The History of the M47

The M47 Patton was one of a series of American tanks developed during the early years of the Cold War.

The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 worried the US Army. Although its M26 and M46 tanks had proven a match for Soviet built T-34s on that battlefield, it was clear that if conflict broke out between the superpowers they would soon have to face a new generation of Soviet tanks. Army leadership became convinced that they could not afford to wait for their next tank project, the T42, to be ready – they needed something now. Therefore, the M47 was created by fitting a slightly modified T42 turret to the proven M46 hull.

As such, the M47 had the same AV-1790 12 cylinder petrol engine connected to the automatic CD-850 transmission as its predecessor. The engine’s 810hp output could move the 46 tonne tank at up to 30mph on good ground, and gave it a range of around 80 miles. For the last time on an American tank, there was a fifth crewman, the Assistant Driver, and a bow mounted .30 machine-gun. They were positioned front right, with the Driver on the left. Loader, Gunner and Commander occupied their usual positions in the turret.

Black and white photograph of a tank with a crewman in the turret.
The M47’s time in US service was short, but it still played a key role in the US armoured force of the mid 1950s.

The Driver controlled the tank using an unusual Manual Control Lever, also known as a ‘wobble stick’. Visually resembling an aircraft joystick, this was a combination gear selector and steering control. Moving it forwards and backwards selected the gear (from front to back: Neutral, Low, Drive or Reverse), and moving it left or right steered the tank. In Reverse the Driver had to remember to push the stick the ‘wrong’ way, and in Neutral when steered the tank could pivot on the spot as the tracks moved in opposite directions. The accelerator and brake were controlled by pedals as normal.

Black and white photograph of an M47 tank, with the gun facing towards the photographer
This head-on view shows the two lenses of the M12 rangefinder. They are the round blobs on each side of the turret just below roof level.

Hull and turret were cast steel, with a maximum thickness of 4 inches on the hull and turret fronts, and 4.5” on the gun shield, although sloping increased the effective thickness of both.

The M47 was armed with the 90mm M36 gun, a more powerful version of the M46’s M3A1, along with a new stereoscopic rangefinder, the M12, to improve its accuracy. A total of 71 rounds were carried.

Ammunition for the M36 used a different cartridge case design to that for the M3A1. Therefore older rounds could be used in the new gun, but not vice versa. Over its service life a huge range of ammunition types were deployed by the M47’s various users, including APC, HVAP, HEAT, Canister and HEP.

As a stereoscopic rangefinder, the M12 had two separate lenses, one on either side of the turret. These are visible from the outside as two round blobs just below the turret roof. Each is connected to a separate eyepiece, meaning the gunner has an aiming mark, or reticle, in each eye, along with two slightly different images of the target. The gunner’s brain should interpret this as a 3-D image of the reticle and as he adjusts the range it will appear to move closer or further away from the target. Trigonometry means that because the distance between the two lenses is fixed and the angle between their current position and straight forward is controlled by the gunner’s inputs, once the reticle appears to be on the target the range is known too.

Colour photograph of a tank in camouflage paint, on mixed grassy/sandy ground and a bright blue sky behind.
In the late 1970s Spain upgraded its M47s to the M47E and M47E1, which featured a diesel engine and the removal of the bow machine gun.

The gunner then puts the reticle’s cross on the target using his controls, which positions the gun at the correct elevation, and fires.

Although the stereoscopic rangefinder could be extremely accurate for the period, with a 50 per cent probability of a hit at 1500m, it required more training and skill than other systems. It also relied on the gunner’s brain to create the optical illusion of the 3-D aiming mark. This was difficult if not impossible for over 20 per cent of crewmen, who had poor depth perception or other optical issues. As a result the real world performance of the M12 struggled to match its potential.

Black and white photograph of a tank, with two men in the turret and a cross insignia on the side.
The M47 was the first tank operated by the newly reformed West German Bundeswehr from 1955. They received over 1,100.

M47 production ran from July 1951 until November 1953 and 8,576 were built by American Locomotive Company and the Detroit Tank Arsenal.

The Americans had assumed that marrying an existing turret and hull would result in a tank that would have few teething troubles. This was not the case. A lack of testing, along with the rapid pace of development and production led to a range of technical problems that plagued the tank on introduction into service.

M47s entered service with American forces in mid 1952, but their US career was short. The M47 was clearly a stopgap and a replacement was under development before it had even entered production. This was the M48, which began to replace it from 1953. The M47 was declared obsolete in 1957 and most were withdrawn by the end of the decade.

This was not the end of the tank’s life, however. Several thousand were exported to US allies under the Military Assistance Program to bolster their militaries. The largest fleets were operated by Italy, West Germany, Turkey, France, Belgium and South Korea.

Perhaps the most surprising recipient was Yugoslavia. Often thought of as an Eastern bloc nation, in fact it tried to steer a more autonomous path, and this was reflected in a number of its military procurement decisions.

Colour photograph of a tank in a desert, with a missile flying towards it.
NARA An M712 Copperhead cannon-launched laser-guided projectile nears the target, an M47 medium tank (December 1977).

Another unusual operator was the Italian Carabinieri, primarily operationally a police force, but also a branch of the military that has a role in defending Italy. They received fifty M47s in 1964. They were removed from the Carabinieri in 1967 after it was discovered that the force’s commander was planning a coup to eliminate Socialist and Communist Party politicians and install a Fascist government.

colour photograph of a tank outside on sandy ground, with one soldier in light coloured camo standing on the tank and two on the ground, with shells on the ground beside them.
Somalia received 25 M47s from Saudi Arabia. This one has been captured by American Marines during the October 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, made famous in the book and film ‘Black Hawk Down’.

M47s would see combat in the hands of several nations, including Pakistan against India in the 1965 war. They were used in several of the largest armoured battles in history, including the decisive Pakistani defeat at Asal Uttar and the Battle of Chawinda. They did not perform well against Indian forces, who were mostly equipped with Centurions. Over 100 Pakistani tanks, mostly M47s, were destroyed or captured at Asal Uttar.

Other nations to use M47s in combat included Turkey during the invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1974, Jordan against the Israelis in the Six Day War of 1967, and Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.

Their last active service was seen by around 20 former Yugoslav vehicles taken into Croation service during their War of Independence in the early 1990s.

Probably the most famous of the innumerable thousands of M47 crewmen over the decades is Arnold Schwarzenegger. During his year of mandatory service in the Austrian Army in 1965 he crewed M47 number 331. Decades later he was able to purchase his old tank and bring it to the United States.

The Tank Museum is currently undergoing a restoration of our Italian M47, which started in the 1990s but was mothballed and has been in storage ever since.

Skip to content