M103 heavy tank
An M103A2 during TANKFEST 2024 at the Tank Museum, Bovington
M103A2 at the Bovington Tank Museum
TypeHeavy tank[1]
Place of originUnited States
Service history
In service1957–1974
Production history
No. built300
VariantsM103A1, M103A2
Mass65 short tons (58 long tons; 59 t)
Length37 ft 2 in (11.33 m)
Width12 ft 2 in (3.71 m)
Height10 ft 6 in (3.20 m)
Crew5 (commander, gunner, driver, 2 loaders)

Armor127 mm (5 in) @ 60 degrees[2]
254 mm LoS (10 in)
(4.7 in ) 120 mm gun M58 L/60, 34 rounds
2×.30-cal (7.62 mm) M1919A4E1 machine gun
1×.50-cal (12.7 mm) M2 AA machine gun
Engine(M103A1) Continental AV1790 12-cylinder air-cooled gasoline
810 hp (604 kW) 
(M103A2) Continental AVDS-1790-2, V12, air-cooled, twin turbocharged diesel
750 hp (560 kW)
Power/weightM103A2: 12.7 hp (9.5 kW) / tonne
TransmissionGeneral Motors CD-850-4A or -4B, 2 ranges forward, 1 reverse
Suspensiontorsion bar
Fuel capacity280 US gallons (1,100 L; 230 imp gal)
M103: 80 mi (130 km)
M103A2: 295 mi (480 km)
Maximum speed M103: 21 mph (34 km/h)
M103A2: 23 mph (37 km/h)

The M103 Heavy Tank (officially designated 120mm Gun Combat Tank M103, initially T43)[3] was a heavy tank that served in the United States Army and the United States Marine Corps during the Cold War. Introduced in 1957, it served until 1974, by which time evolution of the concept of a main battle tank considered heavy tanks obsolete.

Design and development

In December 1950, the U.S. Army made blueprints for a heavy tank reference design.[4] In January 1951, it awarded Chrysler a $99 million contract to produce the tank.[5] Chrysler tasked Robert T. Keller, the son of Chrysler Board Chairman K.T. Keller, with overseeing its design, and construction at the company's new Newark, Delaware, tank plant.[4]

The first T43 pilot model was completed in November 1951. Officials said the tank would "out-slug any land-fighting machine ever built."[6]

Like the contemporary British Conqueror, the M103 was designed to counter Soviet heavy tanks, such as the later IS-series tanks or the T-10, if conflict with the Eastern Bloc broke out. Its long-ranged 4.7 in (120 mm) cannon was designed to destroy enemy tanks at extreme distances.

Some 300 tanks were built between 1953 and 1954, initially designated T43E1. Details about the tank, including production plans and specifications, were tightly held. Seeking to keep the tank out of public sight, Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson nixed an October 1953 exhibition for the American Ordnance Association at Aberdeen Proving Ground.[7] In May 1954, the tank was debuted publicly at a demonstration at the Newark tank plant.[8]

In 1953, the Pentagon began to reverse the Truman administration's policy of a broad production base in favor of Wilson's "single, efficient producer" concept. In September Wilson chose General Motors over Chrysler to take over production of the M48 Patton. General Motors would also become heir to any additional T43 orders after Chrysler tank production wrapped up in June 1954.[9]

Testing was unsatisfactory, with the tanks failing to meet Continental Army Command's[clarification needed] standards and being put into storage in August 1955. Following the approval of 98 improvements the tank was redesignated the M103 Heavy Tank in April 1956.[10] Of the 300 T43E1s built, 80 went to the US Army (74 of which were rebuilt to M103 standard), and 220 were accepted by the US Marine Corps, to be used as infantry support, rebuilt successively to improved M103A1 and then later M103A2 standards.

A House Government Operations subcommittee report in July 1957 called for the heavy tank program to be audited. Investigators had been unable to determine the cost of the program, which was estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The report said the Army had hastened production of the tank for war in Korea despite there being no need for it there. The tank was also unsuited to the rigors of the nuclear battlefield, the report said.[11]


Following contemporary American design philosophy, the M103 was built with a two-piece, cast elliptic armor scheme, similar to the M48's design. It featured seven road wheels per side, mounted with long-arm independent torsion bars. The 28-inch (71 cm) track was shoed in steel backed rubber chevron tracks, allowing for a ground pressure of 12.9 psi (89 kPa). The Continental AV-1790 engine was placed at the rear of the tank, and produced a maximum output of 810 horsepower (600 kW) and 1,600 pound-feet (2,200 N⋅m) of torque, fed through a General Motors CD-850-4 two-speed transmission. This allowed the 60-short-ton (54 t; 54-long-ton) heavy tank to achieve a maximum road speed of 21 miles per hour (34 km/h) and a maximum climbing gradient of 60%.

