ABOVE: This launching of even a little grenade from the little FAMAS bullpup features a grinning French soldier enjoying the moment and Canadian Sgt Josh Mathers, bravely grimacing from the combo’s characteristically nasty recoil. This occurred during a joint coalition weapons training session with the Armée de Terre (French Army) at KMTC in Kabul, Afghanistan during Operation ATTENTION on August 5, 2013. (CANADIAN MINISTRY OF DEFENSE)
“We come now to the rifle grenade. Rifle grenades are similar to hand grenades except that they are ‘thrown’ by your rifle instead of your hand and arm. They are designed to be fired from your rifle by using a special device called a launcher which is attached to the muzzle of your rifle. A special blank cartridge is used in your rifle to shoot the grenade at your target. Again you are reminded that there are several types of rifle grenades just as there are several types of hand grenades. Your choice of a rifle grenade depends on what you want it to do.”
—US Army Field Manual 23-30 Hand and Rifle Grenades, April 1949
While some primitive, musket-launched explosive munitions reportedly appeared on battlefields way back in the 1600s, their widespread use didn’t take off–literally–until most of the world was at war from 1914 to 1918. Battle-tested in trench warfare, necessarily improved and made in many specialized varieties, the rifle grenade secured its place then and now in the arsenal of indispensable infantry weapons.
Bridging the very wide distance gap between hand bombs and light mortars, individual soldiers used their muzzle-launched munitions in high angle fire to clear trenches or shoot signal flares, fire directly to blast buildings and bunkers and even gas their enemies.
Cups, Rods and Spigots
The earliest practical types were cups and rods, the first being heavy, ungainly muzzle-mounted and muzzle-loading, mini-cannon barrels propelling munitions by force of powerful blank loads or–quite cleverly–standard ball projectiles passing through a tunnel in the grenade. Most soldiers on both ends are said to have hated them.
Rods came next, around 1907, and are usually credited to Martin Hale. Dispensing with the bothersome steel cup, they perched the grenade atop a long, ungainly, bothersome steel rod that was slipped down the rifle’s barrel.
Obviously, standard bulleted cartridges would be disastrous, so powerful special blanks were needed. Soldiers really hated these too, as did thrifty Ordnance officials faced with untold numbers of rifle barrels that were badly damaged by the rapid exit of rattling rods.
So launching cups came back into style–if not favored–by the French, British, Germans, Johnny-come-lately American Doughboys and other combatant nations.
In the years following what was overly optimistically dubbed, “The War to End All Wars,” spigot-type launchers were developed by the US Army. A vast improvement in many ways over the cup cannon, relatively light, finned, hollow-tail grenades were slipped over a light and handy steel spigot tube clamped in one way or another to the muzzles of various rifles.
While back to having to carry both standard and blank ammo, soldiers who didn’t load the wrong cartridges in the heat of battle were rewarded by highly efficient munitions that flew fast and far.
27 years later, by the end of World War II, rifle grenades in use by all major and most minor military forces had reached high levels of sophistication and effectiveness. Oddly, the usually innovative Germans stuck with old-fashioned, inefficient cups, as did the Japanese, British and Russians.
Along the way, all of the American infantry soldier’s handy hand grenade types were fitted with tailbooms or special adapters for finned flight, including anti-personnel, smoke, incendiary, irritant gas and anti-armor.
Grenades, Accessories, Sequence of Operations and Mechanical Training
(An excerpt from US War Department Basic Field Manual 23-30, Hand and Rifle Grenades, February 1944)
Grenades. With the aid of a launcher, rifle grenades may be fired from US Rifles, caliber.30, M1, Ma903, M903A1, M903A3 and M1917; and from the US Carbine, caliber.30, M1, M1A1 and M1A3.
Types. Rifle grenades are divided into four general classes:
Practice (training) grenades containing no explosives as follows:
Practice anti-tank rifle grenade M11A1.
Practice anti-tank rifle grenade M11A2.
High explosive or fragmentation grenades containing an explosive charge, as follows:
Anti-tank rifle grenade M9A1.
Impact fragmentation rifle grenade M17 (formerly the T2).
Fragmentation hand grenade Mk II (used with Grenade-projection adapter M1).
Pyrotechnic signals equipped with the fin assembly to be fired from the launchers, as follows:
Ground signal, white star; parachute, M17A1; cluster M18A1.
