some scope for adding my own improvements and extra details.  

Be in the moment

Finally, we come to the Zen part of this article and what is, for me at least, one of the least recognised joys of model building. One of the concepts explored in Zen is mindfulness, sometimes called “being in the moment”. There have been whole books written about this topic, but the basic idea is simple: you give 100% of your attention to what you’re doing right now, without being distracted by thoughts of the past or future. And there’s actually good evidence that this is good for your brain, helping you to reduce stress, reducing the effects of depression and helping you to sleep.

In today’s hectic world, actually spending time wholly thinking about what you’re doing now is rare: we often do something while thinking about what we’re going to do tomorrow or worrying about what we should have done yesterday. Mindfulness is about escaping this. Of course, you can find mindfulness in lots of ways. I used to race and ride motorcycles, and those activities pretty much demand 100% concentration at all times. Because if you don’t you’ll end up bouncing down the road or track. A good ride on a fast bike can leave you feeling clear headed-and relaxed. But a failure to achieve that can lead to additions to my already extensive scar collection, so now, I get my mindfulness fix through model building.

This person is preparing to paint the roadwheel tyres on a 1/72 Panzer IV. Probably…

Whether you are painting the frame on a canopy of a small scale aircraft, or the roadwheel tyres on a small scale tank, or just about any other aspect of building a model, you are giving all your attention to what you’re doing. That’s why a good session of kit-bashing can leave you feeling relaxed, more positive and less stressed. And that’s why I believe that kit-building is a Zen activity.

What do you think?

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Confessions of a born-again kit builder

Growing up with Airfix kits

Revell 1/72 Spitfire Mk Vb (03897) In-Box Review and History

I finished my first aircraft kit for a number of years recently (the 1/72 Airfix Mitsubishi A6M2b Zero, as you ask) and I enjoyed it so much I thought I’d try another small scale aircraft. Although Airfix was the mainstay of my childhood kit-building, Revell kits also featured widely. I have attempted a couple of Revell 1/72 tank kits in the last couple of years, and they were both pretty good. So when I noticed that Revell also do a budget range of 1/72 aircraft kits, I thought I’d take a look. Here in Spain, these sell for around €8, which is about as cheap as it gets for any plastic kit, but are these bargains or just cheap and nasty?

The answer seems to be that these kits are a mixed bag. All are the same price, but some are rather elderly: the Ta-152, for example, appears to be a re-box of a FROG kit initially released back in 1968 and the P-51D and Fokker D VII date all the way back to original Revell releases in 1963. As you’d expect, these older kits just aren’t up to modern standards but some of this budget line are more recent releases and seem to be well regarded. The P-47M Thunderbolt, for example, was released in 1999 and looks pretty good. If you’re going for one of this range, you do need to do a little research to understand what you’ll be getting.

Revell first released a 1/72 Spitfire kit (covering the Mk I) all the way back in 1963. Then, in 1996 they issued a new-tool Spitfire Mk Vb that was, to be honest, a bit crap with a number of notable accuracy issues. My choice here is yet another new-tool kit of the Spitfire Mk Vb released by Revell in 2018. Reviews suggest that this is much better than the 1996 version, though I believe both are still available so if you’re thinking of buying one, make sure you get the 2018 kit (03897) and not the version from 1996 (04109).

I’d guess that there can’t be many kit-builders who haven’t attempted a small-scale Spitfire at some point so I’ll be interested to see how this relatively recent Revell kit stacks up.

History

In 1930 the British Air Ministry issued Specification F.7/30 which called for designs for a new fighter capable of 250mph and armed with four machine guns. Several companies responded including Supermarine Aviation Works, a subsidiary of Vickers. The outcome was an entirely new monoplane, the Supermarine Type 224. Unusually, the company asked the Air Ministry to reserve a dramatic new name for the new aircraft (if it was accepted into service): Spitfire.

Supermarine Type 224. Horrible, isn’t it?

The outcome was a single prototype Type 224 built in 1933. It was a truly ugly monoplane with thick gull-wings, an open cockpit and fixed undercarriage provided with spats. It was powered by the unreliable Rolls-Royce Goshawk II engine (the thick wings and spats incorporated the complex cooling system for the engine) and was capable of no more than 235mph. Overall the Type 224 looked more like a Junkers Ju-87 Stuka than a sleek fighter and it never went into production (or received the name Spitfire). Even Supermarine’s chief engineer, Reginald Mitchell, was disappointed and he immediately began work on something radically different, a streamlined monoplane with an enclosed cockpit and retractable landing gear. The outcome of this second design led to the incomparably better Supermarine Type 300.

Prototype of the Supermarine Type 300 preparing for its first test flight.

Powered by the new Rolls-Royce PV-12 engine (soon to be named the Merlin) the new aircraft made its first flight in March 1936. The thin wings were of a unique elliptical shape and featured a cantilevered main spar that gave immense strength while allowing internal space for the undercarriage, eight Browning machine guns and over 2,400 rounds of ammunition. The fuselage was of monocoque construction, with the thin outer skin giving added strength. It’s performance was simply outstanding, giving good speed and manoeuvrability while remaining relatively easy to fly.

An early Mk I Spitfire with two-blade propellor.

It would be 1938 before the first production aircraft finally left the Supermarine works in Southampton, now formally named as the Spitfire. Mitchell commented that this was a “bloody silly name.” Apparently, he wanted the new aircraft to be called the Supermarine Shrew! Over the next 15 years, the Spitfire would go through more than 20 variants and over 22,000 were built in total.

A rare colour wartime image from 1943 of the subject of this kit, the Spitfire Mk Vb flown by Squadron Leader Jan Zumbach of 303 Kosciuszko Polish Fighter Squadron.

The subject of this kit is the Spitfire Mk Vb. The Mk V was the first major upgrade to the Spitfire as a day fighter (the MK II was very similar to the original version, only a single Mk III prototype was produced and the Mk IV was produced only as an unarmed photo-reconnaissance version). The main difference in this version was the provision of a more powerful Merlin 45 engine fitted with a single-stage, single-speed supercharger for improved low altitude performance and a new carburettor capable of maintaining fuel flow to the engine under negative G.  There were three main versions of the Mk V: the Va, armed with eight Browning machine guns, the Vb, armed with four machine guns and two 20mm cannon and the Vc, provided with wings that could be armed with either eight machine guns, four machine guns and two 20mm cannon or four 20mm cannon.

Another colour wartime image showing Squadron Leader Jan Zumbach (wearing life-jacket) standing in front of his Spitfire Mk Vb.

This was the most produced of all Spitfire versions with more than 6,500 being produced from 1941. Mk V Spitfires were used by 140 RAF squadrons at various times and remained in front line service until almost the end of the war. This was also the first Spitfire to be able to carry both bombs and external fuel tanks and in addition to the RAF it was also used by the USAAF and the Soviet Red Air Force. Given how widely it was used and providing you are willing to source alternate decals, a kit of the Mk V provides a great deal of scope for producing a finished model depicting a number of different aircraft.

What’s in the Box?

The 42 parts that make up this kit are provided on four sprues moulded in light grey plastic and a single transparent sprue.

There is a little flash but the detail, and particularly the external surface detail, looks sharp but quite subtle and very nicely done.

The cockpit looks reasonably well detailed (though I’m not certain it’s entirely accurate – the cockpit floor in the original is curved, not flat as it is here, for example) and it includes interior detail inside the fuselage halves, though this isn’t particularly sharply moulded.

A single transparent sprue includes the sliding part of the canopy as a separate part and two alternate windscreens, one armoured and one unarmoured, though I believe that almost all Mk Vbs were fitted with the armoured version.

I have seen criticism of this kit elsewhere claiming that the moulding for the canopy, and particularly the sliding part, is much too thick. It may be a little thick, but I can’t say that it looks too bad to me and I certainly appreciate the option to be able to show the canopy in the open position.

I have also seen several other reviews that complain that the fuselage underside on this kit, where it joins the trailing edges of the wings, is moulded flat and lacks the distinctive “gull-wing” shape of the original. All I can say is that on the example I have, this area is not flat and appears to include the correct subtle curves.

The wingtips are provided as separate parts, and the instructions suggest that you can build this as either a standard or clipped-wing version. Clipped-wing Vbs were said to have better low-level performance, although this also degraded their climb ability. I appreciate having that option, though I believe that only the elliptical wing is correct if you’re going to use the supplied decals. Two under-fuselage slipper fuel tanks are also provided, one the 30 gallon version and the other the 80 gallon. The decal sheet is printed in-register and seems pretty comprehensive, including both the instrument panel and Sutton harnesses. The only things missing are the yellow patches for the leading edge of the wings which will need to be painted, which is a bit of a pain.

