Special Hobby 1/32 A5M2b Claude

KIT #: 32034
PRICE: 5900 yen at Hobby Link Japan
DECALS: Two options
REVIEWER: Tom Cleaver


One wonders why it is that fighter pilots, who operate some of the most advanced aerial technology available, are often so technologically conservative. Rather than leap forward, they are generally dragged kicking and screaming into every advance made in the art of fighter aircraft design. Nowhere was this more true than in the transition from the biplane to the monoplane. As early as 1916, Bristol had produced the M.1C "Bullet," 20 mph faster than the new German fighter designs that would destroy in less than six weeks of operations over the Somme the RFC's hard‑won air supremacy on the Western Front, and put the service through such meat‑grinders as "Bloody April," due to the overwhelming supremacy of the German Albatros over its opponents. RFC reluctance to operate a monoplane due to pre‑war accidents that seemed to stress lack of structural strength in the monoplane design led directly to these near‑catastrophic losses.

 By the 1930s it was clear that if the fighter was to retain its supremacy over its enemy, the bomber, that new technology would have to be embraced; the fighting biplane of the First World War style had simply run out of further opportunity for development and improvement. Fighter pilots, used to the high‑g maneuvering of a biplane, believed they would be at a disadvantage flying a monoplane. Thus, many of the early specifications for monoplane fighters required the airplane to exhibit a performance more akin to that achievable with a biplane, rather than stress the strengths of the monoplane and modify fighting tactics accordingly.

 In 1935, Jiro Horikoshi of Mitsubishi was given the task of meeting the Imperial Japanese Navy's imaginative 9‑Shi requirements, which had been created by LCDR Hideo Sawai. What was revolutionary about this development was that it did not call for a "carrier fighter" ‑ which all agreed would never meet the performance of its land‑based opponents ‑ but a fighter per se, with maximum performance. LCDR Sawai believed that carrier compatibility could be created once the fighter existed.

Horikoshi's Ki.14 design, which first flew in 1936, met the requirements through the most rigid weight consciousness ever applied to a Mitsubishi project, using the most advanced aerodynamic principles and construction methods. The airplane actually came out weighing less than planned, and was the lightest fighter of its type anywhere in the world. Horikoshi had achieved an airplane with the performance of a monoplane, and the maneuverability of a biplane, albeit by limiting future growth of the design due to the weight‑consciousness in its development.  Despite the light weight, Mitsubishi was proud to proclaim that throughout its entire service, no A5M was ever lost due to structural failure.

 The Ki.14 was pitted against the Nakajima A4N biplane fighter, and no less an authority than legendary fighter pilot Minoru Genda declared the biplane the better fighter. However, when the rules were changed to allow climb‑and‑dive tactics as well as traditional dogfighting maneuvers, the monoplane completely outperformed the biplane, which could not match it in the vertical plane. 

 After these tests, even the diehard Genda became a supporter.  In September 1936, the Ki.14 passed all service trials and was accepted as the Type 96 Carrier Fighter, Model 1, or A5M1.  Armament consisted of two 7.62mm machine guns with 500 rpg, and maximum speed was 252 mph.  

 Performance had been degraded below that demonstrated by the prototype due to the use of the 580 h.p. Kotobuki 2 KAI-ko engine.  After the production of 77 A5M1s, Mitsubishi sought to restore performance through the adoption of the 690 h.p. Kotobuki 2 KAI-3ko engine using a 3-bladed prop, which resulted in a top speed of 265 mph.  With a deeper dorsal spine and a different cowling, the designation changed to A5M2ko, and production began in March 1937 as the Type 96 Model 2.

