How many times have we heard “new and improved” only to find that whatever it is that is being sold under this banner is merely “warmed-over and kinda different-ish, and maybe a bit better, we think”? Well, sadly, that doesn’t just hold for toothpaste, jelly powder and canned pasta. It has also happened in far more dire fields of endeavour, such as armoured warfare.
A perfect example of this is the Japanese Type 97-Kai (modified) “Shinhoto” Chi-Ha. The “Shinhoto” part means “new turret”. The name, thus, has two different ways to indicate that the tank in question has been modified and improved. However, while the Shinhoto was indeed something of an improvement, there’s only so much polish you can put on a ____. (I’ll let you choose the unpolishable object you wish to imagine here… Mine rhymes with herd.)
The Japanese, while very successful in the establishment of their empire, did not require the use of armoured vehicles the way their German allies did. By and large, island denizens and Chinese farmers tended not to have large stocks of anti-armour weapons, and light tanks were more than terrifying enough to pacify these enemies. Action in Manchuria resulted in the development of a newer, faster and heavier vehicle, the Type-97 Chi-Ha, with a 57mm gun. This was definitely an improvement over the earlier designs. However, when the Japanese came up against the Russian BT-5 and BT-7 tanks (themselves no great shakes as far as armour goes) they decided they needed something more substantial.
The result was the “Kai” version of the Chi-Ha. It was “upgunned” with a 47mm higher-velocity gun, and proved to be a much better tank. However, “better” is relative. Compared to what the Allies were fielding by this time (1942-forward), the Chi-Ha was still pretty much useless. Yes, it could dominate the Stuart light tank (there’s one for the resume, boys), but even with the better 47mm gun, it couldn’t take on a Sherman head-to-head. Even though armoured warfare was not used much in the Pacific campaign, the Shinhoto Chi-Ha was not up to the task required of it, and many were knocked out easily, even when hull-down.
Despite this, the Chi-Ha and its “Kai” version have been kitted enough times that there are several replicas to choose from, should an armour modeller want one of these rather sad vehicles in their collections. The one that captured my eye, of course, is the old 1/76 version produced by Fujimi, in 1975.
Fujimi armor kits are, to be honest all very nice looking. I have several, and they all have fine detail and excellent proportions. They’re likely better than Matchbox kits, actually, although the do tend to be a tad more fiddly. This kit is no exception to the rule. For a full rundown on the kit, click the link below:
Building the Chi-Ha:
As I suspected from looking at the kit and instructions, the build of this kit is NOT difficult. The hull can be assembled almost totally in one shot. I started by gluing the sides and rear to the bottom plate. Everything fit very well, but there was some putty needed where the back plate joined the belly. This was not really a surprise, given the age of the kit. I used Tamiya grey putty dissolved in Acetone to make a thin, easily-sanded semi-liquid putty to make the job go faster. It did at that, and fixing this seam took very little. I also used a bit on the sides of the vehicle where the backplate didn’t meet the side plates, but again, this was only minor clean up.
I painted the inside of the hull Model Master Acrylic (MMA) Aircraft Interior Black (AIB) and then glued the top deckplate onto the lower hull. This fit quite well, and didn’t require any putty, just a bit of sanding once the glue dried. The turret went together well, but fit wasn’t that great. There’s a noticeable seam, especially under the turret bustle, but a bit of liquid putty and a bit more sanding got rid of most of the problem. There was an issue with the mantlet, though.
In order to allow the gun’s elevation to be changed once the kit is built, the mantlet piece fits inside a collar on a pair of stout pegs. However, these aren’t strong enough to prevent the mantlet from popping out and going into the turret when the gun is inserted. I decided to glue the mantlet in place, with the gun slightly elevated. As for the gun itself, it’s a single piece and nicely moulded. There’s a light seam that can be easily scraped off. However, it’s also flat-faced. By that, I mean there’s no hole in it. To correct this, I used a very small drill and my pin vise to open up the front of the gun. This is risky and tricky, because there’s not a lot of meat to the gun, and there’s a large risk of both it snapping, and of the hole being off-centre. Thankfully, slow and steady won the race, and I was pretty pleased with the result.
