I often start my vehicle kit reviews with short history of the subject, but this time I suggest you visit this website: http://www.eaglehorse.org/4_ftx_gunnery/equipment/m551_sheridan/sheridan_intro.htm
. This is an excellent and very detailed document describing the development and operational record of this interesting vehicle. In a few words - M551 Sheridan was a light tank (although it was never called that officially - it was known as Armored Reconnaissance/Airborne Assault Vehicle), designed to be air-transportable and air-droppable, could float after raising swim screens and was armed with 152mm gun/missile launcher. Sheridans first fought in Vietnam, but in modernized form still served with 82nd Airborne Division during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. They were retired from combat units shortly afterwards, without any vehicle directly replacing them. They served in National Training Center at Fort Irwin, CA until 2003 as VISMOD vehicles in OPFOR inventory, but today no M551 remains in US Army official service.
So far the only available plastic kit in 1/35 of M551 Sheridan was very old and very primitive by today's standards Tamiya kit, offered in motorized version. Academy was also selling a copy of the Tamiya model, but the new model is not based on this old kit in any way. The only other 1/35 scale Sheridan was an expensive resin kit from Jaguar. The Academy new kit portrays the early M551 version, as used during the Vietnam War.
The kit comes in typical top opening box - relatively small, but M551 was not a large vehicle, so obviously models isn't that big either. On the box lid is decent illustration of Sheridan during some skirmish, with M50 Ontos (Marines?...) and burning M113 in the background. I will get back to this illustration later as it is very interesting in some details. On all sides of the lid are small photos of the assembled model.
Inside the box we find five sprues of dark green plastic, upper and lower hull parts in the same material plus a big piece of nylon mesh and one-piece vinyl tracks. It is interesting that one small sprue is marked as "Sherman Series" on one of the runners, revealing its origin. There is a lot of parts on this sprue, which are not used in Sheridan model - actually only M2HB machine gun, pioneer tools, one handle and tow shackles are used. Other not used parts in the kit are newer style grenade launchers, as installed on M551A1, so it is obvious that Academy have plans to release this variant in the future. Small decal sheet and instruction booklet complete the package. Instructions show the assembly in 17 clear exploded diagrams. Photos of finished model are also provided to help in building a kit.
On the decal sheet are markings for three vehicles. The units to which these vehicles belonged are not identified and no "bumper" markings decals are given to help in identification. In reality at least one of these tanks had bumper markings on it, clearly visible on photographs and I suspect that remaining two tanks could have had them as well. The first vehicle is "Body Count" described as "Tamky, March 1971. It should actually be Tam Ky, a town in Quang Nam Province in central Vietnam. The other vehicle is "Canary Cage" and is described only as "Vietnam, 1969". The last vehicle featured is "Hard Core 7" described as "Tay Ninh", February 1969. Tay Ninh is a name of the province on the south west of Vietnam, near the Cambodia border. Squadron/Signal "M551 Sheridan in action" book by Jim Mesko shows the "Canary Cage" and "Hard Core 7" on color plates and the former is identified as belonging to 2nd Platoon, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, while the latter was from B Troop, 3/4 Cavalry assigned to 25th Infantry Division. Third tank, "Body Count" is shown on color plate in Concord Publications "Armor of the Vietnam War, Allied Forces" book by Michael Green & Peter Sarson and is described only as 11th ACR vehicle.
Parts are very cleanly molded with no flash and shallow sink marks present only on a back side of suspension arms. There is quite a few ejection pin marks that will need attention, as they remain visible after assembly, e.g. back sides of cupola shields, inner side of bustle rack frames, front side of suspension arms (this may be hidden behind road wheels, inner side of hatches etc.. One very unpleasant surprise in my kit was the fact that main gun barrel is noticeable warped (in a plane perpendicular to the sprue, so it was not visible until I cut the part off from the sprue) and considering that it is thick and short part straightening it may be very difficult.
Surface details on most parts are rather soft and crude by today's standards. Particularly on smaller parts they are decent, but don't impress. On upper hull all the bolt head and rivet details are quite crisply molded and look good. Multipart mold was used for the upper hull part, so details are present both on top and on sides of it. The weld seams on the turret are slightly overdone, but should look OK once painted. Slide molding technology was used to open ends of smoke grenade launchers and barrel parts. Interesting and nice addition are tie-downs, buckles and bolt heads molded on runners of two sprues. They can be used to add extra details to this or other models. Buckles and tie-downs are not particularly nice, but bolt heads are pretty good.
