As this my second review of M1 Panther II vehicle model in a couple of months, I will make my task easier and copy first introductory paragraph from the previous article. So don't be surprised if you experience a "deja vu" feeling reading next few lines :)
M1 Panther II is a M1 Abrams tank specially modified for mine detection and clearing missions. This is quite new vehicle in US Army inventory, as first units were built in 1999. The concept of specialized mine clearing vehicle is relatively new in US Army - the first such vehicle, M60 Panther, was built just a few years earlier when it became clear that the operation of eliminating enormous number of mines left in Bosnia after the war, requires the use of such vehicle. The M60 based Panther was a success, but aging M60 hulls required a lot of maintenance and spare parts were becoming hard to find. Only six prototypes of M60 Panther were built. The Army decided to base the series production vehicle on old M1IP hulls - of which many remain in storage. Modifications include the removal of the turret and installation of mine clearing roller (MCR) or mine clearing blade ("mine plow" - MCB) on the front of the vehicle and Omnitech's Standardized Teleoperation System, which allows the vehicle to be remotely operated. M1 Panther II vehicles were used in Bosnia, and also in Iraq.
When Trumpeter and Dragon almost simultaneously announced plans to release M1 Panther II models in 1/35 scale it was quite a surprise. After all this is very "exotic" vehicle and it is hard to expect that it would sell in large numbers. On the other hand the modifications necessary to convert M1A1 models available from both manufacturers to M1 Panther II configuration are not large and the cost of developing a new kit was most likely relatively small. At least that was the case for Trumpeter kit, which was released first. This manufacturer already had MCR and MCB parts used in various Abrams kits, so all they had to do was to remove the turret from the M1A1 kit and replace it with newly designed Panther specific parts. And this is what they did, ignoring many differences which exist between M1 Panther II (M1IP) and M1A1 hulls in the process.
Dragon had to design a new MCR parts (they already had MCB, but they decided not to include it in the M1 Panther II kit) and this could have been one of the reasons why their M1 Panther II model was only released now - many months after Trumpeter's model. The true reason however was the fact that, as I will show you in the rest of the article, they decided to design completely new model and not use any parts from their previous Abrams tank models. At least not without serious modifications. This means that it is the first newly tooled model in Dragon's 1/35 Modern AFV Series for many years! I don't even remember what was the previous new kit in this series... US Marines M1A1 "Baghdad" kit released less than two years ago was just DML's very old M1A1HA model with only a few new parts added.
In the colorful box, with large photo of a real vehicle on top of the lid (and the yellow sticker announcing the kit to be "New Tooling") and additional photo plus a lot of illustrations of kit parts on box sides, we get:
- eight sprues in Dragon's "trademark" light grey plastic (instructions list more sprues, as some of smaller ones are molded together as larger sprues),
- separate lower hull part in the same color,
- one sprue with clear parts,
- a bag of "Magic Track" individual link tracks (also in grey plastic),
- a fret of photo-etched parts,
- a 26 cm length of metal cable,
- three lengths of chains in two sizes,
- two rectangular pieces of thin styrene sheet,
- two small decal sheets,
- folded instruction sheet.
All sprues and other parts are individually packed in plastic bags, even lower hull part. Smaller bags (clear, photo-etched parts, decals etc.) are attached to the piece of card board - it is practical, as parts are well protected and it also looks nice. Two small decal sheets contain markings for four overall forest green vehicles - two from 54th Engineer Battalion (Bamberg, Germany and OIF 2003), one from 9th Engineer Battalion (OIF II 2004) and one from KFOR unit. The instruction booklet shows the assembly in 16 constructions steps on clear exploded diagrams, including five steps for the MCR assembly & installation and three steps of installation of photo-etched parts. Instructions indicate that Ralph Zwilling was technical consultant for DML in this project and this can only be a good thing. Ralph is author of articles about M1 Panther II vehicle in Militaer Fahrzeug (1/2003) and in Assault, Journal of Armored & Heliborne Warfare (Vol.8, 7808). He was working at Bamberg Barracks, Germany, the home of 54th Engineer Battalion, so he had direct access to the real M1 Panther II.
