Could a single untrained person operate a modern tank?

Inspired by my post-apocalyptic road trip thread:

Would an ordinary person without a military background be able to operate and drive a modern tank (I’m aware of the M60 tank incident but that was someone who knew what they were doing), being able to use the main gun would be a fun bonus but I’m mostly just interested in how difficult it would be to start it up and drive it.

Would it make a difference if it was a European, Russian or American tank?

Do not need answer fast.

How to stop a stolen tank? discusses that “incident.”

A single driver could operate the driving controls of an M1 Abrams main battle tank with just a little orientation. Driving it safely and precisely is another matter, particularly with the limited visibility offered by the periscopes. The M1 requires a gunner and a manual loader; although there is a computer-controlled compensation system to allow for firing while in motion, it is not trivial to use. Loading the main gun is not difficult as long as you stay out of the path of the reciprocating breech. You could not drive and operate the main gun at the same time, and I don’t think the driver has controls for the coaxial .50 BMG and 7.62 NATO guns.

However, realize that a tank would be just about the worst long distance transportation in a post-apocalyptic scenario. Tanks are not really intended to drive long distances; they are transported to as close as they can get to a battlefield. In addition to the exceedingly poor gas mileage, tanks have a nasty habit of throwing treads or getting cables and fences jammed in the sprockets, which can create a real problem to clear. Again, because visibility is not great, it is easy to accidentally run into such low laying obstacles. Tanks also quickly destroy pavement, and while the ground loading is well distributed because of the track system giving pretty decent floatation over mud or sand, a main battle tank like the Abrams will be overweight for many bridges or large culverts, so you have to be careful where you drive it. The Abrams is pretty reliable for a tank, but by that it means that it still needs daily maintenance while in the field and regular servicing by a well equipped field unit or things start breaking and making it a 70 ton paperweight pretty quickly. Other tanks, like the Soviet T-72, were noted for requiring such frequent maintenance that a field unit basically had to follow close behind a tank platoon just to keep them operating long enough to get to a battlefield. Much of that was probably due to the poor quality control and reliance on automation that could fail at an inopportune time, but regardless, it is a class of vehicle that requires logistics and maintenance to keep it in operation over any significant period.

What you want for post-apocalyptic travel is something fairly light, easily maintained with a lot of spare parts available, that has enough clearance to drive over light debris and is small enough to get through blocked highways, and capable of carrying the extra fuel and supplies you need. Depending on the environment that might be something like a Subaru Forrester, or a Toyota Tacoma/Hilux light truck, a Jeep/FJ type offroad utility vehicle, or a Chenoweth fast attack vehicle. If it is just you, a dual sport or adventure/touring bike might work although you are going to be very limited in how much extra fuel you can carry, and the equipment you can use to extract fuel from underground storage tanks. If you are not in a hurry, a sturdy horse or mule might be the best option for long distance, although if you unfamiliar with the care and feeding of such animals it probably won’t last long. Some might suggest a mountain bike but you are really limited in what you can carry on a bike, whereas you can carry a load of up to 1/3rd of lean body weight, which can get you pretty far as long as you have water supplies on the route.


Maybe he’s asking whether or not he can turn it into a stationary bunker with a swiveling gun and a co-axial 7.62 mg. Well, you need a gunner and a loader. The loader must be a left-handed version of the Hulk to be able to handle a 70-pound 120mm round (and his left hand, the one that charges the round, is wearing a very thick padded glove.) I suppose you also need a driver to keep the engine running.

I think it is possible.

Shawn Nelson was a Army veteran.

Thanks for the answers everyone, and especially Stranger!

Yes, using a tank wasn’t really my vehicle of choice, its just an idea that entered my head on the premise that in this scenario there’s nobody to stop you and after all who hasn’t wanted to drive a tank :wink: (personally I’m more interested in military aircraft but even I don’t kid myself that trying to fly one of those wouldn’t end in fiery disaster even if I could get it up)

The Abrams has a range of about 250 miles. It has a total fuel capacity of 500 gallons. You do the math for the mileage.

I’m not sure how intuitive it is for a civilian to jump in and start one. I never did much driving. Not very I would think. Actual driving would be easier than figuring out how to get it running. The controls are not difficult.

