Now is this olive drab?

M4 Sherman tank. Photo by the author

As a follow up to my previously posted “Controversies in scale modeling?” I’d like to talk more about the color olive drab. Much like my post on dunkelgelb, I’m going to go into more detail here.

Olive drab was the standard color for armored and non-armored U.S. vehicles during World War II. Again, I refer you to the excellent article by Steven Zaloga, “Olive Drab.” This article details the reasons why the olive drab paints offered by model paint companies vary so much and why none of them are truly olive drab.

At the end of his article, Zaloga shows samples of olive drab from several different companies. To say they all differ widely is an understatement. Some companies say they have the most authentic color, but let’s explore what that means.

In Zaloga’s article, he does an excellent job of describing why the colors you see in WWII film and photos are not accurate. Colors on old film shift over time and transferring them to new mediums can be difficult. So we’ve probably seen something close to olive drab, but not exactly. 

The use of olive drab by the U.S. Army goes back a long way. It was first established on 11th November, 1918 as a color for tactical vehicles. To set a standard color that could be sent to manufacturers, the Army released Specification 3-1 in 1920 in which listed olive drab as just one of 24 standard colours for Army use. 

This color, called Quartermaster Colour No. 22, (QM Colour 22) was standard for Army vehicles up to and during WWII. The formulation changed several times, but not the specification. In other words, the color remained the same but there were some variations that looked different to the human eye, such as those with gloss finishes.

Here’s where it gets crazy. During the war, shortages of color charts led to some vehicles being painted a color that did not match QM Colour 22. The vehicles were accepted for service anyway. There were also shortages in the material used to make the paint during the early war years, which led to some differences. 

There were also other names for the same color, such as Colour No. 9, which the Corps of Engineers came up with. The Army Air Force also had their own version of olive drab, called USAAF dark Olive Drab, which was darker than QM Colour 22. In an effort to modernize the old Specification 3-1 and consolidate all the colors the services were using, Specification 3-1F/Colour Card Supplement (Rev 1.)  established 72 standard colours and  basic finishes, becoming official on 21st April 1943.

Olive drab was known as Army/Navy (AN) 319 in the new specification and it was the same color as the US Army Ground Forces (AGF) QM Colour 22. After the war, the paint standards were updated again and the AGF olive drab became Federal Standard 34087. This happened on March 1st, 1956. 

The problem came when the next FS update happened in 1968. The color known as FS 34087 changed and did not match the olive drab color used up until that point. It was around this time that scale modelling became popular and model paint companies looked at the new Olive Drab 34087 to make their paint, which of course did not match the wartime shade. 

Many other changes happened to the FS tables in the following years, with colors being switched, added, deleted and re-numbered. So it is important for modelers to check those tables carefully. The former history of wartime olive drab may be confusing, but other factors contribute to disagreement between modelers.

Including color shifting from old film, there are the weathering effects from the elements to take into consideration. Rain, mud, dust and the sun all combine to change the color of a paint considerably. Some paint would fade rapidly in the sun or so much mud would cover areas of a tank that one looking at a tank would think two different colors were used. Also, tanks were not repainted by the crews, but by maintenance crews when the vehicle went back for repairs. They might repaint the left side, for example, after repairs with a fresh coat of paint while the rest of the tank is faded. Again, To the casual observer, it looks like two different colors of paint were used.

Stuart tank, photo by the author

As for museum examples, I have included some photos of tanks and vehicles I took at the Armed Forces History Museum in Largo, Florida. Due to the lighting effects in the museum and the settings on my digital camera, the color of the vehicles can vary somewhat but are still within a certain standard. I think the museum did a good job with the painting and this counts as not all museums are meticulous when it comes to painting vehicles. 

The same issues for model paints also turn up in the field of WW2 vehicle restorations. Companies make paint for vehicle restoration that aim to be as close as possible to olive drab, but there may be some slight differences.

So what’s a modeler to do? I would take Zaloga’s advice and start with a close color, then modify it with washes. And don’t worry about what other people think. This is your project.

Dunkelgelb for dummies


Is this dunkelgelb? Photo courtesy of Getty
A few posts ago I wrote about the “controversy” surrounding the correct color of dunkelgelb (literally “dark yellow”)  a color used on German vehicles during World War II. This is important to many modelers obsessed with historical detail. The only other color that gets more press is olive drab.