The instruments are also moulded into the panel, so you’ll probably want to sand this flat if you decide to use the supplied decal. The decals and suggested colour scheme only cover a single aircraft, flown by Squadron Leader Jan Zumbach of 303 Kosciuszko Polish Fighter Squadron (though there is no shortage of alternate aftermarket decals in 1/72 for the Mk Vb if you do want to depict a different aircraft). The colour scheme shown is correctly based on the RAF Temperate Day Fighter Scheme introduced in August 1941, comprising a camo scheme of Ocean Grey and Dark Green on top and Medium Sea Grey on the undersides. The suggested colours for the camo scheme (Dark Green and Blue-Gray) look just about OK though the colour suggested for the undersides, Medium Grey, looks a little dark.

The instructions seem to be up to Revell’s usual high standards and appear simple to follow.

Would You Want One?

I have seen a number of criticisms of this kit elsewhere. OK, I accept that it isn’t perfect, but I don’t think it’s terrible as a budget kit either. Many people mention the overly thick canopy, though it looks useable to me. One thing I would agree with is that the spinner looks a little short here and the propellor seems to be mounted too far to the rear, though I suspect it may be possible to address this. The exhausts also have round outlets rather than the more flattened openings found in the Vb. I think both these issues are because of the use of parts copied from the earlier Revell Spitfire Mk IIa kit from 2016 – I guess that this re-use of existing parts probably reflects the low price of this kit. Several people have also remarked in reviews that this kit lacks the distinctive “gull-wing” shape of the rear fuselage underside between wings, mentioning specifically that the fuselage underside between the trailing edges of the wings is shown flat in this kit. Mine certainly isn’t like that so I’m not sure if this kit has been revised since its first release? Overall and out-of-the-box I’m fairly happy with the level of detail and accuracy that I see on this budget kit.

If you don’t fancy this one, as you’d guess, there are lots of alternatives in 1/72, but few provide a really accurate kit of the Spitfire Mk Vb. Airfix do a Spitfire Mk Vb in 1/72, but it isn’t a new tool kit like their Spitfire Mk Ia from 2010: despite the new box-art it’s an original release from 1975. That said, it isn’t at all bad (the spinner and propellor, for example, are notably more accurate than on this Revell kit), though it does have some other accuracy issues. Tamiya also do a 1/72 Spitfire Mk Vb that was first released back in 1993 and it’s a decent kit, though unusually for Tamiya it has a one-piece canopy moulding that can’t be shown open, the wings lack dihedral and the shape of the rear fuselage looks not quite right.

Heller released a 1/72 Spitfire Mk Vb in 1978, and again it’s not bad (the cockpit is particularly good) but it has some problems with the wings which look really odd from the front. This kit has been also re-boxed by Aurora and Testors and is currently available from SMER Hi-Tech. Italeri also offer a Spitfire Mk Vb in 1/72. This was released in 2006, but it’s mainly based on a much earlier Spitfire kit from Italeri and it’s sort of OK, but not wonderful and the shape of the forward fuselage looks a little odd. HobbyBoss do a 1/72 Spitfire Mk Vb/Trop in their “Easy Assembly” series, and it isn’t bad in terms of overall look, but it lacks detail: the cockpit is very basic and it lacks landing gear doors, for example.

I suppose you could combine the best elements from this Revell offering plus bits and pieces from the Airfix and Heller kits to produce something more accurate. Alternatively, AZ Model from the Czech Republic released a 1/72 Spitfire Mk Vb in 2010 (though this seems also to be sold under the Kovozávody Prostejov logo), and reviews suggest it’s pretty good, though perhaps a little tricky to build. Overall, the AZ Model kit seems to be the most accurate Mk Vb currently available in 1/72 though as I haven’t seen this kit, I can’t say whether it is really the “definitive” Mk Vb as some people claim.

Related PostsRevell 1/72 Spitfire Mk Vb (03897) Build Review – coming soon

Italeri 1/72 AH-64D (080) In-Box Review and History

Observant readers will already have noticed that this isn’t a review of a tank or AFV kit. When I first got interested in kit-building back in the early 1970s, I mainly built 1/72 scale aircraft. So, this is a bit of nostalgia for me and hey, it’s a kind of flying tank, so I feel that it does sort of fit here…

I first encountered the AH-64 back in the early 2000s. For more than twenty years, I lived with my family in a remote glen in the Scottish Highlands. It was a great place for aircraft spotting, being part of an RAF low-flying training area (I recall watching one RAF Jaguar flying so low over a remote loch that it left a boat-like wake on the placid waters…). Late one night, I was walking my dogs in the forest near my home. It was dark, but there was an almost full moon, so I didn’t need my head-torch. Then, I heard something strange approaching…

It wasn’t a jet, it sounded too slow and low to be a piston-engine aircraft and it lacked the characteristic “whop, whop” of a helicopter. This was a low growl that seemed to be heading my way. I watched in amazement as two squat, angular helicopters appeared, flying just a couple of hundred feet above the trees and visible only because they were silhouetted against the moonlit sky. That was the first time I ever saw an AH-64 (though I guess these were probably the version used by the British Army, the WAH-64) and I was well-impressed.

However, I have never attempted a kit of this classic attack helicopter. So when I saw this Italeri kit on special offer, I couldn’t resist. It was first released back in 1987 as the AH-64 and then updated in 1991 to portray the AH-64D version. Given that the basic elements of this kit are now well over thirty years old, is it any good?

History

The notion of the attack helicopter really emerged during the conflict in Vietnam. A new version of the iconic Bell UH-1 Iroquois transport helicopter (more often known as the Huey) was created with an entirely new fuselage which lacked a cargo bay and had seats for just a pilot and gunner. In the mid-1970s, Hughes Helicopters began work on an entirely new aircraft, the Type 77. The first prototype flew in 1975 and by 1986, the design had been designated AH-64 Apache and was entering service with the US Armed Forces. By that time, Hughes Helicopters had been bought over by McDonnel-Douglas and from 1997, Boeing Defense, Space & Security took over production so this is now generally referred to as the Boeing AH-64.

An AH-1 Cobra, one of the first attack helicopters.

This one tough helicopter. The pilot and CPG/Gunner sit in a bathtub constructed of Kevlar armour and separated by a plexiglass blast shield. All important systems include redundancy, so the AH-64 can keep flying with significant damage. On the original version, a Martin Marietta TADS/PNVS targeting and night vision navigation system was combined with the Honeywell helmet-mounted day/night gunsight and a McDonnell Douglas/Bell mast-mounted day/night target tracking sight to allow target acquisition and tracking day or night.

An early AH-64

Armament comprises an M230 chain gun carried under the nose and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and Hydra 70 rocket pods on hardpoints under the stub wings. From 1997, the AH-64D added a large radar dome over the rotor mast housing an AN/APG-78 Longbow fire-control radar (FCR) target acquisition system. The D version also introduced a new “glass” cockpit featuring several Multi-Function Displays (MFDs). The Longbow radar allowed the acquisition and simultaneous tracking of up 128 ground targets. After the introduction of the D version, the original (non-radar equipped) Apaches were retrospectively designated AH-64A.

A WAH-64D, a version provided with Rolls-Royce engines and operated by the British Army Air Corps, not the Royal Army

A single AH-64D can pop-up from behind dover, exposing only its radar dome for a few seconds. It can then drop back behind cover and fire Hellfire missiles at up to 8 of those targets. A secure data link can share radar data and allow other AH-64Ds which remain behind cover to engage these same targets.  This is a devastating tank-killer.

A US Army AH-64 escorts a UH-60 Black Hawk in Iraq.

The AH-64 has been used in combat by US forces in Operation Just Cause in Panama, and in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan during the first and second Gulf Wars and during the NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia in 1999. The British version of this helicopter, the WAH-64, has been used extensively to support British Army operations in Afghanistan.

What’s in the Box?

In the side-opening box you’ll find two sprues moulded in dark green plastic and a single transparent sprue.

The transparent canopy is admirably clear, but the cockpit framing isn’t particularly well-defined, which will make masking and painting tricky. The quality of mouldings and detail are variable and there is some flash. All panels lines are raised and rivets look a little oversize.

Some things, like the rotor head for example, are very nicely moulded and detailed.   

On the other hand, the M230 chain gun is quite crude and lacks detail.

The biggest visual problem here concerns the shape of the sponsons on either side of the fuselage. The rear part on both sides is based on the very first AH-64D prototype (which is probably unsurprising given that this kit was released back in 1991). You can see an image of the prototype AH-64D and the kit fuselage below.

On all operational versions of this helicopter, the rear of the sponsons are a quite different shape. Strangely, the side views in the instructions show the sponsons as provided, but the colour side views on the back of the box show the correct shape for the left-side sponson. Why? You can see what the rear of the sponson should actually look like on the image below.

You can either accept that what you’re building is a model of the prototype (though the markings provided aren’t suitable for that) or you will have to do some work to re-shape the rear of both sponsons if you want to portray an operational version.

