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Like the contemporary British Conqueror tank, the M103 was designed to counter Soviet heavies such as the Josef Stalin tank or the T-10 if a conventional World War III broke out. Its long-ranged 120 mm cannon was designed to hit enemy tanks at extreme distances, but it was never used in combat. In 1953-1954 a series of 300 tanks, initially designated T43E1, were built by Chrysler at the Newark plant. Testing was unsatisfactory, and the tanks were all stored in August 1955. Only after recommending improvements, on 26 April 1956 the tank was standardized as the M103 Heavy Tank. Of the 300 T43E1s built, 80 went to the US Army (74 of which were rebuilt to M103 standard), and 220 were accepted by the US Marine Corps, to be used as infantry support, rebuilt to improved M103A1, then M103A2 standards.
The successive versions of the M103 shared many components with the M47 and M48 Patton tanks and the M60, which, with the exception of the M60 (a main battle tank) were all considered 90 mm gun (medium) tanks. Tracks, rollers and suspension elements were the same, with some modification to take into account the greater weight. The engine and transmission were never modified enough to give the extra power needed for the greater weight of the M103, and as a result, the tank was relatively underpowered and the drive systems were fragile.
The turret of the M103 was larger than that of the M48 or the M60 to make room for the huge 120 mm gun and the two loaders assigned to it, in addition to the gunner and the commander. The driver sat in the hull. The gun was capable of elevation from +15 to -8 degrees.