Sunday, May 20, 2012

Project: DML's PanzerKampfWagen III Ausf. F 1/35

The Panzer III was the premier battle tank of the German army in early WWII. Designed alongside the Panzer IV, it was designed as a breakthrough tank, with good armor (for the time) all around and a cannon designed to punch holes in other tanks, as well as for throwing HE (unlike the PzIV at the time). While there were not many Pz IIIs available for the Polish campaign (less than 100, much of which were pre-production prototypes), more were available for the French campaign, and was a mainstay for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Dragon's kit depicts an early model, the F version. This was the 2nd main production version, differing only slightly from the Ausf E version (armored covers for the brake cooling system, and a modified engine). Indeed, at first glance it looks like one could build an E if you wanted to. While many Ausf E's and F's were later remanufactured with the 50mm L/42 KwK, this kit depicts the earlier variant still armed with the 37mm L/45 KwK, as well as twin coaxial machine guns.

I remember Dragon back in the old days, when they were issuing mostly 1/144 aircraft, and a small portfolio of their own original kits: mostly Soviet vehicles that suffer today from inadequate research (this was in the late '80s) and/or toylike features (operating hatches on the BMP, BTR, and BRDM series kits, seriously compromising detail). Later they would being issuing kits using molds from other manufacturers, such as Gunze and Italeri, with modified or reworked parts where neccessary. Eventually they would issue better kits, and this model is a long way from those early days.

If I could use one word to sum up this kit it is complex. I didn't do a parts count, but there are quite a few, along with Dragon's "Magic Track" and a fret of brass photo-etch parts. As usual, Dragon likes to get the most from their molds, and there is always a slight feeling of mix-'n-match with their kits. In this box alone there are sprues from their StuGIII and Panzer IV kits, alongside some sprues from other versions of the Pz III (Like the J model). This also means you sometimes get multiple sprues with the same letter designation. I had at least 2 sprues labeled "A" that were completely different, as well as sprues labeled "B".

Going slow is the way to build these kits, not only because they're expensive (this kit retails for over $60, though I got mine on sale for $26!), but because all of the detail and complexity will reward a slow and deliberate build.

So far I've managed to complete the hull. I still have to mask off the torsion bar axels, as well as a few other areas, in order to prep it for priming. This kit will get the standard dark gray of early war German tanks, so I'll be using a black primer, especially as the dark gray was fairly dark when newly applied. Weathering will do the rest to fade it.

Most of the photo-etch was fairly routine to add, without a lot of complex or confusing bends. Some, however, were pretty confusing to apply, not helped by Dragon's questionable intructions. A big issue was how the two fender supports (the brass bits towards the front in the above picture) attach. It took a great deal of test fitting to get them in there. As one portion rests on the tow shackles, I reccommend installing the towing shackles first, before attaching the PE components. Also the headlights were a bear to install, with very narrow gluing points.

Here is the tail end of this kit. The little brass circles on the rear fenders are cut-outs that allow the fenders to be raised in especially muddy conditions, but allow the night formation driving lights to still be visible. These can be protected as needed by flaps, represented in the kit by either photo-etch brass, or a plastic fender with these already lowered. Using the PE is the way to go for appearance purposes, but it might be less frustrating to just use the plastic piece. I use a slight dab of super-glue to bond the part, but cappilary action seems to have pulled the glue up into the fender seams. This meant I had a lot of difficulty getting a good bond with plastic cement, and the fenders kept falling off! I think I may have it now...

Currently I am working on the commander's cupola (which came from one of their Pz IV kits...not a suprise as they were the same in the real world!), and a failing of Dragon's instructions is once again evident. Assembling the vision blocks was a chore, not because they were difficult or very tiny, but because Dragon's instructions are not clear. I reccommend gluing the vision blocks to the lower ring first -- the tab is supposed to go between vision blocks, before gluing it to the cupola drum. You are also provided with clear parts to make the actual vision blocks, and this will make painting more challenging!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Project: 1/35 AMX-13 VCI

I picked this kit up some time ago as an impluse buy. I was vaguely familiar with Heller as a model producer, having worked on a Somua H-39 and wa-ay back an AMX-30. They're not a top-notch producer, but often if there is something you want that is French, they're the ones to look at first.