Decals and colour schemes are provided for three Apaches covering the US Army, the Dutch Army and for a WAH-64D of the “Royal Army.” I presume this last is a reference the British Army Air Corps. I mean, really, there is no such thing as the Royal Army. How much (or how little) research would it have taken for Italeri to discover that? I think this tells you just how much care and attention went into creating this kit. No decals are provided for the prototype AH-64D, though that’s what is shown on the box-art.  

The instructions seem adequate, though they do contain at least one error: Step 4 shows the sensor modules in the nose being fitted upside down – fortunately, the box art shows the correct orientation.   

Would You Want One?

Overall, this is a mix of good and rather shoddy. It feels like a kit produced in haste, but given that it was released all the way back in 1991, you might have hoped that it would have been sorted out by now. Some of the detail (the rotor head, for example) is very nicely done but raised panel lines aren’t something you’d expect to find on a modern kit and this lacks a lot of details seen on operational Apaches. This also has some fairly serious errors in terms of representing an AH-64D. Most noticeable are the sponsons which I have already discussed.

The second issue is the cockpit: the cockpit control panels provided here are the “steam gauge” version from the earlier AH-64 kit and they lack the distinctive MFDs provided in both front and rear cockpits on the AH-64D. Personally, I can probably live with that: on a 1/72 kit with a closed cockpit, you won’t be able to see much of the control  panels. In many ways, this reminds me of the aircraft kits I struggled with in back in the 1970s – it certainly doesn’t feel like a kit from the 1990s. I like a challenge and I enjoy trying to improve old kits, so I’ll have a go at trying to make this kit into a reasonable representation of the operational AH-64D. You may feel differently, and if you do, there are alternatives in 1/72.

The best of the rest are any of the Academy 1/72 AH-64D kits. These were first released in 2015 and all are accurate, have lots of detail and engraved panel lines. Hasegawa also do an AH-64D in 1/72, but like this Italeri kit, it uses elements from an original AH-64A kit from 1983 and it’s not particularly accurate. Hobby Boss also offer an AH-64D in 1/72, first released in 2007, but it has the same issue with the rear sponsons as this version.

For such an iconic and widely used combat helicopter, it’s surprizing to me that so many available small-scale kits (other than those by Academy) have glaring accuracy issues. If this was a kit featuring, for example, a significant tank from World War Two which had equivalent accuracy issues, I suspect if would be the subject of howls of derision. When I work on modern tank kits, I’m often impressed by the level of detail  and accuracy provided. This on the other hand feels like a throwback to an earlier era when, if something kinda, sorta looked like the original, that was generally good enough. It will be interesting to find out whether this can be built into something that looks acceptable but, out of the box, this appears to have some serious problems.    

Related PostsItaleri 1/72 AH-64D (080) Build Review – coming soon

Tamiya 1/48 U.S. Medium Tank M4A3E8 Sherman “Easy Eight” (32595) Build Review

I’m generally following the instructions here, but I plan to assemble and paint the suspension, running gear and tracks before I continue with the rest of construction.

I begin with lower hull assembly. Fit is great and I included the weights provided, though I still don’t really understand why they’re there…

There is nice detail on the rear hull: the exhausts are particularly well done, though I don’t think they will be visible on the finished model.

Then it’s on to assembling the suspension bogies and sanding moulding seams off the roadwheels. No problems here and fit is great but location is also particularly good. When adding the circular parts on the front and rear of the main bogie frame, I failed to notice that these face in opposite directions. That became obvious as soon as I tried to fit one the wrong way round: it wouldn’t fit. Regular readers will know that I have been known to fit parts upside down, back to front or occasionally, both. Good location helps to avoid this.   

Although I will be adding the tracks later, I do want to assemble the top run and the curved sections that go round the sprocket and idler now, before I paint anything. There are five separate links at front and rear, and two more single links used to connect the elements of the bottom run. There are no spares, so do be careful! I suppose you could modify some of the spare track links that are intended to be stowed on the fenders if you do lose one of the links, but it’s better not to if you can avoid it.

I followed the advice in the instructions by gluing the five separate links together flat. Then I dry-fitted the sprocket and idler and glued the inner wheels of the large return rollers in place. Then, I placed the top run in position and, before the glue was completely set, curved the five links at either end to the right profile and attached them to the top run. When it’s dry, the whole assembly of top run with front and rear curves attached can be removed for painting separately. Obviously, I won’t be able to construct the bottom run until the suspension bogies and road wheels are assembled and in place, but that should be much simpler because there are fewer single links to deal with.

I do want to mention location again here: there is a vertical peg on the inside wheel of the rear return roller. This engages with a hole in the top track run (which will be hidden by the fender on the completed model). Using this peg to locate the top track run means that you are assured it’s the right way round. That’s great, because it means you can’t inadvertently fit the tracks upside down. It feels like whoever designed this kit was actually thinking about assembly. Top marks Tamiya!   

Then I paint and assemble the suspension parts. Assembly is straightforward and simple, For painting I used a base of Vallejo Russian Uniform, highlights in a lightened version of the same colour and a dark grey oil wash to bring out the shadows. All tyres are painted in Vallejo Dark Grey.

With the suspension in place, I can assemble the bottom track runs in the same way as I did for the top.

Then these are painted in a base of Vallejo Dark Grey, drybrushed gunmetal highlights and a brown wash. Then I fit the tracks, and it’s a bit of a stretch – perhaps one additional track link might have been useful?  That said, once in place, these do look like steel tank tracks, not rubber bands.

With the lower hull complete, it’s time to take a look at the upper hull. The seven parts that comprise the main construction, you guessed it, fit perfectly – no filler needed here at all.

I add all the remaining bits and pieces to the upper hull, other than the tow cable, tools and spare track links which I’ll add later. I guess you could argue that the front and rear light-guards are a little thick, but personally, I’d rather accept that than faff about with tiny PE parts.

I then join the upper and lower hull – no problems and everything goes together nicely. I am happy that I painted and finished the tracks before adding the upper hull and fenders – there is very little clearance between the top of the tracks and the bottom of the fenders and there is no way that you could add the tracks after the upper and lower hulls were joined.

Next, the turret, and there are no problems with basic construction.

The completed turret, minus the machine gun.

I mentioned in the In-Box review that I was concerned about seams on the rear of the turret, and in particular that the cast texture will make it difficult to hide these. One seam is particularly noticeable at the top of the rectangular panel that fits into the rear of the turret (arrowed above).

You can see on this photo of a surviving M4A3E8 that there shouldn’t be any visible seams on the upper rear part of the turret, though the lower seam looks OK. There doesn’t seem to be any option but to get busy with some filler and fine sandpaper, which is a pity, because the casting texture is well done and sanding will flatten this. I sand everything down and then try to recreate the texture with plastic cement.

I won’t really know if this has been successful until I get some paint on it, and that’s what I do next.

I start with several thinned base coats of Vallejo Russian Uniform – yes, I know, it’s a little light for Olive Drab at this tage, but once it’s finished with a wash of dark grey oil, that should bring it closer to the right colour. And the upper seam on the rear of the turret is no longer visible – hurrah!

Then both hull and turret get some dry-brushed highlights in a lightened version of the base colour.

Then I add the decals – I’m going for the version with the five white stars. The decals are dense, but thin – I use Vallejo Decal Fix and Decal Softener. It isn’t obvious in this image, but the decals do conform to the cast texture beneath.

Then, it gets a coat of clear varnish followed by a wash of Abteilung Oils Dark Mud, a dark grey. I let this dry and then carefully remove most of the wash with thinner – this darkens the base colour to something much closer to Olive Drab and leaves deeper shadow in the engraved surface detail as well as providing some colour variation and streaks on the hull and turret.

With that done, it’s time to add the last few bits and pieces – the tow cable, tools, spare track links and commander figure and a stretched sprue radio antenna. With those added, it’s done!

After Action Report

This really is a cracking kit. Fit and location of all parts is as good as you could hope for, detail is good and this builds into a pretty fair representation of a late model M4. Is it perfect? Of course not: things like the headlight guards are a little oversize, it lacks some of the fine detail of its 1/35 counterpart and it would have been nice to see some stowage items.

The link and length tracks are also a little fiddly to build if you want them to look good, though they’re easier than those found on smaller scale kits. Overall though, there isn’t much to dislike here. And the finished tracks actually look like tank tracks. If you have read other review here on MKW, you’ll know just how rare that is. This is a straightforward build that produces a pleasing finished model. What more can you ask from a plastic kit?

And what about 1/48 scale? Well, the finished kit is bigger than a 1/72 kit and, er, not as big as a 1/35 kit (you don’t get that sort of incisive analysis on other kit review sites, you know!). I mean, it’s fine. I don’t feel an overwhelming urge to build more 1/48 kits, but I wouldn’t rule it out either. If I’m honest, I do probably prefer the challenge of smaller scales, but I can’t think of any reason you’d be unhappy or disappointed if you chose this as an introduction to 1/48 scale.

