M103 (heavy tank)

Heavy Tank M103

An M103A2 at The Tank Museum in the UK
Type Heavy tank[1]
Place of origin United States
Service history
In service 1957–74
Production history
Manufacturer Chrysler
Number built 300
Variants M103A1, M103A2
Weight 65 short tons (58 long tons; 59 t)
Length 22 ft 8 in (6.91 m)
Width 12 ft 2 in (3.71 m)
Height 10 ft 6 in (3.20 m)
Crew 5 (commander, gunner, driver, 2 loaders)

Armor 127 mm (5 in) @ 60 degrees[2]
254 mm LoS (10 in)
120 mm gun M58, 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
750hp (560kW)
Power/weight M103A2: 12.7 hp (9.5 kW) / tonne
Transmission General Motors CD-850-4A or -4B, 2 ranges forward, 1 reverse
Suspension torsion bar
Fuel capacity 280 US gallons (710 liters)
M103: 80 mi (130 km)
M103A2: 295 mi (480 km)
Speed M103: 21 mph (34 km/h)
M103A2: 23 mph (37 km/h)

The M103 Heavy Tank (officially designated 120mm Gun Combat Tank M103)[3] served the United States Army and the United States Marine Corps during the Cold War. The last M103s were withdrawn from service in 1974. This was also the last heavy tank to be used by the American Military as the concept of the Main Battle Tank began to evolve.

Design and development

Like the contemporary British Conqueror tank, the M103 was designed to counter Soviet heavy tanks, such as the later IS-series tanks or the T-10 if conflict with the Soviets broke out. Its long-ranged 120 mm cannon was designed to hit enemy tanks at extreme distances. In 1953–54 a series of 300 tanks, initially designated T43E1, were built by Chrysler at the Newark plant. Testing was unsatisfactory; the tanks failing to meet Continental Army Command's standards and the tanks were put into storage in August 1955. After 98 improvement modifications were approved, on 26 April, 1956 the tank was designated the M103 Heavy Tank.[4] 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 to improved M103A1, then M103A2 standards.

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” track was shoed in steel backed rubber chevron tracks, allowing for a ground pressure of 12.9 psi. The Continental AV-1790 engine was placed at the rear of the tank, and produced a maximum output of 810 horsepower and 1600 foot-pound of torque, fed through a General Motors CD-850-4 3-speed transmission. This allowed the 60-ton heavy tank to achieve a maximum road speed of 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 resulting performance of the tank was dismal; being 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. Though this was partially corrected with the introduction of the AV-1790-2 diesel unit, it would remain cumbersome and gas-thirsty for the majority of its production life.

For ease of production, many of the large components of the tank were made from cast plate. This design scheme was also much more mass efficient than traditional uniform plate armor. Despite being similarly (or even better) protected than the T29-series of prototypes which preceded it, the M103 was nearly 10 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 inches thick armor at the direct front. Larger than that of the M48 and M60, the turret was a massive single-piece cast design, fitted with heavily sloped 10 inch rolled-homogenous plating.

The M103 was designed specifically to mount the 120mm M58 gun, fitted in the M89 turret mount. Using standard Armor-Piercing Ballistic Cap Tracer Rounds, it was capable of penetrating 221mm of 30-degree sloped rolled-homogenous armor at 1000 yards and 196mm at 2000 yards. It could also penetrate 124mm 60-degree sloped rolled-homogenous armour at 1000 yards and 114mm at 2000 yards. The commander could select from 34 rounds of either M358 Armor-Piercing Ballistic Cap Tracer Rounds or the M469 HEAT shells, mounted at the rear of the turret and in the hull. With both loaders, the maximum static 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.

Aspect Thickness Angle with Vertical
Hull front, upper 5 inches (127 mm) 60 degrees
Hull front, lower 4.5 inches (114 mm) 50 degrees
Hull side, upper equals 2 inches (51 mm) 40 degrees
Hull side, lower equals 1.75 inches (44 mm) 30 degrees
Hull top 1 inch (25 mm) 90 degrees
Hull floor, front 1.5 inches (38 mm) 90 degrees
Hull floor, rear 1.25 inches (32 mm) 90 degrees
Turret mantlet 10 to 4 inches (254 mm to 102 mm) 0 to 45 degrees
Turret front 5 inches (127 mm) 50 degrees
Turret side 5.38 to 2.78 inches (137 mm to 70 mm) 20 to 40 degrees
Turret rear 2 inches (51 mm) 40 degrees
Turret top 1.5 inches (38 mm) 85 to 90 degrees



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). The US Marine Corps assigned one M103 company to each of its three Marine tank battalions, including its Marine reserve units.[6] 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.[7] Although the 21st century's M1 Abrams main battle tank utilizes the same caliber of main gun, 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 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 120 mm shell casing is consumed during firing.

The ammunition fired by the M103's M58 cannon included: the APBC-T M358 shot, the HEAT-T M469 shell, the HE-T M356 shell, the TP-T M359E2 shot, and the WP-T M357 shot.



Surviving examples

M103 at Ft. Lewis
M103A2 heavy tank in front of Armed Forces Reserve Center Syracuse

There are several M103s in existence, including the late M103A2 version.

Where Model
Range 408A, Camp Pendleton, CA Blown out, former practice target, now a rattlesnake nest
U.S. Army Ordnance Center and Museum at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds M103
Radcliff, Kentucky M103
Shively, Kentucky M103A2
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 Hood, Texas M103
Marine Corps Mechanized Museum, Camp Pendleton, CA
Newman Park, Sweetwater, TX non-functioning
Pioneer Park, Nacogdoches, TX non-functioning
Euclid City Hall, E. 222nd Street. Euclid, Ohio
Heritage Center of the Yuma Proving Ground, Yuma AZ
Dugway Proving Ground, UT M103 hulk for testing
VFW in Anniston, Alabama
The Tank Museum, Bovington, UK
American Armor Foundation Tank Museum, Danville, Virginia
U.S. Army TACOM LCMC, Warren, Michigan
Camp Shelby, Mississippi M103
National Armor & Cavalry Museum, Fort Benning GA M103A1, M103A2, T43 & M51
Range 68 MOUT site, Fort Bragg, NC non-functioning
US Marine Corps Reserve Center, Yakima WA M103A2
Institute of Military Technology, Titusville, Florida M103A2

Fort Huachuca, Arizona x4 exist in varying degrees - from good to target practices.


  1. Hunnicutt (1984), p. 35.
  2. Hunnicutt, R.P. Firepower. Presidio. p. 114.
  3. 1 2 Hunnicutt (1988), p. 134
  4. Hunnicutt (1984) p. 124.
  5. Hunnicutt, R.P. Firepower. Presidio. p. 205.
  6. Hunnicutt (1988), p. 140
  7. Hunnicutt (1984), p. 78.
  8. Hunnicutt (1984) p. 115.
  9. Hunnicutt (1984), pp. 161–162.
  10. Hunnicutt (1984), p. 160.


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