This is the second part of a "wassup" article that started with what I like to call "Part 1". This lengthier segment is devoted to my latest obsession (as of 06/2009), "Radio Controlled Tanks", as you can probably tell from the picture of the unfinished Heng Long Tiger tank.

heng long tiger tank

Maybe it's a guy thing, or maybe it's just a nerdy-guy thing, but I'm drawn to radio controlled stuff like a fly to shit. I think the ability to remotely control stuff is fascinating. My wife doesn't understand this affliction, nor do many other practical-minded people, whom I imagine think, "Ummmmm... What's the point?".

artsy fartsy tiger


I'd guess that the lowest rung of the ladder for failed RC helicopter pilots would be... the RC tank. Not that there's anything wrong with that!

While driving RC cars isn't as intimidating as flying RC helicopters, it does require quite a bit of skill to do well. Even if you suck at it, you're not likely to get into too much trouble unless you go looking for it or do something stupid and beyond your abilities. In contrast, there's little likelihood that you'll demolish your RC tank by slamming into an immovable object at high speed (unless you drive off the roof of a 4-story building). Operating RC tanks doesn't require lightning fast reflexes or precise eye-hand coordination to avoid costly repairs; routine maintenance is just a given. It doesn't take long hours of practice to be able to drive it over branches and flatten tall grass. It's RC for laid-back folks.

I'm realistic. I enjoy racing RC cars for fun and to challenge myself, but I don't have the right stuff to get good enough at it to compete. After browsing a few RC tank forums, I got sucked in. Tanks are cool. I've always liked WWII tanks, and this was an opportunity to revisit my 1:35 scale Tamiya model tank phase (Ironically, my wife had convinced me to give them away long ago because they took up too much space and collected dust... heh heh.). Heng Long's 1:16 scale tanks are a lot bigger than the 1:35 scale stuff and are more expensive; but they're much cheaper than Tamiya's 1:16 scale tanks (n.b.: I had to get one anyway to see why they have such a loyal following), and the huge scale, full-metal trailer-transportable stuff for the true fanatic. The fact that these 1:16 scale versions were available with airsoft guns won me over. Kerplow! (actually, it's more like "zzzzzz...tock!")

henglong pzkw 4 paintball 6mm paintballs work in both the Creeping Death Tiger turret and the Henglong stock Pzkpfw 4 airsoft gun (although the feed mechanism isn't entirely reliable).

henglong pzkw 4 paintball After cleanup, with a paper towel wetted with water (and spit). Hard to tell from the photo, but it's difficult to get all of the red paint off, since it's like shooting a thinned wash of red watercolors, and it gets into all the little crevices and into the matte texture. This is probably not something that you'd want to do to a tank that you've painstakingly painted and weathered. If they only made the paintballs in a dark brown...

A turret's eye view. There were a few misses as I tried to zero in and the laser machine gun was't very helpful since it wasn't aligned and was hard to see. This was recorded with a wireless camera; I was indoors operating the tank, and the capture hardware started bogging down towards the end, so the real-time feedback of driving towards the tank was very tentative (this doesn't happen with a direct video feed or if your computer isn't running a bunch of other programs. However, 2.4 GHz wireless range & interference can cause video glitching, as seen at the end). Tanks were about 6 feet apart.

A natural extension of the performance aspect is RC tank combat, using infrared beams and detectors (like Laser Tag) or Airsoft pellets/paintballs.

Of the two alternatives, I naturally prefer barrels that launch projectiles; maybe it's another guy thing, but I think it's fun to shoot at stuff. I think it has something to do with the real world physics of clearly observable cause and effect. There's nothing "virtual" about it.

Airsoft tanks are pretty wimpy compared to other non-gunpowder projectile launchers that can shoot lead pellets through a wooden fence plank at 1200 fps, or an automatic electric airsoft submachinegun that can shatter your wife's Longhorn Championship drinking glass in your livingroom at 400+ fps (oooops... hey, it was transparent so I thought I could shoot through it!).

1:16 scale RC tanks usually hurl plastic pellets at about 70-170 fps: Point-blank at your palm stings for a moment, but it's not going to draw blood, break glass or punch holes in cans at any appreciable range. Darn. Grudgingly, that's probably a good thing since you don't want to accidently injure folks or destroy property-- especially since you're not behind the peepsight.

The low powered RC tank airsoft guns are sufficient to fire 6mm paintballs though; in fact, higher powered CO2 guns aren't appropriate because you don't want the paintballs to burst in the barrel. I've read that can happen in RC tanks too and that it's a real pain to clean up the mess... I've been fortunate.

A variation on 6mm paintballs is the "environmentally-friendly" 6mm pellet that disintegrates when it hits something solid, reportedly doing so with a puff of dust and leaving behind a faint chalk-like mark. The pellets and fragments are biodegradeable, so battle debris isn't a concern.

Another variation on standard plastic airsoft pellets is Creeping Death's tracer round system for Crossman glow-in-the-dark pellets. Their turret (with an upgraded airsoft gun, recoil, & laser machine gun) has a light that "charges" the GITD pellet right before it fires. It's pretty neat to experience in a darkened room.

The infrared approach doesn't hold as much appeal for me mainly because you can't see infrared and its dispersion pattern (I'd prefer visible light lasers). However, an important feature of the electronic battle approach is that you don't physically damage the models that you've spent so much time and effort detailing and painting. IR combat has a well-developed system for depicting the results of accumulated "hits", so it's playable as a semi-organized game.

