The Short History of Anti-Tank Weapons

The First World War is infamously remembered for trench warfare, where both sides dug in and gains in territory were measured in yards rather than miles. On September 15, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme on the Western Front, modern combat changed forever. More than a year and a half earlier, the British military – under the leadership of Winston Churchill – devised a plan to create massive armored vehicles that could carry troops over shell holes, through barbed wire, and even over the enemy’s trenches.

Last year’s remake of All Quiet on the Western Front depicts a scene of what Churchill and others likely had in mind, but notably on a larger scale. Overseen by the infamously named Landship Committee, they originally envisioned massive vehicles. However, the size scaled down eventually. Nevertheless, the first British machines rolling across the mud-soaked fields of northeastern France were still the largest land vehicles employed in warfare to that point.

British Tank in the First World War
An early model British Mark I “male” tank, named C-15, near Thiepval, September, 25 1916. (Photo: Imperial War Museum/Public Domain)

The classified program used the name “tanks” to convince the Germans that portable freshwater tanks were being deployed to the frontlines. In fact, around 50 tanks were secretly shipped to France in August, which allowed some infantry units to conduct training alongside the metal behemoths. When they rolled into action during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette — part of the larger Somme campaign, many of the tanks broke down while the remaining were slow. Nevertheless, the sight and sound of the tanks reportedly terrified the Germans.

The tanks failed to make the hoped-for breakthrough, but the potential of the vehicles was clear. They were the future of warfare. Upon seeing the first tanks, there’s no doubt German soldiers began considering how to counter them!

Anti-Tank Warfare Was Also Born

The earliest method to confront a tank was simply artillery aimed closer to ground level. Yet, despite what video games suggest, this wasn’t exactly all that effective. Guns of the era reloaded slowly and hitting a moving target presented a number of challenges. Likewise, there wasn’t the specialty ordnance that exists today, so no High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rounds for the German’s 77mm field guns. At the time, armor-piercing ordnance was developed against warships. It was still a matter of getting it to the front lines!

Anti-Tank Rifles

The Germans experimented with “anti-tank grenades”, which essentially bundled multiple “potato masher” stick grenades together. Unfortunately, these were less effective than video games have led many to believe. Even when thrown on top of the tank where the armor was thinnest, these typically failed to cause enough damage to disable a tank. The blast energy wasn’t directed and the grenades were little more than an “improvised” weapon. Soon, actual efforts to stop tanks were introduced.

Soon after the British introduced tanks, German military planners devised a special “K bullet” – a 7.92 x 57mm Mauser armor-piercing bullet with a tool steel core. It proved effective against the early model Mark I tanks, but the British Army then increased the armor thickness.

German anti-tank rifles
A pair of German T-Gewehr rifles, chambered for 13.2mm (Photo by the author)

The Germans responded with the first true anti-tank weapon, a scaled-up version of the Gewehr Model 1898 bolt action rifle. Chambered for a solid 13.2mm round, the Mauser 1918 T-Gewehr could penetrate the British tank’s armor. Much like the .50 caliber “sniper rifles” employed by the U.S. military in recent years, the T-Gewehr could seriously damage the engine or penetrate the armor and then ricochet inside, killing the occupants.

The German rifles had several problems: the barrels suffered from fouling after only a few shots fired and the recoil was unsustainable for the operator. However, the war ended before Germany could improve the rifle or its anti-tank tactics. Nevertheless, other efforts continued to refine anti-tank rifles in the interwar era.

The British military developed the Boys anti-tank rifle, chambered for a .55 caliber cartridge. Nicknamed the “elephant gun” due to its large size, it only entered service in 1937 but was essentially obsolete by the outbreak of the Second World War.