Ground signal, green star; parachute, M19A1; cluster M20A1.
Ground signal, amber star; parachute, M21A1; cluster M22A1.
Ground signal, red star; parachute, M51A1; cluster M52A1.
Smoke rifle grenade (White Phosphorous) T5.
Accessories. Special cartridges listed below are used for discharging all rifle grenades, both for anti-tank and anti-personnel use. Neither ordinary blank ammunition nor service ammunition will be used.
Rifle grenade cartridge, caliber.30, M3.
Carbine grenade cartridge, caliber.30, M6.
Auxiliary grenade cartridge, M7. This cartridge designed to give additional range when used in firing grenades from rifles and carbines.
Grenade launcher sight T59.
“Cold War” Developments
To great relief of Brit Tommies, Frenchies and others, cups were canned, and tubes triumphed as NATO armies grimly armed to counter Communist nations, intent on world domination. Sound familiar?
While AT grenades using shaped-charge warheads for armor-cutting had proliferated, the lethality of anti-tank rifle grenades increased exponentially with introduction of the ENERGA in 1948.
US M31 HEAT (High Explosive Anti-Tank) Rifle Grenade
While disastrous experience against increasingly thick armor on German tanks in WWII set in motion US development of the Super Bazooka with its 3.5-inch diameter warhead, no such luck in rifle grenades. So when GIs went head-to-head with North Korea’s Soviet-supplied T34 tanks in 1950, the puny HEAT was all but useless.
In hasty desperation, the American solution was to field the M28 HEAT rifle grenade, a version of the formidable European ENERGA, capable of easily blowing through the T34/?85’s thick frontal armor. This was quickly followed by the improved M31, a beefy 1.56 pounder with even greater penetration.
Produced in enormous quantities by Mecar of Belgium, the ENERGA and variants were widely used by NATO signatories and other nations.
M31 HEAT Tech Specs
Length: 16.9 in.
Weight: 25 oz.
Warhead: 66mm (2.6 in.) diameter, 8.9oz RDX/TNT Composition B-shaped charge
Penetration: 8in steel armor, 19in concrete
Notes: Launched with powerful grenade blanks to nearly 200m, its 22mm-diameter tailboom is compatible with all US rifle grenade launchers and right off the barrel of most every NATO standard rifle.
Mecar’s HEAT-RFL-75 Super ENERGA is a rocket-boosted, bunker-busting and tank terror with an effective range of 150m against moving targets out to a maximum range in excess of 500m. Its shaped charge warhead of 328g of PETN punches through 275mm (10.8in) of armor plate and 600mm (23.6in) of reinforced concrete. Caution: DON’T FIRE IT FROM THE SHOULDER!
Bloopers Be Damned!
While it looked for a while that stand-alone and underbarrel grenade launchers like America’s M79 and M203 “Bloop Tubes” and Russian GP-25 Kostyor would render the venerable rifle grenade obsolete, that doesn’t seem to be entirely the case so far.
Indeed, the French in particular seem fond of rifle grenades, necessarily small and light so as to allow launching from the small and light FAMAS bullpup. Online videos gleefully document pain and punishment from firing even midget munitions like the 14-ounce APAV 40.
Today, tailboom grenades proliferate worldwide in a dazzling array of types including Mecar’s handy TELGREN, a family of flyers that collapse like a telescope for compact carrying, then expand with a quick pull for launching–complete with a clever spring-deployed plastic ladder sight.
Cups are making a comeback, most notably for launching riot control and other “less lethal” munitions. Conflict Armament Research reports on interesting hybrids recently encountered in use by Islamic State forces that feature finned grenade IEDs fired from a Kalashnikov-mounted cup.
When all is said and done, rifle-launched munitions are too damn versatile and effective to yield entirely to bulky bloop tubes. “No pain, no gain.”
Rifle Grenade References
This necessarily brief photo feature is intended as a way to stimulate an appetite for more research on the world’s fascinating array of rifle-launched munitions. As such, we offer some for starters:
Rifle Grenade Overview Online
Grenades (and just about all other explosive ordnance)
Best Overall for Vintage Grenade Collectors
US Infantry Weapons of the First World War, Bruce Canfield
Jane’s Infantry Weapons, Various Editors, Multiple Editions
Reproduction and Inert Rifle Grenades
Various online sellers found on ebay, Gunbroker and others
One for fun
NcStar AR-15 Golf Ball Grenade Launcher