Academy U.S. Airborne Tank M551
by Cookie Sewell
331 parts ( 328 in dark green styrene, 2 in steel colored vinyl, 1 section
of nylon screen); retail price US $38
Advantages: clean, modern kit of this popular subject; most major flaws
in earlier kits corrected; finally a Sheridan that LOOKS like a Sheridan
Disadvantages: some shortcuts on details; builds only one version of the
vehicle in Vietnam service but directions do not indicate that
Rating: Highly Recommended
Recommendation: to all US armor fans, especially of Vietnam to Desert
F I R S T L O O K
It doesn't seem to fail that whatever sprang to life during the tenure
of Robert S. McNamara as the US Secretary of Defense sounded good on paper
but wound up being a lemon without a lot of reworking. The USAF and Navy
got the F-111, the Army and Marines got the AR15 cum M16, and the Army
alone got the Sheridan.
The US Army, in its search for a new light tank in 1959, wanted something
that could be air droppable and also able to swim (e.g. very light weight)
but able to defeat any main battle tank on the battlefield. New generation
aluminum alloy armor solved the first problem, but the designers turned
to a new concept – a six-inch missile launcher firing from a closed
breech, whose HEAT warhead would easily penetrate 500-750mm of armor.
The prototypes which appeared in 1962 took another three years to mature
into what was then called the M551 Airborne Amphibious Armored Reconnaissance
Vehicle or AAARV for short. The name given to it was Sheridan, after Union
Major General "Little Phil" of Civil War fame.
The tank was not what it seemed. The cast aluminum hull was coated with
styrofoam for buoyancy and all of that was sheathed in riveted aluminum
sheeting. All around the edge of the hull was a rubber cover that folded
back to reveal a folding nylon wading screen little different than that
used by the WWII British-designed Duplex Drive tanks. The turret was rolled
homogenous steel armor, mounting the 152mm launcher (quickly turned into
a gun-launcher by the addition of HE-FRAG and cannister rounds with combustible
cases, which later turned out to be one of the Achilles' Heels of the
Sheridan) and a coaxial 7.62mm machine gun. A 12.7mm M2HB was mounted
on the commander's cupola.
It is said that no plan survives first contact, and in 1967 the US Army
deployed the Sheridan not to Europe, where it was designed to swim rivers
like the Rhein and Elbe and dispatch Soviet T-62 and T-10M tanks, but
Vietnam, where it was used as mobile fire support by armored cavalry units.
The missile guidance system (the box above the gun) was removed, usually
sealed then with bright green "100-mph tape." The tank used
mostly the HE-FRAG and cannister rounds, which caused a lot of problems
The tank's "gun" was designed as a missile launcher first and
a gun second. Ergo, while launching the missile was more akin to firing
a six-inch torpedo (the missile was ejected by a gas propellant charge,
with the motor igniting several meters in front of the tank.) The resulting
kick from firing even a relatively low powered shell caused the vehicle
to violently buck, often pulling the first two or even three road wheel
sets off the ground. The joke was you could always spot a Sheridan gunner
from the scar tissue over his right eye (if he did not prepare himself
when he fired, the kick would smack the sight into his head just below
the CVC helmet.)
Originally the Sheridan came with a rather wimpy "luggage rack"
on the back of the turret, but most units in Vietnam soon modified it
to suit themselves. Probably the most useful full-fledged bustle rack
design came from the 11th ACR, as all three squadrons had Sheridans and
they wanted some measure of standardization. Later, when the 4/73rd Armor
with the 82nd Airborne Division was the only US Army unit left with the
M551 in service, they also created a design for a standardized turret
As commanders also tended to have a high casualty rate in Vietnam, many
started using the armored shields from M113 APC armor sets. Later, a factory-designed
"crow's nest" was created to provide armor protection for the
commander when using the M2HB gun. This has a folding panel in the back
for the commander to sit on during road movements in adminstrative order
as well as assist in access to the hatch when loading ammunition.