Initial production versions suffered a host of drivetrain mechanical problems. The Continental powerpack, shared by the much lighter M48/M60 tanks, was insufficient to drive the much heavier M103. The tank was, consequently, severely underpowered and very fuel intensive. This presented a host of logistical problems for the vehicle, most prominently the extremely limited range of just 80 miles (130 km). Though this was partially corrected with the introduction of the AV-1790-2 diesel unit, the M103 would remain cumbersome and fuel-thirsty for the majority of its service life.

The crew of an M103A1 consisted of:
1 - driver, 2 - gunner, 3-4 - two loaders, 5 - commander

For ease of production, many of the large components of the tank were made from cast armor. This design scheme was also much more mass efficient than traditional rolled plate armor. Despite being better protected than the T29-series of prototypes which preceded it, the M103 was nearly 10 short tons (9.1 t; 8.9 long tons) lighter, making it competitive with the Soviet T-10/IS-8 tank. The frontal hull glacis was a compound pike, welded at the center seam, with up to 10-inch (250 mm) thick armor at the front. The turret was a massive single-piece cast design, fitted with heavily sloped 10-inch (250 mm) rolled-homogeneous armor.

The M103 was designed to mount the 4.7 in (120 mm) M58 gun, fitted in the M89 turret mount. Using standard Armor-Piercing Ballistic Cap Tracer Rounds, it was capable of penetrating 221 millimetres (8.7 in) of 30-degree sloped rolled-homogeneous armor at 1,000 yards (910 m) and 196 millimetres (7.7 in) at 2,000 yards (1,800 m). It could also penetrate 124 millimetres (4.9 in) 60-degree sloped rolled-homogeneous armor at 1,000 yards (910 m) and 114 millimetres (4.5 in) at 2,000 yards (1,800 m). The commander could select from 34 rounds of either M358 Armor-Piercing Ballistic Cap Tracer Rounds or M469 HEAT shells, mounted at the rear of the turret and in the hull. With both loaders, the maximum firing rate of the gun was five rounds per minute, owing to the design of the two-piece ammunition. Using the electrohydraulic turret traverse, the gunner could turn the turret at 18 degrees per second, with 15 degrees of elevation and 8 degrees of gun depression.

The armor was made from welded rolled and cast homogeneous steel of varying thickness.

T43[12] M103[13] M103A1[14] M103A2[15]
Length (gun forward) 448.6 in (11.4 m) 442.2 in (11.2 m)
Width 147.6 in (3.7 m) (over sandshields) 143.0 in (3.6 m) (over tracks)
Height 126.7 in (3.2 m) (over cupola) 140.1 in (3.6 m) (over MG)
Ground clearance 16.1 in (40.9 cm) 15.4 in (39.1 cm)
Top speed 25 mph (40 km/h) 21 mph (34 km/h) 23 mph (37 km/h)
Fording 48 in (1.2 m) 48 in (1.2 m) (w/o kit)
96 in (2.4 m) (w/ kit)
Max. grade 60%
Max. trench 7.5 ft (2.3 m) 8.5 ft (2.6 m)
Max. wall 27 in (0.7 m) 36 in (0.9 m)
Range 80 mi (130 km) 80 mi (130 km)
145 mi (233 km) (jettison tanks)
300 mi (480 km)
Power 810 hp (600 kW) at 2800 rpm 740 hp (550 kW) at 2400 rpm
Power-to-weight ratio 13.5 hp/ST (11.1 kW/t) 13.0 hp/ST (10.7 kW/t) 11.7 hp/ST (9.6 kW/t)
Torque 1,575 lb⋅ft (2,140 N⋅m) at 2200 rpm 1,600 lb⋅ft (2,170 N⋅m) at 2200 rpm 1,710 lb⋅ft (2,320 N⋅m) at 1800 rpm
Weight, combat loaded 120,000 lb (54,430 kg) 125,000 lb (56,700 kg) 128,000 lb (58,060 kg)
Ground pressure 12.4 psi (85 kPa) 12.9 psi (89 kPa) 13.0 psi (90 kPa) 13.2 psi (91 kPa)
Main armament T122 4.7 in (120 mm) gun M58 120 mm gun
Elevation, main gun +15° / −8°
Traverse rate 20 seconds/360° 17 seconds/360°
Elevation rate 4°/second
Main gun ammo 34 rounds 33 rounds 38 rounds
Firing rate 5 rounds/minute (two loaders)
Aspect Thickness - inches (mm) Angle to vertical
Hull front, upper 5 (127) 60
Hull front, lower 4.5 (114) 50
Hull side, upper equals 2 (51) 40
Hull side, lower equals 1.75 (44) 30
Hull top 1 (25) 90
Hull floor, front 1.5 (38) 90
Hull floor, rear 1.25 (32) 90
Turret mantlet 10–4 (254–102) 0–45
Turret front 5 (127) 50
Turret side 5.38–2.78 (137–70) 20–40
Turret rear 2 (51) 40
Turret top 1.5 (38) 85–90


