T-34 Medium Tank

By: the Editors of Publications International, Ltd.  | 
The T-34 Medium Tank, well armored and heavily gunned, was the toughest tank the Germans encountered during their invasion of Russia. See more tank pictures.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The T-34 Medium Tank had a long and proud history. This Soviet tank was a major factor in repelling the German invasion of the USSR in 1943 and continued to be pressed into service for decades.

Between 1937, when the Soviet Union fielded 20,000 tanks in three classes (close infantry support, breakthrough, and long-range), and 1939-1940, when Soviet tanks showed so poorly in the Winter War with Finland, Joseph Stalin's paranoia led to the exile and execution of virtually every Soviet commander from the rank of colonel on up.


In so doing, he destroyed one of the best-equipped, best-led armored forces belonging to any nation at that time. As a result, in the first six months of Germany's invasion of Russia, the demoralized, undertrained Red Army lost nearly 18,000 tanks.

General Georgi Zhukov had begun to reorganize Soviet armor and training during the 1939-1940 Winter War, but the precious time lost because of Stalin's purges was never made up in quality, only in quantity.

The scales did not begin to tip in favor of the Red Army until the Battle of Kursk in July 1943. The balance then wavered until the harsh winter of 1943-1944 helped impel the Germans on their long retreat to Berlin.

The T-34 medium tank became the added bit of weight on the Soviet side of the scale. Although a very fine tank, it was also the most crudely built, with the least amenities for its crew.

Pound for pound, Germany's Panzerkampfwagen (Pz.Kpfw) V Panther was a better tank, but the T-34 was produced at eight times the Panther's numbers.

The Soviets were forced to fight and win armored battles in the same manner in which they won their infantry and air battles, by attrition. Their Nazi opponents were simply overwhelmed by numbers.

The USSR was able to produce T-34s in a seemingly endless stream. Between 1940 and 1945 some 40,000 T-34 tanks were manufactured.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

A bond between civilian, factory worker, and front-line soldier developed that proved unbeatable. Proud civic groups would contribute funds to buy a T-34. They then presented the new tank to its crew, who were often brought directly from the front to receive it. This was a part of the T-34's mystique.

The T-34's designer, M.I. Koshkin, began work in 1936 on a new fast tank, which was to be a combination wheeled and tracked vehicle similar to the design of the BT Fast Tank of the early 1930s.

But Koshkin, in a dangerous move given Stalin's paranoid hatred of technicians and soldiers, argued that tank crews hardly ever used the BT in the wheeled mode. He also argued for a tank with rounded and sloped sides to increase the effectiveness of its armor plate.

Two prototypes (A-20 and A-32, later T-32), each with a 45mm main gun, were built and tested in 1939. The Armored Directorate asked for heavier armor and a heavier gun, and Koshkin's staff quickly provided them. The new tank was accepted as the T-34.

While troops assigned to the invasion of Finland were already moving to their jump-off points, the T-34 was ordered into production. The first tanks came rolling off the assembly line in January 1940. After final testing of the production prototypes, full-scale production was ordered in June 1940.

For more on the equipment of the T-34 Medium Tank, continue to the next page.

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T-34 Medium Tank Equipment

The T-34 Medium Tank was up-gunned in 1943 with an 85mm main gun.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

T-34 Medium Tank equipment may have been basic, but it was enough to beat back the Nazi invasion. The T-34 went into action on June 22, 1941, near the Belorussian city of Grodno.

But it wasn't until after the fall of Kiev and the start of the new German offensive in the direction of Orel by the II Panzer Army on September 30, 1941, that the T-34 really came to the attention of German armored forces. On October 6, T-34s attacked and mauled the II Panzer Division of the II Panzer Army near Mzensk.


The Prinadlezhit-Chetverki-Russian for 34 -- as it was known to Soviet tankers -- was the first tank to carry rounded and sloped armor, based on specific engineering studies, to gain additional protection.

The rationale was logical: If 2 inches of steel plate can withstand a hit delivered by a warhead traveling at a specific velocity, then angling that steel plate so the warhead has to penetrate more steel will make the armor more effective.

Armor on the T-34 turret face was 2.36 inches thick and sloped at 30°. Armor was thicker on Germany's Panzerkampfwagen III and IV tanks, but the T-34 could outrange both tanks.

To penetrate German armor, the T-34 mounted a 41.2 caliber 76.2mm main gun, capable of penetrating more than 3 inches of armor at 500 yards.

At first the T-34's turret was made of rolled plates welded together. This type of turret was expensive and time-consuming to manufacture, and it was soon replaced with one of cast steel.

The T-34 was powered by the same 500-horsepower diesel engine that was used in the BT-7M Fast Tank. The T-34 had a top speed of 31 miles per hour and a range of 186 miles.

Minor changes were made to the T-34 during the course of the war. A new turret configuration with two hatches was designed. The new turret also eliminated an overhang at the rear, a popular place for German infantrymen to slip mines.

Armor thickness on the front was increased to nearly 3 inches, and external fuel tanks were added, which increased range to 270 miles.

The most significant change, however, occurred in late 1943 after the Battle of Kursk, when a new gun was mounted. The 85mm Model 1934 main gun of 51.5 caliber had been developed specifically to penetrate the armor of the newly deployed German Pz.Kpfw V Panther.

The old 76.2mm gun was barely able to penetrate the thick armor of the Panther and the Tiger I when T-34s were used in massed formations, as they had been at Kursk. But the new gun, adopted from the Model 1939 antiaircraft gun and used on the KV-85 heavy tank, had a muzzle velocity of 2,600 feet per second and could penetrate 3.7 inches of sloped armor at 1,000 yards.

The 85mm gunned T-34 was produced until 1949, when it was replaced by the T-54. The final variant of the T-34 was the T-44, which entered service in the last days of the Great Patriotic War, as World War II was commonly called in the Soviet Union. The T-44 proved unsatisfactory, and only limited numbers were built. They were used to quell the Hungarian Uprising in 1956.

In all some 40,000 T-34s and 85mm-gunned T-34s were built. They saw service not only with Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces but also with Egypt and Syria in the 1956, 1967, and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars.

Copies of the T-34 were built in many Communist Bloc nations, including the People's Republic of China.

See the next page to find specifications for the T-34 Medium Tank.

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T-34 Medium Tank Specifications

The T-34 was supplied to USSR client forces around the world. An American GI watches a T-34 burn on the road between Inchon and Seoul in South Korea in 1951.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Though a fairly basic tank, the T-34 Medium Tank featured some important innovations, notably the rounded and sloped armor that offered more protection from attack. Below are specifications for the T-34 Medium Tank.

Date of service: 1941


Country: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

Type: Fast Tank (Soviet designation)

Dimensions: Length, 7.5 m (24.6 ft); width, 2.9 m (9.5 ft); height, 2.4 m (7.8 ft)

Combat weight: 25,000 kg (27.5 tons)

Engine: V-12 water-cooled diesel

Armament: One main gun, either 76.2mm or 85mm; two 7.62mm DT machine guns

Crew: T-34, 76.2mm: 4; T-34, 85mm: 5

Speed: 50 km/h (31 mph)

Range: 300 km (186 mi)

Obstacle/grade performance: 0.8 m (2.6 ft)

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Frequently Answered Questions

Was the T-34 tank any good?
The T-34 tank was one of the best tanks of World War II. It was well-armored and had a powerful gun.