The M551, later upgraded as an A1 with a laser rangefinder, soldiered
on into the 1990s. Today the few remaining Sheridans serve as OPFOR surrogate
vehicles at NTC in California, but are rapidly leaving the inventory.
The Sheridan has so far been very ill served as a model. Other than one
1/76-scale kit from Airfix, the only others were a motorized effort from
Tamiya in the early 1970s (kit number 3031/MT131) and a clone of that
kit from the early days of Academy which appeared in the US around 1990
(#1307). Both were dreadful, as Tamiya basically designed the kit to use
1/35-scale parts around a 1/32-scale hull in order to fit a standard motorization
pack to it. The result was totally out of scale to begin with, but to
make matters worse, even though the Sheridan had been in production for
more than eight years when the kit came out in 1973, it was based on some
of the prototype features with a totally inexplicable grating covered
About nine years ago I attempted to turn one of each into a Vietnam Sheridan
and its modern M551A1 82nd Airborne version, but the kits were so bad
and the work so extensive I could only manage to get one model out of
the two kits (and a LOT of styrene sheet and strip.)
In the meantime Legends of Korea released a full-up resin kit of the
Sheridans (one of each) with injection molded wheels and track links.
However, while they did offer the running gear separately the kit was
extremely expensive for such a relatively small vehicle.
Now Academy has just released a new injection molded kit of the Sheridan
and first and foremost I must point out THIS IS NOT A RE-RELEASE OF KIT
#1307!!! Academy has totally redone it from the ground up, and the result
is an excellent kit.
Academy selected one of the Vietnam standard production Sheridans with
production gun with the "smooth" barrel, "crow's nest"
armor for the commander, and the 11th ACR bustle rack as their kit subject.
In point of fact, the only item missing from the kit is the belly mine-resistant
armor which units called for almost immediately after taking the Sheridan
out in the "bush." I am not sure of when it was issued but the
11th ACR and others were using it at least by 1970.
The kit provides the basics for a great model, but some items were skimped
over in order to make a reasonably produceable kit. One point concerns
the road wheels, which have a very annoying lip around the rims (a sure
dust and mud magnet) wherease the kit provides them as simple dished wheels.
The tracks are a bit thin and light on details (the originals are very
close pitch, so in all honesty there isn't much to see) but at least they
are detailed inside and out unlike the second-generation kits.
There is a large hole in the belly but it is NOT a motorization hole;
this is the vehicle's belly escape hatch (which the belly armor leaves
a cutout for, figuring that the center of the hull is not as likely as
the bow or sides to suffer mine effects.)
The details are neatly done and the kit provides all of the basic components
for the Vietnam version. However, it does not provide the "luggage
rack" but only the 11th ACR-built bustle rack. Considering the finishing
options, this is unfortunate, for at least two of the vehicles chosen
for finishing did not have this rack ("Hard Core 7" and "Canary
Cage"; the latter is odd as it was a 2/11 ACR vehicle photographed
One nice touch is the provision of buckles and strap tiedowns on the
C (suspension) sprues, which will be very handy items for modelers to
use. These vehicles were stuffed to the gunnels with kit, so the bustle
rack begs to be filled. The model only provides a few ammo cans and two
each water (metal) and drinking water (plastic) 5-gallon cans though.
Oddly the AN/VSS-3 searchlight is missing its lens, and therefore the
modeler will have to either come up with a lens from clear styrene or
acetate sheet or simply "tarp it up" with tissue paper to simulate
canvas (most common in the Vietnam era photos.)
Overall this kit IS a Sheridan and I don't doubt that the aftermarket
boys will jump at the chance to provide better marking options (with bumper
codes, something chronically missing from Academy kits) and metal details
for purists such as the wheel rim lips. But it's a great place to start
and should be a popular model. I also hope they plan on an A1 with the
wide variety of 82nd Airborne markings (Grenada, Panama and Kuwait all
come to mind) or perhaps a VISMOD from NTC.
Thanks to Bob Lewen of MRC/Academy for the review sample.