There is practically no flash on parts (well, almost - very, very minor flash can be found on a couple of parts if you are really looking for it), mold halves are perfectly aligned and ejector pin marks are mostly hidden, with noticeable exception of track links. Magic Track links are very nice, but unfortunately there are big pin marks on each inner rubber block (i.e. two pin marks per link) and this has to be remedied somehow. Luckily these marks are raised (only slightly) above surface, so no putty is needed to fix this problem, just some sanding. The only major molding quality problem I noticed manifested itself inside the driver's hatch right periscope. This periscope in the hatch should be hollow (as all other periscopes) as there is a clear part provided to put inside. I asked my DML contact about this issue and was assured that the problem was only present in small first batch of kits produced (these unfortunately included reviewer's samples) and will be remedied before the kit hits the market. Surface details on parts are very nice and crisp. There is just a hint of sink mark on the bottom area or rear hull plate, but it is so shallow and barely visible, that there is no need to bother with filling it. The sprue attachment gates are rather typical size - proportionally bigger on bigger parts and smaller on tiny parts, so should pose no problem during clean-up.
The lower hull part is not attached to a sprue. It has no motorization holes of any kind in it, as was also the case in old DML M1A1 and M1A2 models (Dragon, unlike Tamiya, Academy and Trumpeter, never made motorized versions of Abrams kits). This is however completely new part with excellent details. This is the most detailed Abrams lower hull in 1/35 scale in any model available now. Bottoms of sponson boxes are not molded with hull parts, but Dragon remembered about them (unlike all other Abrams kits manufacturers) and provided these parts separately as strips of white styrene. Note that these parts are described as "PE" in instructions, but they are definitely not photo-etched.
Sprue A contains upper hull and two smoke grenade launcher parts. Upper hull (as well as separate engine deck cover and storage box lids located on other sprue) features very nice non-slip coating texture and there are even raised numbers on various panels. The upper hull is molded without front fenders, which are provided as separate parts.
Unusual feature of Dragon model - never seen before in any 1/35 Abrams kit - is provision of fuel filler cap covers as separate parts! Accurate details of actual fuel caps are molded on hull part, so the covers can be attached in open position. This allows for building a refueling scene diorama (e.g. with Italeri M978 heavy tanker truck), although to show actual refueling, it will be necessary to drill a hole to open fuel caps.
Storage box lids for two sides of the hull are molded as separate parts. There is a non-clip texture on the part of the hull to which these lids are attached and they have to be glued on this surface - I'm not sure if it is correct. I believe that there is no non-slip coating on the hull there (at least on standard M1 tanks, maybe it is indeed there on Panther II), although there is indeed a coating on the lid itself.
There is a bilge pump outlet (with the shape of rubber tip correctly reproduced) provided as small separate part and a place for it is prepared on the right side of the hull.
The fire extinguisher handle and personnel heater exhaust hole are molded on the side of the hull part using the slide molding.
Smoke grenade launchers are also made using slide molding technology, what allowed for giving them more complex and more accurate shape than in other M1 kits.
On sprue B are multipart side skirts, rear hull panel, engine cover and access doors, front fenders, driver's hatch, headlights & taillights (both with holes for separately provided clear plastic lenses), rear fuel cap covers and several other details. Side skirts have all the proper details of mounting brackets on upper edge and additional details are provided as photo-etched parts. These are definitely the best side skirts I've seen in any M1-family model. Nice feature is the hinge slat molded on the rear edge of number six skirts. If you attach number seven skirts, then these slats would be hidden. But if you leave number seven skirts aside, these hinge details become visible - really nice touch! For the first time in 1/35 scale Abrams model, the engine exhaust grilles are not molded on engine access doors. They are provided separately on small sprue K, molded together with sprue H. Instead on engine doors are exhaust louvers details - never before seen in any M1 kit!
Sprue C and two identical sprues D contain parts for the mine roller. It is very complex device and should look impressive once assembled. There is really a lot of parts on these three sprues and there are nice and crisp details molded on them, including bolt heads, handles and weld seams. We get metal chains and metal cable to add more detail to the MCR. The large "dogbone" (AMMAD - Anti-Magnetic Mine Activating Device) has very nice details molded on all sides of it thanks to it being split to four parts. This however means that they may be four gluing seams on the part and sanding here is impossible without removing surface details, so very careful fitting is needed to avoid visible seams.
