I think there are definite advantages to building aircraft models on a larger scale, certainly when it comes to details of the shape. However, It’s always a joy to see what Peter Dornbach (dornbi) can do with LEGO on a smaller scale.
“How’s it feel to be on the front page of every newspaper in the English-speaking world, even though the other side denies the incident?” Top Gun is so cheesy, it’s like mature cheddar wrapped in a slice of Emmental with some Parmesan sprinkled on top. Yet, when I first saw the movie as a teenager, I loved it. Not for the actors and certainly not for the scenes of sweaty fighter pilots playing volleyball, mind you, but because of the true star of the movie: the wonderful Grumman F-14 Tomcat. I have been a Tomcat fan ever since and have had at least one LEGO model of a Tomcat for at least 20 years.
I have been thinking about building a larger scale aircraft for about two years now. Seeing the excellent 1/18 F-16 by Everblack a few weeks ago, in combination with my ongoing movie vehicle project prompted me to finally have a go. If I was going to bite the bullet, it would have to be a Tomcat and it would have to be the one from Top Gun, cheesy or not.
The process was relatively painless. Building an aircraft at a different scale was interesting. Some of the solutions that I’m used to didn’t really work, so I had to be a bit more inventive. However, the larger scale does have advantages. I had a lot more room to work with, which meant I could incorporate a lot of techniques that I normally don’t have room for. It is 108 studs long, excluding the nose probe, and with the wings in their most forward position has a wingspan of 110 studs. This isn’t small by any means, but it’s also not quite so large that I had to worry too much about structural issues.
I know that there are some readers out there who are of the opinion that I do blog rather many of my own models and, admittedly, I have blogged a fair few. I build a lot more than the ones I blog though and, be honest, do you think the other guys wouldn’t have blogged this if I weren’t one of the contributors?
There have been a whole ton of awesome armored vehicles getting posted lately. I’ve always had a fondness for APCs and these beefy 8-wheelers don’t disappoint.
Last but certainly not least is military trendsetter Andrew Somers. Andrew has been continuously and carefully refining a stable of military vehicles, and while the changes may be subtle each new iteration has been better than the last.
Most of the older models by Everblack are essentially his own refined versions of models that were already out there. They are very nice and I’ve blogged a few, but with his new F-16 he has moved into completely new territory.
The F-16 was developed in the seventies as a lighter and cheaper alternative to the F-15 Eagle. As such, it’s relatively small for a modern jet. Everblack’s model isn’t small, however. Its scale is a whopping 1/18, which is about twice as large as his previous models. This large scale has allowed him to do some beautiful sculpting on the jet, skillfully using curved slopes. Judging from the way the undercarriage and the wings bend, the large size does come with a few penalties, but my word, it looks stunning.
In the fifties, the United States experimented with artillery that could launch nuclear weapons. Not to be outdone, the Soviet Union developed the 2A3 Kondensator 2P self-propelled howitzer. Andy Baumgart (D-Town Cracka) has built a highly detailed 1/30 scale model of this unusual piece of Cold War history.
Early nuclear weapons tended to be on the bulky side. Consequently, whilst many modern self-propelled artillery pieces have a caliber of 155 mm (6.10 inches), the caliber of the Kondensator was a whopping 406 mm (16 inches), which is more in line with a battleship main battery. It was one of the largest self-propelled artillery pieces ever built. It was unwieldy, had a low rate of fire and never entered service, but it makes for an impressive model.
During World War II, the Allies fielded approximately 50,000 M4 Sherman medium tanks. But ignoring the hard lessons that the Soviet Red Army learned about German armor on the Eastern Front, the United States and its Western allies delayed production of better-armored tanks with bigger guns until very late in the war. That bigger, better tank — one that could go head to head against German tanks — was the M26 Pershing. However, only 20 Pershings saw combat, between February and May 1945.
American 3rd Armored Division veteran Belton Cooper argues in his 1998 book Death Traps that this delay in fielding the M26 Pershing in favor of the existing M4 Sherman cost thousands of lives on both sides by delaying the end of the war in Europe for six months. As much as I love the Sherman for its iconic “tankiness,” I was inspired while reading Death Traps to try my hand at a Pershing as well. (I was also running out of Technic chain link for narrower tank treads until my first batch of Brickmania Track Links arrived, so I was forced to use the wide LEGO tread pieces if I wanted to build anything.)
