AMPS is all about armor modeling and the preservation of armor and mechanized heritage.

Dragon "Black Label" T54E1

Kit Number:
Monday, August 14, 2017
Dragon Models Limited (DML)
Retail Price:
$49.99 USD
Reviewed By:
Glen Martin




Box art and release statement from Dragon

"Dragon’s legendary 1/35 scale range of plastic kits has continued to benefit from the arrival of a novel post-WWII American medium tank. The new kit is a T54 (of course, not to be mistaken for the famous Soviet T-54 tank). Development of the type was initiated in 1951, with the T54 representing a series of three prototypes that featured new 105mm-gunned turrets on the existing M48 Patton chassis.

The original T54 had a conventional turret with an auto loader; the T54E1 had an oscillating turret with auto loader, and the T54E2 was conventional with a human loader. It is the second one, the T54E1, which is depicted in this brand new kit. The turret had a nine-round drum auto loader under the 105mm T140E2 gun.

After releasing several successful kits of the M48 Patton tank, Dragon has now turned its attention to the prototypical T54E1. Of course, the kit benefits from the research done on the M48, but the upper hull has actually been completely redone because it bears different details compared to the M48A1. Naturally, the turret is completely new, and the complex shape with both rounded and flat surfaces has been particularly well done. The canvas used to protect the oscillating design of the turret is portrayed in DS so that it accurately mimics the real thing. The T54E1 has been produced with modeling convenience in mind too, with such features as easy-fitting DS tracks. Building on the success of the M48 family, this kit continues to set the bar high in terms of Dragon quality. In terms of novelty, an actual plastic kit of a T54 is something modelers would not have dared dream of either!"


Now, a brief history of the Vehicle:


Towards the late 1940's, it was decided that a new medium tank with a much heavier gun should be developed to counter the ever growing hostile threats of enemy armor which had been improving since the end of WWII, in particular, Soviet Armor. Starting in December 1950, the Army Equipment Development Guide recommended that a 105 mm tank gun be pursued for this new "T54" project. To mate this heavier 105mm gun, the proven M48 lower hull chassis would be used. In doing so, the design of the overall vehicle could be finished quickly; the mating of an improved turret with the lower hull. This need led to the development of the T54 series. Three vehicle test subjects would be provided for testing:  The T54, T54E1 and T54E2. By 6 July 1951, OTCM (Ordnance Technical Committee Minutes) 33842 officially initiated the development project with two new vehicles designated to use an auto loader: the 105 mm gun tank T54, and the 105 mm gun tank T54E1. As for the third design, that vehicle, the T54E2 would not employ the auto loader. 

All three prototypes had interesting concepts. Initially, the first prototype, the T54 was designed around a much more conventional turret design that employed an auto-loading system for the T140 main gun. This would eliminate the need for a crewman to manually load the weapon. This gun was a 105mm, L/67.3 caliber weapon. At that time, the T140 was used in the T29 development program. As designed, this gun would also be used in all three design prototypes, saving costs in utilizing a gun already being produced, much like using the M48 lower hull to aid in the development effort. The T54E1 (Second Prototype) would use a oscillating turret design to use this gun with an auto-loading feature. The T54E2 (Third Prototype) would use a more conventional turret design with a more traditional manual loading system, relying on a human loader. 

The breech mechanism was inverted on the auto loader versions of the first two prototypes, using a nine round canister that held the ammunition. The T54's 105 mm T140 gun was a lighter version of the gun that would be used in the T54E2. When modified for use with the T54E1 oscillating turret, the gun was designated as the 105 mm gun T140E2.

The turret design features of the T54E1 new oscillating turret would be very similar in concept to the French AMX-13 light tank and AMX-50 heavy tank. The AMX-13 prototype using an oscillating turret design was built in 1948. It would not enter service until 1953. Although the AMX-13 was a small and lightweight vehicle at 14 tons, the concept was proven in the design to be sound. The concept should work as designed in the T54 and T54E1 with the use of an auto loader, even though these vehicles would be larger and heavier, coming in at around 60 tons. With the basic turret design for this larger American designed tank a heavy turret base was needed. It would hold the part of the turret that would elevate, held in place on the sides by a large trunnion bearing system. In an oscillating turret, the trunnions are attached directly to the upper half of the turret. Traverse would be accomplished by pivoting the turret as in any conventional tank.  

