Staff Writer (Updated: 6/7/2016):
Design of the new tank began in late 1944 to which a prototype emerged in February of 1945. Subsequent trials proved promising enough that the design was formally accepted into service by the Soviet Army thereafter. The war in Europe was over in May of 1945 while the Russo-Japanese War spanned only a short time from August to early September with the Soviets earning the victory. Work continued on the T-54 as a possible replacement for the fabled T-34 series.
The T-54 was built around the 100mm D-10 series main gun, instantly making it one of the most powerful frontline combat tanks in consideration when compared to Western developments of the time. The T-54 improved upon armor protection over that of the T-34 and was given a new transmission system as well as a new engine. War-time Red Army experience in armored warfare naturally made their way into the design. After several design revisions and numerous engineering "fixes", the T-54 emerged in an evaluation form as the "T-54-1" in 1946. With evaluation of the T-54 system still underway, the Soviet authorities formally ordered the tank into quantitative serial production in 1947. The T-54 became operationally available in the Red Army inventory in 1949.
Outwardly, the T-54 was a decidedly "Soviet" tank design featuring a well-rounded cast steel turret emplacement mounting a 100mm main gun. The look was not unlike that as featured on the wartime "Josef Stalin" series of heavy tanks fielded against the Germans. The 100mm main gun barrel was relatively featureless and not capped by a muzzle brake. The gun was ranged (with good penetrative capabilities) out to targets some 1,000 yards away - its only structural misgiving being the limited downward traverse, a noted deficiency which restricted use of the "hull down" firing tactic. Up to 34 x projectiles of 100mm ammunition could be carried and this ran the standard gamut of high-explosive and armor-piercing rounds. Ammunition was stored in the turret as well as throughout the hull. Air defense was provided for via a 12.7mm DShK anti-aircraft heavy machine gun located at the loader's hatch. Further defense came from a 7.62mm SG coaxial machine gun fitted in the turret alongside the main gun armament (operated by the gunner). A rather novel design feature included machine guns fitted to the fenders for additional anti-infantry defense.
Structurally, there were five large road wheels adorning either track side with the front-most pair set noticeably ahead of the rearward set wheel pairs. The drive sprocket was fitted at the rear with the track idler at the front. No track return rollers were implemented into the track design. The hull superstructure was of a relatively low-profile while the glacis plate was well-sloped, contouring nicely into the hull roof. Crew accommodations consisted of the driver, tank commander, driver and main gun loader (the bow-mounted machine gunner/radio operator crewman common to most World War 2 tanks had fallen out of favor by this point). The driver maintained a front-left position in the front hull while the commander, gunner and loader were situated in the turret with the former group at left and the latter at right. The engine was fitted to the rear of the hull and consisted of a single V-54 series 12-cylinder water-cooled diesel engine developing 520 horsepower. Construction of the hull was of an all-welded design and overall weight fell just under 40 short tons at 39,700 kilograms.
A very fundamental tank design, any student of World War 2 could appreciate the design lines of the T-54. All told, the T-54 offered up much more direct line firepower and field armor protection than her predecessor which was all the Red Army could have hoped for - particularly in its daily attempt to upstage any armor developments occurring in the West. Cross-country mobility was deemed rather excellent and the power-to-weight ratio was something of note.
The T-54-1, appearing in 1946, was identified by its well-contoured curved turret assembly as well as its wide gun mantlet. The D-10T main gun was not stabilized so "firing-on-the-move" with any level of accuracy was near impossible. This version also stowed 7.62mm SG-43 series machine guns on the fenders for improved defense against infantry but their tactical value was questionable. Production of this model was limited at best and primarily as set aside for evaluation purposes rather than operational service. The few that were completed showcased some severe quality control issues that reflected poorly on the project as a whole. T-54-1 production lasted until 1948.
In 1949, the T-54-2 was unveiled and showcased a revised turret assembly with flattened side facings, a rear overhang and a dome-shaped roof. The tracks were widened for better ground displacement while the transmission system was reworked for the better. The fender-mounted 7.62mm machine guns were removed in favor of a more conventional bow-mounted emplacement to be managed by the driver. Production of this form lasted until 1952. A modernized version eventually added the ZET-1 series vehicle protection suite to help increase battlefield survivability noted by netting cast around the main gun.
In 1952, the T-54-3 was brought online and displayed an oval, curved turret assembly. The gunner's sight was upgraded to the TSh-2-22 series system. An engine-based smoke screen generator was instituted which allowed the T-54 to create its own smoke and cover its maneuvers to an extent. The system simply relied on raw diesel being injected into the engine, thusly producing the desired result. Production lasted until 1954 while Polish factories produced a local breed from 1956 to 1964.