Sprue E contains Panther II specific parts - the turret "plug", the commander's cupola, hatch and machine gun, antennas and some other small details. The machine gun is very nicely detailed and you have options to use the photo-etched gun cradle, but to do it you must first remove the plastic cradle details molded on the gun itself. Also ammo box tray is provided as PE part and also as plastic one molded on the ammo box itself, but here we get second ammo box without the tray details for use with the PE part. The machine gun barrel is hollowed at the end (slide molding again), and while the hole is rather shallow and a bit too big (0.5" cal. should be just 0.36mm in 1/35 scale - probably too little to reproduce accurately with injection molding), it is still very welcome feature. Commander's cupola periscopes are molded hollow and clear part inserts are provided for them. It is not clearly indicated in instructions, but cupola can be set at any position on its base ring. I'm not sure however if it is possible to leave the cupola unglued to rotate it freely, as the way it is attached to its base may not be secure enough to prevent the weight of the machine gun from throwing it off balance. The commander's hatch does not have any details inside (just a shallow ejector pin mark instead). Antenna's are molded reasonably thin - probably as thin as possible with standard injection molding technology.
Two identical sprues F (one molded with sprue E and one separately) contain storage rack rails and some other details for Panther II turret "plug". Rails are overscale in diameter, but still very thin for plastic injected parts.
Sprue G contains storage box lids, headlight guards, electrical junction boxes and some other small parts. This sprue is molded together with one sprue F and sprue E.
Sprue H contains all suspension parts. Suspension arms are separate parts and while designed to be easily set in correct neutral position, can with minimal effort be set at any position to match the shape of terrain on a diorama, or represent the forward tilt of the vehicle equipped with heavy mine clearing device. So from now on Trumpeter Abrams is no longer the only M1 kit with separate suspension arms, and I must say that these in DML kit look much better. There is a lot of other detail parts for the lower hull area, e.g. all side skirt supporting arms and brackets, most of which were never included in any M1 kit before. The idler wheels are equipped with track tensioning mechanism parts. The sprocket wheels feature mud relief holes and they are, for the first time in plastic, in correct oval shape! The separate outer sprocket disks are provided in two versions, but newer type is marked "not for use" in instructions, as indeed Panther II vehicles use older type. Wheels are not designed to rotate - they should be glued to suspension arms.
I mentioned all of the clear parts already - they are located on sprue J. We get clear lenses for headlights and taillights, periscopes for driver's hatch (center one with tiny wipers molded on) and for commander's cupola.
Magic Track individual link tracks in theory require only minimum clean-up as there is just tiny sprue piece attached to each link, but in practice it won't be as simple, because the ejector pin marks on each link should be removed for best result (at least from links on bottom runs on trucks, as they are clearly visible). The assembly of tracks is very easy as links just snap together and, thanks to small pins, hold together well even without glue (but of course are not workable).
As mentioned earlier the suspension and lower hull in DML Panther II kit are most detailed of all M1-family kit ever made in 1/35 scale. And most of these details are actually very accurate! There are only a few issues. Sprocket wheels, as I mentioned before have nice oval mud relief holes, but the outer sprocket rings (the flat ring with "teeth") has some incorrect details on it. In older version of the ring (the one to be used in Panther II kit) there is a raised rim added around the middle of the ring - there should be no such thing there, the ring should be flat. The other problem is that bolt heads on both types of rings protrude of out the surface of the ring. In reality they are flush with the surface, or even slightly below surface, so small shallow holes would actually better represent these bolts than tiny bumps. I personally prefer the Tamiya's representation of these bolts.
Separate suspension arms are very well done in visible part, although the end that attaches to the back of the road wheel is not accurate. Also the back side of road wheels is not accurate. These two flaws are not noticeable, unless you look underneath the model. And no other model kit of M1-family vehicle is any better in this area anyway. The front sides of road wheels on the other hand are (IMHO) the most accurate of any available Abrams kits.
In old DML Abrams tank models the positions of suspension arms and road wheels were messed up and wheels were not where they were supposed to be. It was not immediately noticeable until you compared the model to the real tank photos or scale plans. I'm happy to report that the positions of road wheels and arms in new suspension of Panther II kit are very accurate and the problem no longer exists.