The question comes up because several hobby paint companies like Tamiya, Testors, Model Masters, Vallejo, Humbrol, Life Color, Italeri and others all have paints called dunkelgelb, but they all vary considerably from each other. So the new modeler asks “Which one should I use?”

The answer is simple, but the reasons are not. Taking historical research to a new level, many modelers have looked into the history of this color in detail. Here’s one for example. There are many reasons why what you see in old photos and restored vehicles is not correct.

First, there are many photos of German vehicles in black and white which makes identifying colors difficult at best, but some people have written extensively on the subject. Second, in the few color photos, the film gets old and the colors shift, which gives a false impression. 

I’ll let modeler and author Steve Zaloga tackle this one. 

  • Nearly all TV documentaries using World War II colour footage are created using video tape that was transferred from colour film. I have worked with honest-to-goodness original WW II colour film, and the condition and colour quality of the film varied considerably. To begin with, wartime colour film was notoriously subject to colour shifting due to chemical instability. Secondly, if extreme care with colour balance is not taken during the film-video transfer process, changes result in the colours. During the editing of the tape, further colour variations are introduced unless colour balance is precisely set. And finally, the same situation applies when the master video edit tape is dubbed for dissemination. This says nothing about commercial VHS copies which are often several generations removed from the original film stock. Many of the same sorts of problems exist with colour photos. By the time they are printed in a book or magazine, they are several generations removed from the original, and with all the care in the world they will differ from the original. 

Here’s a link to the original article.  It’s about the color olive drab, but many points apply also to dunkelgelb.

That’s one reason. Another is the fact that armored vehicles during a war go through all sorts of weather conditions. Snow, sleet, rain, mud, dust, sun, sand, you name it. These vehicles are maintained so they can fight and protect the crew, not to look pretty. These elements take a toll on the paint and fades or wears it away. So a brand new tank from the factory will not look new after several months  of fighting. The colors will look different from the standard. 

Generally, they are not repainted by the crews, but by maintenance crews when the vehicle goes back for repairs.  They might repaint the left side, for example, after repairs with a fresh coat of paint while the rest of the tank is faded. To the casual observer, it looks like two different colors of paint were used.

That’s all during wartime. Years later, when a tank or vehicle is recovered and restored by a museum, the paint has faded so much it can be difficult to tell if it’s the “right” color. The museum rebuilds the vehicle and repaints it anyway, and there aren’t many restorers who care about the proper wartime color, they just want it to look good enough.

The above is mentioned in the article linked above, along with a few others. 

Another point is that the Germans had a lot of trouble with their supplies, including paint, because of the incessant Allied bombing towards the end of the war. Often the right ingredients were not available and the factories did the best they could. This accounts for color differences also.

 The camouflage paint was supplied to the German crews in paste form and diluted with gasoline or even water, and depending on how much was used, the colors changed. Often the painting was done in a hurry because they needed to get their tanks ready for the next battle and a tank is a large object to paint. Imagine if you had to paint your massive tank in two hours because there were some U.S. Forces coming your way.

So what does this all mean for the modeler? The short answer is that there is no simple answer. Modelers have debated which paint color they prefer on their models in forums such as The Miniatures Page,  Missing Lynx, Armorama, Military Modelling, Track Link and others.

There is one more point to make and that is the German government has a official register of colors for all government  and commercial equipment dating back to 1927, called the RAL colour standard. There were two colors in the standard, RAL 7028 and RAL 7028  Ausgabe 1944 which were used during the war. The Germans used these colors along with a few other similar colors on their armor and vehicles. The original  samples of each color no longer exist and the standard itself has changed over the years, colors getting different numbers, colors being dropped and added and so on.  As a result, the modern  RAL standard does not have a color with the number 7028, so this useless to today’s modelers. More information on this is located here

The general consensus is that a modeler should choose a color that they think looks “right” and stick with it. Simple really, but each modeler has an idea of what they want their model to look like. Anyway, modelers can always change the base color by shading and dry brushing. At model shows,there will be many models painted in different shades of dunkelgelb and because of the above factors, none of them will be the “true” dunkelgelb, but they will be close.