After more than a decade on the web and a dozen LEGO events, one of my failures as a builder is that I tend to build first for static display and photography rather than functionality, and it takes a couple of iterations before I go back and give my models a bit more of an interior life. I’ve tried to improve this over the last year by adding internal details to my vehicles like a removable engine in my Shermans. But I still struggle with tank guns that elevate and depress properly. I’ve now addressed this shortcoming with my latest tanks, including this Pershing, my Soviet KV-1, and a couple of my newer Stuarts. Given differences in turret design, the challenge has been that each tank has required a different solution to achieve an elevating gun, ranging from guns that pivot on Technic pins to ones that go up and down on simple hinge bricks. It probably shouldn’t be this hard…
Strangely perhaps, my favorite detail on my Pershing is the set of stowage boxes on the sides, which are half-stud-offset in two directions to leave half-stud gaps between the boxes and a half-stud lip at the edge of the tank. You can see this best in this comparison shot, which shows just how much lower and wider the Pershing is compared to the older Sherman — a difference that made the Pershing simultaneously harder to hit and more agile on rough terrain.
Finally, here’s a quick little build I tossed together to showcase some of the rarer BrickArms elements that I’d picked up around BrickCon last year — an original American version of the M3A1 Scout Car that I posted last summer in Lend Lease program Soviet livery.
I managed to pack all of the following custom elements into this tiny little armored car:
- BrickArms M2HB .50 caliber machine gun (prototype)
- BrickArms M1917 .30 caliber Browning machine guns (x2 prototypes)
- Citizen Brick US Army Ranger torsos
- BrickArms brodie helmets
- BrickArms M1 Garand rifles (x2 overmolded “Reloaded” version)
- BrickArms M1917 printed crate
- Citizen Brick diamond plate tiles
For those of you curious what “overmolded” means, it’s an injection molding process in which a second color of plastic gets injected on top of another, bonding the two together. Will Chapman of BrickArms has been experimenting with the technique for a year or two, with absolutely beautiful results. But don’t expect to see this in large quantities anytime soon — Will hand-injects each batch in his secret laboratory. Josh and I had the privilege of visiting the BrickArms workshop last year, and learned first-hand just how labor-intensive the overmolding process is. Nevertheless, some of the overmolded items are available for sale from BrickArms resellers.
In little more than a week, I’ll be joining more than a dozen other members of the Brickish Association at Brighton Modelworld in the UK. This is a show for scale models of just about any kind imaginable. In the last years it has seen an ever-growing contingent of LEGO builders displaying their models to a discerning audience. Brighton is a wonderful town and the show is always huge fun. Expect a report in due time. At Brighton, among other things, we’ll be displaying a collection of rockets and missiles, including the whopping minifig scale rocket from Tintin built by Ian Greig (bluemoose). This idea prompted me to have a go at a few of the military models that have been on my to-do-list for months.
The first is a Patriot missile Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL), as used by the Dutch military. Patriot is an American surface-to-air missile system intended against aircraft and ballistic missiles. A single system consists of a number of trucks with a radar, command post, generator and communications equipment, coupled to a number of launchers. In the Dutch military, these launchers are mounted on trailers pulled by DAF YAZ-2300 tractor units. Dutch, American and German Patriot units are currently deployed to Southern Turkey, to defend against Syrian ballistic missiles.
My second model is a ballistic missile on its TEL. The (in)famous R-17 Elbrus, better known as the Scud, was developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It was widely exported to Soviet allies, including several Warsaw-pact countries as well as various counties in the Middle East, such as Syria, Libya and Iraq. Scud missiles also found their way to North Korea, which developed its own versions and in turn exported those to Iran. My model represents an Iranian missile, known locally as the Shahab-2, on its Russian-built MAZ-543 TEL.
Ballistic missile defense is a fascinating high-tech and high-stakes business. A typical short-range ballistic missile, such as the Scud, travels through the upper reaches of the atmosphere and plummets down towards its target at about five times the speed of sound. To intercept it far enough from its target, the interceptor missile travels at a similar speed. The intercept has also been described as hitting a bullet with a bullet.