Hoping to make the first two prototypes a more potent vehicle using the 105mm guns with automatic loaders, the turret was shaped with a more pronounced highly sloped armor. The armor was both heavily sloped and shaped to present a very narrow target from the front, providing greater protection. With this new 105mm gun, enemy armor could be soundly defeated at much greater ranges. The frontal armor of any existing tank at a range of 2,000 yards, or 1,830 meters, would be vulnerable. Additionally, with an auto loader, nine rounds could be quickly brought on target before a canister refill was needed. This would saturate the target(s) quickly, hoping to produce one or more quick kills. The vehicle could then move off to a safe area to reload the nine round drum and return to action. To make this turret, the design of the T54E1 A turret was contracted to the Rheem Manufacturing company, The overall contract to construct the vehicle however was the United Shoe Machinery Company and would be the contractor selected to build the T54E1.

A protective cover was fitted to the turret where the oscillating features were open to the elements. This "bonnet" was placed there to keep the rain, wind and other foreign bodies out of the turret due to inclement weather. On the top deck of the turret, one will find a large rectangular hatch that was used to facilitate the reloading of the ammunition canister (not under fire, of course). The door was used for the crew to allow for easier loading and maintenance of the main gun. The tank commander and the gunner had seats that turned with the turret. The automatic loader included the rotary magazine holding nine rounds of ammunition which fed a rotating tray. Close to where the commander and gunner seats were located, a ballistic computer that utilized a loading tray were used. Near this, a ramming mechanism moved the round into the breech to facilitate the quicker loading of the live round and ejection of the spent shell casing.

The surviving example of the T54E1 prototype is presently located at Fort Benning, GA. Stored at a restoration facility located within Fort Benning on 25 Infantry Regiment Road, it awaits restoration into a museum quality piece. At one time, this vehicle was on display at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.

Problems with making the auto loader function as expected kept this vehicle from being a serious contender to enter production. The two auto-loading prototypes were deemed inferior in functionality and by 1957, development of those two tank prototypes ceased altogether. The two prototypes were kept for experimental development purposes and never released for use on the battlefield. Only much later were main battle tanks with autoloaders fielded by the USSR with the T-64 and T-72 series of tanks. To this day the US and most other tank-manufacturing nations have stuck with human loaders. 

Vehicle Specifications with the prototype:

  • Weight Combat loaded: 110,000 lb (50 t)
  • Unstowed: 103,000 lb (47 t)
  • Length Gun forward with fenders:  450.2 in (11.44 m)
  • Width 143 in (3.6 m)
  • Height 121.8 in (3.09 m)
  • Crew 4:(commander, gunner, driver, loader)
  • Armor Upper glacis: 110 mm (4.3 in) at 60°= 220 mm (8.7 in) LoS


Main armament:

  • T54: 105mm L/67.3 T140
  • T54E1: 105mm L/67.3 T140E2
  • T54E2: 105mm L/67.3 T140E3

Secondary armament:

  • Cupola mount: .50 cal (12.7 mm) HB M2 machine gun
  • Coaxial: .30 cal (7.62 mm) M1919A4E1 machine gun

Power Plant:

  • Engine AV-1790-5B
  • 810 hp (600 kW) gross
  • 704 hp (525 kW) net
  • Power/weight T54: 13.6 gross hp/ton
  • T54E1 12.5 gross hp/ton
  • T54E2: 13.8 gross hp/ton
  • Suspension Torsion bar

Operational range:

  • 70 mi (110 km)
  • Speed 27 mph (43 km/h)




The Review:

Now that you know about what went into the design of the vehicle, let me begin the review.

