In-Box Review
M54 Gun Truck 'Black Widow'
M54 Gun Truck 'Black Widow' conversion set for Italeri kit
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by: Pawel Krupowicz [ VODNIK ]

Vietnam War gun trucks – a makeshift solution to supply convoy protection problem – are quite a popular modeling subject. True armored wheeled vehicles, like M706 / V100 were only available in small numbers for convoy security duties, so regular 2.5 or more often 5 ton trucks were field modified by addition of armor plates and various weapons to perform these tasks. The “Black Widow” was one of such gun trucks and was in one of the most common configuration used – it was based on 5 ton M54 cargo truck with simple armor plates added to the cab and large box made of armor steel plates placed inside the cargo bed. Three M2HB .50 cal machine guns on pintle mounts were installed inside that box.

The biggest problem for modelers wanting to build models of most common Vietnam gun trucks based on 5 ton trucks is that there is no plastic model available in 1/35 scale of M54 truck. The only post-WW2 American 5 ton trucks made in plastic in that scale are Italeri kits of the M939 family trucks. These models while generally quite nice are rather simple and need some work to make them fully accurate. Also they represent a truck design two generations later than M54 (there were M800 series trucks used between M54 and M939 family). In recent years a couple of full resin kits of M54 family trucks in 1/35 scale appeared on the market, but these are quite expensive. Luckily a cheaper solution also appeared and it is now possible to buy a conversion set (Real Model offers one for example) for the Italeri M939 series kits that changes them to the M54 truck. Once we get a full resin kit or an Italeri kit plus a conversion set and are able to build an M54 truck, turning it into a gun truck is a relatively easy task, as these were usually quite simple constructions.

Much more difficult can be reproducing the colorful and complex artwork that decorated most of these vehicles.
Real Model however decided to provide an all-in-one solution and now offer three conversion kits that in one set includes parts needed both to convert the Italeri M939 series kit to a M54 truck and to turn it into a specific Vietnam War gun truck. The “Black Widow” set reviewed here is one of these limited edition (only 100 copies of each was made!) kits.

kit contents
Immediately after opening the sturdy box in which the set is sold, I realized that it is one of those “WOW!-inducing” products. The sheer amount of multimedia parts included is impressive. We get:
- about 130 dark green resin parts
- 4 frets of photo-etched parts (made for Real Model by Eduard)
- Two colorful printed paper sheets with maps, cigarette boxes, beer boxes, MRE rations, magazine covers etc.
- A set of Echelon Fine Details mirrors for 5-ton trucks (four mirrors included, so two can be used on another model)
- 3 brass barrels for M2HB machine guns with separate brass cooling sleeves
- Small clear acetate sheet with instrument faces for PE instrument panel
- Decal sheet with all markings needed to reproduce the “Black Widow” gun truck
- Instructions printed in color on eight A4 size sheets

The quality of the parts is very good with the PE parts of typical Eduard high quality. The brass barrels for the machine guns are excellent – I’m not sure what is the original manufacturer of these M2HB barrels, but these are probably the best I’ve seen. The decals are cleanly printed on a thin glossy decal film and the resin parts are generally cleanly cast with slight warpage noticeable on only a couple of parts, but nothing that some heating and straightening wouldn’t fix. There are small air bubble holes present on several parts, but they all seem to be in places where they either won’t be visible after assembly or should be easy to eliminate. All resin parts have resin casting blocks attached – this means a lot of cleanup and this needs to be done with care as on some parts it is not immediately obvious where the block ends and the actual part begins, but anyone with at least some experience in building resin kits or conversion sets should be able to deal with it without serious problems.

The instructions are presented mostly in the form of photos of either the partially assembled or fully finished model with part numbers marked on them (separate images show all included resin parts with their numbers marked). Maybe these instructions would get clearer once one actually starts building a model, but now by looking at these photos I had serious problems guessing the exact location of some of the parts. Only for some of the PE parts did the instructions include the usual Eduard-style exploded assembly diagrams. Some parts are not shown on model photos at all and the modeler must guess how to properly install them (the PE windshield armor is one of them). The biggest problem is that it is not clearly shown which parts from the Italeri kit should be used, so proper assembly sequence is a mystery. In fact I believe that photos in the instructions show a full M54 truck kit from Real Model, not Italeri kit parts with the conversion set, as there are several parts visible there that are not present in the Italeri kit (e.g. air couplings, steering mechanism etc.) and not included in this conversion set either. Some parts shown on images are clearly not Italeri pieces, but nicer resin versions (probably from the full M54 kit) but are not included in this set either, so the modeler has to use Italeri ones instead (like mirror frames, mud flaps, suspension details, rear wheels etc.). This is very confusing and a little annoying, as the resulting model wouldn’t look like what is show on the photos.

