Early versions of the T-34 demonstrated their top performance during the Kursk / Citadel battle in 1943. Their superiority on the battle ground was reached not due to their technical perfection, as in this respect German tanks were largely comparable and in some instances (Tigers and Panthers), far superior to their Soviet counterparts, but was due to the overwhelming numbers used by the Red Army. The price paid for the victory was high. Around 9000 tanks were lost in combat against 2200 German tanks. It also became evident that the T-34 could hardly cope with the new examples of German armor, and that is was the time to shift the priority from mass production to major modification of the T-34.
T-34-85 interior. Note the ammo crates on the floor of the tank.
The special commission assigned by the Party investigated and analyzed the nature of the damage to the hundreds and thousands of destroyed tanks. The attempt to add extra armor on the T-34 was made, and the result was named the T-43. The conducted experiments with the T-43 proved that when dressed in the extra armor, the T-34 lost most of its best features, such as maneuverability and speed, without any real gain in defense against deadly the 8.8 cm gun. The new tank needed not so much the better armor, but the better gun. Simultaneously, independent experiments were conducted with the KV-13 in order to create the so-called universal tank, or, main battle tank. However, the KV-13, while having the same 85 mm gun, was heavier and more complex in production, so the preference was given to the T-34. The KV-13 design was later used to create the IS-2, which finally offered the proper opposition to Tigers.
In August 1943, a special meeting of the GKO (State Defense Committee) decided that a more powerful gun should be installed on the T-34. In the end of 1943, after testing and experimenting with guns, turrets, and caliber, it became clear that the 85-mm gun could not be installed in the old turret. The designing of the new one was carried out by the production works No.112 "Red Sormovo" in Gorkij.
On December, 15,1943, on the basis of three hull prototypes and a turret yet to be finished, the GKO made the decision to start mass production of the T-34-85. At this time, no gun for three independent projects was ready to be installed, as all were to be adapted to the new turret. The work on the improvement of the turret design allowed curing old problems with the turret by increasing its size. At last, the tank commander could command the tank, as one more member was added to the crew. GKO also decided on which gun was to be used (Grabin's). However, the first production T-34-85s had another gun, the (Petrov's D-5T), same as was installed on the SU-85. The hull was practically the same as the T-34 mod. 1943. The gun mask was distinctively different from that of Grabin's ZIS-S-53, which finally went into mass production in January 1944. The changes in the design of the tank did not affect the production. In the spring of 1944, two more plants in Omsk and Nizhnij Tagil joined Plant No.112 in production of T-34-85s.
T-34-85 Turret with commander's cupola allowing all-round vision (introduced partway through the production run of the T-34. Model 1943.
Most T-34-85s rolled off production lines at the plant in Nizhnij Tagil. All three plants made different turrets. The most distinctive was the so called "composite" turret of the Plant No.112. During production, T-34-85s was continuously modified, although the basic shape was retained.
Mass manufacturing of the T-34–85 in the Soviet Union ceased in 1946 (according to some sources, small-scale production continued at the «Krasnoye Sormovo» factory until 1950). As far as the total number of T-34–85 tanks produced at one or another factory, here, just like for the T-34, there exist areas of considerable discrepancy in the numbers cited in various sources.
T-34-85 dismounting tank riders
T-34-85s first saw combat in the spring of 1944 with 1st Guard Tank Army and since then, took part in all the battles of the WWII, Korea, Middle East, and Vietnam arenas. The tanks were exported to many countries after the war. In the hands of experienced tankers, T-34-85 was an awesome weapon despite the Tiger's superiority at long ranges, that is, the Tiger could kill a T-34-85 earlier than the 85 mm gun could bore a hole in its skin. Still, the T-34 stood a good chance of success owing to its maneuverability. The Pz.IV of later versions was roughly comparable to the T-34 in firepower, but the T-34-ka had better dynamic characteristics combined with the effective armoring. Still, the threat from German Faustpatrons forced the introduction of some field modifications, especially during the fight in Berlin (see the photo). The additional screening consisted of a thin 1.5 mm, metal plate or a 3 mm wire mesh welded on the supporting corners. The shield was placed in about 15-20 cm from the main armor on the sides of the hull, turret, and the turret's top. Although the screening effectively deflected the hits of Faustpatrons, further development was stopped with the end of the war. The always increasing production and growing skill of Soviet tankers allowed for the neutralizing of German Tigers and Panthers.