Boys Anti-Tank Rifle at the Military Antiques eXtranganza in 2022
The Boys Anti-Tank Rifle is chambered for .55 caliber and is considered a “destructive device” in the U.S. – as a result, many were rechambered in .50 caliber so they could be purchased without a required tax stamp. (Photo by the author)

Other anti-tank rifles included the Finnish Lahti L-39, the Japanese Type 97, the German Panzerbüchse 38/39, the Polish Model 1935, and the Soviet Soluthurn series. Most of these were ineffective against the heavier tanks that entered service during the Second World War.

Enter Anti-Tank Launchers

Seeing the limitations of the Boys Anti-Tank Rifle, the British military set out to develop a more powerful weapon. The result was the “Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank” – or PIAT. The PIAT was among the earliest true man-portable anti-tank weapons to see service during the Second World War. Essentially based on a spigot mortar system, it launched a shaped charge bomb employing a cartridge in the projectile’s tail.

Though it possessed an effective range of approximately 115 yards in direct fire and 350 yards in an indirect fire role, loading and initial firing remained a complicated matter. While the PIAT fired from prone or kneeling positions, the initial cocking required the user to stand. The user unlatched the shoulder pad, stood on it, and pulled the rest of the gun up to cock it. This action latched the spigot and spring into the firing position. The body then slid back to the shoulder pad and latched. This method of cocking the gun required a great deal of muscular strength but only needed done for the first cocking. After firing, the PIAT then automatically re-cocked with each projectile.

A British PIAT launcher — its weight was a serious issue. (Photo by the author)

Though the PIAT proved reasonably effective despite its shortcomings, the American military wisely went another direction and chose one conceived during the First World War. Dr. Robert H. Goddard had begun work on a tube-fired rocket, but the war ended before he made much progress. In fact, he demonstrated the concept to the US Army Signal Corps at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland on November 6, 1918. With the Armistice signed just five days later, the project went on hold.

There was a time when peace was bad for weapons development, and the immediate aftermath of the First World War was one of those times. Goddard’s design didn’t progress much over the next two decades. It wasn’t until war broke out again in Europe that the US military opted to go forward with developing a tube-fired rocket.

In combination with a small rocket, the newly developed shaped charge launched from a tube. While officially named the Rocket Launcher M1 by the US Army, it soon earned the nickname “Bazooka”. The nickname is believed to be derived from a brass horn used by Bob Burns, a popular comedian of the era.

M1A1 Bazooka
A replica WWII M9A1 “bazooka” on display at a historical reenactment (Photo by the author)

The initial M6 rocket wasn’t particularly reliable but improved greatly with the development of the M6A1 round and the refined M1A1 launcher. However, the weapon, which fired a 2.36-inch (60mm) shaped charge, was still not quite powerful enough to take on Germany’s late war heavy tanks such as the Tiger and Panther. In an ironic twist, the Germans solved this problem by copying the American bazooka with its Panzerschreck. It packed significantly more punch. Since the rounds often kept burning after launch, the German designers added the now iconic shield to protect the operators.

During the Cold War, American designers also “supersized” the bazooka concept, which resulted in the M-20 3.5-inch “Super Bazooka”. Meanwhile, other nations also introducing their take, including the Belgian-produced RL-83 Blindicide (“armor killer”), a launcher that found favor with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

A Belgian-made Blindicide used by the Israel Defense Forces (Photo by the author)

The Soviet RPGs

The Soviet Red Army had a few of their own unique methods for countering enemy tanks, such as strapping bombs to starving dogs and detonating the explosives from a distance. However, they ultimately developed a lightweight anti-tank rocket at the end of the Second World War. Though the Ruchnoy Protivotankovy Granatomyot-1 (Hand-held Anti-tank Grenade Launcher-1) wasn’t all that successful, its successor proved to be a game changer in anti-tank warfare.

The RPG-1’s successor, the RPG-2, proved effective against moving targets out 100 meters. Furthermore, it’s effective against stationary targets such as buildings and fortified positions upwards of 150 meters. Unlike the rear-loading bazooka, the RPG-2 round front-loaded. After cocking the pistol/trigger grip’s hammer, it was ready to fire.