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Tamiya 1/48 U.S. Medium Tank M4A3E8 Sherman “Easy Eight” (32595) In-Box Review and History

Tamiya 1/48 U.S. Medium Tank M4A3E8 Sherman “Easy Eight” (32595) In-Box Review and History

It’s time for another first here on Model Kit World: a 1/48 scale tank kit! I have been thinking about this for a while. This scale lies neatly between tiny 1/72 and 1/76 and the much larger 1/35. But. What does this scale actually look like? Do these really combine the detail of 1/35 with the ease of construction of smaller scales?

In the mid-1970s, another Japanese manufacturer, Bandai, produced a whole range of 1/48 AFV kits. Monogram and Aurora also produced AFVs in this scale, but all of these gradually lost out to the popularity of 1/35 kits produced by Tamiya and others. By the 1990s, it was difficult to find any AFV kits in this scale. Although they already produced a range of 1/48 aircraft kits, it wasn’t until 2003 that Tamiya finally introduced their 1/48 military miniatures series.

There are now a large number of Tamiya 1/48 AFV kits. Early versions had die-cast lower hulls, but this one, like most of the later 1/48 kits, is all plastic. These generally have a good reputation for accuracy and detail and this kit was released in 2018. But, what’s it like? Let’s take a look…  

History

 I have already covered the history of the M4 briefly in other reviews, so here I’m going to focus on something different: how models of the M4 were identified. When I got back into modelling, I found the variety of M4 types bewildering. Hopefully, this will explain the meaning of the various designations and help to define how the M4 changed and just what an M4A3E8 actually was. If you get bored, you can always skip to the next section…

A British M4A1 with a 75mm gun in North Africa. The M4 was first used in combat by the British Army in North Africa.

The M4 Medium Tank entered service armed with the 75 mm M3 L/40 main gun. This was an excellent weapon for use in the close support role, firing an M48 HE round that contained 1.5lbs of TNT, making it one of the most effective HE shells fired by any tank in World War Two. It’s anti-armour performance was less impressive, capable of penetrating only up to 68mm of armour at a range of 500m. That wasn’t seen as a major problem because the US Army was developing the Tank Destroyer doctrine while the M4 was being designed: it was assumed that specialist Tank Destroyers would engage enemy armour, leaving the M4 to focus on the support role.

On the left in this image is an M3 Gun Motor Carriage, one of the first US Tank Destroyers. They were used widely in Tunisia, but didn’t prove to be effective against German tanks.

When US forces began to encounter German Tigers and upgraded Panzer IVs in Tunisia, it became apparent that TDs could not provide full protection and that a main gun with improved armour penetration was required for the M4. A new gun, the 76mm M1 L/55, was fitted in a turret modified from a design originally intended for use in the abandoned T23 tank project. The 76mm gun had better armour penetration, but a less effective HE shell. For this reason, the 76mm gun didn’t entirely replace the 75mm gun: units were provided with a mix of both types which allowed them to engage enemy armour with the 76mm guns and attack soft targets with the 75mm gun. In the naming convention adopted by the US Army after the introduction of the 76mm gun, (75) or (76) was added after the model designation to denote which type of main gun a particular model was equipped with.

Early M4s were found to have a tendency to burn when hit by enemy rounds: up to 75% of all early M4s burned when hit. Analysis of engagements in Tunisia identified ammunition stowage as the problem: ammo racks in the sponsons, above the tracks, were protected only by thin side armour. A hit on the hull side could ignite the shell propellant which could not then be extinguished (the propellant contained its own oxidant). If one shell started to burn, this would rapidly spread to others, turning the tank into a furnace.

A French M4A2 with extra armour panels welded on to the sponsons to protect the internal ammo racks and an additional armour panel added to the turret, to the right of the mantlet.

As a short-term solution, panels of applique armour were welded on the hull sides to protect the internal ammo racks. In the long-term, the solution was wet ammunition stowage: ammunition was stowed in a bin in the hull floor beneath the turret basket which was filled with a mix of water and anti-freeze. This dramatically reduced the incidence of fires following combat damage. Tanks provided with wet ammo stowage are identified by the addition of “W” to the model name.

There were a number of detail changes to all versions of the M4 during its long production history, mainly involving hatches, the glacis plate and transmission covers. The only other major change was the introduction of horizontal-volute-spring system (HVSS) suspension, which provided six pairs of roadwheels per side (the original VVSS suspension allowed only six single roadwheels per side). This enabled the fitment of wider tracks that reduced the ground pressure of this version to just over 10psi, improving its ability to travel over broken or soft ground. From late 1944/early 1945, some M4s were provided with HVSS suspension. 

An M4A3 (75) W with HVSS suspension.

There were five main models of the M4, principally distinguished by different types of engine. These were not sequential models: many were produced concurrently in different plants in America. Some were phased out as the war progressed but some models of the M4A1, for example, were still being manufactured up to the end of the war in Europe. The models were:

The M4 was powered by a radial gasoline aviation engine, the Continental R975. Almost 7,000 were manufactured and all featured the 75mm gun. None had wet ammo stowage. The M4 was used extensively by the US Army as well as the British Army, in which it was named the Sherman I. Production of the M4 ended in January 1944.

The M4A1 used the same engine, but had a cast upper hull rather than the welded upper hull on the M4. This was the only M4 variant with a cast hull and it was produced in two basic forms: the M4A1 (75) and the M4A1 (76) W. Later models also featured HVSS suspension. Over 9,000 examples of all types of M4A1 were produced. The M4A1 was used extensively by the US Army and by the British Army, in which it was named the Sherman II. Production of the M4A1 continued until July 1945.

An M4A2 (76) W supplied to the Red Army under the lend-lease agreement.

The M4A2 was powered by a General Motors 6046 diesel engine. It was produced in three forms: the M4A2 (75), the M4A2 (75) W and the M4A2 (76) W. Later models of the M4A2 (76) W also featured HVSS suspension. Over 11,000 were produced, but this model was not used by the US Army in combat, though it was used by the USMC in the Pacific Theatre. This model was used extensively by the British Army (as the Sherman III) and by the armies of several other nations during World War Two including Canada, France, Russia and Australia. Production of the M4A2 continued until the end of the war in Europe in May 1945.

The M4A3 featured a Ford gasoline V8 engine that provided improved torque at low engine speeds. This was produced in four forms: M4A3 (75), the M4A3 (75) W, the M4A3 (76) W (with later models of this version using HVSS identified as the M4A3E8 and generally known as the “Easy Eight” due to the smooth ride provided by the improved suspension) and the M4A3E2, an uparmoured version known as the Jumbo.  Over 8,000 were produced and the M4A3 was used by both the US Army and the British Army, where it was known as the Sherman IV. Production of the M4A3 continued after the end of the war.

The M4A4 was powered by a complex Chrysler gasoline engine. Only one version was produced which was armed with the 75mm gun. None of this version were manufactured with wet ammo stowage or HVSS suspension. Over 7,000 were produced, but none were used in combat by the US Army. Large numbers were provided to the British Army (as the Sherman V), to the Russians and to French units. Some of this model were modified in British hands with the replacement of the 75mm gun by a more powerful British 17-pounder (76mm) main gun. These were identified as the Sherman Vc, but often known as the Firefly. Production of the M4A4 ended in November 1943.

The final development of the M4 in World War Two and the subject of this kit: The M4A3E8 (76) W with a flat glacis plate, muzzle brake and HVSS suspension.

So, the tank featured in this kit is a late model M4A3 armed with a 76mm gun and provided with wet ammo storage, a simplified, flat glacis plate, larger access hatches for the driver and bow gunner and HVSS suspension. This was also one of the first American tanks to be provided with a muzzle brake on the main gun as standard. The 76mm gun tended to kick up a large cloud of dust when fired, obscuring the target for anything up to 30 seconds and revealing the position of the tank. The muzzle brake deflected the blast to the side, reducing this problem.

What’s in the box?

The first thing to mention is that this isn’t, as I had expected, just a shrunk-down version of the 1/35 Tamiya M4A3E8 released in 2015 (35346), though both kits share the same box-art. The break-down of parts on, for example, the turret is quite different here and this one comes with plastic link-and-length tracks rather than the vinyl tracks of its bigger brother. There is a little less detail here too: the 1/35 version includes things like casting numbers and separate hull hatches which aren’t included here.

What you get here are five sprues moulded in olive green plastic (there are two identical sprues for the tracks, running gear and suspension parts).

Surface detail looks crisp and includes nice casting texture on many parts. Though it’s notable that the turret comes in two halves which means some care will be needed to hide the join at the rear without sanding off this texture. All the mouldings look sharp and very clean, though this doesn’t use slide-moulding, so the muzzle brake is provided in two parts and the gun itself is a solid moulding.

The roadwheels and complex HVSS bogies look to be nicely detailed, sharply moulded and accurate.

The tracks look well detailed, inside and out, and appear to be an accurate representation of the all-metal T66 tracks fitted to this version of the M4.