A couple of points that might be important for a story. Some may have been touched upon.

It is very common for an Abrams that has been sitting for awhile to need a jump start. APUs are often attached but how well they work would depend on how long it’s been sitting. The Abrams tends to break more when it’s sitting than when working regularly.

Throwing track and other suspension problems can be mostly eliminated by good preventative track maintenance. Checking for loose parts. Replacing worn components. Knowing where to put grease. All things a non-tanker wouldn’t know.

You can forget about using the weapons as designed. The firing systems are too complex to figure out even if they were working right. Your random survivor would not know how to boresight the main gun. However there are mechanical triggers (master blaster) and an auxiliary optical sight in they can figure out where they are.

The driver sits forward of the turret in the hull. The only way he can get into the turret from his hole is if the turret is in one specific position where the gun is over the back deck. This is also the only position that the driver can drive with his hatch open. There is a turret lock to prevent the driver from being decapitated by the turret with his head out of the drivers hatch or from getting cut in two by the turret while crawling between the drivers hole and the turret.

I have never met a tanker that couldn’t load the gun and none of them are The Hulk. And I’ve never seen a loader with a thick padded glove. Just regular nomex gloves like the whole crew. The round isn’t hot going in and the aft cap is ejected as part of the cycling of the gun.

Nice to find out some friend who’s supposed to be an expert screwed me, years and years later.

Here is a video where you can see loading the main gun.

It’s awkward and a little heavy but should only take a couple of seconds. A human loader should be about to beat an auto loader.

Notice the blue tips. Those are inert practice rounds. First a sabot and then HEAT.

Pretty good for a non-tanker Stranger but some details in your post are off. It’s not in a way that affects the major theme but “fighting ignorance”…

A gunner is the most expendable crew position. When the Abrams operates with a three man crew the positions manned are Driver, Loader, and Tank Commander. It’s better to have both a gunner and TC but the gunner is not required to fight the tank.

The driver doesn’t have controls for any of the weapons systems. Only one of the three machine guns (one of the two M240s) is coaxial. It’s the one mounted next to the main gun with a common axis. That M240 is aimed by manipulating the turret and has a ballistic solution provided by the fire control system. The loader’s M240 and tank commander’s M2 are not coaxial.

Something like concertina wire is a potential problem. It’s barbs can catch on the track to let it get pulled up to the sprocket. If it gets pulled up it can catch and start to spool building up a gap between the sprocket and track. It doesn’t jam; if enough builds up it can increase the chance of throwing the track because of pushing the end connectors out of the sprocket teeth.

I suppose a cable, if it got wrapped around the sprocket, could cause the same effect. I have a harder time seeing it getting caught and spooling up in normal operations. Other parts of typical fences have both an issue with being unlikely to be pulled up to the sprocket and getting spit out mangled instead of jamming. If I go batshit and start driving through heavily fenced suburbia my major fence related worries are what fences hide not them stopping me. (“Shit! POOOOOOLLLLLLL!!!” :eek:) I’ve driven through enough forests, and I don’t mean trails through the forests, that fences seem almost laughable in comparison.

Not all pavement. Heavy duty roads are safe. Light duty roads can often be managed with little or no damage if you can be careful about speed and how tightly you turn.

The numbers are even worse. Those numbers from the manual are about the equivalent of highway miles where you are driving on relatively flat pavement without stop and go driving. A planning factor for more normal operations, that I found to be pretty accurate, was 3.5 gallons per kilometer.

Even with the manual, a boresight device, and experience I don’t know if either of us would be succesful. I’m sure I would absolutely hate trying. Think about all trips in and out of the turret it would require to try and line up the crosshairs on the MBD with the target. :smack:

For those that haven’t been on tanks, unlike Loach and I, it is possible to drive the Abrams open hatched with the turret unlocked and in any position. It’s not safe. Procedure prevents it not the tank itsel. The turret monster likes to be fed. Which is another issue for the untrained crewman even inside the turret. Ignorance is dangerous. The inside of tanks don’t meet OSHA standards for industrial environments. The tank will let you do a lot of stupid and dangerous stuff.

