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World War 1 History: The Russian Tsar Tank—The Largest, Weirdest Tank Ever Built

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

WW1: The Tsar Tank with its 30-foot diameter wheels.

WW1: The Tsar Tank with its 30-foot diameter wheels.

The Bat

The Tsar Tank, built by the Russians during World War 1, was the largest—and probably the weirdest—tank ever to reach full-scale testing. It was also called the Lebedenko after its primary developer, Nikolay Lebedenko, while others called it the Netopyr, which is Russian for “bat,” because its tiny model resembled a sleeping bat when carried by its rear wheel.

WW1: The Tsar Tank with men circled in red for scale.

WW1: The Tsar Tank with men circled in red for scale.

Some Statistics

Its unique and improbable design resembled both a gigantic gun carriage and a monstrous backwards-facing tricycle. Its large front wheels measured nine meters in diameter (nearly 30 feet), while its smaller back wheel, used for steering, had a diameter of only one-and-a-half meters (about 5 feet). It was nine meters wide (nearly 30 feet) and 18 meters long (nearly 60 feet).

It was designed to carry cannons and/or machine guns in two turrets, one on top of the carriage and a smaller one slung underneath. Additional machine guns were placed inside the sponsons (armored pods on each side behind the wheels). Its crew of ten had to climb along its “spine” to get to their stations. The Tsar Tank was designed to have a top speed of 17 km/h (11 mph), but in reality, it only achieved 8 km/h (5 mph), though this was still faster than any other heavy tanks in use. And heavy it was; designed to weigh 40 tons, it actually ended up weighing 60 tons.

Model of the Tsar Tank

Model of the Tsar Tank

Nikolay Lebedenko

The Tsar Tank was the brainchild of Nikolay Lebedenko, a military engineer working for a private firm under contract with the Russian War Department. He enlisted the help of engineers Boris Stechkin and Alexander Mikulin. The Russians were looking for a way to break through the Eastern Front trench system the same as the British and French were on the Western Front, but instead of using tracked vehicles to cross the trenches, Lebedenko decided the answer was giant, spoked wheels.

Each wheel was powered by its own 150-hp engine, and, reportedly, each engine turned an automobile wheel which, when pressed against the outside edge of the big wheel, caused it to move.

Official portrait of Nikolai II. 1914.

Official portrait of Nikolai II. 1914.

Backed by the Tsar

It is reported that Tsar Nicholas II, upon watching a model of the tank climb over a stack of books, agreed to fund its development. There are conflicting dates regarding the start of development and when it went to trials in front of the high commission, but it is likely that work started in 1915, and the tests occurred in August of 1917. Many in the military thought that even if it worked, the sheer size and especially the wheels would make the Tsar Tank an easy target for enemy artillery.

Trials and Tribulations

Initially, the trials went well. It moved and broke an old birch tree by driving over it, but then its Achilles Heel was exposed. The small rear wheel (actually a roller) bore too much of the machine's 60 tons and, after encountering broken ground, the sort found on the battlefield, it got hopelessly stuck. With all that weight, it couldn't even be dug out and there it stayed throughout the rest of the war, rusting in the woods until it was dismantled for scrap metal in 1923. There are additional reports that as many as three Tsar Tanks were made, and another trial was attempted in 1918, but nothing came of this. There is no information regarding the fate of the other two if indeed they ever existed.

Nikolay Lebedenko disappeared in the turmoil of Revolutionary Russia. The Bolsheviks executed Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family. The engineers Boris Stechkin (1891 – 1969) and Alexander Mikulin (1895 - 1985) survived and became famous Russian academicians.

© 2012 David Hunt


Kate on March 18, 2020:

What a fascinating article. I have had a big interest in Russian history since I was 12 years old and speak some Russian (I’m not fluent but would like to be). Это хорошо!

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on August 08, 2016:

Thanks, Ebuna. If the Germans saw a wave of these monsters coming across No Man's Land, they would have thought they were in the Twilight Zone.

Ebuna on August 08, 2016:

Poor tsar tank it was great

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on May 01, 2012:

Thanks for notifying, aethelthryth. The Tsar was certainly one of a kind. I spent quite a lot of time verifying it was real-- even went to

aethelthryth from American Southwest on May 01, 2012:

Just notified a couple of the tank fanatics I know about this article.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on May 01, 2012:

Thank you, joanveronica, for your kind words. It is amazing at the resources on the Internet. One of my biggest frustrations, however, is finding bazillions of fantastic images, but not one available for commercial use. Oh, and thanks for the vote ups!

Joan Veronica Robertson from Concepcion, Chile on May 01, 2012:

Interesting information, I had no idea there were even videos on topics like this! Congratulations once again on your fascinating fact providing Hubs. Voted up, awesome and interesting

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on May 01, 2012:

Thanks, ata1515. When I first saw the image of it, I didn't know what I was looking at. Then I saw the men in the picture and the scale of the thing blew me away.

A Anders from Buffalo, New York. on May 01, 2012:

I had heard of the Tsar Tank before but never in such detail. Great hub, voted up!