Also provided is a piece of thin cord for the tow cable and four tiny polycaps. You’ll be using two of these for fitting the sprockets. That’s sensible: it’s helpful to be able to rotate the sprockets to allow them to engage correctly with link-and-length tracks. The other two are provided to allow the main gun to elevate.

Four small weights are included, to be placed in the lower hull. I have no idea why. Only the Commander’s hatch is provided as a separate part (which includes internal detail), and the top half of a Commander figure is also included. All tools and spare track links are provided as separate parts. No transparent parts are included.

Decals are basic: all you get here are seven stars for the hull and turret. Two are provided roughly overpainted in black, something that was done by some units late in the war as the white turret star was felt to provide too good a target for enemy gunners.       

The only colour scheme is Olive Drab and two US Army tanks are depicted, one for a tank of the 5th Armored Division in April 1945 and the other for an M4 of the 4th Armored Division at Bastogne in January 1945. The only difference is that the tank from the 4th Division uses black turret stars.

The instructions look clear and simple and use Tamiya’s usual exploded views. On a separate sheet a very brief history of the M4A3E8 is provided.

Would You Want One?

My first impression on opening the box was that this kit seemed bigger than I expected. But perhaps that’s only because I haven’t built a 1/35 M4? It’s only by comparing the torso of the commander figure provided here with a 1/35 figure that it becomes obvious how much smaller this is.

Out of the box, this looks like a class act, as you’d probably expect from a relatively recent Tamiya kit. Surface detail is crisp and sharply moulded and I do like the textured finish on the turret and mantlet. As far as I’m aware, there are no notable dimensional or accuracy issues here and the link and length tracks look nicely done. The individual links are much larger than those found on a 1/72 kit, which should make assembly easier. Perhaps it might have been nice to see more interesting decals and some transparent parts but overall, I’m really looking forward to building this one.  

Tamiya also offer an early production M4, an M4A2 and a British Sherman Vc Firefly in 1/48 scale. There is, as far as I’m aware, only one other M4A3E8 kit available in 1/48 and that’s a Korean War era version from HobbyBoss. It’s generally a nice kit, though there are said to be dimensional issues with the mantlet and suspension bogies and it comes with vinyl tracks, but it is provided with PE parts including the headlight covers.

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Italeri 1/72 Autoblinda AB 43 (7052) In-Box Review and History

It’s nice to see that Italian manufacturer Italeri aren’t shy about producing kits of some fairly obscure vehicles. Probably less than one hundred examples of this armoured car were produced and none were actually used by the Italian armed forces during World War Two. I rather like that approach: I do get tired kits of the same old AFVs and it’s refreshing to find a kit of something I have never even heard of.

Italeri also offer a kit of the earlier (and much more widely used) AB 41 and even one of the truly odd AB 40 Ferroviaria, a small armoured car designed to run on railway lines. The AB 43 kit was released in 2008 following the release a couple of years earlier of a 1/35 version of the same vehicle by Italeri.

So it’s Italian, it’s obscure and it appears to have a fiendishly difficult paint scheme. What could possibly go wrong? Let’s find out…

History

In 1937 the Italian Ministry of War invited tenders for a new armoured car (autoblindomitragliatrice). This vehicle was to be suitable for use by both police forces and as a reconnaissance vehicle to be used by tank units. Fiat-Ansaldo presented a proposal for a four-wheeled vehicle with four-wheel drive, four wheel steering and front and rear driving positions. The main armament was a pair of 8mm machine guns mounted in a fully rotating turret. This proposal was accepted and entered service as the AB 40.

The AB 40.

However, only around 25 were produced before an improved version armed with a Breda 20 mm autocannon was released as the AB 41. This would be the most widely produced version of this vehicle with over 400 hundred made which saw service in North Africa, the Balkans, Hungary and even with Italian units on the eastern front.

An AB 41 in North Africa.

In 1942 a specification was released for a new vehicle based on the AB 41. This was to incorporate a more powerful engine and was initially intended to be armed with a 47mm main gun. The dual steering positions were to be dropped, reducing the crew to three and armour was thickened and more steeply sloped at the front. A single prototype of the AB 42 was produced before the Italian army lost interest.

An AB 43 (left) and an AB 41 (right). The main visible differences are a lower turret and more steeply angled front hull armour on the AB 43.

After Italy agreed an armistice with the Allies in 1943, German engineers saw the prototype AB 42 and 100 of these vehicles were ordered for use by the Wehrmacht. Around 100 were manufactured as the Beute Panzerspähwagen AB43 203(i). These used a lower and wider version of the turret from the AB 41, though it was still armed with the 20mm autocannon.    

One of the notable features of the AB 43 is clearly visible in this photograph taken in Belgrade in 1944. The spare wheels were carried low and on mountings that allowed them to rotate, enabling these spare wheels to help the vehicle cross uneven ground.

These armoured cars were used by several German units in Italy and the Balkans during World War Two. After the war, a number of AB 43s were used by Italian police and Carabineri units.

A beautifully restored AB 43 pictured at a display in Rome in 2008. This shows nicely the unique  camo scheme used by German AB 43s but oddly, it lacks German markings.

What’s in the Box?

All the parts are provided on a single sprue moulded in light brown plastic.

Surface and rivet detail look reasonable overall.

The wheels and tyres are moulded separately and the wheels even include appropriate SPA (Società Piemontese Automobili) logos in the centre.

The front and rear visors and the top and rear turret hatches are separate parts that can be shown open. Some interior detail is included for the turret, such as the breech for the 20mm autocannon and the hatches themselves include interior detail.

Overall, the mouldings here look sharp and nicely detailed. This kit doesn’t use slide moulding so the main cannon is not open. It’s so small that drilling doesn’t look possible – you’ll need a drill of 0.3mm and the barrel on this weapon had thin walls, so a very steady hand will be required.

I’d like to be able to show you the decals at this point in the review, but I can’t. Though the box itself and the plastic bag containing the single sprue were both sealed when they arrived, no decals were included. I contacted Italeri Customer support who replied promptly to tell that these decals may be available, and that they will be sent out (taking 3-4 weeks) if I pay “around €6.”  Now, perhaps I’m just a parsimonious, grumpy old Scotsman (actually, there is no doubt about it, I am a parsimonious, grumpy old Scotsman) but I must confess that this doesn’t seem very impressive. OK, I know, €6 isn’t a great deal of money, though it does represent more than half of what this kit cost me on Amazon. What irritates me is that this is for something that should have been included in the first place. Should I really have to pay for that? I don’t think so. I won’t be taking up Italeri’s offer and instead I’ll be using bits and pieces out of my decal spares box here. 

The instructions seem clear though, oddly, there is no mention of where to place part 12, the rear visor. Happily it isn’t too difficult to see where this belongs (it goes on the upper rear hull, if you’re wondering).

Three suggested colour schemes are provided on the rear of the box and in the instructions, Two are for vehicles in late-war German service featuring a complex three-colour camo scheme and one in overall red-brown is for an AB 43 used by the Italian State Police in the 1950s.

Would you want one?

In the box, this looks pretty good. The mouldings are sharp and the surface detail looks acceptable and it even has some interior detail, very unusual at this scale. Perhaps it would have been nice if a siren on the turret roof was provided for the State Police version (these usually seem to have been fitted) but overall, this looks like an accurate representation of this little-known AFV. If I have one reservation, it’s that the spare wheels seem to sit a little too high on the sides of the hull. If you look at the photos in the History section above and compare them with the side view showing the colour schemes, which accurately reflects what the kit looks like, I think you’ll see what I mean.

Obviously, the lack of decals is a pain but I assume that I was simply unlucky and that this isn’t a common issue. And if you do want to build a small-scale AB 43 and you don’t fancy this one, then I’m afraid you’re out of luck. As far as I know, no other manufacturer covers this vehicle in 1/72 or 1/76. Italian company DOC Models did offer a 1/72 version of the similar AB 41, but that was always produced on a small scale and I’m not certain that it’s still available.

Don’t be fooled – this may say Tamiya on the box, but it is actually the Italeri 1/35 kit.

Italeri offer the same kit in 1/35 form (6451), and it seems to be pretty good. It includes soft vinyl tyres, separate armoured headlight covers and all crew and engine access hatches are separate parts that can be shown open (though no engine detail is included). Decals and paint schemes are provided for the same three vehicles depicted in the 1/72 version. Tamiya also released a 1/35 version of the AB 43 in 2008 (89697), but, unusually for Tamiya, this is simply a re-box of the Italeri kit with the addition of two German crew figures originally included with the 1994 Tamiya Panther Ausf. G.   

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First to Fight 1/72 PzKpfw I Ausf. A (PL1939-002) In-Box Review

It’s time to look at what is, for me, a new manufacturer: a 1/72 kit from Polish company First to Fight. I’m keen to continue building some of the tanks used in the Spanish Civil War and the Panzer I was the main tank supplied by Germany to the Nationalist side during that conflict. The simple fact is that there just aren’t many small scale kits of this tiny tank available, and I’m interested in finding out whether this one is a decent option.

