One of the lesser-known variants of the Soviet Red Army’s legendary T-34 tank series is one that was produced in very small numbers, and was assigned the specific role as a tank killer. That variant was an adaptation of the T-34 mounting a very-high velocity ZiS-4 57mm L/69 main gun in place of the far more well-known 76mm cannon, and designated the T-34/57.
What is often overlooked about the T-34 series of tanks is that, at the beginning of their service, the models suffered some rather severe design flaws and teething troubles. The lack of a 360-degree commander’s hatch, poor quality gearboxes, and under-performing engines that had exceedingly short service lives were some of the issues that plagued the early versions of the T-34. In addition, the cramped crew compartment and two-man turret hampered crew effectiveness, a situation somewhat ameliorated with the larger turrets fitted to later models, but not completely addressed in Soviet tank design until the introduction of the T-64 in the 1960s. Among the other shortcomings of the very early T-34s was the fitting of the short-barreled (30.5 caliber) L-11 76mm gun, which was designed as a dual purpose cannon intended to fire HE as well as AP rounds. As a result, the L-11, like the M2/M3 75mm guns of the early M4 Shermans in US inventory, had mediocre muzzle velocity and poor penetration capability.
One solution to the problem of the poor performance of the L-11 main gun of the T-34 was to fit a ZiS-4 57mm gun (an adaptation of the ZiS-2 antitank gun) into the main gun position. The long-barreled ZiS-4 had impressive penetration capability, significantly better than the L-11, somewhat better even than the follow-on 76mm cannon, the 46-caliber F-34 which was built in such massive numbers. Somewhere between 40 and 50 of the T-34/57s were produced in 1941, and were used in the role as tank-killers alongside the much more numerous T-34/76 (including many retrofitted with the F-34). Most of the T-34/57s were used in defense of Moscow in November and December of 1941, in service with the 21st Tank Brigade. The concept, while successful, was not advanced, in large measure due to the difficulty in manufacturing a new caliber requiring very high quality projectiles, and the fact that the new F-34 cannon could penetrate any German tank at combat ranges. A number of Soviet tank commanders operating T-34/57s scored multiple kills against the armor of 1st Panxer Division (XXXXI Motorized Corps) north of Moscow.
In 1943, the idea of the 57mm-armed T-34 as a tank killer was revived again, as more powerful cannon and heavier armor began to adorn the German PZKW III and PZKW IV, making them a match for the T-34/76. Another one hundred or so T-34/57s were built in 1943, but by then the development of the new and much-superior 85mm D5T main gun (based on the 85mm antiaircraft gun) made the 57mm variant superfluous.
Still, the T-34/57 remains an interesting variant, a little-known one that served admirably in the desperate defense of Moscow in the winter of 1941, and was resurrected to successfully counter the more capable Panzers later in the war.