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.

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