First to Fight specialise in kits depicting vehicles used on both sides during the 1939 German invasion of Poland. The  “September 1939” collection was released beginning in 2013 as a series of magazines, each with a quick-build kit attached. This, the second kit to be released (the first was the Polish TKS tankette and the series eventually ran to 90 issues), first appeared in November 2013.

Can a quick-build kit really aimed at wargamers provide the basis for a decent finished model? Is it possible to have fun constructing and building a kit that is two inches long and comprises just 16 parts? Let’s take a look…

History

The Panzer I was the first tank designed and built in Germany after World War One. This tiny tank (it weighed a little over 5 tons and had space for just two crew members) used suspension based on that fitted to the British Carden-Lloyd Tankette and a hull with armour that was only 13mm on the front: in other areas, it was just 7mm thick.

Many of the earliest Panzer Is were produced without turrets as Schulfahrzeuge (training vehicles) and use to train new tank drivers.

This was always intended as a developmental tank, to be used as a training vehicle for Panzer troops and as an opportunity for German industry to learn the techniques and requirements of producing a tank. The first versions produced in 1934 weren’t even fitted with a turret and it wasn’t until the Ausf. A version that a manually operated turret mounting two 7.92 mm MG 13 machine guns was added. An air-cooled, 60bhp engine gave the Panzer I a top speed of only around 15mph off-road but a useful range of almost 200km.

The first combat-capable version of the Panzer I, the Ausf. A. This picture was taken during the campaign in Norway.

The Ausf. B version was introduced in 1936 and incorporated a larger, water-cooled engine producing 100bhp. Fitting this engine involved lengthening the rear hull and this allowed the addition of an extra bogie wheel on the suspension. Between 1936 and 1939, Germany supplied more than 130 Panzer Is (mainly the Ausf. A model) to Nationalist Spain and these were used by the Condor Legion and Spanish units during the civil war.

Panzer I Ausf. B. Note that it has five bogie wheels instead of four and different exhausts.

During the Spanish Civil War and in combat against Republican T-26 tanks provided by the USSR, the Panzer I proved to be very vulnerable. Its 7.92mm machine guns could be loaded with armour-piercing ammunition, but this was only effective at ranges of less than 150m while the T-26 with its 47mm main gun could destroy the Panzer I at over 1,000m.

A column of Nationalist Panzer Is in Spain during the civil war.

Despite its limitations, the Panzer I was used extensively in Spain and as a front-line tank by the Wehrmacht in Poland, France and during the early stages of the invasion of Russia: Panzer Is accounted for over 15% of total German tank  strength during Operation Barbarossa. The last Panzer I was withdrawn from front-line German service in 1942 but this tank remained in service with the Spanish Army until the mid-1950s.

A well-camouflaged German Panzer I Ausf. A during the invasion of Poland in 1939. The tank appears to be painted in a single colour in this image, but that’s almost certainly due to the limitations of wartime black and white film: it would actually have been painted in a low-contrast two-colour camouflage scheme of dark grey/dark brown.

What’s in the Box

This kit comes with a 12-page magazine that describes a battle on the first day of the German invasion of Poland which involved Panzer Is, provides a history of the development and operational use of this tank and includes a rather nice step-by-step guide to painting and weathering this model. At least I think that’s what it contains: it’s written entirely in Polish and I’m afraid my ability to read Polish is non-existent.

Part of the guide to painting weathering this kit. Probably.

Inside the side-opening box you’ll find two small sprues moulded in dark grey plastic containing just 16 parts (there is a 17th part, a hatch, but it isn’t used) and a small decal sheet.

Moulding is sharp though details like the exhaust pipes and a shovel on the left track-guard are moulded integrally with the hull. A jack, axe and fire extinguisher are shown on the box art and in the colour external views in the magazine, but these aren’t included.

The turret hatch is moulded integrally with the one-piece turret.

The tracks, sprockets, idlers, suspension bogies and return rollers are moulded as a single part for each side. Detail is generally good, though the tracks themselves aren’t particularly convincing and the inner horns are moulded as solid items that stretch right across the inside of the tracks.

The MG barrels are nicely detailed and appear to be close to scale.

There are no detailed construction details, just a single exploded view. However, given that you’re only dealing with 16 parts, that shouldn’t be an issue.

The small decal sheet provides some all-white crosses and white, 3-digit hull and turret numbers, though there is no information about which German units these numbers belong to.  

The magazine includes a colour scheme of all dark-grey and that’s also shown on the box art. However, I’m really not sure about that. 

From July 1937 all new German tanks and AFVs were painted in a scheme consisting of a base of dunkelgrau (dark grey) overlaid with a dunkelbraun (dark brown) camouflage scheme covering at least 1/3 of the vehicle. From November 1938, this colour scheme was retroactively applied to any tanks that still had the older three-colour camouflage scheme. However, dunkelgrau and dunkelbraun have very low contrast and on most contemporary black and white images the two different colours don’t show up: that’s where the idea that early-war German tanks were painted all dark grey seems to have originated. However, an all dark grey scheme didn’t become standard for German tanks until a paint shortage at the end of July 1940.

This wartime image of a Panzer IV in Poland in 1939 is one of the few where the two-colour camouflage scheme is clearly evident on the front hull and the front of the turret. My understanding is that all German AFVs used in Poland were painted in this way.

An all-grey German AFV would only be appropriate if you’re modelling a vehicle used in the Balkans or Greece in 1941 or in Russia up to February 1943. If you’re painting a German tank that took part in the invasion of Poland in 1939 (or the subsequent battles in Norway, Belgium, Holland and France in the first half of 1940), I believe it should be painted in a two colour (dunkelgrau/dunkelbraun) finish. In the magazine, there is a small inset view that shows a Panzer I painted in this two-colour camouflage scheme and I think that this is correct if you want to model a tank that took part in the invasion of Poland. 

Would you want One?

This is a quick-build kit aimed at the wargamer rather than the modeller and it is a little light on detail. However, the overall look of the Panzer I Ausf. A is well replicated here and I will be interested to see whether this will build into a decent finished model. First to Fight also offer the Panzer I Ausf. B and the command versions of both. If I’m honest, you don’t get a great deal for your money here: very few parts and a truly tiny model and, unless you read Polish, you won’t learn much from the magazine. However, there is a certain satisfaction to be had building and painting something so small. I think…

If you don’t fancy this one but you want to model a Panzer I Ausf. A, the only alternative in 1/72 comes from Chinese manufacturer S-Model who offer several versions. All are quick-build kits (like this one, tracks and running gear are moulded as a single part) but the S-model kits have more detail (the tracks are notably better, for example) including PE parts. Each S-Model box contains two Panzer Is which makes this something of a bargain.

If you want to build a small-scale Panzer I Ausf. B, the choice is a little better. In addition to S-Model kits of several versions of this tank, Italeri, Revel, Zvezda, Maquette, Aurora and Polistil all offer (or have offered at some point) versions of this tank in 1/72. However, these are actually all re-boxed versions of the same original kit which was first released by Esci in 1976. It isn’t bad in terms of detail, but the link and length tracks are noticeably oversize and do look a little odd.   

  

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Panzer Colours, July 1937 to July 1940

Tamiya 1/35 Type 97 Chi-Ha (35075) Build Review

I’m going to build this one pretty much out of the box, with a couple of small changes that I’ll explain along the way. The first thing I tackle are the odd gaps between the upper and lower hull that seem to be a feature of many of these early Tamiya kits. I have no idea why – perhaps it was to allow heat from the motor to dissipate? Whatever the reason, I’m planning to have the hatches open and the kit figures in place on this build and, as you can see with the upper and lower hull temporarily together, the gap on the left side is clearly visible through  the open MG operator’s hatch.

Fixing it is simple and only requires a couple of pieces of thin plastic card cut to shape, but this does seem an odd issue on an otherwise beautifully engineered kit.

I try the hull machine-gun operator in position, and it all looks good. I have painted the inside surface of the plastic card a dark grey so that hopefully it’ll disappear into the shadow of the interior. With that done, it’s time to continue with the rest of construction…

I start by assembling the roadwheels, sprockets, idlers and bogies. All the roadwheel tyres have distinct moulding seams on their circumference that need to be sanded – a bit of a chore as there are 24. The four single roadwheels and both sprockets are retained by plastic poly caps. There’s nice detail here – the front and rear single pairs of roadwheels have slightly different hubs compared to the roadwheels attached to the bogies, and that’s accurately replicated.

I then move to construction of the lower hull. No problems here. I’m leaving off the roadwheels, bogies etc. for the moment – the camo scheme extends down the sides of the lower hull and I think this will be easier to paint before these parts are in place.

And then it’s on to the upper hull. Again, no problems and everything goes together easily and without the need for any filler.

The upper and lower hulls are then joined with no gaps and no need for filler. Construction so far is a pleasure: good detail, few tiny parts and fit is as close to perfect as you’re likely to find. I don’t see how you can ask more from any plastic model kit!  

