Russia’s Three-Wheeled Death Machine: The Tsar Tank

Tsar_tankWarfare, for better or worse, is strong motivation for innovation. After all, if the other guy is trying to find unique ways to kill you, it’s in your own best interest to find new ways to kill him as well. The innovations in warfare might eventually filter down to the general public, spurring the economy and laying the foundation for further technological development. That, or they come to what amounts to an evolutionary dead end, and wind up being historical head scratchers, things what students of history read about and wonder: “what were they thinking?”

Several such creations came out of World War I, which served as a laboratory in which modern warfare was born. Military aviation, weapons of mass destruction, and mechanized warfare were all utilized for the first time on a large scale during the four year conflict, which killed upwards of 20 million people. The most infamous aspect of the war was the trench warfare that characterized the western theater. The Allies and the Central powers dug in only yards from one another, so entrenched that neither side could dislodge the other. Needing a weapon that could survive the deadly machine gun fire that caused so much carnage during infantry attacks, the British designed what came to be known as the tank, which could cross the trenches and provide cover to attacking infantry.

Once the British tanks made their first appearance on the battlefield, all sides scrambled to make their own version of the new weapon. The Russians were no exception, and their version of the tank was a massive contraption, in keeping with the Russian predilection toward building things on a grand scale. They dubbed their experimental tank the Tsar Tank, the king of all tanks.


Netopyr–“the Bat”

The Tsar tank was a huge departure from tank design in the West. British and French tanks utilized tracks, and the French introduced the concept of a turret. The Russian’s contribution to tank design, attributed to Nikolai Lebedenko and Alexander Mikulin, introduced the idea of using two cartoonishly large wheels, resembling 19th century bicycle wheels, for propulsion. These were balanced in the back by a large roller, giving the Tsar Tank the appearance of a reverse tricycle. A scale model of the vehicle, which impressed Tsar Nicholas III with its ability to climb a stack of books, was dubbed Netopyr (“the Bat”) due to the fact that holding the contraption by its third wheel made it resemble a hanging bat.

Whatever it was called, the Tsar Tank was a monstrous vehicle. The front wheels were 27 feet in diameter, with the rear wheel only 5 feet in diameter. The monstrous front wheels were powered by two 250 hp Sunbeam engines, which were supposed to propel the machine to a top speed of about 11mph. Weighing in at sixty tons, the monstrous machine was armed with a main turret situated on top of the machine, limiting its firing arch to the space between the two wheels. Cannons were added on the sides as well, also with limited firing arcs. Finally, there was a planned machine gun emplacement on the bottom of the crew cabin, but it is unclear if this feature was actually implemented.

Theoretically, the beastly machine would be able to plow over enemy trenches and fortifications, blasting a path for the infantry. It would likely be accompanied by armored cars and other light vehicles who would protect its vulnerable wheels and underside.  However, such tactical considerations remained theoretical, as testing soon made the hulking system’s Achilles Heel painfully apparent.


Stuck in the mud

The Russian Army began testing the Tsar Tank in 1915, in a forest not far from Moscow. Initially, it seemed they had a winner on their hands. While the beast could only reach about half its advertised top speed, it was able to traverse rugged terrain as designed. The fatal flaw came when the contraption came to a muddy spot in the testing ground.

The three wheel design concentrated much of its weight onto the back roller, which promptly became stuck in the mud. Despite the best efforts of the Russian Army, the Tsar Tank became hopelessly mired in the soft soil. It was abandoned on site, where it remained until 1923, when it was pulled apart for scrap. Russia would learn from its mistakes, and went on to design the T-34, arguably the best battle tank of WW2.



Hunt, David. “World War 1 History: The Russian Tsar Tank—The Largest, Weirdest Tank Ever Built.” November 23, 2014. Hubpages. March 22, 2015.


“Netopyr Tsar Tank.” g1886 Technology. Accessed March 22, 2015.


“Tsar Tank (Lebedenko Tank/Netopyr) Mobile Weapons Platform (1915)” December 13, 2014. Military Factory. March 22, 2014.




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