This is supposed to be an in-box review, but when I started evaluating the accuracy of the model, I realized that I can do it properly only what I assemble the kit. So I did that, but I only used glue (no putty) and performed only minimal cleanup (I removed mold seams and pin marks only in places where they interfered with other parts during assembly). This means that this is still not a "full build" review, but I can provide some comments about assembly process. The fit of hull and turret main parts is perfect and it is generally OK in the rest of the model, although many parts have quite a lot of play in their locating holes. One part that seats much too loosely in its place is main gun pivot - if you don't glue it in place or modify somehow, the bun barrel would always drop all the way down. The elevation of the gun barrel upwards is rather limited as the mantlet quickly hits the searchlight cable socket enclosure on the turret top and won't move any further. I had a problem with one of front mud flaps - I must have attached the left idler wheel axle a fraction of millimeter to high (I mentioned too much play between parts) what left too little space above track to attach mud flap. I had to cut off a thin slice of the flap to be able to fit it. The other flap also fits very tightly above the right track. I had some problems to attach shock absorbers and some experimenting with the placement of their mounts is necessary to make them fit properly.
The commander's hatch halves can remain movable after assembly if you don't use glue on them (instructions actually show dotted lines in this assembly step, but you need to pay attention to notes at the beginning of the instructions to know that dotted line means "do not cement"!). Loader's hatch can be attached either open or closed and there is basic opening handle detail represented on the bottom of it. The rotating driver's hatch can also be attached in open position, but it looks bad on the back side lacking any inner details, and there is nothing to show inside the hull anyway. Suspension arms are separate parts and while indexed to fit only in one neutral position, can easily be modified to articulate suspension to match the rough terrain on a diorama. The gun and mantlet can move in elevation after assembly and the turret of course rotates. All wheels have to be glued to axles and don't rotate.
As I mentioned already arms are separate and additional detailing is provided for the suspension in the form of four shock absorbers and several other detail parts. Track adjuster details are included for idler wheel arms. The external discs of idler and sprocket wheels are identical (the same part in the kit) just as in the real vehicle (although hubs should be different and they aren't in the kit), with only the inner "slice" being different - spacer in idler wheel and sprocket disc in sprocket wheel. Road wheels are made of two halves. Other details attached to the lower hull are: evacuation hatch, front section of mine protective belly plate, towing eyes and shackles and tow pintle. One-piece vinyl tracks have basic details on both sides, but are far from quality of such tracks included e.g. in recent Tamiya kits. And Academy tracks are not glueable - heated metal tool has to be used to flatten pins to secure track ends together.
There isn't much separate detail parts for the upper hull in the kit. The foldable swim barrier on front of the vehicle is unfortunately molded on the hull part and not provided separately - very disappointing simplification. Everything that is separate is: a set of pioneer tools, mud flaps, headlights with guards, taillights with mounting plates, lifting eyes, one-piece driver's hatch with solid plastic vision blocks, exhaust shield and personnel heater exhaust pipe. Note that instructions show the taillights attached upside down! The upper hull part has rivet and extinguisher handle details on sides thanks to use of multipart molds.
Turret is composed of upper and lower part. The main gun pivot part has to be trapped between turret parts and instructions show that the whole gun assembly, with mantlet, barrel, searchlight, gunner's telescope shield, and missile transmitter box should be assembled and attached to pivot part before it is installed in the turret. Three parts build a searchlight mount and the light unit itself is composed of four pieces. As there are no clear parts in the kit, the searchlight does not have a lens provided in any form. There is a light power cable socket part included with a short section of cable molded on it, but it is not actually connected to the searchlight. Eight big smoke grenade launcher tubes are attached to the bottom of turret. Each launcher is provided as single piece, but details on them are quite good thanks to the use of slide molding. Separate details for the upper part of the turret are: lifting eyes, ventilator cover, front antenna post, rear antenna mount, loader's periscope (closed), loader's hatch, gunner's night sight box (solid, with lenses not represented in any way) with separate front shield and commander's cupola assembly. The cupola is composed of two main parts (one with solid plastic vision blocks) plus two hatch parts, separate hatch hinge parts, gun mount, M2HB machine gun with separate handles and ammo can tray with can on it (the tray and can are composed of five parts). We also get full set of cupola armor shields kit parts with additional ACAV style add-on front shield, which was not a standard fitting, but was used quite often. These parts are much too thick to be accurate and while injection molding of such parts does not allow for making them in-scale thin, they definitely could have been made thinner. The cupola cannot be rotated and has to be glued in one position (although it can be easily modified to be movable).
