Western Tanks of the 1960s and 70s

on December 19, 2013 in Biscuits and Bullets, General History

M-60 vs. Leopard 1 vs. Chieftain vs. AMX-30

M-60A3

The American M-60: MUCH better than I grew up believing!

Like anyone who is both my age and the author of military fiction, I took a keen interest in the very modern military affairs of the Reagan era. Quite by chance, I learned just how wrong the open source material of that period could be.

Back in the day, there was a common consensus about the 2nd generation of Western main battle tanks, those of the 1960s and ’70s, updated versions of which were still in use today. The French AMX-30 was the lighter and more mobile tank; the British Chieftain was the heavily armored, heavily armed (120mm rifled gun vs. 105mm rifled gun of the others), and consequently slow one; and the German Leopard 1 and American M-60 were about the same and somewhere in the middle. Everyone repeated this conventional wisdom over and over again: experts in the media, defense ministries, even games!

This was the picture that held until these vehicles started finding their way into private museums, and that is where the surprising truth came out, and I happened to stumble upon it. Take frontal armor, where it’s thickest: the M-60 has 155mm, and while the turret face of the Chieftain is indeed thicker, the vaunted Leopard 1’s thickest armor was only 70mm! In other words, the supposedly equivalent M-60 had 3 1/3 more inches of steel up front. Also, the supposedly lighter AMX-30 had 10mm more frontal armor than the Leopard 1.

Now, when you realize how many soldiers in how many countries operated these vehicles for more than 30 years without all the comparative data getting out (nevermind how many factory workers were involved in building the things) it’s a testament to just how many people can keep a secret when the reason for keeping the secret is so obviously important. I must also comment on how sneaky the marketing guys were in Germany, selling as many inferior tanks as they did from Australia to Canada to Chile!

Given how last place the Leopard 1 turned out to be, I have to wonder if the Leopard 2 is as good as it’s cracked up to be. Unlike the Challenger or the M-1 Abrams, the Leopard 2 has never really been tested in combat.

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