There are other plusses and minuses to both. Firing the main gun is more realistically simulated with infrared systems because the barrel doesn't need to fire a projectile: You can install a muzzle brake flash unit along with a barrel recoil mechanism. Since the firing is basically electronic, there's no mechanism to make unrealistic sounds as the airsoft gun does when cocking to fire a pellet, and the unimpressive "zzzzz...tock!" sound when the pellet's launched-- IR systems synchronize the digitized shot sound effect & flash, accompanied by the recoil.

On the downside, infrared detectors for battle systems usually look funky, like large mushrooms sprouting from the tank's turret. That pretty much evens the scorecard for realism. Of course, the tank only needs to wear the mushroom when it's doing battle. With some ingenuity, you can hide the detector and emitter components as long as it doesn't run afoul of rules that a club might impose for tank battles.

I'm presently awaiting the arrival of a Tamiya King Tiger kit, which uses an IR system. Consequently, I've ordered parts to convert one of my airsoft tanks for IR battle, so that perhaps I can convince my wife to play tanks with me. If nothing else, having parts for both systems will let me try and decide. In theory, I can set up a spare turret with an alternate system to simplify the swap.

I'd just recorded a backyard drive around, powered down the tank and was about to go outside to retrieve the tanks when our favorite feral stray popped up behind the rock. I didn't even know she was there; she has really good camouflage! I quickly restarted the recorder and the tank.

This illustrates the problem of trying to drive the tank remotely when the turret's turned: It takes some trial and error to get them realigned so you can drive straight. It also shows how you can't see obstacles immediately in front of the treads. It's a good idea to turn the amplified sounds way down, so you can hear what the motor and gears are doing-- you don't want to force it if it's jammed.

I've also had great fun playing with a wireless camera mounted on the tanks, navigating while sitting in front of the monitor in air-conditioned comfort (it's been 100+ degrees F for a couple of weeks now), with a ground level perspective outdoors. It's a very weird feeling (somewhat creepy & guilty), especially when you turn the turret and see a neighbor staring quizzically at the remotely piloted vehicle. The tanks can go places I can't or wouldn't go, like into a patch of thorny ivy. It can also be challenging since you can't easily assess obstacles in your immediate path (until they do strange things to your control). While RC car-mounted cameras can make interesting videos, it's probably pretty impossible to drive them that way at speed, and without getting sick.

The fact that the operational aspect is so accessible doesn't mean that it's an easy and low cost hobby after the initial expenditure, thanks to maintenance needs. Smoker and airsoft units routinely die, you can fry circuitboards from stalling the tracks with things like pebbles (or turning on carpet), or break tracks. Almost immediately, one is tempted to spend on upgrades like metal tracks, suspension and wheels, better gearboxes, stronger motors, jazzier electronics, and aftermarket detail parts.

From my perspective, RC tanks are really more of a tinkerer's hobby with a strong play/performance aspect. The tinkerer's appeal is tremendously broad: Model-makers, scratch-builders, military buffs, and folks interested in mechanics and electronics. Yep, it's fun to hear the start up and machine gun sounds, run roughshod over your flowerbeds, and shoot pellets at things, but the bonus is that there's another realm of satisfaction for the tinkerer who enjoys making it look and operate better.

1:16 scale RC tanks are a great canvas for those who like to accurize, paint and apply weathering to historical armor models, and many folks are very, very good at it. Compared to static models, the main trade off is that some compromises are made for functionality. Barrels may be inaccurate to accommodate a 6mm Airsoft pellet. While hatches can be made functional, they usually don't open to show accurate interior detail but are often used for access to operational switches and knobs. Dioramas are naturally more limited in scope: a Tiger tank sinking into a simulated sheet of polymer ice isn't something you'd model with an RC tank-- instead, you'd go outside and experience it. I have yet to experience the finer level of model painting and weathering-- I'm more of a functional systems and details guy than an artist.

21st Century Toys Henglong Pzkw 4Another attraction is the fact that 1:16 scale is pretty close to 1:18 scale, a scale that's a little better established. Coincidentally, as I was finding out about the Heng Long tanks, 21st Century Toys had just wrapped up their 1:18 scale "Extreme Detail" line of military planes, vehicles and figures, and Monkey Depot (great folks) was blowing them out at great prices. There aren't many 1:16 scale things available that are reasonably priced, but 21st Century offered a 1:18 scale alternative. It's really cool stuff, and 21C did a great job on it-- so much so, that I bought some of their planes as well. (As much as I've griped about their 1:6 offerings in the past, it looks like they've thrown in the towel, and I'm sad to see them go.)

As for the scale differences between 1:16 and 1:18-- It depends on how fussy you are. For figures, they're probably close enough since humans vary in size. For support vehicles and hardware, the differences may be within your limits of "close 'nuff", if you're not too fussy. (A good reason not to be too fussy is that your only other option would probably be to scratch-build your own.) For tanks, the solution is simple-- buy 1:16 scale RC tanks because they're more fun. The 1:16 scale tanks aren't perfectly scaled to each other anyway, so there's room for fudging.

21st Century Toys SS Jeez Louise! You've got to give credit to 21st Century Toys for having the chutzpa to produce such an unabashedly politically incorrect product: The 16-figure SS parade set! This, from a company that had once neutered swastikas in their 1:6th scale offerings, back when they were aiming for the mass market. I'm certain that it has nothing to do with ideology, and anecdotal evidence from what sells suggests a lot of folks who probably aren't Nazis or closet Nazis think that WWII Germans had some of the coolest looking stuff. It is what it was. I don't know if the writing was on the wall for 21C, and whether this was just one last hurrah of defiance... they'd previously done a 1:6th scale mad bomber, Columbine-esque terrorist, and doughnut-eating cop, all which raised some eyebrows. 21st Century Toys had a genuine maverick streak, and they will be missed (unlike Sarah Palin).

21st Century Toys Stuka