Some images in instructions were taken from full the M54 cargo truck set instructions and show parts that should not in fact be used with the “Black Widow”, like tall vertical exhaust pipes with PE mounting bracket and shield. These parts are included in the set even though they are not needed for this particular gun truck. Other unused but included parts are e.g. WW2 style .50 cal ammo boxes , machine gun pintle mounts and ammo trays present on one of Eduard PE frets – resin parts are meant to be used instead, so all these PE details can go directly to the spare parts box.

After checking the set contents it becomes obvious that depending on the particular Italeri kit used as a base, spending some extra money may be necessary to finish a “Black Widow” model. Italeri offered two versions of their model: one was a M925 truck with ten smaller wheels (duals on rear axles) and the other was a M923A1 “Big Foot” truck with six larger wheels (single wheels on rear axles). As the Real Model set only includes wheels with civilian style tires for the front axle (as such were used on the “Black Widow”) plus a few similar spare wheels to be put on the cargo bed, the modeler must find another source for eight wheels with standard military tires for the rear axles. One solution is to use the Italeri M925 kit as a base, as it includes not great, but useable wheels for rear axles. Another solution is to purchase a separate set of standard 5-ton truck wheels e.g. from Real Model. Those modelers however who purchased the gun truck set and planned to use it with the M923A1 kit can be unpleasantly surprised that they can’t in fact do it without investing additional money in a wheel set.

I already listed some parts that are included, but not used and also mentioned some parts shown in instructions, but not present in the set, so it’s time to describe what is included and actually used to build a “Black Widow” model. It looks like the only parts used from the Italeri kit are the suspension frame and all other suspension components, plus side mirror frames (and possibly rear wheels as described earlier). It is not indicated in the instructions what should be used for the windshield transparency – the Italeri clear part or maybe a piece of clear styrene sheet cut to proper size (not included)?

In the set we get a complete resin cab, including full interior, with all necessary exterior details including M54 series “trademark” air filter cylinders on the right fender. Some finer details are included as PE pieces. The instrument panel is included as a PE part with acetate instrument faces, but surprisingly to use it a modeler must first remove the raised instrument details from the resin dashboard. Side mirrors are included as resin parts, but frames are not and Italeri kit parts must be used (and these parts aren’t particularly nice and in fact not 100% correct for a M54 truck).

Resin parts look very good, and seem to be accurate for M54 truck, but the surface of some of them will need a little work – the cab doors and fenders have some imperfections on the surface that may be visible after painting if not taken care of earlier (although in case of “Black Widow” gun truck the outer door surface is covered with separate PE armor plate). Headlight lenses are cast from solid green resin and for better appearance could be drilled out and replaced with MV lenses or similar.

The cargo bed is included as one large casting with separate front and rear walls – this part is a modified copy of the Italeri piece, so good fit to the Italeri kit frame seems to be a given. Small PE parts are provided for canvas cover hooks, but are not the correct shape (should be pigtail shape). Also included to build a base M54 truck are: front bumper and rear bumperetts (PE parts – not mentioned in instructions!), winch details, fuel tank and storage boxes and other small details that attach to the truck frame.

“Black Widow” specific parts for the track cab consist of three PE parts – one armor plate for the windshield and two plates for the doors. Obviously much more parts are included for the armored box on the cargo bed. The outer shell of the box is made up of four large PE panels with several smaller parts for reinforcing strips and other structural elements. Inside the bigger armor box is a second smaller one and for that we get two big PE panels plus again some structural details. For the floor of the inner armored box the set includes one large resin part that imitates a large number of .50 cal ammo boxes covering almost the entire floor with some additional accessories cast on the surface (e.g. larger ammo cans, food containers, oil cans and even helmets).