T43 pilot #1 at the U.S. Army Armor & Cavalry Collection at Fort Benning (now Fort Moore) in 2023
A Marine M103 on American-Spanish naval exercises, October 1964

US Army 7th Army wanted the new heavy tank to supplement its M48 tanks. In Europe, the US Army fielded only one battalion of heavy tanks, from January 1958, originally assigned to the 899th Tank Battalion, later re-designated the 2d Battalion, 33d Armor.[3] The US Army heavy armor battalion, in contrast to other armor units, was organized into four tank companies, composed of six platoons each, of which each platoon contained three M103s, for a total of 18 tanks per company. Standard US Army armor battalions at the time had three companies per battalion, each with three five-tank platoons, with 17 tanks per company (two tanks were in headquarters platoon).

One of the flaws of M103 vehicle was it did not have adequate reliability in retreat operations. US Army was aware that more Tiger tanks had been lost during retreat operations than during actual combat, and US Army in Europe could not afford that. In Europe it was found that the engine was underpowered, requiring replacement of engines and transmissions after only about 500 mi (800 km).

In addition, the ammunition stowage was not convenient, repeated firing caused excess chamber erosion, and tracks were easily thrown. Last but not least crew safety, comfort and ability to function were impaired by poor interior arrangement.

The M103 was placed on the road to obsolescence when the US Army shifted to the concept of a single main battle tank optimizing firepower, protection, and mobility in a single medium tank design. The U.S. M60 tank fulfilled the breakthrough functions of M103 heavy tank while retaining the mobility of M48 medium tanks. By that time it was years since US Army had realized Soviet heavy tanks were not as potent as suspected, and thus the M103s were rather overkill and expensive to deal with T-54 and T-55 tanks.

The US Marine Corps assigned one M103 company to each of its three Marine tank battalions, including its Marine reserve units.[16] The M103 was never used in combat.

While the US Army deactivated its heavy armor units with the reception of the new M60 series main battle tanks in 1963, the remaining M103s stayed within the US Marine Corps inventory until they began receiving the M60 series main battle tank. With the disappearance of the heavy tank from US forces came the full acceptance of the main battle tank in 1960 for the US Army, and 1973 for the US Marine Corps.[17] Although the later M1 Abrams main battle tank utilizes the same caliber of main gun, 4.7 in (120 mm), the M103's cannon was a rifled gun firing a separate-loading round, in which the projectile was loaded into the breech, followed by a cartridge case consisting of a brass case, primer, and propellant in a fixed unit. This separate-loading system necessitated the use of two loaders. The only part of the cartridge case consumed during firing was the propellant and a plastic cap on the end of the brass cartridge case. The spent brass cartridge case was ejected after firing. The M1 tank's 4.7 in (120 mm) main gun is a smooth bore firing a semi-caseless round, ejecting only a back cap of the original loaded round; the bulk of the M1's 4.7 in (120 mm) shell casing is consumed during firing.


