U.S. Light Tank M3 Stuart
Modeling the U.S. Army in WWII


Until 2002, when Academy and AFV Club released new Stuart kits, the only game in town were the Tamiya kits. The M5A1 and M8 HMC were the later types of tanks as used by the U.S. Army, and they were preceded by the M3 light tank. Most readers will probably know this Tamiya kit has its problems, so I'll also take a look at what can be done with the kit.

Historical Background
U.S. light tank design began in the early 1930s. Trends in those days were heavily armored and armed tanks for infantry support, and small tankettes armed with machine guns for traditional cavalry roles. The earliest ancestor was the T5 Combat Car. The cavalry called their tanks and tankettes Combat Cars, since they weren't supposed to aquire tanks. When approved for production, the T5 was redesignated as M1 Combat Car. It carried an armament of two .30 machine guns and a .50 heavy machine gun as main armament. The infantry branch had a similar vehicle, known as the M2A1 light tank. This had a hull resembling the M1 Combat Car and a single .50 in the turret. Later they switched to two turrets, assuming this had more combat value as two turrets could engage two targets.

This view was also expressed in heavy tanks of the day like the German Neubaufahrzeug and the Russian T28 and T35. The T35 was more like a land battleship with two MG turret, two 37mm gun turret and one main turret, mounting a 75mm gun and two machine guns. The Russians actually had considerable influence on tank development, as their T26 light tank was responsible for a reassessment in tank design. During the Spanish Civil War, several European armies tested equipment on the battlefield. The view that machine gun armed tankettes could play a decisive role against enemy armor was proved invalid. A lot of tank fighting occurred between Russian T26 tank (armed with a 37mm gun), and the German PzKpfw I and Italian CV.3/35 (which had machine guns). The German and Italian vehicles were unable to penetrate the Russian tanks, while they were extremely vulnerable against the 37mm gun.

Reports which made it back to the United States made it clear that the combat cars and light tanks would be obsolete when commited to war. A short term expedient was to arm the light tanks with a 37mm gun, but better armor protection was also needed. Further development of the combat cars resulted in heavier armor and weaponry, and changes in design of the suspension. This eventually resulted in the M3 light tank.

The M3 light tank was equipped with four VVSS bogies, two per side, a front mounted sprocket and a rear, trailing idler wheel. The trailing increased ground pressure, thus permitting a modest armor increase. Frontal armor was 38mm, while side armor was 25mm. This was by no means adequate, but it was all the chassis could handle. Armament consisted of a bow mounted .30, two sponson mounted .30 MGs, a 37mm M5 main gun with a coaxial .30 MG, and a .30 MG on an anti-aircraft mounting at the turret side.

Unfortunately, the M3 was an outdated design by European terms from the start. The lessons from the Spanish war were interpreted differently in Europe. This resulted in vehicles like the French Char B1, the German PzKpfw III and IV, and the Russian T34. These all had far better protection and armament than the M3.

Stuart Versions
There were several versions of the M3 light tanks. First, there were four types of turrets. The initial turret was the D37182 turret. This was a slab-sided, hexagonal turret. It used riveted construction and had an octagonal cupola with vision slits. It was found that dedicated MG fire against the turret caused the rivets to break and fly around in the turret. So the same turret design was taken and welded together. This became the D38976 turret. This turret is available in the Academy M3 'Honey' kit.

A third turret type, known as the D39273, was introduced in November 1941, and was easily distinguished from the earlier turrets by its rounded, horseshoe shape and a commander cupola. The initial design called for a rotating periscope but this was not fitted. Vision slits around the cupola provided limited vision. This turret is provided in the Tamiya M3 kit.

The fourth turret type, D58101, resembled the D39273 though without the cupola, and was introduced in early 1942. It had two roof hatches and a pericopic sight for the commander. This turret is in the Academy 'M3A1' kit.

The M3 was initially powered by the Continental W-670 radial engine. However, this engine was also needed for aircraft, so other power sources were sought. In September 1940, the use of the Guiberson T-1020 diesel engine was authorized. This engine had a slightly different engine deck layout, with the pipes for the air filters running into the engine grill, instead of entering the hull near the air filters. Tamiya provides the Guiberson layout on their tank. The diesel engined vehicles were not popular in the army, because of reliability and the logistic problems of operating gasoline and diesel powered vehicles together. The Marines had less problems, as diesel fuel was already used for their landing craft.

The Model
The choices Tamiya made for this model made mean we have a fairly awkward subject. The D39273 turret was not the most typical type of turret, and the Guiberson engine was also not very common. Had Tamiya chosen one of the other turrets and engine, the options for unit markings would have been far greater.

But let's see what's in the box. As plastic kits go, this one is fairly simple.
Step one is assembly of sprocket and suspension bogies. The sprockets are quite good, with fair details. The suspension bogies are a bit heavy, but they are better in some respects than the Academy parts. Academy has the arms at too steep an angle, resulting an odd look. Tamiya captured this correctly. The wheels have weld detail, but do have flash in the openings and around the wheel rim. The linkage arms on the bogie are in one piece, whereas there should be two small strips. This is easily remedied and makes the suspension more delicate.