I then add the Hull MG operator’s hatch after adding some detail to the interior. I leave off the exhausts, tools, tow-cable, etc., and I’ll add these once I’m done with painting.

Then, it’s time to start on the turret. I begin with the main gun, which comes in two parts, with a separate muzzle which incorporates an open bore. Fortunately, fit between these parts is very good and it’s possible to sand the join without compromising the distinct shape of the muzzle.

The first part of turret construction goes without any problems and fit is great.

I complete turret construction and notice that the AA machine gun mount is clearly located in the instructions (I claimed in the In-Box review that it wasn’t), so I decide to include this after all. I also incorporate some additional detail inside the main hatch. I leave off the radio antenna at this stage to make painting easier.

It’s time to begin painting. As usual, I’ll be brush painting everything and I’m going for the four-colour scheme incorporating the irregular yellow cross – it looks a little challenging, but I hope it will be visually striking. After some testing and experimentation, I’m using Mig Olivegrun Opt. 2 for the base green colour.

Then, I add the lighter of the two browns, using Vallejo US Field Drab.

Then I add the darker brown using Vallejo Flat Brown and the yellow cross. I paint this first in pale grey before overpainting in yellow, otherwise the yellow doesn’t really show up at all. It’s a bit wibbly, but I think it will do. And given that the original was simply brush painted, I don’t suppose it was perfect either!

Next, I use lightened versions of all three main colours to dry brush highlights on the hull, turret and running gear. Then, I add the decals and give everything a coat of clear matte varnish. Oddly, this seems to darken the lighter of the two browns, but not the other colours.

Then I add a dark oil wash to bring out the shadows and this, in conjunction with the highlighting, really brings everything up nicely.

I then do an overall watercolour wash with additional dust/mud streaks on the sides and on the roadwheels, etc. I then add the roadwheels, idlers and sprockets onto the hull and that gives me a chance to try fitting the tracks. 

They’re a good length and they join cleanly but once they’re in place, it’s clear that the inner guide teeth don’t fit inside the gap between the two outer, upper return rollers. I checked the instructions, and I think I have assembled these correctly, but there is no way to get the tracks to sit properly on the rollers. As shown above, this just looks wrong. I’d also like to show some sag, and that takes a little head-scratching.

In the end, I cut off two of the inner guide teeth where the tracks pass over the outer rollers and I glue a couple of pieces of curved plastic on the underside of the inside of the tracks. These are invisible once the tracks are in place and help to give at least the impression of some sag on the main runs. I also glue the tracks down to the return rollers once they’re painted. This is what I end up with. Certainly not perfect, but I think I can live with it.

Time to work on the remaining bits and pieces. The exhausts get some rough texture and some paint to represent rust. The tow cable, tools and jack get added to the rear hull and the radio antenna and the AA MG are added to the turret.

That’s about it for construction. The last step is assembly and painting of the figures. They do have prominent moulding seams that need to be sanded, but they are both generally well sculpted and only a tiny amount of filler is needed to smooth one shoulder joint on the commander.

I give them both a fairly simple paint job that follows the instructions.

And with the figures in place, I declare this Tamiya Chi-Ha done!

After Action Report

This is a fairly typical early Tamiya tank kit: it’s well engineered, fit is as close to perfect as you’re likely to find and it builds into a reasonable representation of the subject. Kit-building just doesn’t get much easier or more satisfying than this.

OK, it isn’t perfect. The gap between the upper and lower hull is odd (and common to several other early Tamiya kits) and it can clearly be seen through the open hull MG operator’s hatch so it does need to be fixed. Both that hatch and the turret hatch lack internal detail and again, that’s probably something you’re going to have to work on if you want to show these open.

The tracks are well detailed and join easily, but they’re made of fairly inflexible vinyl so if you want to show sag, some creativity will be required. But that’s pretty much it in terms of drawbacks. Otherwise, this is simple to build and there is nothing here that would challenge even a beginner kit-builder.

Overall, I’d give this one a big thumbs-up! And, like many of the early Tamiya kits, you can find this one for not very much money at all. Go for it!

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Tamiya 1/35 Type 97 Chi-Ha (35075) In-Box Review and History

It’s time to head for the Pacific Theatre and another early Tamiya release – this Type 97 Chi-Ha is number 75 in the Military miniatures series and was first released in 1975. As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader here on MKW, I have built a few other early Tamiya 1/35 tanks (the Walker Bulldog from 1964, the Panzer II from 1971 and the Sturmgeschütz IV from 1975). I enjoyed all of them, but there was one common issue: all were initially designed for motorisation, so all had holes for switches in the bottom and sides of the hull. They also all had simplified tracks with little internal detail, presumably to make them function more effectively.

For some reason, this one is different. It has no holes in the lower hull and reasonably detailed tracks. How come? I have no idea! Tamiya did release a revised version of this kit featuring the Shinhoto Chi-Ha in 1987 (35137) by which time they had given up on motorised kits. They still offer this one, but I did notice that while the  mould date on the inside of the lower hull here is 1975, there is also text reading © 1987 Tamiya”, so perhaps the lower hull of the original (presumably motorised) Chi-Ha kit was replaced in 1987? Whatever, I’m just happy to see fewer holes to fill and nicely detailed tracks.

I’m looking forward to building this kit. Fit and detail on the other early Tamiya kits I tried was well above average and construction was simple and straightforward. The colour schemes used on Japanese tanks are also very different, and I’m looking forward to trying that as well as applying some new weathering techniques. Let’s take a look at the Type 97 Chi-Ha.

History

The identification of Japanese tanks can seem confusing if you’re not familiar with it. In reality, it’s fairly simple and it’s at least partly based on a poem, which isn’t something you can say about many tank naming systems!

A restored Chi-Ha on display at the Yūshūkan Museum at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Like many Chi-Ha tanks, this has a circular radio antenna mounted above the turret.

From around 1935, Japanese tanks were given two-part names according to their weight/type and the order in which they were developed. The weights/types were Chi, Ke and Ho (Medium, Light and Self-Propelled Gun). The development order reference was for a specific model of tank (similar to the German PzKpfw number identifying a particular type). This was not given as a numeral, but instead as a character derived from the Iroha. a Japanese poem written around 1,000AD. This poem is a perfect pangram: that is, it uses every character of the Japanese alphabet just once. This poem is used like the A, B, C of the western alphabet to order Japanese characters. The third character of the first line of the poem is “ha,” so this is used to represent the third item in a sequence just as we use the letter C. Chi-Ha literally translates as Medium – Third, the third medium tank type to be developed.

Chi-Ha tanks on parade after the capture of Singapore in February 1942.

However, Japanese tanks were also identified by a type number based on the last two digits of their year of adoption for service. This uses the Japanese Imperial dating system derived from the Koki calendar, based on the supposed founding of Japan in 660BC. The Chi-Ha was adopted in 1937, or Imperial Year 2597. So, it was given the Type Number 97. It’s worth noting that the type number isn’t unique: it applies to all items adopted for Japanese military service during a particular year. Japanese armed forces widely used, for example, a tankette also introduced in 1937 and also designated as the Type 97 and the machine guns and main gun used on the Chi-Ha were also both identified as Type 97. Requisitioning anything in the Japanese military must have been a tense business – if you ordered a “Type 97,” you might receive anything from a machine gun to a medium tank!

Type 89 tanks of the IJA, 1934.

The first indigenous Japanese tank design was the Type 89, introduced into service 1932. This was a medium tank weighing around 10 tons and armed with a large calibre but relatively low velocity 57mm main gun intended primarily for infantry support and mounted in a fully traversable turret. It was also the world’s first diesel-engined tank. However, it had a major drawback: a top speed of less than 15mph. This was identified as a serous weakness in action and submissions were requested in 1935 for a new design with a higher top speed. Mitsubishi produced two prototypes in 1936: the Chi-Ha (with a 170hp diesel engine) and the lighter and cheaper Chi-Ni (Medium-Fourth) with a 135hp diesel engine. After evaluation, the Chi-Ha was selected for service with the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) and Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN).

Type 97 Chi-Ha and Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks during an exercise in 1940 at the Tank School of the Imperial Japanese Army at Chiba. The tank at the right foreground in this photograph, hull No. 301, appears to be one of those for which decals are provided with this kit.

The Chi-Ha provided space for a four-man crew including a two-man turret. Although the turret was fully traversable, the main gun could also traverse within the turret up to 5˚ to either side. The 21 litre, air-cooled, V12 diesel engine gave a useful top speed of up to 25mph. In addition to a Type 97 57mm main gun (similar to that used on Type 89), this tank was armed with two Type 97 (7.7mm) machine guns: one mounted in the forward hull and the other in a ball-mount on the turret rear. Armour thickness varied from 15mm to a maximum of 33mm on the mantlet. More than 1,100 Chi-Ha tanks were manufactured and this type saw service with the IJA and IJN in Manchuria, on the Russian border and every location in the Pacific Theatre.

