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Leopard I main battle tank

Written by Sakhal


In some aspects, Germany was in the period immediately after the Second World War an even bleaker country that it had been in 1919. Divided in two, with the Soviet Union occupying the eastern part of the country and the Allies the rest, it had to accept a new identity and recover from the losses of the most devastating war in the History of mankind. The powers of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) were aware of the importance of the German Federal Republic as the bumper against the Iron Curtain and, in the late 1955, it was created the West Germany Army (Bundeswehr), equipped to a large degree by United States, which sent tanks, firstly M-47 and later M-48. In that year, West Germany and United States made plans to jointly develop a tank weighing about 30 tonnes, giving preference to mobility over protection. But the idea was soon abandoned and both countries followed their paths separately. In West Germany, the manufacturers with experience in the construction of tanks of the precedent quarter of century were grouped in two consortiums - denominated Group A and Group B - to compete on the development of projects, finishing in 1960 some prototypes of vehicles. Group B soon withdrew, to a large degree because their products were more advanced and therefore they would demand too much time to be produced. This left open way to the consortium directed by Porsche, which made a total of at least 26 prototypes and 50 pre-production models of its new tank in the three subsequent years. The production was awarded in 1963 to Krauss-Maffei, a well known manufacturer of railway locomotives based in Munich, and a license was awarded to OTO Melara - Italian company based in La Spezia - to produce the tank for the Italian Army, which would receive 920 exemplars from this manufacturer.

The Leopard I

The first Leopard - as the new tank was officially denominated - was ready in September 1965 and production continued until 1979, when the Leopard II was introduced. Krauss-Maffei built 3641 exemplars, two thirds of which were delivered to the German Army and the rest exported to a number of countries: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Holland, Norway and Turkey. Libya used a special version - denominated OF-40 - produced under license in Italy by OTO Melara. With exception of the Soviet and North American models, the Leopard I was the most sold tank in the 1960s and 1970s, and the most successful one in the NATO, constituting at the time the backbone of the armored forces of eight nations. Without any doubt, the Leopard was one of the most successful tanks developed after the Second World War. Besides, almost other 1500 chassis were used in engineers tanks, armored personnel carriers, bridgelayers and the anti-aircraft tank Gepard.

In the end the Leopard I resulted rather heavier than the vehicle initially outlined. Its weight reached 40 tonnes even if the armor had only 70 millimeters in the front of the hull (or "glacis") and 60 millimeters in the front and sides of the turret. The hull was welded while the turret, manufactured by Rheinmetall, was casted in a single piece. The layout of the tank was totally conventional: the driver sat in the fore part of the hull to the right, with 41 projectiles stored to his left, and the other three crew members were placed in the turret, while the engine and its transmission were located in the rear part, with a good isolation that made the Leopard I one of the most silent tanks. The commander and the loader had circular hatches on the top of the turret, one of which (usually that of the loader) was fitted with a 7.62-millimeter machine gun.

The Mercedes-Benz polyfuel engine of 830 horsepower granted a maximum speed of 65 kilometers/hour and the ensemble engine-transmission was projected to be replaced in 30 minutes with the adequate tools, even in campaign. The gearshift required no effort thanks to a parallel hydraulic converter. The arrangement of road wheels was based in seven pairs of medium-sized twin wheels, with the axes displaced to accommodate elbows attached to the torsion bars on which they were suspended. These support wheels had a wide vertical mobility and the suspension was of torsion bar type combined with five hydraulic shock absorbers, a system projected to keep the hull in horizontal position even in the roughest terrains. Finally, there were four return rollers on each side, with a fore idler and a rear drive sprocket moved by a torque converter gearbox ZF.

The combat compartment was fitted with air conditioning to avoid extreme temperatures, something that had not been even attempted during the Second World War. During winter the interior could achieve a comfortable temperature thanks to a heater fed by the same fuel than the engine. A ventilation system prevented toxic gases from entering the compartment. There was also a small electric oven for preparing light meals in campaign. But from a military standpoint the most important system is the fire control ensemble, which in the case of the Leopard I was fundamentally based on that of the American tank M47 which it replaced. Visibility was granted by fourteen periscopes: eight for the commander, three for the driver, two for the loader and one for the gunner. But the most important element was the command periscope with magnification from x6 to x20. Its head can rotate individually and it allows the commander to watch the landscape around, designate targets and set their distance by means of a stadiametric grid.