The RPG-2 proved reasonably successful in the jungle terrain of Vietnam. (Photo by the author)

The Soviets improved the weapon in 1961 with the introduction of the RPG-7. It’s unclear why numbering jumped from 2 to 7. However, it’s probable several prototypes didn’t meet expectations. That wouldn’t exactly be uncommon with Soviet small arms. The RPG-7 arguably remains one of the most famous — even infamous — anti-tank weapons ever created.

The RPG-7 produces a noticeable flash with noise and smoke. However, The relatively small back blast allows firing from within buildings. The rocket actually takes off slowly from the launcher and, only after about 10 meters, does the internal rocket motor ignite. Four stabilization fins fold out, which helps keep the warhead on target. The RPG-7 is also effective against buildings, bunkers, and aircraft. Tragically, the RPG-7 shot down American Blackhawk helicopters in Somalia in 1993.

RPG-7 anti-tank weapon
The RPG-7 has proven to be one of the most effective Soviet-designed anti-tank weapons. It has seen service around the world. (Photo by the author)

Disposable Rocket Launchers

During the Second World War, the German military also devised the Panzerfaust, a single-shot anti-tank rocket launcher. It consisted of a light recoilless launcher tube outfitted with a single pre-loaded high-explosive anti-tank warhead protruding from the muzzle. As a last-ditch weapon, it was far from refined. However, the Panzerfaust was not the last disposable anti-tank weapon.

In the 1950s, the United States developed the M72 LAW – Light Antitank Weapon. The mission was to design a more effective and portable replacement for both the M31 HEAT antitank rifle grenade and the bulky and heavy M20A1 Super Bazooka. America needed an anti-armor weapon to counter rapidly advancing Soviet tank technology.

The M72 LAW consisted of a disposable launcher firing an unguided 66mm solid-fuel rocket. The basic concept was essentially an arithmetic mean between the American bazooka and German WWII-vintage Panzerfaust. Over time, it’s been steadily updated. Meanwhile in combat, those who fought the LAW found the LAW often won!

AT4 anti-tank weapon
The Swedish AT4 is a single-shot anti-tank weapon. These tubes are commonly sold. However, once fired, the AT4 is as harmless as any plastic tube! (Photo by the author)

The concept further evolved and ultimately became the Swedish AT4. Since then, the AT4 has been highly successful against Russian tanks in Ukraine.

The FGM-148 Javelin

Perhaps no anti-tank weapon has earned such praise in recent history as the Lockheed Martin-developed FGM-148 Javelin, a man-portable anti-tank system that first entered service in 1996. The Javelin has since successfully disabled Russian T-72M and even T-90M main battle tanks (MBT).

The Javelin’s passive weapon design is undetectable to Russian tank crews until it’s fired. Even then, the Javelin produces very little back blast, especially compared to other anti-tank systems such as the BGM-71 TOW missile. The FGM-148 is a fire-and-forget platform that utilizes automatic infrared guidance. This allows the user to take cover and avoid counter-fire immediately after launch.

Unlike the disposable platforms, the Javelin consists of three components: Launch Tube Assembly; Command Launch Unit (CLU — pronounced “clue”), the targeting component of the two-part system with three views to find, target, and fire the ordnance; and the actual missile. IR imaging provides an onboard tracking system for the warhead. Meanwhile, the seeker further allows the missile to track a target and alter its flight path accordingly.

Javelin anti-tank weapon
The FGM-148 Javelin has been employed by Ukraine’s military to destroy Russian tanks. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

The Javelin’s biggest downside is its cost – with each Launch Tube Assembly and CLU costing around $120,000. Meanwhile, the missiles have a price tag around $78,000. But destroying a Russian MBT that cost millions, that’s priceless!

Clearly, anti-tank weapons have evolved considerably in the past century.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are The National Interest, Forbes, and many others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.

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