The Tsar Tank is possibly the strangest tank ever devised

In the early days of tank design, various forms and sizes were designed and tested. Some would prove hugely successful and influence tank design to this very day. 

But, the Tsar Tank was not one of them. 

Effectively a gigantic armored and armed tricycle, this innovative tank design would ultimately end in failure. Let’s find out more about this interesting war machine. 

What was the Tsar Tank?

The Tsar Tank, also called the Netopyr (a Russian name for Pipistrellus, a genus of bats) or the Lebedenko Tank, was a Russian armored vehicle created by engineers Nikolai Lebedenko, Nikolay Yegorovich Zhukovsky, Boris Stechkin, and Alexander Mikulin in around 1914. 

Tsar Tank
Image of the Tsar Tank in her final resting place. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Resembling something out of a dystopian science fiction film (or some crazed steampunk concept), this vehicle was conceived and built for real. 

The Tsar Tank was different from modern tanks because it had three wheels instead of the caterpillar tracks that most people associate with the technology.

Lebedenko had a private laboratory on Sadovo-Kudrinskaya Street in Moscow, from where he conducted work for the military.

In January 1915, Lebedenko showed Nicholas II a clockwork wooden model of his car with an engine made from a gramophone spring.

According to eyewitness accounts from courtiers, the Tsar and the engineer played with a model of the machine that quickly moved across the carpet, effortlessly passing stacks of two or three volumes of the “Code of Laws of the Russian Empire.” The demonstration ended with the news that Nicholas II was so impressed by the tank that he gave several hundred thousand rubles from his own money to help fund the project.

Allegedly, Nicholas II kept the tank model that Lebedenko made out of wood, but its whereabouts are now lost to history. 

With funding secured, the development of a working prototype commenced at a plant in Khamovniki. Two 240-hp Maybach engines, one for each big wheel, made up the drive unit.

tsar tank cart
An example of a Turkic povozki cart which is believed to be the main inspiration behind the tank. Source: Library of Congress

The two spoked wheels in front were almost 30 feet (9 meters) across, and the third roller-shaped wheel in the back had a diameter of 5 feet (1.5 meters). Lebedenko’s memoirs say that he got the idea for this machine from Turkic povozki carts, which were easy to drive over bumps and ditches because they had large wheels.

To move the wheels, the engines powered a car wheel, which, when pressed against the rim of a matching giant wheel, sent power to it. Owing to this design (and its weight), the tank could only achieve a top speed of 10 mph (16-17 kph) on level ground.

The wheels, which Zhukovskiy made, had a T-shaped piece of metal in the middle. The shelf of the T-beam was then covered with a piece of wood. Each engine turned a car wheel, which was then pushed down by a railway carriage spring until it touched the wooden cover of the big wheel.

The car wheel then transferred the power from the engine to the big running wheel by turning in the opposite direction. If the engine got too hot, the driving wheels came off, which kept the engine from seizing.

The top of the vehicle’s hull would have had one turret with MGs or light cannons, most likely 4-pounder (76.2 mm) cannons. The tank would also have a series of machine-gun slots armed with .308-caliber (7.62 mm) Maximachine guns for anti-infantry defense. 

This would give the Lebedenko a total height of about 39 feet (12 meters). In addition, small MG sponsors were to be put on the outer sides of the hull. Under the belly of the beast, there was also a small gun turret.

Vital stats of the Tsar Tank

Commissioned: 1914

First field test: 1915

Decommissioned: 1923 (scrapped)

Number built: 1

Length: 59 feet (18 meters)

Width: 30 feet (9 meters)

Height: 39 feet (12 meters)

Weight: Circa 60 tons

Propulsion: 2 no. Maybach engine 240 hp (180 kW)

Top speed: 10 mph (16-17 kph)

Crew: 10

Main armament: 4-pounder (76.2 mm) cannons and ancillary .308 (7.62mm) machine guns

Armor: Unknown

Was the Tsar Tank real?

Indeed it was, but only for a short time. 

model of tsar tank
A scale model of the Tsar Tank. Source: Fastboy/Wikimedia Commons

The theory behind the design was for the big wheels to traverse over rough terrain and other large obstacles. The smaller rear wheel would provide the main steering for the beast.

This seemed reasonable in theory, but when field-tested, the rear steerable roller became stuck in the soft ground almost as soon as the test began. Despite the incredible power of the main engines (which were sourced from a captured German airship), even they lacked the power to free the machine once it got mired down due to the small size and incorrect weight distribution of the machine as a whole

The engines themselves, two captured Maybach engines, were much stronger than the ones used on other tanks in the First World War.

The tendency for the rear wheel to get stuck would prove to be a fatal design flaw and led to several further failed tests in front of the High Commission in August 1915, and the project was canceled in September of that year.

Despite this major setback, Stechkin and Mikulin continued to work on the design by attempting to develop a new engine (called AMBES) for the vehicle.

This final push to save the project also failed, as did any attempts to extricate the stranded tank prototype. There the tank remained until 1917 when the outbreak of the Russian Revolution ended any further work on the tank. 

tsar tank reconstruction
Artist’s reconstruction of the Tsar Tank. Source: Nevington War Museum

Thereafter for a time, the tank was completely forgotten and left to rust for another 6 years in the forest, some 37 miles (60 kilometers) from Moscow. In 1923 the tank was finally scrapped. 

And that, strange early-tank fans, is your lot for today. 

The Tsar Tank was undoubtedly one of the boldest designs for a tank in the long history of tanks. While appearing sound in theory, the flaws in the design were quickly rooted out when the vehicle was tested in the field. 

Ultimately, it was a complete failure, but it is undoubtedly a shame that nothing remains of this interesting machine today.

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