Among the five-person crew on a rolling M4 Sherman Medium Tank—the most widely used American tank in World War II—the tank commander’s position was considered the most dangerous. That’s because the commander often stood on the rear turret seat behind the main gunner, his head and shoulders outside the tank, making for an easy target. While I’m not anticipating any incoming fire, that’s exactly where I find myself one recent afternoon as our M4A2E8 Sherman lumbers down a dirt road in a rugged, remote area of the southeastern Texas Hill Country.
Josh Haufle, an ex-U.S. Army corporal who served on tanks in Kuwait, is sitting inside the diesel-powered M4 in the forward left position, maneuvering its 5-speed, synchromesh transmission with pedals and the two “sticks,” or hand levers that control the tank’s turning and braking. Next to Haufle, in the co-driver, or bow gunner’s, seat, is Hook & Barrel Editor-in-Chief John Radzwilla. All we lack are the crew’s gunner and ammo-loader as we rumble up and down steep embankments and across a rocky stream bed, juniper and cactus stretching to the horizon all around us.
We are experiencing the world’s only fully operational, live-firing Sherman tank with a 76mm gun, and our driver is in his element. “We call it the ‘Easy Eva’ for short, after Eva Braun,” Adolph Hitler’s longtime companion, Haufle says of the M4A2E8—the same, late-WWII-era tank that was featured in Fury, the 2014 Brad Pitt movie about U.S. tank crews fighting in Nazi Germany. “It’s bad juju to have tanks without nicknames,” Haufle adds. When you’re aboard an armored military vehicle whose big gun fires full-power rounds at 2,800 feet per second, nobody wants any bad juju.
The Easy Eva is a star attraction at DriveTanks.com, a historical military vehicle and weapon experience located on the 18,000-acre Ox Ranch, about two hours west of San Antonio. But it’s far from the only one. DriveTanks.com, founded in 2016 by former Green Beret Todd DeGidio, the stepfather of Ox Ranch owner Brent Oxley, bills itself as “the only place in the world” where it’s possible to drive and shoot real tanks, artillery, and machine guns in one place. While Ox Ranch itself is a sportsperson’s paradise—with guided hunting for more than 60 free-ranging species, from Axis Deer and Impala to Red Stag, plus the likes of fishing, safari tours, and cave-exploring—the offerings at DriveTanks.com set the property apart. Says ranch manager Jason Molitor: “I don’t think there’s ever been another ranch that puts everything together quite like this one.”
That is clear from the moment we arrive, when DriveTank.com’s “gun guy” Glenn Fleming, a laid-back U.S. Air Force veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, ushers us into the company’s cavernous “Tank Barn,” which does double-duty as a military museum. Parked inside are the Easy Eva, a Soviet T-34/85 medium tank (“arguably the tank that won” World War II, Fleming says), and a Cold War-era, West German Leopard 1A4 main battle tank (“my favorite tank in the world,” he adds). Nearby is an array of WWII-era anti-tank guns, artillery, and rocket launchers. Among them: a German 37mm PaK anti-tank gun; a Japanese Type 38 75mm field gun; and a Panzerschreck—an 88mm anti-tank rocket launcher held here by a mannequin clad in an SS uniform.
Across the way, display cases show off artifacts from World War I (including a piece of shrapnel fashioned into a letter opener with the inscription, “Argonne 1915”) and, chillingly, objects recovered from Nazi concentration camps. Meantime, big-screen TVs play Nazi propaganda films on a continuous loop, and a pegboard “Wall of Machine Guns” exhibits dozens of iconic weapons, from a Soviet AK-47 to a G3 Battle Rifle used by NATO troops. Upstairs, in the Patton Lounge, named after U.S. Army Gen. George S. Patton Jr., who founded the first U.S. tank training school, there is still more military memorabilia to see. The lounge’s beer-tap handles are shaped like grenades, and the lounge’s name is perfect: last year, the grandson of Gen. Patton showed up here to learn to drive a tank.
In addition to bachelor parties and corporate groups, which come for “team-building” exercises, DriveTank.com has hosted guests including rocker Ted Nugent and countless families, including many fathers with their sons. Among them on this late spring afternoon are Andrew Lehman and his son Penn Lehman, 17, from Pound Ridge, New York. Penn, it seems, is here to do first-hand research for a prep-school history paper he’s writing about World War II tanks and anti-tank weapons. The day before, he says, he’d “driven tanks”: the Sherman, the T-34, the Leopard 1A4. Now, having just experienced the facility’s M9 Vietnam-era flame thrower—the diesel fire shot straight out 35 feet and singed the hair off his arm—Penn is getting set to fire a single round from a 152mm Soviet D-20 cannon. The target: a bullet-riddled junk car parked at the base of a hill 250 yards away. Ear protection, of course, is required.
