5 Tanks That Changed History

Rolling over the competition.

The 26-ton T-34 had thick, well-sloped armor to deflect shells, a powerful 76.2-millimeter gun, and wide tracks and a diesel engine that could propel it at a speed of 30 miles per hour and let it maneuver through mud without getting stuck.

Not that the T-34 was wonder weapon. It had no radio and the tank commander also manned the gun as in French tanks. Nor did it prevent the Wehrmacht from annihilating T-34s -- along with much of the Red Army in Western Russia in the summer and fall of 1941.

Nonetheless, the fact that the "inferior" Slavs could produce a tank that outmatched anything in the German inventory was not only a blow to German morale during one of the most pivotal campaigns in history. It was also a sign that Germany was in a deathmatch with a foe much more formidable than any it had previously experienced.

U.S. M4 Sherman:

Mediocrity is faint praise. But while the Sherman was not exceptional, it proved that good enough was the enemy of better.

The M4 was too tall. Its gun and armor were good when into action in 1942, but lacking against late-war German tanks. Yet it reasonably reliable, capable of mass production unlike the big German tanks, and had adequate firepower and protection. "Adequate" is hardly a compliment, but it was good enough.

With 49,000 produced during World War II, the Sherman formed the backbone of the U.S. armored force, as well as the British, Free French, Polish and Australian forces. Even the Soviets received 4,000 Lend-Lease Shermans; many Soviet tank crews preferred their beloved emchas because they were more comfortable and reliable than the T-34. The Sherman came into its own during the Allied breakout from Normandy in the summer of 1944, when it rolled across France at a rate that would have left the German Tigers and Panthers broken down by the roadside.

The Sherman came to symbolize industrial armored warfare, food for a Moloch of a world war that devoured tanks like candy and where expensive machines were as expendable as bullets.

Chinese Type 59:

There is nothing notable to say about the Type 59. It is a Chinese knockoff of the Soviet T-54, an early version of the ubiquitous T-55.

But it has an historical claim to fame. It was the tank of Tiananmen Square, the iron embodiment of the totalitarian state against the human desire for freedom, as a lone Chinese citizen confronted the column of T-59s in that iconic 1989 photo that seared the world's conscience.

An undistinguished product of late 1950s tank design, the T-59 still lives on in various nations like Burma, North Korea and Pakistan. But in that brief moment of tank versus human dignity, it carved its name in history.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy and a writer for War is Boring. Follow him on Twitter:@Mipeck1.