This kit is from the Black Label flag of latest kits that Dragon has released over the last couple of years. With new tooling, this is the first production plastic kit offering of this vehicle in styrene plastic. There are NO individual track links, NO aluminum gun barrel, NO figures, NO metal tow cables....none of that comes with this kit. What you do get are 10 to 11 sprue trees with plastic parts (Depending on some individual parts that are "loose" in the box, this affected my sprue tree count) that holds by my count, over 440 hard plastic styrene parts, 3 DS Styrene parts, 19 clear parts and 30 Photoetched metal parts.  The tracks are DS Styrene one piece tracks that are very detailed.  Other than the Photoetched metal parts, this kit is pretty much a plain kit, other than the fact that it is a new mold.

The instructions come standard fare as to what Dragon normally produces with clear images providing the builder with 13 concise steps to build the model. The painting instructions on the back of the main instructions covers 3 different paint schemes which are not in color. However, the schemes can be seen on the side of the box which I will provide here.  They are very colorful.


Instructions are as follows:













The Sprues containing the parts:

Sprue A


Sprue C (Times 2)


Sprue D


Sprue F


Sprue H


Sprue J


Sprue J (Alternate)


Sprue K


Sprue L


DS Styrene Tracks


Primary Turret parts


Small Photoetch Fret


Cartograf Decals


Preliminary fit of the Turret parts

I want to give my impressions of the turret situation in this kit. First, there is a history of discussion on social media surrounding the shape of the Turret, once constructed. This criticism of Dragon for putting out a misshaped turret is real and I can see why. If you look at the following photos, you will see how the turret parts are dry fit into place for the review. This is not the turret final product prior to painting. I do not want to give that impression. I am merely showing the turret as how it appears as the parts are sitting for the photograph. I will add additional comments after you view these parts together.






Here are a few photos that I found on the Internet of the existing prototype that shows the main gun barrel. As you can see the barrel is really prominent in this vehicle being a 105mm cannon. Dragon does not supply a one piece slide molded barrel, which I would have expected if this were truly a "Smart Kit" as the Black Box is labeled. As a reviewer, I am definitely disappointed in this. As a modeler, I would have gladly paid the extra to have the barrel in the kit at the time of purchase. I do hope that a one piece offering will be supplied by an aftermarket company such as RB Barrel, Armorscale or Aber.



And here is the two piece kit offering. As you can see, both pieces have a bend in them. This will present a problem because neither piece has the same bend angle as the other piece. When put together, this will reside in unequal force being applied by the more "dominant" side which could cause the barrel to curve to the more prominent side of the higher bend. Two piece plastic barrels tend to do this unless a correcting element is introduced into the cavity length of the barrel, such as a plastic or brass rod, if room allows for it.  As you can see, the barrel half on the left definitely has more curvature to it than the right. At the time of this review, a quick check of the websites that supply RB Barrel, Armorscale and Aber do not show an aftermarket barrel offering. I hope that these companies will because of the Black Label MBT-70 kit does have an optional barrel that can be purchased. I am hoping for the same treatment for this kit.


In comparing the road wheels and support rollers, you can see how the kit parts are nicely molded.




Now that you have viewed the photos above, the controversy surrounds the shape of the turret sides. The prototype clearly has an overhang that comes down to a point where it allows room for the turret to rotate while maintaining a clearance gap on either side to allow stowage boxes on the fenders to be cleared. In the above photos, you can see clearly that the prototype has these stowage boxes. Compare that shape to the dry fit parts of the turret in the photos above and you can see how this is not correct in how the model turret is shaped. The way Dragon has the turret shape, there is no indentation under the lower edge of the turret sides and that is a major detractor from this kit. The accuracy of the mold in this one area cause major consternation on social media and in particular, several conversations took place concerning this.

My personal thoughts about this are that although Dragon did not get the turret shape correct in their molding, it is not a show stopper. I say this because as a modeler, I am out to build or improve any model kit that I touch. That's just what I strive for. This kit is no different in my approach to modeling. I will adapt and make this situation work. This plastic model kit is the only game in town right now. Unless this model is going to be produced by another kit maker then I have no other choice but to correct this and move on. If you want a "cookie cutter" kit with no problems then this kit is not for you. However, if you want a challenge and a kit that your modeling friends will view with envy for showing your modeling skills for corrections to the kit, then this kit is definitely for you.