The AMX-13 was a post-war light tank, using an oscillating turret (that is, the barrel is fixed in elevation, and it is the turret itself that raises and lowers!) and a cannon initially based on the WWII German KwK-42 75mm L/70. As things go, the AMX-13 was converted into several different variants, including a 155mm SP Artillery vehicle, an artillery supply vehicle, and of course this subject: an APC.

The AMX-13 APC came in 3 major variants: the Early variant (VTP) with an externally mounted 7.5mm machine gun on a commander's cupola, a Mid-production variant (VTT, later VCI) with a small turret mounting a machine gun, and the penultimate variant (VCI M-56) mounting a 20mm cannon in an external remote turret.

Although the AMX-13 VCI is no longer in service with France (replaced by the AMX-10RC), it still soldiers on in many other armies, being an export success to many 3rd world militaries.

Heller's kit represents the VTT (nee VCI, before name change), and as kits go, you can know what to expect from this manufacturer. First there are quite a few parts with a lot of break down of shapes. This isn't neccessarily a bad thing, and based on the photos I've looked at, certainly looks the part. But it also means there are more areas where fit can be a bit dodgy, and that is certainly true here.

The two biggest obstacles to construction in this kit are the terrible tracks (mine broke when I was testing out the pliability, not a good sign), but worst of all the entire rear hull of this kit was badly warped. The kit comes with a mostly full interior for the infantry compartment, but given the complexity of painting, and the warped hull, I decided to model all the hatches closed (though you can open the drivers, infantry egress, and side hatches, as well as the turret hatch). This made fixing the mess of the upper hull a bit easier. Despite that, I still needed some filler on the rear corner to finish it up.

The rest of the build went pretty smooth. The kit comes with 2 crew (with fairly mediocre heads) and several infantry. The infantry are interesting since they represent the '50s to '70s kit, with semi-auto rifles (MAS-49s) and a light machine gun (AA-52). Again the heads are a bit bland, so I'm planning on replacing with Hornet heads (they do a set with French style postwar helmets), though the vehicle commander's head will be more difficult to replace (I cannot find anyone that does a '60s style French Armored crewman's head!)

For the tracks issue, I'm planning on getting a set of AMX-13 tracks from Accurate Armour.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Project: 1/35 Tamiya SdKfz.251C/10 Part 2

Occasionally in the build process you come to a point where you have to wonder about the effort of moving on, and what is needed.

The Tamiya kit stands here, half completed. The roadblock is that the interior looks more challennging than I had first estimated. I'm not thinking that I will need to pick up the Eduard set for this kit, if for no other reason than it provides seat backs for the fighting compartment interior. Of course this will be more money too...

Project: 1/35 Aer ASU-57

Accepted into service in 1951, the ASU-57 was an attempt by the Soviets to develop an airborne, air-droppable light AFV to support Soviet Airborne forces. While the 57mm Ch-51 cannon was more effective in the anti-tank role than the 76.2 D-56T cannon then arming the PT-76 tanks, it would stilll have had trouble dealing with heavier tanks and the like. In addition the armor protection was barely worthy of the term. Still, in an air-landing operation any tank is usually better than no tank, and the ASU-57 was successful for a number of years until replaced by the ASU-85 and ultimately the BMD-series of vehicles.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Warsaw Pact dissolved, there was a lot of hope from modelers of seeing what the model hobby was like in the East. What had been a trickle of kits in the Glastnost era became more common. Aer of Moldova was one of the first companies marketing kits in the west. Unfortunately I have no idea what the status of this manufacturer is anymore, lacking a web page, and not much in years in terms of new releases. Still, the kits can be found from time to time, and this is certainly an unusual subject...

When one gets a new kit, the range of emotions one can go through ranges from "Cool!" to "Hmmm...." and finally "Can I live with this thing?" Usually this range of emotions happen during the actual build process, but in the case of Aer's ASU-57 kit, you'll get there just from opening the box.

In a word, the kit is terrible! Fit is overall sloppy, with the hull sides "spiderwebbed" with what looks like the result of insufficiently hot styrene during the injection process. Also the gun barrel was riddled with sinkmarks, and actually shattered while I was trying to construct it. You absolutely must invest in aftermarket parts just to complete the model. This is a real shame, but I can't complain as I got the model for a mere $3 several years ago from Ebay.