As with all rubber-band tracks, I assembled them with tacky glue and put them under tension on some spreader clamps. This both holds the tracks while the glue dries and it helps force the tracks into the right shape. I mounted all the road wheels and road-wheel pairs to toothpicks for painting, and that was pretty much it. I’ll admit I did glue on the headlight against my better judgement; it did get knocked off several times during the build, so I’d wait on this one, if you’re building the kit!
I primered the hull, turret and all road wheels with Paint-It brand primer. This is the Walmart house brand, but it doesn’t seem they sell it anymore, which is a shame. It’s excellent, and a couple of very light coats had the tank ready for paint and had done nothing to hide the fine detail on the kit. What I needed at this point was a reliable colour scheme. This, however, proved difficult to find.
The Internet gave me all kinds of options. It was clearly a three-tone cammo, with some kind of darkish green, a medium brown and some other lighter colour. This colour gave the most trouble. Some kits used an almost olive drab, other photos of preserved tanks showed a very light (presumably bleached by the sun) tan. I decided to split the difference and found a yellowish-green in my paint drawer. As it turned out, it was actually MMA Panzer Dunkelgelb (dark yellow)! Whether it was legit or not didn’t bother me; it looked about right, so I airbrushed the entire tank in it. If I’m wrong, then the rivet-counters and JMNs can curse my name or burn me in effigy. I was building for fun, and close enough is perfect as far as my untrained eyes could see!
As for the other two colours, I wanted a reddish brown, and MMA Leather fit the bill nicely. I used a mixed MMA colour for the green. The colour is close to the IJN green, and came about when I was mixing a colour for my Farpro Norm. It wasn’t quite right for that, but it’s perfect for a Gundam I have (the Leopard Da Vinci) and looked like it was just odd enough to be perfect for the Chi-Ha too.
The question, then, was how to paint it. I hate masking, but masking cammo on planes is doable. Doing it on a tank this small, over and around suspension detail and hull contours/details did not sound too appealing. However, it looks like the cammo is pretty hard-edged on these tanks, and at this scale, I knew I’d have to keep any feathering to a minimum. This made masking essential, if I was going to airbrush the cammo. One thing I’ve learned is that if doing it by airbrush sounds like it’ll be a pain, it will be.
The solution, then, was NOT to airbrush! I used to do cammo by hand all the time, so I decided to “go old skool” on this little guy. Using brand new #0 brushes I got from my brother for Christmas, I first painted on the leather blobs. I had to go over these a few times, and the paint was a bit thick to start, leading to a bit of a rough finish. I then thinned it for final coating, and this worked better. I did the same with the green, and when I was done, I had a tank that had razor-sharp cammo lines.
There were issues, though. One was paint roughness; the other was inconsistencies at the edges. I handled the inconsistencies first. I used a toothpick, whittled to a near point, to apply touch ups to the cammo blobs. This was a painstaking process, but I’ve always found this kind of work therapeutic, and with some good heavy metal playing in the background, this task passed quickly. I then applied a thin layer of Future with the airbrush, and baked it dry in the dehydrator for a day.
With this dry, I lightly sanded the large areas where paint ripples could be seen. This took off the high spots without sanding off detail, and once this was done, another light coat of Future readied the tank for shadowing. I did the shadowing using a medium grey chalk pastel powder mixed with Varsol. Varsol won’t attack Future, and it semi-dissolves the pastel, giving it an easily adjusted, quickly-evaporating carrier. I used the grey to highlight the various surface details, add in “shadows” and pick out the engine breather grille. I actually did this twice, Futuring between iterations.
I was going to do it a third time, but decided that it was better to go subtle and risk it being too stark. I still remember what I read somewhere: If you can see it, the effect is too stark. Since I don’t like the current vogue of hyper-highlighted (and low-lighted) armour kits (I feel they look artificial), I decided to leave well enough alone. I then flat coated the entire tank in Delta Ceramcoat Indoor/Outdoor Matte Urethane Varnish. Over this I applied a filter coat of dry tan chalk pastel. This was akin to having some dust on the vehicle, and it served to unify the colours a bit too, toning everything down. Since the Fujimi kits don’t have a base, there’s no context for the Chi-Ha. Thus, I decided not to get it too dirty, and simply sealed the “dust” filter coat with another round of matte varnish. The end result was actually quite nice, and I left my wreathing there.