The gunner was provided with a binocular telescope of x16 magnification with a base length of 1.7 meters. The stereoscopic method is not mandatory but it grants maximum precision. The cannon was one of very tense trajectory, but the elevation corresponding to the selected ammunition type was automatically set after determining the exact distance. Another system to determine distances was a monocular telescope coaxial to the cannon. As soon as the main weapon was correctly aimed, the gunner or the commander could open fire. In that moment, every aiming device would be automatically obscured by shutters during 0.25 seconds, to prevent blindness during night. In these conditions, the role of the commander's panoramic viewfinder could be taken by a passive infrared device, able to detect an engine exhaust or a hot muzzle from distances of up to 3000 meters. The commander had also the option of activating an infrared projector, which would allow to see a thermal picture of the surroundings through an infrared receiver, but this active system was risky for the light would be visible for an enemy commander who were watching the tank through another infrared receiver.

The main armament was the British L7A3 105-millimeter rifled cannon, which was not stabilized nor aimed with precision in the original Leopard; the subsequent version Leopard 1A1 was provided with a two-axe stabilizer and a fire control computer. The cannon could fire three types of ammunition: APDS (armor piercing subcalibrated), HEAT (high explosive anti-tank) and HESH (high explosive of deformable head). This British cannon was almost infallible. At a distance of 1000 meters, with APDS ammunition, it achieved a 99 percent of effective shots against a target slightly smaller than a tank turret; at the same distance the percentage would be maximum against a whole tank. The performance would reach 98 percent at 2000 meters and 89 percent at 3000 meters. But with the tank in movement these percentages would be drastically reduced. The stabilization system adopted in the Leopard 1A1 granted a 50 percent of chances on the first shot while moving on rough terrains. The secondary armament comprised one coaxial and one anti-aircraft machine gun, in both cases the MG 3 of caliber 7.62 millimeters. The basic provision of ammunition was 60 projectiles for the cannon (in the early version) and 5500 for the machine guns. The proportion of the different types of ammunition for the cannon was left to the election of the local command.


The standard equipment of the Leopard I comprised night vision devices, heating, NBC (Nuclear-Bacteriological-Chemical) system and fire extinguishers. Optionally a snorkel could be attached to the command hatch to allow fording to a maximum depth of four meters. When the snorkel was in use, the openings of the tank, specially the ring of the turret, were rapidly made waterproof by means of inflatable rubber rings. The Leopard 1A1, apart from a very improved stabilization system and a fire control computer, received also a thermal shirt for the cannon tube, tracks of new design, reinforced rubber skirts, modifications in hatches and fording equipment, and passive night vision devices for the driver and the commander (replacing the active infrared devices used in the earlier model). The Leopard 1A2 was fitted with a turret made of better quality steel, an improved NBC system and image intensifiers for the driver and the commander.

The Leopard 1A3 had a totally new turret, welded instead of casted, built with spaced armor to greatly improve resistance against shaped-charge projectiles, and with a better ballistic profile, with a wedge-shaped gun mantlet instead of the original bulb-shaped one. This new turret was also much more spacious and it was fitted with a new fire control system. The Leopard 1A4, which were the last 250 units built, had stratified armor also in the front of the hull, a computerized fire control system called COBELDA and a diurnal infrared panoramic viewfinder for the commander. The versions A3 and A4 were 2.4 tonnes heavier than the original Leopard, but no deterioration in the mobility was perceived. The Leopard I was superior to contemporary American or French tanks, for it presented a lower profile and had a moderate weight, according to the opinion imperating in the 1960s about very heavy armor being useless. The survivability of the Leopard I was originally entrusted to its maneuverability and it is believed that the mobility of this tank in rough terrains was superior than that of any other contemporary tank.