US Marine Corps 1st Tank Battalion staff sergeant holding an M356 HE-T high-explosive round in 1959

Ammunition for M103's M58 gun included:


M51 recovery vehicle under evaluation tests at Fort Knox in 1951


Surviving examples

M103A2 at Ft. Lewis
M103A2 heavy tank in front of Armed Forces Reserve Center Syracuse
M103 tank at Camp Roberts Historical Museum
Blown out M103 on Ft. Huachuca, Arizona
M103A2 display at the AAF Tank Museum
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Existing M103 and M103A2s include:

Location Model
Range 408A, Camp Pendleton, California Blown out, former practice target
U.S. Army Ordnance Center and Museum at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds M103
Radcliff, Kentucky M103
Shively, Kentucky M103A2
Mt. Sterling, Kentucky M103A1
Rod Lowe Post #124 American Legion, Greensburg, Kentucky M103A1
Fort Lewis, Washington M103A2
Fort McClellan, Anniston, Alabama M103A2
45th Infantry Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma M103A2
Armed Forces Center, Syracuse, New York M103A2
Credit Island Park, Davenport, Iowa M103
Military Vehicle Technology Foundation in Portola Valley, California M103A2
3d Cavalry Regiment Museum, Fort Cavazos, Texas M103
Marine Corps Mechanized Museum, Camp Pendleton, California
Newman Park, Sweetwater, Texas non-functioning
Pioneer Park, Nacogdoches, Texas non-functioning
Euclid City Hall, E. 222nd Street. Euclid, Ohio M103A2
Heritage Center of the Yuma Proving Ground, Yuma, Arizona
Dugway Proving Ground, Utah M103 hulk for testing
Former VFW in Anniston, Alabama
The Tank Museum, Bovington, UK M103A2, running condition
American Armor Foundation Tank Museum, Danville, Virginia M103A2
United States Army TACOM Life Cycle Management Command, Warren, Michigan
Camp Shelby, Mississippi M103
U.S. Army Armor & Cavalry Collection, Fort Moore, Georgia M103A1, M103A2, T43 & M51
Range 68 MOUT site, Fort Liberty, North Carolina non-functioning
US Marine Corps Reserve Center, Yakima, Washington. This command has been moved onto the Yakima Firing Center, and they took their display tanks with them. They are no longer publicly accessible. The M103 is at 46°40'59.99"N 120° 27'10.94"W M103A2
A second vehicle is on display behind the old Marine Reserve Center, Yakima WA, at the Calvary Cemetery, at 46°34'28.79"N 120°32'21.26"W M103A2
Institute of Military Technology, Titusville, Florida M103A2
Clay County Veterans Memorial in Lineville City Park, Lineville, Alabama
Camp Roberts Historical Museum, Camp Roberts, California non-functioning, rusted interior, missing track pieces and wheels on the exterior
Fort Huachuca, Arizona, at 31°37'27.94"N 110°19'45.42"W, 31°37'28.04"N 110°19'38.20"W, and 31°37'30.04"N 110°19'36.56"W. 2 others are unlocated. 5 M103A2s All have been exposed to the elements, with all missing parts.
Pima Air & Space Museum, Tucson, Arizona in outdoor storage. M103A2

See also


  1. ^ Hunnicutt 1984, p. 35.
  2. ^ Hunnicutt 1988, p. 144.
  3. ^ a b Hunnicutt 1988, p. 134.
  4. ^ a b Palmer, C.B. (27 April 1951). "Fifty-Ton Monsters With a Mighty Punch". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 August 2018.
  5. ^ Abel, Elie (19 January 1951). "Chrysler to Build a New Super-tank". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 August 2018.
  6. ^ "Super-Tank--It Will 'Outslug Anything'-- Built 10 Months After Plant Was Started". The New York Times. 19 December 1951. Retrieved 24 August 2018.
  7. ^ "New Tank Display Vetoed by Wilson". The New York Times. 4 October 1953. Retrieved 25 August 2018.
  8. ^ Weart, William G. (14 May 1954). "Long-Secret Tank Tested In Public". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 August 2018.
  9. ^ Abel, Elie (12 September 1953). "G. M. Is Heir to New Orders". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 August 2018.
  10. ^ Hunnicutt 1984, p. 124.
  11. ^ Trussell, C.P. (31 July 1957). "Tank Order Held a Costly Failure". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 August 2018.
  12. ^ Hunnicutt 1988, p. 204.
  13. ^ a b Hunnicutt 1988, p. 205.
  14. ^ Hunnicutt 1988, p. 206.
  15. ^ Hunnicutt 1988, p. 207.
  16. ^ Hunnicutt 1988, p. 140.
  17. ^ Hunnicutt 1984, p. 78.
  18. ^ Hunnicutt 1984, p. 115.
  19. ^ Hunnicutt 1984, p. 161-162.
  20. ^ Hunnicutt 1984, p. 160.