Kit Review: Academy 1/35 Scale Kit No. 13011; U. S. Airborne Tank M551 Sheridan; 331 parts ( 328 in dark green styrene, 2 in steel colored vinyl, 1 section of nylon screen); retail price US $38
Advantages: clean, modern kit of this popular subject; most major flaws in earlier kits corrected; finally a Sheridan that LOOKS like a Sheridan
Disadvantages: some shortcuts on details; builds only one version of the vehicle in Vietnam service but directions do not indicate that
Rating: Highly Recommended
Recommendation: to all US armor fans, especially of Vietnam to Desert Storm interests
F I R S T L O O K
It doesn't seem to fail that whatever sprang to life during the tenure of Robert S. McNamara as the US Secretary of Defense sounded good on paper but wound up being a lemon without a lot of reworking. The USAF and Navy got the F-111, the Army and Marines got the AR15 cum M16, and the Army alone got the Sheridan.
The US Army, in its search for a new light tank in 1959, wanted something that could be air droppable and also able to swim (e.g. very light weight) but able to defeat any main battle tank on the battlefield. New generation aluminum alloy armor solved the first problem, but the designers turned to a new concept - a six-inch missile launcher firing from a closed breech, whose HEAT warhead would easily penetrate 500-750mm of armor. The prototypes which appeared in1962 took another three years to mature into what was then called the M551 Airborne Amphibious Armored Reconnaissance Vehicle or AAARV for short. The name given to it was Sheridan, after Union Major General "Little Phil" of Civil War fame.
The tank was not what it seemed. The cast aluminum hull was coated with styrofoam for buoyancy and all of that was sheathed in riveted aluminum sheeting. All around the edge of the hull was a rubber cover that folded back to reveal a folding nylon wading screen little different than that used by the WWII British-designed Duplex Drive tanks. The turret was rolled homogenous steel armor, mounting the 152mm launcher (quickly turned into a gun-launcher by the addition of HE-FRAG and cannister rounds with combustible cases, which later turned out to be one of the Achilles' Heels of the Sheridan) and a coaxial 7.62mm machine gun. A 12.7mm M2HB was mounted on the commander's cupola.
It is said that no plan survives first contact, and in 1967 the US Army deployed the Sheridan not to Europe, where it was designed to swim rivers like the Rhein and Elbe and dispatch Soviet T-62 and T-10M tanks, but Vietnam, where it was used as mobile fire support by armored cavalry units. The missile guidance system (the box above the gun) was removed, usually sealed then with bright green "100-mph tape." The tank used mostly the HE-FRAG and cannister rounds, which caused a lot of problems for gunners.
The tank's "gun" was designed as a missile launcher first and a gun second. Ergo, while launching the missile was more akin to firing a six-inch torpedo (the missile was ejected by a gas propellant charge, with the motor igniting several meters in front of the tank.) The resulting kick from firing even a relatively low powered shell caused the vehicle to violently buck, often pulling the first two or even three road wheel sets off the ground. The joke was you could always spot a Sheridan gunner from the scar tissue over his right eye (if he did not prepare himself when he fired, the kick would smack the sight into his head just below the CVC helmet.)
Originally the Sheridan came with a rather wimpy "luggage rack" on the back of the turret, but most units in Vietnam soon modified it to suit themselves. Probably the most useful full-fledged bustle rack design came from the 11th ACR, as all three squadrons had Sheridans and they wanted some measure of standardization. Later, when the 4/73rd Armor with the 82nd Airborne Division was the only US Army unit left with the M551 in service, they also created a design for a standardized turret bustle rack.
As commanders also tended to have a high casualty rate in Vietnam, many started using the armored shields from M113 APC armor sets. Later, a factory-designed "crow's nest" was created to provide armor protection for the commander when using the M2HB gun. This has a folding panel in the back for the commander to sit on during road movements in adminstrative order as well as assist in access to the hatch when loading ammunition.
