This article is a brief guide into the different types and materials available to scale modellers for representing tank and AFV tracks. It covers the advantages and disadvantages of each and will help the modeller to decide whether to replace the tracks supplied in a model kit with an aftermarket accessory.
Anyone who builds military vehicle kits will sooner or later be faced with the problem of modelling realistic caterpillar tracks. The problem can be avoided by only modelling soft-skin wheeled vehicles and armoured cars. A few modellers do this by choice because they prefer them. However, most military vehicle modellers want to build tanks and that means facing up to the problem of tracks.
For many many years, the tracks on AFV models were often the least realistic part of the vehicle. Model kits invariably came with lengths of flexible track that were sometimes little more than large rubber bands. Since there was no alternative, modellers were forced to use these and often tried to hide them with layers of simulated mud and dirt.
Fortunately, those days are long gone. Many plastic kits these days come with beautifully molded tracks – sometimes made of individual links like the real thing. Dragon have led the way with their ‘Magic Tracks’ which were a revolution when first introduced and have encouraged other manufacturers to up their game. Even if the tracks in a model kit are disappointing, they can be replaced with an aftermarket set purchased separately made from metal, plastic, or resin.
Unfortunately, aftermarket sets can cost as much as the original model and can take many hours to assemble and paint, so using them is not always an easy decision.
Types Of Model Tracks
AFV/tank tracks can be divided into three broad categories:
- Belt (also known as Rubber Band, or Flexible)
- Link and Length (also known as Assembly type)
- Individual Link (both working and non-working)
Belt (rubber band / flexible)
These are the original type of tracks that were supplied in tank kits when injection molded kits first started to become widely available in the 1960s. Generally, they were hated by modellers and I have no doubt that some modellers would avoid tank kits altogether because of them.
Not only would they be very badly molded, sometimes with only one side showing details, but they were often malformed and warped. Often they were bent to fit into the box and this would create a permanent kink in the tracks.
Worst still they seemed to resist every form of adhesive and paint known to man. The only way to join the ends together was to push studs on one end through holes in the other end and then use a heated scredriver to melt the studs and flatten them. Although this did join the two ends to make a belt the join was often unsightly.
If there was any flash or sink marks on these tracks, they were almost impossible to remove and if the tracks were warped it was very difficult to make them sit right on the tank because they resisted attempts to glue them to the wheels. Painting them was a nightmare as most paints had a tendency to flake off. It was also very difficult to simulate the sag between return rollers that is often seen on real vehicles due to the weight of the metal track links.
All in all then, it is not surprising that most modellers have very little good to say about them.
Link and Length
These are tracks that are hard injection molded plastic that comes on sprues like all the other parts in the model kit. Some of the track links are supplied as individual links, but there will also be longer lengths. For example, there is usually a long straight length of track intended to represent the part of the track that is in contact with the ground. Shorter lengths of track, or individual links are provided for those parts of the track that need to be curved around wheels.
Sometimes the upper run of track may be supplied to fit over the return rollers with realistic track sag molded in. These types of track can produce very realistic results, but they can be a devil to fit. It is often necessary to apply liquid cement to assemble the tracks and when the glue is strong enough to hold the links together, but not totally set, the tracks can be bent over the wheels. It is sometimes difficult to get the ends of the assembled sections of track to meet up without a gap or overlap.
These tracks are not popular with modellers who like to paint the tracks separately because they often have to be glued to the vehicle wheels. However, it is sometimes possible to assemble the tracks in two or three sub-assemblies that can be painted before finally gluing them to the tank wheels and each other.
Modellers tend to either love or hate these types of tracks and some model kits give the option of using either link and length or belt type tracks.
There are several types and manufacturers of these as follows:
Fruilmodel is manufacturer whose name has become synonymous with metal individual track links. For many modellers, these are the most realistic tracks available and are, in effect, miniature replicas of real tracks.
