Fire in the Steppe:
Soviet Armored Trains
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Armored trains proved themselves well suited
to the conditions of the Russian Civil War,
which raged from 1919 until 1922. The Imperial
Russian Army had fielded seven official armored
trains during the First World War, but these
were usually used as mobile artillery platforms.
The more fluid situations of the Civil War,
in which the armies were much smaller and
there often were no fixed front lines, brought
forth greater use of armored trains.
A train can carry an enormous load of
weapons and manpower. The typical armored
train had an armored locomotive, and up
to six cars fitted out as weapons platforms.
These had one or two field guns each, plus
machine guns. A single train could easily
bring a battalion’s
worth of firepower to bear on its target.
A typical Bolshevik early armored train
with two armored wagons had a crew of 95:
24 to work the train itself, and 71 to
man the weapons.
Russia did not have an advanced automotive
industry capable of turning out tanks and
armored cars (few nations did in 1919), but
the Russian factories that produced locomotives
and rolling stock could easily turn their
hands to making military trains. Designs became
more sophisticated, with armored turrets for
the machine guns and cannon. By early 1921,
the Red Army alone had 122 armored trains
in service, not counting locally-made improvised
versions. Many of the trains carried naval
guns ranging from 3-inch to 6-inch caliber,
and usually drew their crews from the highly-motivated,
pro-Bolshevik crews of the former Tsarist
Baltic and Black Sea fleets. The sailors also
had a much higher literacy rate than the typical
army soldier, and often had technical training
An early-model armored train.
Red Army practice teamed the trains in groups
of three. A light armored train was armed
with machine guns, carrying an infantry company
and sometimes even cavalry. The heavy armored
train’s big naval cannon provided the
fire support. Finally, a maintenance train
was ready to deal with the armored train’s
greatest weakness: damaged tracks.
By 1920 the Red Army was using armored trains
in groups, sometimes six or more of them at
a time. And on several occasions, armored
trains fought other armored trains belonging
to the White faction or to the Polish army.
“In recent battles armored trains
have been the most serious and terrible
read a Polish order of the day. “They
are well designed, acting surprisingly decisively,
have large amounts of firepower and are
a linchpin of the enemy’s strategy.
Our infantry is powerless against enemy
The same re-armament
plan that brought out a series of new
tanks in the early 1930s also called for new,
purpose-built armored trains. The standard
BP-35 armored train used many components from
the tank program (for example, the same 76.2mm
turret as the T-35 heavy tank). When the Nazis
attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, the
Red Army had 34 light and 19 heavy armored
trains, while the NKVD had another 25 armored
trains (many of them Civil War veterans) and
36 self-propelled armored wagons (a large
locomotive sporting several tank turrets).
Armored trains proved themselves extremely
useful in covering the Red Army’s retreats
during the summer of 1941 — all of the
rail lines ahead of them were in friendly
hands, and they could unleash their massive
firepower from secure locations. Soviet workshops
began producing more trains as quickly as
possible, and by late September two dozen
more had taken to the rails.
Two turret-mounted 107mm howitzers of a BP-35
The big armored trains proved vulnerable
to German air attacks, and in January 1942
Soviet factories began turning out a new design,
the OB-3, with more, smaller wagons each carrying
one gun turret or anti-aircraft gun. This
would allow the crew to jettison damaged cars
without losing as much of the train’s
firepower, and their lower profile would make
them more difficult to hit. But armor quality
was poor (often a pair of mild steel plates
with several inches of concrete poured between
them) and the weapons were the leftovers from
the Red Army’s depots — guns of
French and Polish manufacture captured during
the Civil War. Twenty of the 65 OB-3 trains
built were lost in action.
The final Soviet armored train design was
the BP-43, a modified OB-3 with real armor
and tank turrets from the T-34 production
line. Twenty-one of these were built by the
end of the war.
In the game, armored trains are, of course,
limited to movement on railroad tracks.
A train can both move and fire in the same
action segment, unlike a tank, but otherwise
is treated just like a tank. The piece provided
in the game represents a smaller vehicle,
the M1938 self-propelled armored wagon,
and as such can be destroyed by anti-tank
Don’t wait to put Fire in the Steppe on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to get it before anyone else!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.