“Goin’ hot!” Fleming barks over the “all-ranch” walkie-talkie. Everyone needs to be warned, he explains, because the D-20 will “rattle the chandelier in the ranch’s main lodge when it goes off.” Soon enough, the DriveTanks.com crew loads a solid-shot, 47-pound steel projectile into the 13,000-pound gun—captured from the Iraqi army during the first Gulf War—and Penn, standing safely behind and to the side, yanks the firing cord. With a hellacious boom, the projectile slams into the hillside, engulfing us in clouds of smoke and dust in the process. Says Haufle: “That thing throws everything it’s got at you, plus the kitchen sink.”
The next morning, the Lehmans turn out for the facility’s “High Explosive Experience”—or “blowie-uppie,” Andrew cracks—which includes setting off a shaped charge and creating a huge fireball. They also hit the main gun range, preparing to fire off rounds from a series of vintage and modern machine guns. There are two targets: the car from the night before, 250 yards out, and a square steel plate set up 75 yards away. Fleming jumps on the walkie-talkie to warn the ranch about live fire, then asks the Lehmans, “Does anybody have any full automatic experience?” When they shake their heads no, he assures them, “You’ll be machine gunners by the end.”
With weapon after weapon—10 of them in all—the routine repeats itself: Fleming explains the gun, its purpose, and its quirks (“Once the magazine’s in, give it a little love tap,” he advises). Then Penn and Andrew squeeze off their allotted rounds, either upright or prone after “assuming the position.”
First up is an M1 Garand, a .30-06 caliber semi-automatic rifle that was the standard service rifle for U.S. troops during WWII. Next came the MP5, a West German submachine gun that was designed to rival the Israeli Uzi. Then the Lehmans try out the M3 Grease Gun—so named for its resemblance to the garage mechanic’s tool—and the famous Thompson or “Tommy” submachine gun, which rose to fame during Prohibition. I can’t resist squeezing off a few bursts with the Tommy myself, resulting in the satisfying “ping-ping-ping” sound off the steel plate.
“Ox Ranch bills itself as “the only place in the world” where it’s possible to drive and shoot real tanks, artillery, and machine guns in one place. “
Next is the Soviet PPsh-41, a WWII-era gun that fires 1,000 rounds a minute. Says Fleming: “It sounds like microwave popcorn when it’s almost done.” Then it’s time for a Belgian P-90 (“the U.S. Secret Service uses it,” Fleming says) and two weapons equipped with bipod mounts: a 1918 Browning Automatic Rifle and a German MG42. I fire several bursts at the car with the latter, which was known as “Hitler’s Buzz Saw” for the sound it makes—like “ripping linoleum,” Fleming says. He tells me to aim five feet above the car, but I’m pretty sure the vehicle escapes unscathed.
The final weapon is an iconic M134 Minigun, mounted atop Fleming’s LMTV (or modified troop transport) truck. A modern-day version of the Gatling gun, the six-barreled M134 model may be best known for its appearance, mounted as a helicopter door gun, in the 2002 movie Black Hawk Down. Both Penn and Radzwilla, take their turns behind the Minigun, which spits out 100 rounds every 1.3 seconds.
No sooner has Radzwilla clambered off the LMTV, than we look up to see a scene right out of Fury: the M4 Sherman crawling up the dirt road straight toward us, its big gun looming larger and larger. Riding in the tank are Haufle, in the bow gunner position; a DriveTanks.com guest named Johnny Huskisson, in the driver’s seat; Johnny’s wife, Priscilla Perez, who is standing behind the turret; and their nephews, 13-year-old DJ and 5-year-old Jayden, who ride standing in the ammo-loader and tank commander positions. Huskisson and Perez both serve in the U.S. Air Force, and Priscilla bought a DriveTanks.com package for her husband as a Christmas present. (Depending on what you choose to experience, visiting DriveTanks.com can cost many hundreds or many thousands of dollars.)
Haufle helps maneuver the Sherman into the desired firing position—the junk car is about to take some more punishment—and Huskisson excitedly climbs up behind the Easy Eva’s M2 Browning .50 Caliber Machine Gun. After squeezing off a few long bursts toward the target he climbs down, ready to fire the M4’s big 76mm gun toward the car as well. The 15-pound projectile that’s loaded into the cannon is so formidable, we learn, the force from the blast makes it unsafe to shoot from inside the tank. So Huskisson positions himself outside and to the rear, a T-handle attached to a rigged cable at his chest. “3-2-1, fire in the hole!” he shouts, pulling the cable, and the cannon goes off with a mighty roar that shakes the ground.
“That was very cool,” Perez says to her husband when it’s over. Agrees Huskisson: “That was awesome!” And that, it occurrs to me, is exactly the right word to use.
While there’s plenty to like at Ox Ranch—from its luxe accommodations and chef-prepared meals to its hunts and various viewing pens with kangaroos, kudu, and zebra—the tank experience drives home the true meaning of “awesome,” as in awe-inspiring. Until you’ve climbed into the heavy, lumbering vehicles—and held and fired and heard the deadly weapons—yourself, you can’t begin to comprehend the fearsome power our military personnel have faced, and wielded, over the years to protect our freedoms.
DriveTanks.com ensures you’ll understand that, and won’t likely forget it.