The storage rack on the back of the turret consists of six plastic parts and three mesh screens for rack sides, which have to be cut from provided nylon mesh using templates from instructions. The bottom part of the rack is unfortunately molded as solid part with mesh texture molded on and it doesn't look convincing.
To dress up the turret sides we get one water jerry-can (in three pieces), one fuel/oil jerry-can (in four pieces) and twelve ammo cans (each in two pieces).
Before I start writing about accuracy flaws of the Academy Sheridan, I must provide short summary of the review so far. This is because many modelers do not really want to know about accuracy problems and are happy as long as the model generally looks like the prototype. And this model once assembled is unmistakably recognizable as M551 Sheridan. Some modelers are also just "happy to get a new Sheridan kit" and react aggressively when someone tries to criticize it. At this point I'm already aware that my accuracy evaluation will be the most influential factor on final rating of the Academy kit, so I decided to provide this earlier summary for those who are not interested in the rest of the article. Consider yourself warned - if you don't want to read about accuracy, stop reading after the next paragraph.
New Academy Sheridan is rather simple kit by today's standards. Details are decent, but not impressive. Mold quality is quite good, if not really "XXI century good", and the fit of parts is generally good as well. Inclusion of clear parts could have made this kit much better, but unfortunately Academy decided to mold all lights, periscopes and sight parts solid from green plastic. Still all details are definitely better than in old Tamiya kit and Academy copy of it, so on this field it is a significant progress. Bent barrel part is a very serious flaw, but it may be a problem present only in my kit. Academy must definitely be complemented for the choice of subject, as it is always nice to get a piece of modern armor and not another WW2 German model. If I were to rate the kit based only on the features described so far, I would give it a rating of 7/10.
ACCURACY - now for real
I already mentioned that decals are incomplete as "bumper markings", clearly visible on photos of "Hard Core 7" tank, are missing. As most M551 in Vietnam carried such markings, I think the other two tanks for which decals are provided should also have them. Mentioned photos of "Hard Core 7" also show two other features - this tank had standard early storage rack on the turret and didn't have ACAV shield installed on commander's cupola. The storage rack included in Academy kit is of a custom built type used only by 11th ACR. But even not all tanks from this unit had it, as "Canary Cage" also had only standard small rack. This tank is shown in Squadron/Signal "M551 Sheridan in action" book without the searchlight attached. Only "Body Count", also from 11th ACR is indeed shown in mentioned earlier Concord Publications book with the large rack, as the one in the kit. This tank had complete "birdcage" armor kit installed on the cupola with the ACAV shield added to the gun mount. While searchlight and ACAV shield can be easily omitted to build a model in more accurate configuration, the lack of standard storage rack type in the kit is a serious flaw. Aside from mentioned problems, markings on decal sheet seem to be reasonably accurate representations of markings shown in mentioned books.
Vinyl tracks in the kit have some details molded on both sides, but while they are quite accurate on the inner (wheel) side, the outer (road) side is wrong. For some reason instead of protruding rubber blocks, Academy molded trapezoidal recesses in track shoes. In reality the rubber blocks are molded with the track itself and are not removable and even in very worn tracks they can be at most flush with the surface of metal around them, never recessed. Of course it can happen than a single block is torn off from the track, but never all of them! The outer side of Academy tracks is a good representation of completely burned out tracks, but I doubt this was the goal...
Inaccuracies of suspension parts include:
- poorly portrayed shape of road wheel rims,
- slightly too small idler and drive sprocket wheels,
- hubs of sprockets and idler wheels are different in real tank and identical in the model (hubs in model resemble those on idler wheels, although are not quite correct anyway),
- poorly reproduced idler wheel arms and attachment points,
- inaccurate suspension arms attachment points on the hull,
- highly simplified attachments of shock absorbers on suspension arms,
- positions of all road wheels and sprocket wheels are completely wrong. The whole suspension is compressed forward by a significant amount. Also the offset positions of left and right wheels, typical to vehicles with torsion bar suspension, is not portrayed and all wheels are symmetrically attached on both sides of the hull.
