MANUFACTURER(S): Van Dorn Iron Works / Maxwell Motor Co / C.L. Best Co - USA
OPERATORS: United States; Canada
Detailing the development and operational history of the M1917 6-ton Light Two-Man Combat Tank.
Entry last updated on 2/11/2019.
Authored by Staff Writer. Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com.
The M1917 6-ton light tank was an American license-production copy of the highly successful French-designed Renault "char leger FT-17" light tank appearing in World War 1. The M1917 represented an early American foray into mechanized military doctrine and design and, as America held little in the way of a military industry, copying the popular French design was a major stepping stone. The FT-17 proved popular enough with other nations as well and was either purchased or copied as a result. Despite its mass-production in the United States, only 10 M1917 6-ton tanks made it to Europe before the end of World War 1 (November 1918) and none of these saw combat.
Contrary to today's strategies involving mechanized warfare, tanks in World War 1 was used moreso as infantry support vehicles generally charged with leading the way in a given assault and peppering the enemy with machine gun or cannon fire. Tanks proved useful in navigating the large network of ditches and trenches found on the battlefields of the Great War and held an advantage in breaking through unprepared defenses including the infamous barbed wire arrangements. Tank versus tank duels were a rare occurrence but the use of armored vehicles in conjunction with infantry attacks lay the foundation of mechanized warfare for decades to come - ultimately perfected in the German blitzkriegs beginning World War 2.
The M1917 featured angular armor to help assist in deflection of incoming enemy projectiles (mostly small arms fire) and artillery "spray". The tracks straddled the slim inline hull design though this made for a higher profile and thusly a larger battlefield target. The driver maintained a position directly at center of the hull with the engine behind him. The gunner/commander occupied the cramped turret and managed the armament. The single machine gun was fitted within a traversing turret with an entry/exit hatch was affixed to the top. The turret sat above the superstructure that also featured angled front facing though straight-faced slab sides. Length was listed at just over 16 feet with a width nearing 6 feet. Height was 7.5 feet. Approximate weight was in the vicinity of 7.3 US Short tons. When viewed in person, the M1917 seemingly shares more in common with a child's riding toy than any perceived weapon of war. Regardless, this diminutive tank was designed to kill the enemy.
M1917 6-ton (Cont'd)
Light Two-Man Combat Tank
The M1917 was fitted with a single Budha HU modified 4-cylinder, 4-cycle vertical L-band gasoline engine delivering some 42 horsepower at 1,460rpm. This supplied the tank with an anemic 5 mile per hour top speed (barely giving it speed to keep up with moving formations of infantry) and a range out to 30 miles - a far cry when compared to the capabilities of today's modern systems but excellent for the time period in question.
The "M1917A1" variant was an improved American design of the FT-17/M1917 that saw the rear hull lengthened to accept a Franklin engine of 100 horsepower. A self-starter was added to take the place of the original crank start process. Additional changes over that of the French copy included all-steel road wheels set within the pair of revolving tracks, an octagonal turret (as opposed to the rounded French-designed turret) and additional viewing slots for the driver. Maintenance was further improved upon to help facilitate repetitive processes in keeping the M1917 running optimally.
Beginning in 1919, the M1917 was fitted with the 0.30 caliber Browning M1919 machine gun in place of the available 0.30 caliber Marlin type. Furthermore, the machine gun could be replaced in the turret with a more formidable M1916 37mm cannon. 4,200 rounds of 0.30 caliber ammunition could be carried aboard or up to 238 37mm projectiles as needed. A total of 526 M1917s were ultimately completed with their standard machine gun armament in place while a further 374 were completed with cannon armament. One other form of the base M1917 existed as a "signal tank" and was fielded sans the listed armament in 50 completed examples.
Van Dorn Iron Works continued post-war production of the M1917 6-ton. Additional manufacturers of the M1917 ultimately included the Maxwell Motor Company and the C.L. Best Company.
The Canadian Army purchased 250 overstock - though obsolete - M1917s in 1940, the tanks already since having reached their pinnacle some decades before.