Additionally, there is a loader's hatch on top of the turret that is molded in place that I wished Dragon had supplied individual parts for.  I've never been a fan of molded on parts. The following photo will show you what I'm talking about.



In looking at the hull details, I feel that Dragon accurately depicts the hull as the prototype is built. Some of the discussions surrounding the hull details on social media conversations has centered around there being a lack of detail in the kit. If you look at the real vehicle, the front of the hull has very little detail showing other than the headlight assembly and Dragon accurately depicts that. The cast texture of the front hull is nicely done in this kit. The fender detail is fairly accurate from what I can tell based on the limited photo reference that I could find.

The engine deck details are captured in some nicely molded parts that I zoomed in on in the next few photographs.



As you can see in these parts, the details are definitely there. I can see where this could be a very nice area for some dark washes and some dry brushing to make this detail really stand out in the finished product. Now, compare these parts to what you can see in the following photo. It is hard to see from the angle this photo was taken by the one that took the photo, but you can see some of this detail from ground level. The width of the tank is apparent in the build. The next series of photos show just how wide the hull is with the drive sprocket assemblies attached.





The track details show up nicely in the above photo and compare very favorably to the one piece DS Styrene tracks that come with the kit. The following photos are provided as a comparison. There are some knock pin marks that will have to be addressed, as well as a seam that runs down the length of the tracks but they can be addressed with some Tamiya liquid thin. could go the route of aftermarket and purchase from Sprue Brothers, a set of T97E2 Early tracks for the M-48/M-60 family of tanks. That will run you about $25 USD if you choose to go that route. But, the tracks do compare pretty well to what is on the actual prototype as you can see in the following photos....





I happen to think this is a nice kit for the price. Dragon USA had this kit listed for $39.99 on their website so the price has already been fluctuating. The retail price is $49.99 so that is a $10 savings if purchased for the sale price. It provides a good base with which to start to build a T54E1 prototype model of the real vehicle. This kit however is not without some "issues".  These issues depending on the skill set of the modeler could be rather large to overcome. There is the issue with the turret that has to be taken into consideration. To build that turret the way it is called for in the instructions will be inaccurate. It is an obstacle but not a show stopper in my humble opinion.

There is also the issue of the two piece gun barrel. That will have to carefully be constructed to keep the barrel from warping which can easily be minimized by use of brass or plastic rod being inserted in the cavity of the barrel halves prior to joining them. Doesn't have to be much, just something there to keep the barrel from pulling to one side or the other.

The tracks will require clean-up for the seam that runs the entire length of the tracks. There are knockout pin marks to deal with as well. This is easily done with a little bit of care. There is something to be mindful of though with regards to adjusting the tension of the tracks. The undercarriage on this model leaves no possibility to taking up track slack or to give slack at all. The front idler wheel does not "pivot" to allow this. If your tracks are too loose, you will have to reposition the tracks some way to tighten around the undercarriage assembly as the tracks on the M48 were "live", meaning there was very little sag. If too tight, the modeler might have to move the front idler towards the rear to give enough slack.

There are plenty of left over parts that are not used, quite possibly adding to your spares box. The pioneer tools alone are nice to have, along with several spare .50 cal machine guns. These left over parts will be nice to have.

The kit could benefit from a replacement barrel, tracks and a corrected turret and photoetch parts but I would not let this stop you from buying the kit. If you want a T54E1 Prototype, this is the only game in town.

A note about the sources for my information for this review.  As mentioned, I was able to obtain information from concerning the issues with the turret shape.  That has been noted.  Additionally, I found the Hunnicutt book on the Patton Series of tanks to have some limited information.  Some of the information was also shared with me by two fellow AMPSCV members in Mike Petty and John Robinson to whom I owe a lot of my initial ground work in rounding up any information on this vehicle which was not easy to come by.  These two guys were vital and a lot of appreciation is owed.

Recommended for Advanced builders. 

Thanks goes out to Dragon Models Limited for this review kit.  A full review of the kit will be provided in BoresightBoresight Magazine at a future date.  If you are not a member of AMPS, consider joining to see the full build review when published.

Reviewed by Glen Martin


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