A set of Fruilmodel tracks will consist of white metal individual track links (usually with a number of spares) and a piece of wire that has to be cut to make the track pins that hold the links together. Sometimes the tracks will come with metal drive sprockets to replace those in the kit and will ensure that the track links fit well over the teeth of the drive sprocket.
The disadvantages of the Fruilmodel tracks are that they are expensive – sometimes costing more than the model kit – and they can take a long time to assemble. Sometimes each individual track link has to be cleaned up and the holes drilled out for the track pins.
The advantage of these tracks is that they are very realistic. The detail is superb and they sag over the idler rollers very realistically. After they have been painted they can be lightly sanded until the shiny metal shows through the paint on the high points and this makes very realistic wear and tear. They are normally workable, in other words, they can be assembled and painted separately and then added to the tank after it has been painted.
These tracks are available as aftermarket accessories for a large number of tank and AFV models and are widely available from model shops. If money is no object and you really want to produce the best model possible, then you should seriously consider investing in a set of these tracks.
ModelKasten is another manufacturer whose name has become famous for the production of individual track links. However, Modelkasten tracks are normally made from injection molded plastic.
What you get with a set of Modelkasten tracks can vary. Some tracks are non-workable and the links have to be glued to hold them together. Other sets are workable with very tiny plastic pins provided to hold the tracks together whilst still allowing them to be moved and bent around the suspension wheels.
Some sets come with replacement drive sockets or other wheels and some sets come with a jig to help assemble the tracks. For this reason it is well worth checking exactly what you get before you purchase.
The tracks can be made to be extremely realistic, but like the Fruilmodel tracks may take a bit of work. There have been some reports of some track sets having ejector pin marks on the tracks that need quite a bit of clean up. Although the tracks will not naturally sag like the metal Fruilmodel tracks they are generally quite a bit cheaper.
Dragon Magic Tracks
There was a time, not too long ago, when the only way to get realistic individual track links was to buy them as an aftermarket accessory that might cost almost as much as the model.
One or two models might have included individual injection molded links, but they were very rare and the links would be attached to the sprue so the modeller had quite a bit of work removing and cleaning them up.
Dragon caused quite a stir when they introduced their new ‘Magic Tracks’ with many of their tracked vehicle models.
Magic Tracks are injection molded track links that have been produced to a very high standard AND have been removed from the sprues so they are ready to use. There is excellent detail on every side of the track links and where appropriate there are hollow guide teeth.
What is more, they are normally supplied in two separate bags holding tracks of different colour to distinguish between the links meant for the left and right sides of the vehicle.
These types of track link can greatly enhance a model and to get them included in the box is a big bonus. The only problems are that sometimes they do need a bit of clean up to remove seam lines and ejector pin marks and the track links do not stay attached together without glue, so they are not really ‘working’ tracks.
Other injection molded track links
Although Fruilmodel, Modelkasten and Dragon are the main providers of individual track links, there are a few other sets available. For example, both AFV Club and Tamiya make a few sets generally aimed to enhance their own model kits, but there is no reason why they can not be used on other manufacturers’ kits. The links normally come on sprues, so need quite a bit of work to remove them from the sprues and clean up every link.
Usually, these tracks do not work and so need glue to hold the links together.
This means it can be fiddly if you wish to paint the tracks separately. It is necessary to make up lengths of track, apply the glue and fit the tracks around the suspension wheels before the glue fully sets. When the glue has dried, the section of track can be removed and painted – assuming that no glue from the tracks came in contact with the tank wheels.
Track link sets made by kit manufacturers usually cost much less than those from aftermarket specialists, but they are only availabe for a few vehicles.
Although these tracks are not as user friendly as workable track links, they do produce a much better result than the belt type tracks. Whether the extra effort and in some cases extra cost is worth it is a matter for each modeller to decide.
The quality of tracks supplied with model kits has improved enormously over the years and generally a tank or AFV kit does not have to be let down by the tracks. Even if the tracks supplied with the kit are not up to a good standard there are aftermarket alternatives providing that you are willing to pay the price and put in a couple of hours work.