A group of Chi-Ha Tanks of the 11th Tank Regiment on Shumshu in the Kuril Islands during World War Two. The tank nearest the camera is a later Shinhoto Chi-Ha. All the others are the original version.

The Chi Ha was first used in combat in China where it proved adequate. However, in 1939 the Battles of Khalkhin Gol against the forces of the Soviet Union revealed major deficiencies. The high-velocity 47mm guns of Russian light tanks outranged and outperformed the low-velocity 57mm gun on the Chi-Ha. As a direct result, work began on a new version which became known as the Type 97 Kai (Improved), and as the Shinhoto (New Turret) Chi-Ha. It incorporated a completely new, larger, three-man turret armed with a high-velocity 47mm main gun. From 1942 on, the Shinhoto Chi-Ha completely replaced the original version in production and more than 900 examples of this improved type were manufactured.

A Chi-Ha of the 11th Tank Regiment, destroyed while attempting to stop a Russian landing on Shumshu in August 1945. Possibly one of the tanks from the previous image. Photographed on Shumshu in 2009.

What’s in the Box?

Parts are moulded in dark green plastic and provided on three sprues plus the upper and lower hull and main turret mouldings.

Eight poly-cap washers are also provided for attaching the road wheels.

Detail looks generally very good with bolt, rivet and weld detail being particularly nicely done.

Even the provided figures don’t look too bad in terms of detail.

The only place where detail is lacking is the inside of the turret hatch – if you want to show this open, some additional work may be needed.

I have seen it suggested in other reviews that the exhaust heat shields provided with this kit are unusable. For what it’s worth, I disagree. In reality, the silencers on the Chi-Ha were covered with thin mesh screens, as you can see below (this image also shows the inside of the turret hatch).

In this kit, the silencers and mesh heat shields are moulded integrally, but there is some attempt at representing mesh. OK, these aren’t perfect, but I think they’re usable and you can always replace them with aftermarket PE screens if they offend you (though I guess that means you’ll need to fabricate new silencers too).

No external stowage is included though there are a couple of steel helmets that can be placed on the turret side. The vinyl tracks seem reasonably detailed inside and out, though the vinyl of which they are made is fairly inflexible. As far as I can tell, they seem like a fair representation of Chi-Ha tracks. 

The instructions provide what appears to be an accurate summary of Japanese tank paint schemes. Prior to 1942 (and most of the early version of the Chi-Ha depicted by this kit were produced before 1942) these tanks were painted in a base of khaki drab (Tsuchi kusa-iro) with a hard-edged “fleeting cloud” disruptive camouflage pattern using mahogany brown (Tsuchi-iro) and light tan (Karekusa-iro). In addition, many tanks were overpainted with an irregular cross in vivid yellow, roughly centred on the turret.

This rare colour wartime image shows a knocked-out Type 95 Ha-Go light tank finished in the three-colour scheme, but without the yellow cross.

However, the actual paints used depended on what was available at the time and there was no published reference for the Fleeting Cloud pattern – each Japanese tank represented a unique work of art. While Tamiya provide suggested paints and a camo scheme, feel free to indulge your imagination!

Decals are provided for six tanks of various identified units. The decal sheet is printed nicely in-register and the colours look strong and consistent.

The instructions generally seem very clear, though they do show an optional externally mounted MG for AA defence. However, unless I’m missing it, there is no clue anywhere in the instructions to suggest where this goes! I have not been able to find a single wartime image of a Chi-Ha fitted with such a machine gun, so I think I’ll be leaving this off.  

Would You Want One?

I can’t see why not. This looks accurate, very nicely detailed and if it’s anything like most other Tamiya kits, construction should be simple. The only things that stand out as not being up to current standards are the lack of interior detail on the main turret hatch and perhaps the exhaust heat shields. If you really can’t put up with them, Eduard do PE replacements for the heat shields. The kit tracks are nicely detailed, but they are made from fairly stiff vinyl, so I don’t know how well it will be possible to replicate sag, but again, there are several aftermarket alternatives if you prefer.

If you don’t fancy this one, there are other 1/35 Chi-Ha kits available. Another Japanese manufacturer, Fine Molds, have released several versions of the Chi-Ha in 1/35 since 2008. These are generally nice kits, with far more parts than the Tamiya version including clear plastic items, PE exhaust screens and link and length tracks. Overall these are very nicely detailed kits, though it has been said that the rivet detail perhaps isn’t quite as good as that on the Tamiya version. These are also around twice the price of the Tamiya version which, like many of the older Tamiya tank kits, is now available from around €15.

Chinese manufacturer Dragon released a 1/35 Chi-Ha in 2017, and it’s very nice indeed, with PE parts and Dragon’s DS tracks. Several versions are available and all have lots of detail and are very accurate but they’re typically more than three times the price of the Tamiya kit and I’m not at all certain that they’re three times as good!

Dragon also offer several versions of the Chi-Ha in 1/72 and, if you’re willing to go tiny there’s always the old Airfix Chi-Ha in 1/76 scale. Originally released in 1974, this is one of the better Airfix tank kits from the 70s and it has recently been re-released as part of the Vintage Classics range. And it’s available for less than the price of a couple of fancy coffees!

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Heller 1/72 Somua (79875) Build Review

I start as recommended by the instructions, by assembling the four parts that make up the lower hull. Four parts. How difficult can that be? Well, if it’s these particular four parts, perhaps rather more difficult than you’d expect.

The problem is location. Although the instructions show locating pins, there aren’t any. So you’re left to try to figure precisely how these parts fit together. I mean, I get the general idea, but actually getting all four joined with some sort of congruence is far from simple. And when I’m finally done and I test-fit the upper hull, I realise that the rear bulkhead is too high and needs to be trimmed and the front is too low and will require filler.

I decide to ignore the instructions which suggest that joining the upper and lower hulls is the last step of construction and I go ahead and do that now. It takes some trimming before I get the upper hull to fit correctly, and then it’s obvious that the small semi-circular flanges via which the actual upper and lower hulls would be joined on the original don’t line up. I have to trim off all the flanges on the lower hull.

With the hull finally complete, I assemble the suspension, road wheels, sprockets, return rollers and idlers on each side. Happily that’s fairly simple. I leave off the suspension covers for the moment to make painting easier. I also check that it’s possible to squeeze the tracks between the top plate and the return rollers and that they’re long enough – it is and they are.

I add the last few bits and pieces to the hull, with the exception of the exhaust, tracks, shovel, and side-covers which I’ll add after painting.

Then I start work on the turret. Assembling the upper and lower halves is simple, but just as with the hull, there aren’t any pins or holes to aid with location so some care is needed. When It’s done, I carefully sand the join and add some filler to modify the shape of the right side. I also do a little work on the main gun – it’s notably far from circular, so I spend some time trying to sand it into a better shape and I then drill it out.

I complete the turret with the addition of the main gun and MG mantlets and that’s construction pretty much done. Now it’s time to start painting. First, everything gets several thin coats of Vallejo Dark Yellow, which looks a reasonable match for the ocre jaune used on French tanks early in World War Two.

Then I add a camo pattern based on the instructions and using Vallejo Olive Green for vert.

Finally, I use a 0.8mm black marker pen to add the black lines between the main camo colours. This is fiddly, but not too difficult.

Then I carefully add a matt varnish coat once the pen lines are dry – you do have to be careful with the varnish because if you’re a little too brisk with the brush, you can smear the pen lines. Then I add the decals using Vallejo Decal Fix and Decal Softener.

And then it gets an oil wash in dark brown to bring out the shadows and make everything look a bit grubby. Then I add the tracks and the exhaust pipe, though not the shovel – when I looked at it properly, it’s much too large and a very odd shape. And that’s it done.

After Action Report

Sorry Heller, but this just isn’t a great kit. In terms of fit, ease of construction, detail and overall quality, this falls short in every area.  OK, I know, it’s forty years old, but it is still notably worse than a number of other kits from the 1960s and 1970s that I have tackled. The tracks are particularly nasty. Not only don’t they resemble the tracks on the S35, they’re made of a particularly light, rubbery vinyl that just won’t take glue – I had to use a couple of stiches to get them joined.

This is especially disappointing because the S35 is an interesting subject for a small-scale armour kit. But there just aren’t many kits of French AFVs of World War Two in 1/72 or 1/76. Your only options for the S35 in this scale is this one or a quick-build wargaming kit. If you decide to go for this one, be prepared for some challenges along the way.  

I like old kits and I generally enjoy building them. This one, not so much. The previous kit I finished was a Revell/Matchbox kit from 1974. It had good detail, was crisply moulded and it was simply a joy to build. On this one, the only warm feeling I got inside was down to indigestion. In all honesty, this is probably one to avoid unless you’re willing to put in some effort and work with aftermarket parts in order to improve it.

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And if you want to see how much fun old kits can be:

Revell (Matchbox) 1/76 M24 Chaffee (03323) Build Review