2. FT-17 - 1917
The Renault FT-17 was a revolutionary design that created the basic layout of tank designs for generations to come. It was the first tank to have a rotating turret, the engine in the rear, and the driver’s compartment in the front. It would go on to be the most produced tank of World War One.
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Kit: 1/35 Meng “French FT-17 Light Tank (Riveted Turret)”
Decals: Provided by the kit.
Date: April 2015
History: While not the first tank to be used in combat or even the first “main battle tank”, the diminutive FT-17 tank could make the claim that it is the father of the modern tank. Prior tank designs, like the boxy British Mark I-V series with their rhomboid hulls and side-mounted guns more resembled land ships than modern tanks. The FT-17 on the other hand featured a turret that could rotate 360º, an engine mounted in the rear, and the driver’s compartment up front - a layout that has become the standard in tank design ever since.
Louis Renault probably had no idea he was creating history when he started the design of the FT-17 at the urging of French Army Colonel Jean-Baptiste Eugene Estienne during the fall of 1916. Estienne, who was instrumental in the creation of the French tank force during World War I, visualized a smaller, faster tank that could be built in large numbers and deployed in “bee swarms” to overwhelm enemy positions. In January 1917 the first prototype was unveiled and by March testing was complete. In April Estienne requested that the tank be equipped with a 37mm cannon to give it more punch than the 8mm Hotchkiss machine gun that it was to originally armed with. The French Army ordered 3,500 of the tanks in July and in September a new octagonal riveted turret was designed by the Berliet Company that could mount either the 37mm cannon or the 8mm machine gun.
While only 84 were built by the end of 1917, in March 1918 the FT-17 was formally accepted by the French Army. The first FT units were formed in March and April, and the tank got its first taste of action around Ploissy-Chazelle on May 31, 1918. The tanks were soon successful, able to operate in forested terrain where the larger designs weren’t able to go. They proved popular with their crews and the troops, though losses were high, generally because of mechanical breakdowns. When the German Ludendorff offensive finally petered out in early June, the French Army launched a massive counter-offensive. The FT tanks were a decisive factor, passing German infantry lines and leading offensive actions everywhere. French commanders saw the success of the light tanks and immediately began calling for more. Once fielded in large numbers, the FT tanks helped change the course of the war from defensive to offensive. It restored a measure of mobility to the battlefield, finally giving the exhausted French infantry a way to overcome the dreaded German machine gun.
Production of several variants continued after the war with the final production estimate thought to surpass 4,000. It was license built in the United States and designated the M1917, but none made it to Europe in time to see combat. During the Interwar years it was used in several conflicts around the globe, and some 22 years later 1,600 were still in use in rear formations by the French Army during the Battle of France. Many were captured by the German Army, re-designated the Panzerkampfwagen 18R 730(f) and used for patrol duty during the rest of the French occupation. After World War II the FT-17 soldiered on in various armies around the world, albeit in very limited roles. Amazingly some were still in use as pillboxes in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Today several FT-17s exist in museums including the Bovington Tank Museum in England and Fort Knox in the US, to name a few.
The Kit: Meng Models is a new player to the AFV model scene but if this kit is any indication, let’s hope they’re around for a long time. Molded in beige plastic, the kit includes 10 sprues of finely detailed parts, a fret of photo etch, a small bag of metal parts and springs (the suspension is designed to flex), separate “click-together” style track links, a nicely illustrated instruction booklet with full color views of all sides of two different tanks, decals for said tanks, and finally parts to build a realistic World War I trench-style display base. You don’t get any figures, but you do get a fully detailed driver’s compartment, which you can display with open hatches. You can build your tank armed with either the 8mm Hotchkiss machine gun or the 37mm Puteaux cannon, and show off their breeches also through open turret hatches.
So for about $40 retail you get a real gem of a kit. The diorama base especially struck a chord with me, reminding me of those bases that Aurora used to include in their 1/48 tank kits of yesteryear, only much nicer.
Construction: Like an aircraft model but unlike most tank models, construction starts with the cockpit. Several small parts are attached to the hull side and floor plates, which after painting are then glued together to form the hull. I painted the interior walls a sort of dirty white shade and the floor plates dark green. I weathered them with some washes but didn’t spend too much time on them because ultimately none of the area is visible, unless you leave the driver’s hatches open – which I wasn’t planning on doing. The hull sides were glued to the floor plate next and fit very nicely.