- the bottom plate has completely fictitious layout of access panels and hatches. The crew escape hatch is somewhere under the engine, while it should be under the driver's compartment. The Academy model represents the tank with the mine protective kit installed under the hull, and in such equipped tank the escape hatch should be completely covered by armor plate and not visible at all. Other small access panels on the hull bottom are not even close to actual locations of such panels on the bottom of real M551.
- the angles of front armor plates of lower hull are wrong. The actual hull bottom front is composed of two sloped armor plates, but when the mine protective kit is installed the lower of these plates is hidden (when viewed from the front) and instead the curved surface of additional belly armor plate should be visible.
- two towing eyes on sides of front of bottom hull were welded to the armor in M551 tanks during Vietnam War, so bolt details present in the model shouldn't be there. Such bolted eyes are however correct for some of later vehicles (M551A1).
- the angles of rear armor plates of lower hull are badly wrong. Both plates should be at much steeper angle. This error causes the misplacement of the sprocket wheel too much forward.
- large hollow spaces in both sides of lower hull are generally accurate, but they are almost always covered in real tanks. The covers are not provided in the kit.
- some transport tie downs on bottom hull are in wrong spots and some are missing.
- rear mud flaps are missing.
- the tow pintle mounting bracket is very simplified and the pintle itself is of old type, rarely if ever used on M551. All photos of Sheridans in Vietnam I saw, show newer style tow pintle, not included in the kit.
Upper hull (from front to back):
- the surfboard is molded on the hull part and very simplified. Particularly the details on sides are wrong. Incorrect are also locations of latches, hinge details are wrong, and there is a lot of bolt heads added, which don't exist on real tank, while some existing bolts were omitted.
- lifting eyes on front hull are a bit too large and very simplified.
- driver's hatch is too small - huge gap is left around it after installation. The shape of the hatch is very wrong, barely resembling the real thing. Also the details of the hatch surrounding are inaccurate.
- headlight guards are very simplified and lack representation of metal plates protecting the driver from dazzling.
- the fire extinguisher handle cavity on the left side of the hull is too small and slightly too high.
- rivets on hull sides look more like small bolt heads - should be flatter and half-round.
- the seam where two sheets of metal on hull sides meet is a barely visible line on the real vehicle, but is represented as 0.5 mm wide groove on the model.
- there is a lot of pronounced raised bolt head/rivet details on panels on hull top on both sides of the turret. In reality rivets are barely visible on these panels and there is only a few bolts on them.
- bilge pump outlet is missing from the horizontal hull plate behind the left headlight.
- personnel heater exhaust pipe on the right side of the hull, behind right headlight, is too large.
- fuel filler caps are facing the wrong way - the hinges should be on the back and handle on the front - otherwise it would not be possible to open caps fully as they would hit the turret bottom!
- handles are added to engine grilles, which don't exist in reality. On the other hand handles are missing from panels on both sides of engine grilles. Also some hinge details on these panels are wrong.
- again bolt/rivet details are added to the panels on rear of the hull, where none exist on real tank.
- the two rearmost engine grille panels are touching each other, while there should be a space between them. There are handles and latch details missing from between these grille panels.
- the exhaust is not quite accurate representation of late type exhaust, but all photos I have suggest that during Vietnam was different exhaust, without a large covers, was used.
- the angle of the rear of side hull panels is too steep.
- the swim barrier straps are in wrong locations on sides and on the back of the vehicle. Some straps represented on the model only existed on prototypes and early production vehicles. There should be five traps on the rear of the vehicle, but only four exist on the model.
- engine compartment bilge outputs are too large and in slightly wrong place. Also their covers are represented solid, while there should be open slots in them to correctly represent early M551. The covers in the kit are correct for later production vehicles, but I'm not sure if they are correct for Vietnam War tank.
- the rear lifting eyes are simplified, too large and in wrong place.
- the intercom access door on the left of rear hull plate should be in a depression in hull plate, but no such depression is depicted on the model surface.
- the general outline of the turret as seen from above seems to be slightly wrong. I have not compared it to scale plans form books (as they can also include errors), but from photos it looks like the turret is too narrow and is not as asymmetrical as the real thing is. The real turret overhangs the hull further on the right side than on the left, while in the kit it is exactly in the middle of the hull (sidewise). Probably the right side of the turret is not curved enough.
- the shape of the turret on both sides right behind the gun mantlet is completely wrong
- the barrel of the main gun does not stick further forward the vehicle than the front of the tracks on idler wheels. In the model the barrel stick about 4 mm further forward, what suggests that the barrel is too long. The inner diameter of the kit gun barrel muzzle is 6.2 mm what translates to 217mm in real life, while it should be 152mm. Talk about OVERSCALE!