 The “China Incident” began on July 7, 1937, which lent urgency to the equipment of operational units with the new fighter, which were first assigned to the 13th Kokutai. The quality of the A5M2a was clearly demonstrated on its first mission, September 19, 1937, in an attack against Chinese airfields around Shanghai. 18 A5Ms led by Lt. Shichiro Yamashita met over 50 Curtiss Hawk IIIs and Boeing 281s (export versions of the P‑26) in the course of two missions that day. The Japanese claimed 26 of the defending fighters without loss! For the first time, a Japanese airplane that was superior to its Western contemporaries was in service. This would be clearly demonstrated in the battles over Nanking in November and December, 1937, when the A5Ms met the I‑152 and I‑16 in combat, flown by Soviet “volunteers,” and claimed 38 of the Soviet fighters for no loss in their first encounter with the I-152.  While there was little to choose between the I-152 and the A5M in terms of aircraft performance, the Japanese pilots held an edge due to superior training, while the armored Soviet fighter was a more difficult “kill” for the lightly-armed A5M. When the I-16 was encountered, the A5M proved to have superior maneuverability in both the vertical and horizontal plane.

The first losses were sustained in February 1938, when four A5ms were shot down during an air battle that saw 8 I-152s and 8 I-16s go down over Hankow.  During the spring and summer of 1938, A5Ms were increasingly involved in combat against both Soviet and Chinese opponents, and continued to demonstrate the superiority of Japanese pilot training.  The first pilot to become an “ace” (defined as 10 victories by the IJN) was Warrant Officer Kiyozumi Koga, in March 1938.  Tetsuo Iwamoto began a career that would see him become the top-scoring A5M pilot of the China war, scoring five victories in his first combat on February 25, 1938, over Nanchang. 

The A5M2otsu entered production in the summer of 1938, using the Kotobuki 3 engine in a modified cowling, with an enclosed cockpit canopy.  The tradition-minded pilots did not see the new development as an improvement, since it was heavier and had a slower rate of climb, and they believed the enclosed canopy impaired their vision in combat.  The canopy was dropped and the windshield was extended to create a semi-enclosed cockpit in the late production A5M2otsu, which appeared in September 1938.

 The “definitive” A5M4 entered production in late 1938, being primarily distinguished from the A5M2otsu by provision of a standard radio. By that time, however, Chinese aerial opposition was vastly reduced from what it had been a year previously. Nevertheless, in early 1939, the A5M4 fought some of the last Soviet units over Hankow, and emerged the winner in these battles, too. 

 The fighting in China produced seven A5M aces, with Tetsuo Iwamoto the leader with 14 victories.  Number 7, Petty officer Sadaaki Akamatsu scored 11. Both of these pilots would be among the top scorers of the coming Pacific War.  Saburo Sakai also scored 4 victories flying the A5M during the China war, bringing him to notice as the top ace he would become.

 By late 1939, the Japanese Navy had largely withdrawn from the Chinese war, and was involved in preparation for the coming Pacific War. The limitations of the A5M were such that a new design was called for, the 14‑Shi fighter. Basing the design on the proven characteristics of stringent weight control and maximum usage of modern design technique learned with the A5M, Horikoshi created his masterpiece, the A6M Type 0 fighter. 

 The A5M4 would see combat against the US Navy when the Enterprise and Yorktown raided the Marshall Islands in February 1942, where they claimed 17 Navy bombers shot down with four losses to Wildcat escorts.  A5M4s also formed the original fighter group assigned to Rabaul in March 1942, while the light carrier Ryujo operated A5M4s throughout the campaign in the Philippines, and the light carrier Shoho had A5M4s aboard as late as the Battle of the Coral Sea, where two A5Ms and three A6Ms destroyed three of the attacking TBD Devastators on May 7, 1942.  By the end of 1942, there were no A5Ms in operational use.


 For an airplane as important to Japanese aviation history as the A5M, modelers have been badly served in getting good kits.  There was a very old Japanese kit in the 1960s which was in 1/50 scale and had moveable control surfaces.  There was nothing else in 1/48 injection‑molded kit form until Fine Molds came out with their very expensive models in the early 1990s.  US$70 for a kit was a bit much, and the models never sold well.  There was also a Japanese cast resin "garage kit" by T.C. Berg, which had nice surface detail but required a modeler to drill out the interior to create a cockpit.  Additionally, Eagles Talon did a vacuform A5M4 in 1/48, but it was not one of their better creations.

 Classic Airframes' A5M4 was the first really good kit of this airplane, and still makes into a good model if you find it at dealer's tables.  The kit comes on two sprues of light grey plastic, with a bag of resin for the engine and cockpit interior, and provides decals for two A5M4s aboard Soryu in 1939.  Surface detailing is inscribed and petite, with good fabric representation.