Into the mix I added Eduard's 35734 ASU-57 1/35 photo-etch kit, from Modelpoint MP3550 ASU-57 return roller set, and MP3529 Ch-51 57mm barrel. The entire Modelpoint line may be OOP as their website no longer registers and most stocklists seem to be out of product. I'm also thinking about picking up Miniart's 35064 Soviet 57mm & 76mm Shells w/Ammo Boxes. The Ch-51 cannon could fire the range of ZiS-2 ammo as well as more modern rounds, so this set will work if not specifically accurate.

Construction starts naturally with the lower hull. This is where problems began. Lacking the technology (at the time, or perhaps capital investment for better molds), the lower hull does not benefit from multi-part molds like found with Asian manufacturers, and instead is built up from several flat parts. Fit was sloppy, and required a lot of filler (the white spots in the photograph are the results of this. I have attached a handful of photo-etch details as well. I have also begun modifying the upper hull to accept the photo-etch parts.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Project: 1/35 Tamiya SdKfz.251C/10

The SdKfz.251 was the standard armored personnel carrier for the German Army in WWII. Compared to its closest competitor (the US M3 half-track), it had better armor protection, but poorer cross-country mobility. Interestingly, while many countries experimented with the APC concept -- such as Italy and Japan -- none deployed them in the numbers the US or Germany did, unless they were supplied via Lend-Lease (such as in the case of the British, and to a lesser extent the Soviets).

The 37mm PAK 35/36 was the standard anti-tank cannon of the German army in the pre-war and early war period. When it was developed in the mid-30s, it possessed adequate anti-tank performance for the era, but quickly grew obsolete, especially when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Although able to deal with older tanks like the T-26, it was completely inadequate when fighting T-34s or KV-1s (dubiously referred to as the "Doorknocker" when combating these tanks, indicating it's paltry performance against the armor of these tanks).

Early on, the decision was made to combine this anti-tank gun with the chassis of the standard German APC, to develop a platoon commander's vehicle, able to support dismounts with direct fire from its 37mm cannon (firing High Explosive shells), or provide limited anti-tank capability at the platoon level. While inadequate when combating tanks, the 37mm would still have been effective fighting lighter armored vehicles, such as other APCs, armored cars, and even light tanks in some circumstances.

Both Tamiya kits -- the SdKfz.251C (#35020) and the PAK 35/36 (#35035) are what you might call "Golden Oldies." Both kits were issued in the mid '70s (1973 and 1974 respectively), at a time when Tamiya had very little competition in the 1/35 scale, and only a bit more competition from the likes of Revell and Monogram in the US (some kits were allegedly 1/35 -- particularly from Monogram, but many were actually 1/32), Airfix in the UK (again 1/32), and domestically in Japan from the likes of Bandai (1/48 mostly) and Nichimo (1/35). Later in the 1970s the field would be joined by Italeri, who had interited their first kits from Peerless Max.

For a long time both kits were the only game in town if you wanted either one. That changed in the '00s when Dragon began to release its series of half-tracks (also joined by AFV Club from Taiwan, and even Zvezda from Russia). Unfortunately these kits did not age well when compared to the competition. The 251 is a scale foot too narrow (though it certainly looks the part, and the scale issue is not as apparent to me), and the interior is very sparse, to say the least, lacking many interior parts, such as the seat backs for the infantry benches! The PAK comes off a bit better, and has lots of nice detail. Still not up to current standards (the gun shield is molded as a solid plate, when it should be 2 spaced armor plates), but the PAK retails at $7.50, and it's hard to get anything in this scale anymore that cheap. Similarly, the half track goes for $17 retail, again rather cheap in this era. These are great kits for kids to get into the hobby, while still being cheap enough for experienced modelers that want a challenge.

One of the nice things about the PAK 35/36 kit is that it comes with mounting parts to convert the Tamiya SdKfz.251C/1 into a /10. As this came out in 1974, this might be the very first commercial conversion kit!

I've had both of these kits in my "stash" for some time, long enough for Dragon to release these very kits and make them obsolete. As can be seen in the photograph above, the SdKfz.251 box has weathered quite a bit in the years of sitting around on store shelves and in my basement. Not liking to waste anything, I've determined to actually put these kits together, perhaps scratchbuilding the seat backs, adding racks for the 37mm ammo, and a few other details here and there.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Noble Armada: A Call to Arms

Some long-time RPGers may remember the Fading Suns RPG from Holistic Designs. A side project by some of the people writing for the popular Vampire RPGs, while the rules were a bit clunky, the setting was fantastic, very evocative and as dark as you want it to be. There weren't too many supporting games for the RPG, but one of the ones that came out was Noble Armada, a ship based game that could either be integrated into the RPG, or played as a stand alone.

