Since the beginning of 20th century tanks became the most important kind of weapon - they not only give the advantage of their armour and mobility, but they can dominate the battleground. Here are the top 10 best tanks of all time - the ground-breaking constructions that were best in their own way.
Panzerkampfwagen IV (PzKpfw IV) was German medium tank developed in 1930s as improved variation based on Panzer III tank. While in 1939 Panzer III was the main tank for Wehrmacht due to its balance between armour, speed and firepower, the Panzer IV was developed as less universal tank that was suppose to deal with enemy tanks and fortifications. At that point Allied forces had very little tanks that would be dangerous to Panzer III, but while the technology was progressing Panzer IV became the main battle tank (before arrival of Panthers and Tigers). With far better gun (in some versions the anti-tank guns were used), powerful armour (up to 80mm) and decent manoeuvrability Panzer IV proved to be a deadly weapon that was used by the Germans on all fronts (from invasion of Poland to the defence of Berlin). Panzer IV was also the most exported German tank of the World War 2 - from Finland to Romania and from Spain to Syria they proved to be very valuable (Syria used them until Six-Day War of 1967).
Renault FT was developed during World War I as construction completely different from other tanks that were still experimental weapon - while British and German built a land cruisers armed with several guns or machine guns and more than 10 crew members the construction of Renault FT was completely different. Instead of big and well protected tank the French came up with vehicle that had very limited space even though there were only 2 crew members, to make it less easy for them the interior was getting very hot while the engine was running. But Renault FT had one important feature that made it so ground-breaking construction - it was the first tank to have the main gun turret capable of making the full turn. The tank did not make much impact during World War I, none of the tanks actually did much difference to the whole conflict, but after the war Renault FT was in service in many countries during World War 2 and became the prototype that started the modern tanks concept.
British tank that, just like M4 Sherman and T-34, was far from being perfect, but due to one vital characteristic it was a tank that helped to win the World War 2. Matilda I and Matilda II were infantry tanks, a concept that German Blitzkrieg in 1939 and 1940 proved to be already obsolete, since infantry tanks were usually poorly armed in short-barrel guns and had high profiles. But Matilda tanks were built similarly to French infantry tanks with protection as the main feature - the front armour had 78mm and the sides of the tank were protected by additional "skirt" panel that covered the tracks. All of it made the tank immune to all the early World War 2 tank guns used by Germans and Italians. During the North Africa campaign the Matildas gained the nickname "Queen of the Desert" due to their superiority in the theatre. Of course the protection was achieved by sacrificing other characteristics - the tanks were slow, their guns had limited power, the manoeuvrability was poor. The arrival of famous German 88mm guns to Africa ended the career of Matildas - they were no longer immune to enemy fire, so their other flaws were more and more obvious, but nevertheless at the beginning of World War 2 they stopped the Germans and Italians in North Africa, they were also used in Pacific and in Soviet Union as part of the Lend-Lease program.
Soviet tank developed at the end of World War 2 to replace T-34-85 as the main battle tank for Soviet Army. T-54 and T-55 offered a deadly combination of powerful gun, good protection, low profile and good mobility. Since the tank was light it was possible to cross the rivers on bridges, to transport it on trucks or trains, very simple construction did not require much training for the crew or the service teams. The drawback of the simplicity in case of T-54 and T-55 was the very limited space inside the tank, which also was putting height limitations for the crews as well as limiting the depression of the main gun (which proved to be fatal during conflicts in Middle East where T-55s were unable to take advantage of operating on hilltops). Nevertheless T-54 and T-55 took part in several conflicts and still are in use around the world even though they were produced since 1949.
Israeli main battle tank developed in 1970s and since then improved several times to keep it up to date with modern technology. Merkava is the one of the most advanced constructions in the world and not only capable of fighting against other tanks, but one huge advantage over other modern main battle tanks is the capability to transport up to 8 soldiers inside the tank (or 3 on the stretchers), which usually was the domain of armoured vehicles, not tanks. Of course since Merkava never took part in tank-vs-tank battles the true value of the tank in battlefield conditions is hard to determine, but many of the original concepts used in Merkava (like the internal mortar or capability to fire guided missiles through main gun) gives this project a potential to be among the best in history.
Panther (Panzerkampfwagen V) was German tank developed to match the opposition of Soviet T-34 in the Eastern Front during World War 2. Germans needed a tank that would be as fast as T-34, but also with superior armour and more powerful gun. And actually they did managed to build on, but just like in the case of the Tiger the construction was highly complicated, which meant that the Panthers could not be fixed in the field conditions, German industry was unable to produce as many Panzer V as the Wehrmacht would need and also the complicated suspension of Panthers proved to be a problem in heavy weather or when debris got stuck between the wheels. On the other hand Panther had capability of destroying enemy tanks from over 2 kilometres away and had enough armour to match the Allied tanks in the battlefield.
The workhorse of American army during the World War 2 that also proved to be quite useful in later conflicts (f.e. Korean War). Sherman had similar concept to Soviet T-34 tank - they were far from being perfect, but had simple construction, were cheap to produce, easy to fix in battle conditions and enough mobility to give Germans tough time in North Africa, western front, Italy. The original M4 Sherman had several flaws, one of the main being the aircraft engines Wright R-975 Whirlwind that simply blew up if tank was hit, which was deadly for the crew. Another one was rather poor armour and short-barrel gun that had no chance against German tanks of the era. Later versions (like Jumbo, Easy Eight or Firefly) had improved armour, better guns and different engines, but just like T-34 their biggest advantage in battlefield was the large number of Shermans that were available for the Allied forces throughout World War 2.
German Tiger (Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf. E) was the most powerful tank of World War 2 - looked like a bunker on wheels, heavily armoured and with powerful 88mm gun Tiger was spreading terror across the Allied forces on all fronts in Europe and Northern Africa. It was the first heavy tank on Wehrmacht that changed completely the balance of the war - while American Shermans and British Crusaders were able to compete with Panzer III and Panzer IV, the Tiger was so powerful that could face few enemy tanks at the same time and survive the fight without much damage. The two cons of Tiger were highly complicated construction (that made it impossible to fix them in battlefield conditions) and short range due to limited fuel tank and high fuel consumption. Of course the later constructions of Tiger II (called King Tiger) and Panzer VII Maus had better armour and more powerful guns, but there were too few of them and their other characteristics were not that impressive (range, mobility, speed) to make an impact on the World War 2.
American main battle tank based on the concept of German Leopard. The highly advanced gun stabilization and heavy armour gave Abrams the upper hand during the conflicts in Persian Gulf where they were able to destroy Iraqi tanks before they got close enough to shoot back. Of course with time the competition caught up with M1 Abrams and in 21st century it can hardly be called a cutting edge technology, the units were badly damaged or even destroyed in the Middle East in urban warfare reality, but Abrams tanks have what Russian, German and French main battle tanks do not have - experience that is put into improvements of the construction.
Russian tank that wasn’t actually best in any parameter - the armour could have been better, gun could have been more powerful, speed could have been improved, but one factor made this tank a legend - the simplicity of construction meant that they could have been produced in large numbers in short time, plus they could have been easily fixed in battle conditions using simple tools. The T-34-85 version had modified turret, 85mm main gun (instead of 76mm) and slightly improved armour, which made this tank a tough opponent even for Tigers and Panthers in the Eastern Front of World War 2.