The M551, later upgraded as an A1 with a laser rangefinder, soldiered on into the 1990s. Today the few remaining Sheridans serve as OPFOR surrogate vehicles at NTC in California, but are rapidly leaving the inventory.
The Sheridan has so far been very ill served as a model. Other than one 1/76 scale kit from Airfix, the only others were a motorized effort from Tamiya in the early 1970s (kit number3031/MT131) and a clone of that kit from the early days of Academy which appeared in the US around 1990 (#1307). Both were dreadful, as Tamiya basically designed the kit to use 1/35 scale parts around a 1/32 scale hull in order to fit a standard motorization pack to it. The result was totally out of scale to begin with, but to make matters worse, even though the Sheridan had been in production for more than eight years when the kit came out in 1973, it was based on some of the prototype features with a totally inexplicable grating covered hull top.
About nine years ago I attempted to turn one of each into a Vietnam Sheridan and its modern M551A1 82nd Airborne version, but the kits were so bad and the work so extensive I could only manage to get one model out of the two kits (and a LOT of styrene sheet and strip.)
In the meantime Legends of Korea released a full-up resin kit of the Sheridans (one of each) with injection molded wheels and track links. However, while they did offer the running gear separately the kit was extremely expensive for such a relatively small vehicle.
Now Academy has just released a new injection molded kit of the Sheridan and first and foremost I must point out THIS IS NOT A RE-RELEASE OF KIT #1307!!! Academy has totally redone it from the ground up, and the result is an excellent kit.
Academy selected one of the Vietnam standard production Sheridans with production gun with the "smooth" barrel, "crow's nest" armor for the commander, and the 11th ACR bustle rack as their kit subject. In point of fact, the only item missing from the kit is the belly mine-resistant armor which units called for almost immediately after taking the Sheridan out in the "bush." I am not sure of when it was issued but the 11th ACR and others were using it at least by 1970.
The kit provides the basics for a great model, but some items were skimped over in order to make a reasonably produceable kit. One point concerns the road wheels, which have a very annoying lip around the rims (a sure dust and mud magnet) wherease the kit provides them as simple dished wheels. The tracks are a bit thin and light on details (the originals are very close pitch, so in all honesty there isn't much to see) but at least they are detailed inside and out unlike the second-generation kits.
There is a large hole in the belly but it is NOT a motorization hole; this is the vehicle's belly escape hatch (which the belly armor leaves a cutout for, figuring that the center of the hull is not as likely as the bow or sides to suffer mine effects.)
The details are neatly done and the kit provides all of the basic components for the Vietnam version. However, it does not provide the "luggage rack" but only the 11th ACR-built bustle rack. Considering the finishing options, this is unfortunate, for at least two of the vehicles chosen for finishing did not have this rack ("Hard Core 7" and "Canary Cage"; the latter is odd as it was a 2/11 ACR vehicle photographed in 1969).
One nice touch is the provision of buckles and strap tiedowns on the C (suspension) sprues, which will be very handy items for modelers to use. These vehicles were stuffed to the gunnels with kit, so the bustle rack begs to be filled. The model only provides a few ammo cans and two each water (metal) and drinking water (plastic) 5-gallon cans though.
Oddly the AN/VSS-3 searchlight is missing its lens, and therefore the modeler will have to either come up with a lens from clear styrene or acetate sheet or simply "tarp it up" with tissue paper to simulate canvas (most common in the Vietnam era photos.)
Overall this kit IS a Sheridan and I don't doubt that the after-market boys will jump at the chance to provide better marking options (with bumper codes, something chronically missing from Academy kits) and metal details for purists such as the wheel rim lips. But it's a great place to start and should be a popular model. I also hope they plan on an A1 with the wide variety of 82nd Airborne markings (Grenada, Panama and Kuwait all come to mind) or perhaps a VISMOD from NTC.
Thanks to Bob Lewen of MRC/Academy for the review sample.