Unfortunately Fading Suns never got the recognition I think it deserved, and has been floating in "edition limbo" for the past few years (work is being done on the 3rd edition, to be published through Print on Demand). That's why when Mongoose announced it was going to team up its A Call to Arms starship combat engine with the Noble Armada concept, it was quite a surprise.

The rules, published in a practical (and inexpensive - $30 at the time of this writing) hardback format,  comprise a mere 28 pages. This includes standard, advanced, terrain, and special rules, making for a very economical usage of space. Following that is background material ("fluff") which comprises a whopping 28 pages as well. For most gamers, the Fading Suns universe is probably fairly obscure, so all this fluff is probably necessary in order to give enough background to care about the factions.The next 17 pages are scenarios (quite a few!), followed by 12 pages of campaign rules, a page on unusual situations, and a page on minor houses (more fluff, a bit strange including it here).

Much of the rest of the book is in color, and is taken up by some starter fleet lists, some terrain building tips, and the requisite (for a minis game) pages showing off the minis themselves (which I like to call "figure porn..."). The latter portion of the book is a bit of a letdown. While the ships themselves are well painted and shown off to good regard in the fleet lists, the "in-action" photos leave a bit to be desired. Say what you will about GW games, but their figure porn pages are always excellent, with a high level of modeling not just in the figures, but the terrain itself. As the point to these games is to collect and game with the figures, I think a little more attention could be spent here.

I have yet to play the game, but there are already plans for it to go off later this week. I hope to post some reflections on the game at that time.

A note about pricing. If you're looking at a new minis game to get into, Noble Armada is fairly cheap as they come. The rulebook itself is only $30, and you can get fleet boxes (usually with a light carrier, 2 destroyers, 4 frigates, 2 galliots, 2 scout ships, and 8 fighters of 2 different types) for around the same price. Usually these boxed sets come in at around 1370-90 points, enough for a small to mid-sized game. A beginner could easily drop around $100 to $150 and never have to purchase anything else; that includes the rules, 2 fleet boxes, and around $60 of blisters to round out the fleet, making this a pretty inexpensive game to get a good variety of forces and minis for (you could just get the rules and a fleet box for $60, though, and have a decently rounded force for smaller games). Of course there is plenty of incentive to go beyond this (new ships, and any serious minis gamer will want to tweak his list from time to time -- or even overhaul it completely), but with the most vocal concerns about minis gaming being the entry costs, this isn't too bad at all...

Friday, July 8, 2011

Plastic Soldier Company Panzer IV

In the last year or so there has been a very real explosion of plastic kits available on the market, creating a boon for wargamers.

One of the first to the market (besides some plastic upgrade parts offered in Battlefront kits) is from Plastic Soldier Company. While these kits are simplified, they are nonetheless designed for wargamers, simple to construct, but still offering sufficient details for a good appearance.

The kit offers a whopping 4 different versions to construct: F1, F2, G, and H. While this is of obvious benefit to the modeler, unfortunately out of the box only one variant can be made accurately: the short-barreled F. To make any of the other variants, you will need to modify the kit parts in several ways. Most are easy to accomplish.

Panzer IVF2: This variant is a bit more challenging to build compared to the others, and requires additional materials to do it well. The primary problem is that the muzzle brake depicted in the kit is the incorrect type, being a double baffle type, when it should be a single baffle type. To make more accurate, remove the muzze brake and use a plastic bead as a replacement. When glued on, drill a single hole through the bead fro the side to produce the muzzle brake. You can also model a late version by removing the circular flare hatches from the driver's comparment hatches, and the vision hatches on the turret front-sides.

Panzer IVG: This is the second easiest build in the kit. Simply remove the left-hand vision hatch next to the main armament, the 2 vision hatches on the turret front-sides, and the flare hatches from the driver hatches. You can also model this tank with skirt armor, as some Gs (especially late) receive this upgrade.

Panzer IVH: This version is a bit more challenging than the G, but can be done in much the same way. Do all the modifications for the G, with the addition of a single-piece circular hatch hinged to the side (opens to the left, if you view the tank from the front). Although some of the early production Hs were bare, many received Zimmerit, and this is a real challenge to add to this kit. The manufacturer can't be faulted, as this would have made a kit with excessive parts, and thus made it much more expensive as well as challenging to build.