A prime example is the door for the main gun ammunition ready rack. It’s a heavy hydraulically operated door that is designed to protect the crew from explosion if the ammo storage is hit while it’s closed. It does have a safety interlock like you might see on an elevator door. If it hits something it stops moving with one exception By design the safety interlock stops working in the last few inches before it’s fully closed. It’s supposed to power through any debris that may have fallen through the hatch and ensure the door still gets a good seal. It doesn’t care if the thing in the way at that point is the loader’s hand. I’ve seen it snap a broom handle in two during a safety demonstration.

We called it the turret monster for a reason.

I know I read somewhere that Soviet WWII tankers were smaller because the tanks were so cramped, and I believe also that the loader had to be left-handed. However a very lazy google didn’t turn up a cite. But true or not, perhaps the origin of the story about the Abrams?

If the handedness of the loader mattered, why wouldn’t you just mirror-image the entire design so the loader needed to be right-handed? Is there some other tank part that requires right-handedness?

Corrections and clarifications from a real tanker are appreciated. My tank experience consists of once taking a short ride in an M60 and doing some preliminary analysis work on the Mid-Range Munition program that eventually went to another contractor.


I dunno, because Communism is leftist? :dubious:

The Tank Commanders override* that they can use to control the gun/turret is set up for right-handed use only on the Abrams and the M60 series before that. To keep it against the turret wall and in position for the TC’s likely dominant hand means the TC goes on the right in most modern tank designs. The loader/autoloader goes opposite of them because they need room to work.

  • It overrides the gunner’s control of the turret when grabbed.

Starting and driving an M1 Abrams (original M1 and M1A1 models only); this lesson assumes you are already seated in the Driver’s Station

  1. On your right is the Driver’s Control Panel; find the toggle switch marked Vehicle Master Power; turn Vehicle Master Power to “On.”

  2. On the Driver’s Control Panel, find the button labeled “Push To Start;” push the button labeled “Push To Start.”

  3. Listen to that beautiful sound. Erections not required; may occur. Hey, what’s the difference between a Hoover Vacuum Cleaner and an M1 Abrams? An Abrams has four dirt bags.

  4. Press one foot down on the Service Brake; it’s the LARGE pedal right between your feet.

  5. Release Parking Brake by pulling Parking Brake Release Lever (located by right knee) with right hand.

  6. Slide Gear Shift Knob (located on Driver’s Controls) from “N” Neutral to “D” Drive.

  7. Grab throttles (the two black “motorcycle-style” grips protruding from left and right sides of the Driver’s Controls).

  8. Remove foot from Service Brake.

  9. Twist throttles “Motorcycle-style” to increase speed; release to decrease. Turn Driver’s Controls left or right to turn the tank left or right, accordingly.

So simple a CDAT can do it. Hell, I even managed to train a bunch of Air Farce flyboys on how to drive a tank, and it only took 5 minutes; it only took that long because they thought I was screwing with them.

I let them take turns driving around a bit (with me in the TC’s hatch to kind of guide them some); for a bunch of Falcon drivers, they were pretty sedate. Then again, if they showed me how to drive one of their planes, I reckon they’d appreciate me taking it easy my first tine out, so fair’s fair.

I didn’t screw with them until the last one got done with his turn driving, when I got behind the controls to show 'em how it’s really done. :stuck_out_tongue: YEEEE-HAW!! :stuck_out_tongue:

There’s a WORLD of difference between operating the controls of an MBT, and truly driving one.

I’m unable to give any further details but in my experience it is not possible without at least a manual or something.

Interesting question.

I’ve run just about all forms of heavy equipment. From bulldozers to trackhoes, backhoes and old farm tractors. Now, this is not my occupation. But I have used them all.

I currently own a small Kubota 4x4 loader.

My Kubota has all of the same options as my BIL’s larger John Deere. Hydrostatic transmission, shuttle shift with multiple speeds, three point hitch with box scraper and a loader. Both are diesels.

Just the other day I got on my BIL’s tractor, and could not just take right off. I needed some instruction. The JD is quite different than my Kubota. If I had 10 minutes to puzzle things out, I don’t think I would have had a problem. After about 20 minutes of operation I was becoming used to the differences. But still had to be very deliberate of my actions and operation.

Quite different than say comparing a Chevy to a Ford.