In the kit we get pieces of sheet styrene to close bottoms of sponson boxes. It looks like an afterthought, a part added when the design was finalized, but nevertheless it solves the problem. Now last side skirts can be removed and no gaping hole will be visible above sprocket wheels, as is the case in other M1 kits. Actually with all the details on sides of the lower hull part, it is a pity that all side skirts cannot be left off (unless you show maintenance scene), as in reality Abrams tanks never go to combat without the front ballistic skirts attached.
And speaking of side skirts - they are the best in any M1 kit so far. We finally get all the details of hinges, locking pins and other mounting parts in place. Details not possible to mold in plastic were added as PE parts. We also get all support bars, which attach the skirt hinges to hull side above road wheels. First, sixth and seventh skirts are provided separately from the main set of four skirts molded together. So it is possible to open any of these skirts. Note however that inner sides of skirts were not designed to be displayed (ejector pin marks etc.) and would have to be modified to be shown. On the top front of the first side skirt of M1 is a rectangular steel "tunnel" used when the skirt is being manipulated. Dragon made an attempt (again, for the first time in plastic Abrams kit) to show that this part is not solid block, but the result was not satisfactory and it just doesn't look quite right. It would be much better to provide these details as photo-etched part.
The upper hull has all the features of M1IP hull properly represented: no access hatches on engine deck, no NBC panels, storage boxes on both sides, extinguisher handle in the correct place (above fifth left side skirt). The separate fuel filler cap covers make it possible to properly orient the front left cap, which was installed at different angle than in later M1A1 tanks. Unfortunately when DML were redesigning the upper hull, they introduced an inaccuracy not present in any earlier M1 model. This may not be a big thing, but it is there. They located both front fuel filler caps at the same distance from the front of the vehicle. This is not correct as the right side cap is actually further back. This error means that driver's hatch cannot be rotated to the proper "fully open" position (so while DML kit is the first one with the hatch "bumper" detail represented on the hull, it is in wrong place). All other Abrams kits, including old DML one, have fuel filler caps in proper place.
I mentioned that engine cover is a separate part, but four small grilles around it are molded integrally with the hull part, the same way as in Trumpeter, Italeri and old Dragon kits. As hinges of grille panels are attached to the engine cover - these panels always need to be removed with the cover, so making them part of the hull is not correct! Also, to remove the engine, the "bitch plate" (the plate between turret ring and main engine cover - which by the way has the correct shape in DML kit - again for the first time in any 1/35 model) has to be removed and it is also molded integrally with the hull in Dragon model. But as there is no engine provided in DML model, all these comments are irrelevant, unless you plan to invest in aftermarket engine, and you should simply glue the engine cover to the hull.
The front fenders provided as separate parts are of early type, without "X-shapes" stamping, again correct for M1IP hull. Headlight guards provided in the kit are meant to represent the early flatter type used on M1 and M1IP tanks, but while the horizontal section is accurately done, the vertical section was copied from M1A1 design and it is not really vertical, as it should be in M1IP, but is canted forward like M1A1 part. This detail is only noticeable for hardcore Abrams fans, but still worth mentioning.
The headlight themselves are nicely done with separate clear plastic lenses, but the outline of light units is not quite correct. In case of Panther II kit it will be barely noticeable a there is a lot of MCR hardware around lights to hide them.
We even get two track link connectors (with holes in them molded using slide molding technology), which are always carried on M1 tanks on the front fender wire springs and are used to keep the fender in open position during maintenance (thanks for demonstration how it works, Mike!). These parts in DML kit are however much larger than end connectors on Magic Track links (what effectively means that they are overscale) and they cannot really be properly placed on springs, as springs are (very nicely) molded on hull surface.
Nice non-slip coating texture is present on all hull parts on which it should be (and even some more as I wrote earlier), but purists would probably notice that it better represents rough surface of coating on late M1A1 and M1A2 tanks than smoother coating of earlier M1IP and early M1A1.
The armored junction box located next to driver's hatch and to which the MCB (not included in DML kit) electrical cable is connected in the real tank is included in the kit and is very accurate in shape. Another smaller rectangular junction box is located near the right front fender of the Panther II tank is also included as separate part.
On the rear side of the hull are taillights with separate guards (with correct cutouts) and clear lenses. The tow pintle is nicely detailed, but noticeably too small. One almost revolutionary improvement in DML kit is inclusion of separate engine exhaust grilles for rear engine access doors (which are separate and can be positioned open). On the doors are exhaust louvers - never before represented in any M1 kit. So far, so good, but... Unfortunately limitations of injection molding meant that to make grilles separate and with see-through gaps between bars, they had to be made slightly overscale, so they cover more louver's than they should. The louvers themselves don't look entirely good - at least these on sides, as the center larger ones are OK - the widths of slats are not equal and the distances between them are also not constant. This makes them look messy, so I don't recommend removing grilles other than the center one. But with the grilles attached the result looks still better than in other M1 kits, even if not 100% accurate. The details below engine grillles are quite accurate and include e.g. door latches, although the louvers on the bottom side of engine doors are represented as flat PE part and not very convincing - but at least there was some attempt made to replicate them!
The MCR parts cannot be fully evaluated accuracy-wise before assembly, but my quick examination has not shown any noticeable inaccuracies. Lots of details is present, including weld lines, numerous bolts etc.. Metal chains are made of in-scale looking flat oval links. Only the roller wheels seem to be a bit too flat on sides compared to photos of real thing.
The layout of large turret ring "plug" is correct with almost all surface details correctly represented (just a couple of bolt heads missing). The bottom plate is flat (not conical as it was incorrectly made in Trumpeter kit). Commander's cupola and machine gun look good, but the gun support frame is a little bit too thin when seen from the side. There are no handle and lock details on the bottom of commander's hatch.
The smoke grenade launchers are much better in overall shape than in any other Abrams model thanks to use of slide molding technology, but the front of the launcher is a bit to flat, so while the inner tubes correctly point towards the front of the vehicle, the outermost tubes are not angled enough to the sides. This is not very noticeable and correct shape of the rear part of the launchers makes them look more accurate than in any other M1 kit anyway.
The storage rack rails are molded reasonably thin (considering the limitations of injection molding) and are asymmetrical, just like the real things with the bend on the left side of rails a bit tighter than the one on the right side. Also the bottom rail is not horizontal on its hole length, but is bent upwards on its left end where it meets the commander's cupola base and this feature is correctly represented in DML model.
From examination of parts and drawings in instructions and comparing them to photos of real vehicle, I got a strong impression (well, actually I'm convinced) that cameras on both sides of the turret "plug" are significantly too large. They are almost two times bigger than those in (otherwise rather inaccurate) Trumpeter kit. I believe that these parts are actually better in Trumpeter model.
Markings on decal sheets are quite accurate and even include some data placards, but the font used to print all the numbers and crew names seems to be just slightly too thin.
Is the new DML model perfect? Well, it's not - there are some minor inaccuracies. It is very detailed and contains many correct features, never before included in any M1-family kit. It is also much more accurate representation of Panther II vehicle than Trumpeter's attempt (maybe with exception for overscale cameras). The molding quality is very high with crisp details on all parts. Does it mean that Trumpeter model no longer offers any value? Not really - I don't know yet what the retail price of DML kit will be, but it is certain that it will be more expensive than Trumpeter one. And cheap Trumpeter kit still offers good value for money with both MCR and MCB parts included, even if it is generally inaccurate and of poorer quality. For some modelers it may be important, particularly if they don't care much for accuracy and are happy as long as the model generally "looks like" the prototype.
Modelers looking for accurate replica of M1 Panther II should definitely choose DML kit - it is more detailed, more accurate and better molded than the competitor's product. It's also the first fully new model of modern armor from DML in several years - let's hope that many more will follow, as the quality of this model is definitely on a par with their recent WW2 releases. Of course other variants of M1 tanks will be released now by Dragon, as investing so much work in new parts would not be justified just for an exotic mine clearing vehicle. M1A1 AIM kit has already been announced for release in coming months. It may be very interesting model indeed, particularly if DML fix a few minor inaccuracies in hull and suspension parts, which I described above. Considering constant evolution of parts in their WW2 releases, it is very likely!
Many thanks to Dragon Models Limited for the review sample!