- the shape of the gun mantlet is incorrect.
- the missile transmitter box lacks any door details on the front and has fictitious bolt details added on top.
- the shape of mounting plate of gunner's telescope shield is inaccurate.
- the searchlight is very simplified with many details missing. Also the searchlight casing should be square (with slanted corners) when viewed from the front, not rectangular as in Academy model.
- grenade launcher tubes lack very characteristic cutout details on front (as slide molding was used to make these parts anyway, it would be very easy to depict this detail). Also launchers are too large, set at wrong angles and protrude too much from underneath the turret edge. Details of cable conduits near the launchers on the bottom of the turret are missing.
- turret lifting eyes are much too large.
- various small fittings on turret sides and top are missing.
- the gunner's periscopic sight housing is very simplified with no details whatsoever on the front (no glass windows in front represented in any way). The revolving cover is too big.
- the walls of commander's cupola (with vision blocks) are too steep, what probably means that cupola is too small. It should overhang the edge of the turret slightly on the right side, but it is not.
- the outlines of all "birdcage" armor plates around commander's cupola are inaccurate.
And if all that above is not enough yet, the extra equipment parts included in the kit are not that great either. The 0.5" cal ammo cans in the kit (with thin edged lids) are of the type, which I believe was also not yet used in Nam. In the earlier version of this paragraph I mentioned plastic jerrycans, which I thought were incorrect for Vietnam War - I was proven wrong. Actually they were used since about 1968 / 69 and I was able to find them on some period photographs.
The length of the tank seems to be quite accurate, but only when kit's grenade launchers, main gun barrel and tow pintle are excluded, as they stick out of the hull outline in plan view, while in reality they don't. The width however is not correct - the model hull is 3 mm too wide. The model also seems to be over 5mm too high (I used real tank dimensions from R. P. Hunnicutt's "Sheridan, A History of the American Light Tank" book).
I provided "first level" summary earlier above, so now I can rate the model focusing on results of my accuracy evaluation. Well, it is not as bad as it looks. To build fully accurate M551 Sheridan model we now only need aftermarket companies to provide as with replacement tracks, road wheels, drive sprockets, idler wheels, lower hull with suspension parts, upper hull, turret, main gun with mantlet, searchlight, commander's cupola, armor "birdcage" shields and standard type turret rack. Plus a few smaller details and some comprehensive decals could be nice as well. All the rest in the kit is just fine. And what is this rest? Well... tow shackles are nice. Jerry-cans are also nice. And these bolt heads on sprue runner's.
Recently I've read a review of this model written by very respected "online" reviewer and in one point of his article he described Academy product as "excellent kit". I'm very sorry but this is just ridiculous. If we don't count the accuracy flaws, the kit can be at best called "decent" or "adequate". But "Excellent"? Not really. Now if we include the accuracy in the equation, the kit becomes simply miserable. Or plainly speaking BAD. There is no excuse whatsoever to release such poorly researched model nowadays. Sheridans are easily accessible in many museums, not only in the USA. And in the USA they are very common exhibits, but also easy to find as gate guards near many military installations. And photographic resources about M551 available in the Internet and in many books are numerous and of excellent quality. What encouragement we provide to companies, which strive for highest accuracy in their models, e.g. Dragon or AFV Club, when we start complement such inferior products as Academy kit?...
Is this kit better than old Tamiya model? Well, in many ways it certainly is. But it is depressing that many of features which, while simplified, were properly reproduced in old kit, are completely botched here. At least the old kit was free of such major errors as compressed suspension in Academy model. I cannot honestly recommend Academy kit to anyone, because there is so many and so serious accuracy problems that any attempt of correcting them all would mean practically scratchbuilding a new model. Earlier in the text I mentioned that the Academy box art is quite interesting. This is because the person who painted it obviously knew much more about Sheridan than people who designed the kit... Most tank features are accurately depicted on the illustration. Academy should have asked the author of this picture to design the kit and we would have gotten much better model as a result!
It is very sad that now after the release of new kit, we still don't have decent representation of this interesting vehicle in 1/35 scale. For me the wait is simply not over yet - one day someone might finally release properly researched M551 kit. Trumpeter? Or Dragon maybe?...
Many thanks to Lucky Model for the review sample and to Matthew Quiroz for his help in writing the article!