Moving on from the hull, the suspension assemblies are next, and they are fairly complex. They consist of many small wheels that are assembled into bogie “trucks” that in turn get sandwiched into a carriage or “pod” on each side of the tank. You have to be careful during this part of the assembly – the trucks are supposed to remain flexible, which is a nice feature if you’re going to place the tank in a diorama. On top of each carriage is a rail containing the return rollers and on either end of that is either the large idler wheel or the drive sprocket. While the assemblies are complex, the fit of the parts was perfect and the assembly process proceeded smoothly.
The instructions would have you attach the suspension carriages to the hull at this point, but between the intricacy of the carriages and the fact that I was planning on painting the tank in a camouflage pattern I decided to leave them separate at this point. The next assembly is the rear tail skid, where I made the mistake of gluing the folded cover on the wrong spot on top of the skid. I realized too late that the cover has the subtle shape of the frame members it rests on molded into it. Oh well. I think every model I build has a mistake like that in it. One of these years I’ll learn…
The instructions have you assemble the tracks next, but I left those until the end and moved on to the turret. Octagonal in shape with eight separate panels, I worried that Meng had set me up for some serious seam filling. In actuality it turned out that nothing could be further from the truth - the panels fit together flawlessly.
With the model now built into four assemblies (hull, turret, and two suspension carriages), I headed to the paint booth.
Painting: Step #1 was to apply a primer coat, so I airbrushed on Tamiya’s Light Gray Surface Primer onto all of the surfaces. A lacquer-based primer, this product sprays nicely when thinned with a few drops of lacquer thinner. I find it to behave very much like the Mr. Surfacer primers. After priming a thorough inspection revealed no flaws needing any attention, so I next applied some color. The kit gives you decals and color views of two different FT-17s; a US Army version from October 1918 and a National Revolutionary Army of China vehicle from 1929. I opted for the former, which sports a three color camouflage scheme consisting of Vallejo Model Air Light Brown (71027), Vallejo Model Air Tank Brown (71041), and Vallejo Model Air Green (71006). I happened to have the first two in my paint arsenal so I sprayed the Light Brown on first. To mask the vehicle I used Silly Putty, which I find to be indispensable. You can create any hard edge scheme under the sun with it, it never dries out, it never peels off existing paint, and when you’re done with it you just put it back in its egg. Just make sure you buy the actual Silly Putty brand stuff and not some imitation brand stuff. I’ve bought the imitation brand stuff and it doesn’t work nearly as well. And no, I don’t own stock in Silly Putty.
Anyway, using the full color views provided by the instructions (all five views provided), I applied the Silly Putty and then airbrushed the next color, the Tank Brown. Once that was dry I covered that with more Silly Putty and then sprayed on Testors Russian Armor Green. Removing the Silly Putty revealed some blurred areas that I touched up by hand to keep the hard edge scheme consistent.
Satisfied with the tank’s colors, I started applying some weathering. I first airbrushed a filter of Grey for Bright Green from Sin Industries straight out of the bottle on to the whole vehicle. Once that was dry I applied a detail wash using Mig Productions’ Brown wash and Dark Wash, blending it into the details as I went. Up next were some Mig Pigments which I applied to the running gear. I first “clumped” them on and then dabbed on Mig’s brand of Pigment Fixer to hold them in place. I then dusted and scrubbed on more pigments with an old brush, concentrating on the running gear and lower areas of the tank. I then glued the “suspension pods” to the hull.
I chipped the various edges of the tank with a 00 brush and Vallejo’s German Camouflage Black (#822), a very dark brown. I then added some streaks from the chips using the aforementioned Mig’s Dark Wash. The muffler was painted in rusty shades which I stippled on by hand to give it a random, beat-up look. A little dry-brushing of black on the muffler’s tip and the gun barrel finished the weathering.
The last step was to assemble the tracks. The track links each have a small attachment point which I filed off, but once that was done they clicked together nicely. I sprayed them with a base coat of Tamiya Flat Brown and then washed them with the Mig Productions Brown wash. They were then given the same pigment treatment as the hull, and then attached to the model. To finish the model off I strung a length of chain from my spares box around the rear of the tank, and called the model done.
Conclusions: This model was a joy to assemble from the very first step, and I really can’t find anything to complain about. It is easily on par with the armor kits of Tamiya and Dragon, but without the painfully high prices of the former and the mind-numbingly high parts counts of the latter. I’m very glad we modelers now have a world class kit of one of the great tanks of history. I recommend this kit without reservation, and look forward to building more from Meng down the road.
- Osprey Publications, New Vanguard #173, “French Tanks of World War I”
- Squadron/Signal Publications, Armor Walk Around #23, “FT-17/M1917 WWI Tanks”
- Wikipedia, the Online Encyclopedia