The models were interesting to build, because they have lots of details and things that hinge, but also because of their camouflage. Camouflage is designed to break up the contours of an object and to allow it to blend into the background. The colours tend to be arranged in patches. Randomly throwing bits with different colours together doesn’t give you the right look. I tend to use the following guidelines:
1) the border between colours should ideally never be a straight line of more than 3 or 4 studs long before it changes direction.
2) once a border has changed direction once, it should change direction again quickly
Of course, this gets progressively more difficult as the number of colours in the scheme increases and as you move to smaller scales. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t finally gotten my hands on decent numbers of small dark green plates.
Last May, Dan Siskind of Brickmania launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the production of a new kind of track elements designed to work with LEGO. Early this year, my backer reward package arrived, and I’ve been building (and rebuilding) furiously ever since.
My new M4A1 Sherman with a dozer attachment is typical of the engineering vehicles used during the invasion of Normandy, with deep wading snorkels that enabled the tank to be dropped off farther from shore and drive mostly underwater on the sea floor. (I think Dan’s design for his early-production M4 Sherman turret can’t be improved, so I replicated his turret design while adding my own gun barrel for consistency with the rest of my tanks.) Both the M4A3 on the left and the dozer tank use two-wide Track Links, while the M4A3E2 Sherman “Jumbo” on the right uses official three-wide LEGO tracks.
In order to switch the M4A3 with the short 75mm gun barrel from its existing three-wide LEGO track to Track Links, I had to rebuild the suspension. As a result, I don’t think this version — possibly my last — shares more than a few bricks with my original attempt at a Sherman that I first posted nearly four years ago.
LEGO currently produces three types of elements that builders use as tank treads, and all of them are hard to get in any significant quantity (and thus fairly expensive). For those of us who build historical or real-world LEGO models, each of these also has unique problems:
- One-wide Technic chain link: The open chain links don’t look a whole lot like actual tank treads.
- Three-wide Technic tread: The best official LEGO option for many tanks, but three studs wide is one stud too many for most American tanks of World War II.
- Five-wide tread with Technic pin holes: Far too huge for anything most minifig-scale applications.
The most significant gap in available parts is the lack of any official two-wide track. Using two parallel sets of Technic chain link (as I did on my M7 Priest) is cost-prohibitive at best, and doesn’t look all that great. From a historical standpoint, German and Russian tank designers realized that relatively narrow track would just sink in mud, miring and thus disabling the tank. As WWII veteran Belton Cooper described in Death Traps, American tank designers didn’t get that memo. To build historically accurate American tanks, LEGO military modelers need something other than the official LEGO options.
The two-wide Track Links tracks work beautifully on American medium tanks like the M3 Lee/Grant, M4 Sherman, and all the tracked vehicles based on their chassis (such as the M7 Priest and most WWII tank destroyers). Dan himself has been replacing the existing track on many of his vehicles with Track Links, including this beautifully camouflage-patterned M3 Grant and M10 tank destroyer.
Just like regular LEGO track, Track Links clip together with small pins on each side, and they work well with a variety of LEGO gears. Both the single-wide and double-wide Track Links wrap around the gears better than LEGO tracks or chain links, and they roll just as well. Here’s my M3A1 Stuart light tank sporting the single-wide Track Links.
On a related note, you’ll notice that many military builders have begun using the new BrickArms M2HB .50 caliber machine gun. I still like my own brick-built .50 cal, but it’s also nice to have an absolutely accurate option that’s consistent with the BrickArms .30 caliber M1919 Browning machine gun.
In addition to Track Links and a .50 cal, my M8 Scott 105mm Howitzer Motor Carriage (with a gun that elevates/depresses and an ammunition trailer) includes several other custom elements:
- Brickmania armored division minifig
- BrickArms shells
- Citizen Brick diamond plate tiles
Will Chapman gave away several prototype M2HBs at BrickCon, and now the production version is available from resellers like Brickmania and G.I. Brick. One difference between the initial prototype and the final production version is that the ammunition canister is a bit looser. It won’t fall out, but it does have a tendency to flop around a bit. Based on the high quality we’ve come to expect from BrickArms over the years, I’m confident that a bit of retooling will address this minor issue soon.
Brickmania Track Links are available in three colors — black, steel, and reddish brown (great for mud/rust) — on Brickmania.com, along with the new BrickArms M2HB.
I’ll also be posting reviews of several Brickmania kits that include Track Links over the next week or two, so check back here for more.