Step two is the idler wheel. The bracket is extremely simplified, with no spring detail and lacking the cutout at the front. Again, this fairly easily added with good references. The tracks are completely useless. The end connectors do not connect anything. They attach to every single link, instead of every other link (similar to Tamiya's M3 Lee). AFV Club has sets of replacement links, and Academy offers both rubber band and single link in their Stuart kits. The AFV Club sets do fit the Tamiya kit, but you need to remove the inner ring on the sprockets.

Step three deals with the construction of the lower hull. The rear plate is in one piece, with molded-on handle and lifting hook mounts. Replace the handle with wire, and add towing shackles. The rivets are nicely formed. The brackets on top of the bogies are thick, so either replace them or thin them down with a file. The front transmission cover is not correct. Basically, the "bar" on the top needs to be removed, and the final drive should be more rounded. Use a razor saw and files to remove the 'bar' and add some plastic card and putty to the final drive.

The upper hull is dealt with in step four and five. From front to back, we get two lights and a siren. They are a bit heavy handed so you might want to replace them. The hull machine guns are not good. The cooling holes are more like cooling rivets, so replace these. The light guards are thick, so a file or brass strip are needed again. The side plates and sponson plates are separate parts, and fit fairly well. Rivets are well done, and do not suffer from sink holes. Tamiya molds the front fenders integrally with the upper hull. (Academy did this completely wrong: their fenders butt up against the sponson, where they should attach under the sponsons.) Tamiya provides a one-piece front plate. No separate hatches here. The engine deck has the longer air filter hoses, attaching to the rear screen. As said, this is a bit of an awkward choice, as it limits your possibilities. Nevertheless, you might want to replace the screening, as it's coarse. When cutting here, you can rebuild the air filter hoses, and add the missing hull mounting brackets. Academy has got this bracket, but misses the front sponson bracket. Tamiya gives us two rear fender boxes, with no real detail at all. Some photoetched latches and hinges will be useful here.

We get to the turret in step six. The main turret is in four parts: roof, left and right turret halves, and one cupola piece. Fit is good, but you might need to check for seams. Added to the turret are a heavy handed MG mounting, viewing ports, two hatches marred with sink holes, a useless Browning .30, and the 37mm main gun. There is no interior detail. The gun shield lacks casting texture, and the barrel lacks the flared tip. The turret has weld detail, but this needs extending to actually cover the joints.

Step seven has you join all these bits together, et voila, one easy to build Stuart kit.

The decals are somewhat suspect. There is a set for the 1st Armored Division, 13th Armored Regiment, 1st Battalion, C Co. for Tunisia 1942, which seems correct, though I think the white bands around the turret should be yellow.

The 3rd Armored Division, 32nd Armored Regiment, A Co. is completely bogus, however. The M3 was declared obsolete by then, and units in the ETO were provided with M5 and M5A1 tanks.

There are also markings for the British Arm in Africa (7th AD, 4th Armored Brigade, 8th Light Cavalry, B Co.) and the Canadian Army (4th Canadian Armored Brigade, 22nd Armored Regiment, C Battalion). I don't know much about British or Canadian units. The decals might be correct, or might be not. Versions that are accurate can be found from Quartermasters Depot, Archer, etc. The British did use some Stuart IIIs in Europe as photographs from the Concord book show.

Well, the model itself is quite nice. It makes an easy build and the subject is a popular one. But it's a pity there are some serious drawbacks to this kit.
1) The version depicted was not very common.
2) The turret is way undersized.
3) The tracks are completely wrong.
4) Detail is not up to the current standards.

So I can't really recommend this kit to serious modelers, who want accurate models. But it is very suitable out of the box for beginners, or a fun weekend build to practice your painting and weathering skills on.

You can rebuild the turret, add the AFV Club suspension kit and separate link track, redetail the hull, and you'll have a nice kit. But this would be costly. A better solution would be to combine the Academy and Tamiya kits. This way, you can combine the strong points of both to result in a better model.

Let's hope AFV Club might be tempted to release an M3 Stuart after their excellent M3A3 kit.

For another look at this kit, check out Tim Streeter's construction review.

References and Further Reading
Concord Publications, U.S. Light Tank at War 1941-1945, Steven J. Zaloga, 962-361-678-3.

Osprey Modelling No 4, Modeling the M3/M5 Stuart Light Tank, Steven J. Zaloga, 1-84176-763-8.

Osprey New Vanguard No 33, M3 & M5 Stuart Light Tank, Steven J. Zaloga, 1-85532-911-5.

In Military Modelling magazines, there have been several articles on the Stuart series. The following cover the Tamiya kit:
- M3A1 in Tunisia, June 1998
- British M3 Honey, May 1999

-Martin Dogger


Modeling the U.S. Army in WWII © Timothy S. Streeter