Really Strange Tanks With Very Specific Uses (That Were Actually Built)

Since the creation of the world’s first tank in 1916, known as Little Willie, engineers have continuously strived to make them bigger, better, faster, and more powerful. On this path, many extremely odd designs have been produced, and even weirder concepts have been sketched out that never made it off the drawing board. To show some of these off we have compiled a list of some of the strangest tanks we could find.

Since there is no shortage of weird concepts, we have limited the list to just tanks that have actually been built. In addition, the term ‘tank’ is used broadly, as the term itself is notoriously inconsistent.

1. Tsar Tank

The Tsar Tank
A Russian Tsar tank (Photo Credit: Public Domain)

Built at the start of WWI, the Tsar Tank was an interesting attempt to make traveling over obstacles and rough terrain easier but ultimately failed to reach the front lines. This enormous Russian vehicle used its sheer size to overcome obstacles. It had two 9 meter tall wheels at the front, with small trailing rollers at the back, forming a tricycle shape. The hull sat in the center of the tricycle and contained the crew, an array of weapons, and its two 240 hp Maybach engines.

The size of the vehicle meant it was unpractical to transport and would have been a magnet for enemy fire, while its small rear wheels and poor weight distribution caused it to bog down often. For these reasons, the Tsar Tank was canceled.

2. Praying Mantis Tank

Praying Mantis Tank
British Universal Carrier Praying Mantis prototype at Bovington Tank Museum (Photo Credit: Hohum / Wikipedia)

Like the Tsar Tank, the Praying Mantis never made it past the prototype stage. It was designed to be able to pull up to an obstacle, like a wall or a bush, where it would then lift its fighting compart up to a maximum of 55 degrees. In this position, the tank’s armament of two Bren guns would be able to fire over the obstacle. The Praying Mantis used the lower hull and running gear of the famous Universal Carrier, which used ‘track bending’ for small steering adjustments.

Two crew, a driver and a gunner, were located in the pivoting fighting compartment. When the box-like compartment was fully depressed, the vehicle had an extremely low profile. Despite this, it was canceled in 1944 after unsuccessful trials.

3. Bridge tank

Boirault machine
Photo Credit: Public Domain / Wikipedia

Actually named the Boirault machine, this strange contraption was built by the French during WWI as a means of crossing over trenches and barbed wire. Only two prototypes were built. The first one was made up of six four-by-three meter frames linked together to form a continuous track around the vehicle. A central unit containing an 80 hp engine powered the machine. It was able to cross a trench two meters wide.

Its biggest drawbacks were its painfully slow speed and lack of proper steering. To steer, the entire vehicle had to be jacked up and rotated by hand. The second prototype alleviated some of these issues but was still too impractical and the entire project was scrapped.

Although it can hardly be described as a tank in appearance, its cross-country nature and revolving track have led to many people agreeing that it is one of the earliest forebearers of the tank.

4. Flying Tank

Antonov A-40
Old Soviet Photo of 1940ies made by Soviet Tupolev plant employees. The only known photo of the Antonov A-40. (Photo Credit: Tempshill / Wikipedia)

Another Russian design, the Antonov A-40 was a tank capable of flight. Sort of.

In response to a Soviet Air Force order for a glider capable of transporting a tank, famous aircraft designer Oleg Antonov tried to make the tank itself the glider. He attached a set of wood and fabric biplane wings and tail to a T-60 light tank. The wings would allow the T-60 to be towed into the air, before gliding into the battlefield below. The wings would be detached once the tank had landed.

A semi-successful test was conducted, where the towing aircraft had to detach from the glider as it was struggling to pull the gliding tank. After this though, the tank landed safely in a field, and its pilot was able to drive it back to base. The project was canceled in 1942.

5. SMK

SMD Heavy Tank
Photo Credit: Public Domain / Wikipedia

The SMK was a Soviet heavy tank designed in the late 1930s. It came from a need to replace the multi-turreted T-35 heavy tank, which was performing poorly. The new vehicle would also need to have multiple turrets. A team at the Kirovski Works presented the SMK, a 9 meter long 60 ton beast with two turrets; one armed with a 76.2 mm gun and another armed with a 45 mm gun. The tank was powered by an 850 hp 47-liter V12 engine, which gave it a top speed of 22 mph.

The armor ranged from 20 mm to 60 mm.

The huge tank looked menacing, but would never see production. The designers drew up plans for a single-turret version of the SMK, which was much more reliable and could carry thicker armor. This vehicle would become known as the KV and was chosen over the SMK for production.

6. Kugelpanzer – honorable mention

Alf van Beem
Photo Credit: Alf van Beem / Wikipedia

The Kugelpanzer deserves a place on this list due to it being so mysterious. The vehicle has confused experts and enthusiasts for decades at the Kubinka Tank Museum in Russia. The Kugelpanzer (which literally means ‘ball tank’) is a small spherical-shaped armored vehicle that has no obvious purpose. The museum is equally vague about it, as they do not allow metal samples to be taken from the object nor do they let anyone peer inside.

Some say it was made in Germany but shipped to and captured in Japan by the Soviets, while others say it was found in Germany with the mighty Maus. It is not even known if it is a WWII design at all.

The small amount of information released by the museum about the Kugelpanzer says it weighs 1.7 tons and came with a 25 hp engine, which has since been removed.

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Many agree that the vehicle was probably a scout vehicle, however, the most likely explanation is the object is a hoax. The object’s poor weld quality and workmanship were not typical of 1940s era German engineering. The mysterious lack of information is because there probably isn’t any, as it was never a real vehicle. However, until the museum releases documentation or allows the inside to be seen, the mystery of the Kugelpanzer will remain unsolved.

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE