Few things invite a good historical debate quite like the merits of the tanks of World War II. Because such a broad array of machines took to battle - and often against one another, it’s easy (and fun) to compare their strengths and weaknesses.
What makes a good tank? Is it the quality of armor or the firepower? How important are cost and ease of maintenance? Is it better to have a few excellent tanks or many, many decent ones? Because every nation operated under different constraints, it’s a debate that goes beyond just the raw numbers. It’s also interesting to see how these machines often reflect the societies that built them.
This collection looks at 10 of the most effective tanks of WWII and invites you to decide which is the best. For the purposes of this list, the featured tanks need to have either been built in significant numbers or made a significant impact on the conflict. Very late-war tanks such as the M26 Pershing and A34 Comet arrived too late to make much of a difference or to be included here. To keep things fair, dedicated tank destroyers are for another list.
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Panther (Germany) - The Country's Top Medium Tank
Main weapon: 75 mm KwK 42
Secondary: 7.92 mm machine guns
Max speed: 34 mph
Armor: 80 mm
Number built: 6,000
The German army was taken aback by the unexpected quality and sheer quantity of Soviet tanks they encountered in the early phase of Operation Barbarossa. The T-34 was a cut above the Panzer IV, Germany’s main battle tank, so the development of a new model became a priority. The German high command was desperate to regain the technological upper hand in tank production. The Panzer V, better known as the Panther, was the result.
The first prototypes were out by the fall of 1942 and in service by the Battle of Kursk in 1943. The rushed production meant the early Panthers were prone to mechanical failures, and most of those lost in the summer of 1943 were due to breakdowns rather than enemy fire. The strategic situation after Kursk was one of a German army in retreat, so any Panther that broke down was pretty much done for.
Once early mechanical issues were fixed, the Panther proved to be an effective machine. The 75 mm main gun had excellent range and accuracy, and an experienced crew could fire off six rounds a minute. The frontal armor was near impenetrable, but the flanks were vulnerable. Thanks to its speed and maneuverability, those weak sides weren’t often exposed.
Germany built 6,000 Panthers in the second half of the conflict, making it second only to the Panzer IV as the most-produced German tank. Of course, those numbers were nothing compared with the number of T-34s and M4s churned out by the Allies. The Panther might have been Germany’s best tank of WWII, but it came too late and in too few numbers to alter the outcome.
Main weapon: 76.2 mm F-34 Tank Gun (1940) 85 mm (1943)
Secondary: 2 x 7.62 mm machine guns
Max speed: 33 mph
Armor: 80 mm
Number built: 57,000
The T-34 was a mainstay of the Red Army, a medium tank built in such vast numbers that the Wehrmacht couldn’t destroy them fast enough. When it first burst onto the scene in 1941, it was quite simply a cut above the German tanks it faced initially. Axis anti-tank guns fared little better as the T-34's innovative sloped armor shrugged off anti-tank rounds used at the time.
It was easy to repair and maintain - getting one patched up and back in the fray could be done in a matter of hours. After the Battle of Kursk, the T-34's main gun was upgraded to an 85 mm model that greatly increased its stopping power and range.
The T-34’s finest hour came in the Soviet counterattack during the Battle of Stalingrad. The tanks formed the armored spearhead that General Georgy Zhukov used to punch through the weak Romanian forces guarding the German 6th Army’s flanks. The Romanians had no answer to the T-34 and melted away. The encirclement of the 6th Army was complete within two days, a crucial turning point in the conflict.
Striking an impressive balance between firepower, mobility, and cost-effectiveness, the T-34 makes a strong case for being the best tank of WWII.
Main weapon: M2 or M3 75 mm
Secondary: 2 x .30 cal machine guns
Max speed: 30 mph
Armor: 76 mm
Number built: 50,000
Second only to the Soviet T-34 in sheer numbers produced, an M4 rolled off the assembly line every 30 minutes from 1942 to '45. The M4 Sherman was an American tank that also saw service in the British and Soviet armies as part of the Lend-Lease program. It was specifically designed to be produced in vast numbers and simple to maintain. It was also quite easy to control; drivers of M3 tanks had little difficulty making the switch to the M4.
It was an all-rounder that could support a broad array of missions and move through terrain most other tanks couldn’t. For all its qualities, the design choices that favored quantity over quality meant the M4 fared poorly against late-war German tanks head-to-head. The main gun of the M4, chosen for cost-effectiveness and reliability, wasn’t much good against German armor.
However, judging an M4 on its ability to fight enemy tanks rather misses the point. They were supposed to support infantry and bolster defensive positions, not engage enemy armor directly. The US had tank destroyers (that used the same chassis as the M4) for that very purpose, as well as air support.
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M4 Sherman Firefly (US/ Britain) - The Tiger Tamer
Main weapon: QF 17 Pounder
Secondary: .30 and .50 cal machine guns
Max speed: 25 mph
Armor: 90 mm
Number built: 2,100
Britain might have been the nation that first conceived of the tank in WWI, but mass-producing an effective tank in WWII was a significant struggle for the British. The Sherman Firefly was a modified Sherman M4 designed by the British to take on late-war German tanks. The regular M4’s main gun was weak against late-war German panzers, so the British took the chassis of an M4 and slapped on a much more powerful anti-tank gun, the QF (quick-firing) 17-Pounder, and the Firefly was born.
The Firefly was actually capable of besting German Tigers and Panthers in combat, though it still needed to get the first hit in, as its armor wouldn’t stand up to much punishment. The Firefly became a bit of a victim of its own success, as the Germans soon noticed the M4s with the larger guns were making mincemeat out of their best tanks. So, they tended to prioritize squashing the Fireflys first in any attack. In response, the British tried to mask the distinctive gun to make it appear like any other Sherman.
The Firefly wasn't built in huge numbers but played an important role in the Battle of Normandy, as it was the only Allied tank capable of besting German armor. During an attack on Norrey-en-Bessin on June 9, 1944, a Canadian officer quickly knocked out five German Panthers using only six rounds of his Firefly's main gun.