Also cast on the same part is a base for a pedestal of one of the machine guns. A large bracket is provided that mounts that pedestal to the rear wall of the armored box, but surprisingly the set does not include a tube that is needed for the pedestal itself. Instructions show a brass tube installed there, but such tube is not in the set. Similar tubes also have to be used for the two side machine gun positions – they are again shown as brass tubes in instructions and even described as a “tube”, but not given in the Real Model set. Resin parts are provided for machine gun pintle mounts and ammo trays with ammo boxes cast on them. Gun receivers are also resin parts and barrel cooling sleeves are cast with them, but these have to be removed to add the much nicer brass parts. Some smaller details for the machine guns are provided both as resin and PE parts, but instructions show only the resin parts used.

While I don’t have “Black Widow” photos clear enough to show all the details of the armored box construction, I believe that Real Model simplified it a bit. I think that the there was a more robust skeleton made of steel profile bars to which the armor plates were attached than what Real Model provided. For example photos of the interior of other similar gun trucks clearly show thicker steel profiles around the upper edge of the armor box, while Real Model only provided flat PE strip for this detail. It’s easy to add some more brass or styrene profiles though, so it’s not a real problem. All individual armor plates provided as etched brass parts have small holes along their edges, just like the real plates had. The problem is that on the real truck some of these holes were used for bolts or rivets when the armor was attached and these rivets/bolt heads are not represented in the set, leaving just holes everywhere. Again it’s not a particularly big problem, but adding these details adds some extra work for a modeler.

The set includes a nice decal sheet with all markings visible on photos of the real “Black Widow”. From the large two color truck name, through big spider web, white stars and warning texts in Vietnamese, to correct bumper numbers – everything is included and photos in instructions clearly show where each of the decals goes. These photos also clearly show which parts of the truck were painted white. The yellow “nose” of the hood has to be painted, as decals for it are not provided.

It is important to mention that while the set includes practically everything that is needed to convert the Italeri kit to a M54-based gun truck, the resulting model will still inherit some problems from its base kit that were not addressed by Real Model. The Italeri kit does not include some details, like air couplings, brake chambers or steering mechanism parts and none of these parts were added by Real Models to this set (even though some of them are visible on photos in the instruction sheet, as they are part of the M54 full kit).

Overall I personally like the set very much, but it’s certainly not for everyone. I think that the instructions are quite poor and confusing and can be quite challenging for someone less experienced in building multimedia kits. Putting all these parts together itself shouldn’t be too difficult, but figuring out how to do it exactly can take some time. I also don’t like the fact that images used on the set box and in the instructions show detail parts that are not included in the set. And the last gripe is that the set should either be clearly marked as designed for the M925 Italeri kit, or should include the military style wheels for the rear axles to let it be used with M923A1 “Big Foot” kit.

Now the good things: Included PE parts are excellent and brass machine gun barrels are even better. Decals seem to be very good as well – hopefully they’ll work as well on the model as they look on their backing paper. Resin parts are nicely detailed and well cast. The inclusion of printed paper accessories and Echelon mirrors is just a great bonus. The Real Model set may require the addition of some small details here and there to be as accurate and detailed as I would like to it to be, but it certainly is an excellent and unique product as it is now.
Highs: Resin parts are nicely detailed and well cast. PE parts are excellent and brass machine gun barrels are even better. Decals seem to be very good as well.
Lows: Confusing instructions. Some parts shown on the box and in instructions are not included in the set. The set cannot be used with Italeri M923A1 kit without getting additional wheel set.
Verdict: I personally like the set very much, but because of its complexity it’s certainly not for everyone. The set requires addition of some small details to be as accurate and detailed as I would like to it to be, but it certainly is an excellent product.
Percentage Rating
  Scale: 1:35
  Mfg. ID: RM35128
  Suggested Retail: €90.00
  PUBLISHED: Sep 09, 2008
  NATIONALITY: United States

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About Pawel Krupowicz (Vodnik)

As first lines of this bio appear under all my reviews, I feel it is important that I start with this information: In March 2005 I ventured into the other side of modeling "industry" - I was not only building model kits, but also helping design them as a consultant for Dragon Models Ltd.. These days...

Copyright ©2021 text by Pawel Krupowicz [ VODNIK ]. All rights reserved.


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