 This new kit by Special Hobby is the first time the A5M has been offered in 1/32 scale.  Those familiar with the Classic Airframes kit will recognize this kit as a pantograph of the earlier kit, which is not surprising since MPM was the company that produced the CA kit.  The kit is all plastic with some photoetch detail for levers and controls, as well as seatbelts, but surprisingly enough, not an instrument panel.  The kit provides decals for "3‑108/Houkoku 212 Teikoku Seimei‑go," an A5M2otsu of the 12th Kokutai in late 1938, and “9-122", which is identified elsewhere as an A5M4 of the 14th Kokutai on Weichow Island in 1940.  The later A5M4 drop tank is provided in the kit, though not the earlier A5M2 tank.


Construction is straightforward, with the kit being quite simple overall.  The cockpit is catered for with injection-molded sidewalls, fore and aft bulkheads, floor, seat, controls and instrument panel. I painted the cockpit with Tamiya “Mitsubishi Cockpit Green” and then assembled it. One has to do a lot of test-fitting here, because the instructions are not too clear as to where various bits actually go, and it is easy to end up with side walls that will not fit with the instrument panel.  There are photoetch bits for levers and such, but the cockpit opening is small enough one can dispense with these without harming the overall look of the model.

 Fit overall is good. I assembled the rest of the model as two sub-assemblies - fuselage and wing - then joined them and attached the horizontal stabilizers and fixed landing gear.  I needed filler along the fuselage seams and the wing-fuselage joints and the horizontal stabilizer joint (which has mounting tabs, a first for an MPM kit).  I assembled the cowling, which will slip over the engine, and kept both cowling and engine off until I was through with paint and decals.



 The A5M4 is one of those Japanese airplanes that looks much different than modelers had been led to believe over the years.  The airplane was the first all‑metal airplane the Imperial Navy took to sea, and they quickly learned what happens to unprotected aluminum in a saltwater environment.  The solution was to paint the airplanes with a protective coat called "Ame Iro," one of those clear Japanese colors like the interior blues and greens.  In this case, the paint is a clear lacquer with a yellowish tinge. Exactly how yellow is not known, and when one looks at the black and white photos of A5Ms, a good argument can be made that they are really silver. Special Hobby shows the airplane on the boxart with a very light yellowish color, and then covers their bet by calling for silver in the painting instructions.  When I did my CA A5M4, I finished it with a strong coat of Tamiya Clear Yellow that really ended up being “gold”, as have other modelers, I concluded after looking at the boxart here and then at available photos, that the Ame Iro was most likely a very thin, light yellow, which is why it is easy to miss. 

 I therefore painted the model with Talon “aluminum,” then overpainted with a coat of Future which had a small amount of Tamiya “clear yellow” in it, thinned with alcohol.  This is not an easy paint to control, and the finish is “blotchy.”  However, the photos I have of “3-108" look somewhat “blotchy,” so perhaps the Japanese had the same problem.  It's supposed to be a very thin paint, and the airplane should look "gold" from some angles and "silver" from others, depending on the light, which this does.  A modeler could take the easy way out here and just do the model with aluminum paint, and no one could say it was wrong with any certainty.

 The tail was painted with Gunze-Sangyo “Red Madder” and the cowling with Tamiya “Semi-Gloss Black.”  Looking at photos, the finish appears glossy, so after I applied the decals, I gave the model an overall coat of Xtracrylix “Satin” clear coat.  


 The decals went down under Micro-Sol with no problem.  I liked the fact that the upper wing Teikoku Seimei‑go came with separate pieces to limit the amount of backing, which would affect the final finish.


 I painted the wheels with Tamiya “NATO Black,” then attached the engine, exhausts, cowling and prop, and unmasked the windscreen.  Since photos show these airplanes well-maintained, I did not weather the model further.


 I've always liked the A5M “Claude”, and this kit makes up into a very nice model of this important Japanese fighter. It looks good sitting next to the Tamiya A6M2.  The model overall is a very easy project, for those with limited time to apply to the hobby.  Highly recommended.

August 2010

 Review kit courtesy of HLJ.   

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