On the other hand, OTO Melara, after supplying the Italian Army with the Leopard I, effectuated a wide redesign of this tank in base of the model exported to Australia. The changes affected specially the turret which, like in the German version A3, was built with welded plates. It was added equipment to ease the operation of the vehicle in hot climates and the original hydraulic system - of North American patent - was replaced by a Swiss model. This version was denominated OF-40 Lion and sold to Libya. The Lion weighed 43 tonnes - being slightly slower than the Leopard I - and it was armed with an OTO Melara 105-millimeter 52-caliber cannon.

Leopard I main battle tank

Leopard I main battle tank

Derivative vehicles

The chassis of the Leopard I has been the base for a whole family of vehicles that share numerous components, some of which - including the Gepard - were built by Krauss-Mafei. The ARV, AEV, BLV were all built by Krupp MaK of Kiel. The first variant that entered service was the armored recovery vehicle (ARV), projected to recover disabled vehicles. It was fitted with a wide range of equipment, including a bulldozer blade useful for leveling terrains or stabilizing the vehicle when it operated with its crane. This one, capable of lifting 22 tonnes, was used to replace tank engines, turrets and similar components. The vehicle had also a windlass capable of dragging 65 tonnes. The armored engineers vehicle (AEV) was a similar design, but the bulldozer blade could be fitted with special teeth to destroy paved tracks. Another use of this vehicle can be seen in the picture below, in which a 700-millimeter-in-diameter drilling rig has been attached to the crane to perform ground drillings with a maximum depth of two meters.

The bridge-laying vehicle (BLV) denominated Biber (Beaver) carried a 22-meter bridge, allowing to overcome ditches of up to 20 meters. It was fitted as well with a bulldozer blade to excavate the ground or stabilize the vehicle. The bridge could be deployed in less than five minutes. Perhaps the most known derivative of the Leopard I has been the anti-aircraft vehicle Gepard, fitted with two 35-millimeter cannons and a search/tracking radar; it was produced for Germany, Netherlands and Belgium. On the other hand, Germany adapted a whole turret of the French self-propelled howitzer based on the chassis of the AMX-30 tank to the chassis of the Leopard I, but this vehicle was not adopted. A model for training drivers, lacking turret, was used by Belgium and Netherlands. Another application for the chassis of the Leopard I was a long-range rocket launcher.

Leopard I main battle tank

Specifications for Leopard 1A1

Crew: 4

Armament: One Vickers L7A3 105-millimeter 52-caliber cannon; one MG 3 7.62 millimeters coaxial machine gun; one MG 3 7.62-millimeter machine gun in the turret top; four smoke launchers on each side of the turret

Ammunitions: 60 for 105-millimeter cannon; 5500 for 7.62-millimeter machine guns

Armor: 10-70 millimeters

Lenght (total): 9.54 meters

Lenght (hull): 7.09 meters

Width: 3.25 meters

Height: 2.64 meters

Weight: 40 tonnes

Ground pressure: 0.86 kilograms/square centimeter

Engine: MTU MB 838 ca.M500 polyfuel of 10 cylinders, developing 830 horsepower at 2200 revolutions per minute

Maximum speed (in road): 65 kilometers/hour

Maximum operational range (in road): 600 kilometers

Maximum surmountable trench: 3 meters

Maximum surmountable step: 1.15 meters

Maximum surmountable slope: 60 percent

Maximum fording: 2.25 meters

Specifications for Leopard 1A4

Crew: 4

Armament: One 105-millimeter cannon; one 7.62 millimeters coaxial machine gun; one 7.62-millimeter machine gun in the turret top; four smoke launchers on each side of the turret

Armor: Spaced multilayer

Lenght (total): 9.54 meters

Width: 3.37 meters

Height (up to the periscope): 2.76 meters

Weight: 42.4 tonnes

Engine: Polyfuel of 830 horsepower

Speed (in road): 65 kilometers/hour

Operational range (in road): 600 kilometers

Article updated: 2016-09-29

Categories: Tanks - Cold War - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-05-16

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