I did do some extra work on the exhaust pipes, though. I painted the pipes MMA Steel and the mufflers MMA Jet Exhaust. I then applied some rust-coloured pastel powder to give them the look of surface rust. I applied more of this to the very tips, which I’m sure were quite rusty by the time the tank had run a few hours. I also “rusted” the tow rope before gluing it onto the back of the vehicle. I painted the machine guns MMA steel and gave them a wash of Citadel Nuln Oil to add some character.
The tracks, as always, were fun. I first applied Krylon Fusion “Metallic Shimmer” silver paint. This is very much like MMA Steel, except it will stick to the rubber of the tracks without primer. This is a big deal, since I’ve found the tracks don’t really like primer that much. Once this was dry, the tracks were given a wash of Citadel Devlan mud, to burnish them. They were then “rusted” with the same pastel powder as the mufflers, and then flat coated to seal it all in. For effect, a wash of Citadel Nuln Oil was applied over this, giving some shadow and depth. The raised bits were then ‘silvered’ with a Prismacolour silver pencil crayon (no rust would stick to these contact points, I figured) and the track was again matte coated with the Delta Ceramcoat Indoor/Outdoor Matte Urethane Varnish.
Final assembly on the Chi-Ha is fairly simple, but does require a bit of planning ahead. First, it is important to make sure that the “joint” of the tracks is on the bottom; there’s not a full top skirt and no side skirts on the tank and it will show otherwise. I didn’t line the joint up the same on both tracks, and that was a mistake, but I made it work. Second, it’s important to install all the road wheels, return rollers and the drive sprocket before putting on the tracks. Third, you should wait to thread the tracks on until all the glue on the suspension parts isn’t quite dry. It’s best if it still has a tiny bit of give, but not too much; the tracks WILL pull the suspension apart if the glue is not sufficiently hardened. Oh, do remember to make sure to put the tracks going in the right direction, on both sides.
I put the track in place at the same time that I put the rear idler on. Basically, I threaded the track in and around all the other components, and then using the rear idler, I stretched it into shape. I did this because the axle on the rear idler is stocky and would take the load. I aligned the track so that the ‘joint’ would fall under a road wheel, and then chopped off the ‘sticky up’ post (the one you’re supposed to melt with a heated screwdriver). I used a bit of CA to glue the track to a couple of road wheels on each side, since it wanted to “puff up” a bit. To my surprise, the tank actually sits pretty level, with almost all the wheels touching the ground!
To finalize the assembly, I glued on the tow rope, headlight (again) and popped on the turret. I painted the headlight lens with Model Master oil Chrome Silver, which is quite a bright silver indeed! With this, the Chi-Ha was done.
The Chi-Ha looks pretty darned good, if I do say so myself. I’m very pleased with how easily it went together and how well most of it fit. The simplistic “rubber band” tracks even look pretty good! Despite being hand-cammoed, the bit of sanding and the matte surface finish have removed almost all traces of this, and the tank does indeed look airbrushed. This is what I’m most proud of; it’s great to have had the fun, easy time of hand painting with results that look airbrushed! It’s that kind of trickery that really gets my engine running, so to speak!
As I suspected, the Fujimi Chi-Ha is a very nice kit and could be handled by almost anyone with any modelling experience. If you can handle the small return rollers and keep from breaking off the fragile machine guns, then you really shouldn’t have any problem with this kit. Sure, it’s fairly simple, but that’s good for beginning armour builders, and its small size means you’re not going to have to have a lot of real estate to display the finished product.
With some simple weathering techniques, I was able to make the tank look pretty decent, and those with more weathering skills could likely do far more than I did. That’s a good point about this kit; it’s an excellent canvas for pushing your skills or trying new ones. If you don’t like it, you’re not losing much!
This kit is a simple fun build that I enjoyed from start to finish. It’s an interesting subject that looks cool when finished and it makes a great addition to any 1/76 armour collection. I would recommend it to anyone who wants something a bit different. If you’re stuck in a rut, or want to just build something out of the box without worrying about copious aftermarket, give this little guy, or any of the Fujimi tanks, a go. You’ll be glad you did!