History’s Strangest Tanks – Including the Kugelpanzer!

Photo Credit: 1. Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 2. Philippfrank777 / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
Photo Credit: 1. Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 2. Philippfrank777 / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Since the development of the world’s first tank, Little Wille, in 1916, engineers have continuously strived to make these armored vehicles bigger, better, faster and more powerful. Along the way, many strange designs have emerged and even weirder concepts have been sketched out, never making it off the drawing board.

We have compiled a list of some of the strangest tanks ever developed. Since there’s no shortage of weird concepts, we’ve limited ourselves to tanks that have actually been built. As well, the term “tank” is being used broadly, as the word itself is inconsistent.

Tsar Tank

Tsar Tank parked near a forest
Photo Credit: Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Built at the start of World War I, the Tsar Tank – also known as the Netopyr – was an interesting attempt at making traveling over obstacles and rough terrain easier. However, the vehicle ultimately failed to reach the frontlines.

This enormous Russian creation used its immense size to overcome obstacles. It had two nine-meter-tall wheels at the front, with small trailing rollers at the back, forming a tricycle-like shape. The hull was situated in the center, holding the crew, weapons and two 240-horsepower Maybach engines.

The size of the Tsar Tank meant it was impractical 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. For these reasons, the concept was canceled.

Universal Carrier Praying Mantis

Universal Carrier Praying Mantis on display
Photo Credit: Hohum / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0

Like the Tsar Tank, the Universal Carrier Praying Mantis never made it past the prototype stage.

This British vehicle was designed to pull up to an obstacle, like a wall or a bush, where it would then lift its fighting compartment up to a maximum of 55 degrees. In this position, the tank’s armament (two .303-caliber Bren guns) could fire over the obstacle.

As its distinction suggests, the Praying Mantis used the lower hull and running gear of the famous Universal Carrier, which used “track bending” for small steering adjustments. Two crewmen – a driver and a gunner – sat in a fighting compartment known as the “Control Chamber.” When the box-like section was fully depressed, the vehicle had an extremely low profile.

It was canceled in 1944, after unsuccessful trials.

Boirault Machine

Men standing around a Boirault Machine that's parked outside
Photo Credit: Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

This strange contraption was built by the French during the First World War as a means of crossing over trenches and barbed wire, earning it a secondary name: the Bridge Tank.

Only two prototypes were built. The first one was made from six four-by-three meter frames, modeled after railway tracks, linked together to form a continuous track around the vehicle. A central unit containing an 80-horsepower engine powered the machine, and it was capable of crossing trenches up to two meters wide.

The Boirault Machine’s 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 it was still too impractical, leading to the project’s cancellation.

While it can hardly be described as a tank in appearance, the machine’s cross-country nature and revolving track have led many to agree it’s one of the earliest fore-bearers of the armored vehicle.

Antonov A-40

Antonov A-40 in flight
Photo Credit: Tempshill / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

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

In response to the Soviet Air Forces’ order for a glider capable of transporting a tank, aircraft designer Oleg Antonov tried to make the vehicle itself a glider. He attached a set of wood and fabric biplane wings and tail to a T-60 light tank. The former would allow the armored vehicle to be towed through the air, before gliding down to the battlefield below. They’ be detached once the tank had landed.

A semi-successful test run was conducted, where the towing aircraft had to detach from the glider, as it was struggling to pull the tank. After this, however, the vehicle, devoid of weapons, headlights and ammunition, landed safely in a field. Once the tank was back on the ground, the pilot drove it back to base.

The project was canceled in 1942, as the Soviets had been unable to find an aircraft with enough power to tow the tank in the air.

SMK Tank

SMK tank against a white backdrop
Photo Credit: Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The SMK was a Soviet heavy tank designed in the late 1930s, arising from a need to replace the multi-turreted T-35, which had been performing poorly.

A team at Kirovski Works presented the SMK, a nine-meter-long, 60-ton beast with two turrets: one armed with a 76.2 mm gun and the other, a 45 mm weapon. The tank was powered by an 850-horsepower, 47-liter V12 engine, which allowed it to hit up to 22 MPH, and it had armor that ranged in thickness from 20 mm to 70 mm, depending on the part.

This huge tank looked menacing, but it never entered production. Its designers drew up plans for a single-turret version, which was much more reliable and could be built to wear thicker armor. It became known as the Kliment Voroshilov (KV), and it was chosen over the SMK.


Kugelpanzer on display
Photo Credit: Alf van Beem / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Kugelpanzer deserves a place on this list, due to it being so mysterious; the vehicle has confused experts and enthusiasts for decades.

The Kugelpanzer, which literally means “ball tank,” is a small spherical-shaped armored vehicle that has no obvious purpose. The Kubinka Tank Museum, which is home to the only surviving unit, is equally vague about it, as the institution doesn’t allow for any metal samples to be taken, nor do they let anyone peer inside.

Some say it was made in Germany, after which it was shipped to Japan and captured by the Red Army. Others say it was found in Germany with the mighty Panzerkampfwagen VIII Maus. On top of this, it’s not even known if this unusual vehicle is a World War II-era design at all.

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

Many agree it was probably a scout vehicle. However, the most likely explanation is the object is a hoax. Its poor weld quality and workmanship weren’t typical of 1940s-era German engineering, and the mysterious lack of information is because there probably isn’t any, as it was never a real vehicle.

More from us: We Wouldn’t Want to Come Across These Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) in Combat

Until the Kubinka Tank Museum releases documentation or allows the inside to be viewed, the mystery of the Kugelpanzer will likely remain unsolved.

Jesse Beckett

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