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PIAT vs Panzerfaust - RE-ENACTMENT

PIAT vs Panzerfaust - RE-ENACTMENT

When the British army used tanks for the first time in battle during WWI, there were no such things as anti-tank guns, because nothing like these vehicles had ever been seen before. The Germans responded by using field guns to fire directly at the tanks to engage them. For the next 20 years, all armies relied on either anti-tank guns or their own tanks to deal with enemy tanks. Both these forms of weapons dealt with tanks at a distance and may not have always been available to take on the threat. Thoughts turned to developing some independent anti-tank weapons that the infantry could carry with them.

The development of AT weapons

A raft of ideas emerged, some were imaginative but not suitable, others were totally impractical, but a few did show promise and were pursued to development. In the 1930s, scientists began studying the penetrative effects on metal plates when explosive charges set in a certain way were detonated. The phenomenon had been noted as early as 1792, but explosives of the time were not of sufficient power to produce a practicable device. Finally, in the 1880s, an American chemist by the name of Charles Munroe experimented with powerful explosives and noted their effect on metal plates. From this came the terms ‘hollow charge’ and ‘shaped charge’.

By 1938, further experiments and developments in explosive properties had allowed projectiles to be developed that were sufficiently small to be fired from hand-held weapons by infantry. These advances would emerge as weapons during WWII, such as the British PIAT, German Panzerfaust and Panzerschreck, and the American Bazooka. In turn, some of these would be used in the post-war era and the Panzerfaust would influence the development of future weapons, such as the Russian RPG-7.

The German Panzerfaust

The Panzerfaust (Tank fist) was a relative latecomer to the war, being developed by Hugo Schneider of Leipzig, with the first versions not appearing until 1942, with the 30K (Klein; meaning small). This was followed by a succession of more powerful versions, which all operated on the same principle, and the designation number referred to the range of the projectile in metres.

Holding the launch tube in an underarm fashion, the firer would aim at the target using the sights fitted to the tube, fire it by pressing the firing switch, and then the spent tube would be discarded. As the penetrative power of the rocket-powered, fin-stabilised projectiles increased, so did the size of the warhead to accommodate the larger charge. However, the length of the launching tube remained at 31.5” in all versions.

Military enthusiasts and weapons collectors are interested in the science behind the development of such an innovative weapon, the likes of which the Allies had never before seen. More than 8.25 million of all versions were produced and used in all theatres, including Italy. It was discovered after the war that even more powerful versions were on the drawing board, including the 250, which was to have been reloadable and fired a more powerful projectile. Easy to use, Panzerfausts were issued to the Volkssturm and even the Hitler Youth thrown into the battle during the late stages of the war when fighting in the urban surroundings of Berlin. Replica versions are readily available and re-enactment groups display them as static exhibits of weaponry used by the German soldier from 1942.

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The British PIAT

The British entry into methods of firing shaped-charge anti-tank projectiles made its first appearance with the Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank (PIAT), at around the same time as the Panzerfaust. It was devised by Lt. Col. Latham V. S. Blacker, who at the time was serving with the Royal Artillery, and incorporated a powerful spring, known as a ‘spigot’, to propel the projectile. The idea required a certain amount of adjustment, but when perfected, this method of operation would be used on other weapon systems, such as the Blacker Bombard, as used by the Home Guard.

Weighing 32 lbs, the PIAT was a reloadable, single-shot weapon that was mounted on a monopod and fired from the prone position. Five different types of AT rounds, known as bombs, each with its own colour-coded markings, were developed. A series of drill rounds were also developed for training purposes. To prepare the weapon for firing, the operator first had to compress the spigot spring. Next, the loader inserted a bomb into an open tray-like section at the front of the weapon. Each projectile had a distinctive bulbous-shaped warhead to which was attached a tube connected to a tail fin for stabilisation in flight.

The operator squeezed the trigger mechanism to release the spring, which drove a firing pin into the tube to initiate a small charge which served to push the spring to the rear, thereby re-cocking it ready to fire again. Not having any propellant charge, the AT round had a low muzzle velocity of only 350 fps, with a maximum range of 350 yards. Targets were usually engaged at 120 yards, and the 3lb bomb could penetrate 75mm of armour. The PIAT’s method of operation meant it could be used from within enclosed spaces, which made it an ideal weapon for ambush tactics in urban environments. Plus, it could be used against buildings held by enemy troops.

Some 115,000 PIATs were produced during the war, and they were used in all theatres of fighting. They were continued in service after the war by countries such as New Zealand, Canada, and India, as late as 1971. Britain supplied some 1,000 PIATs to Russia during WWII, along with 100,000 rounds of ammunition.

Today, the PIAT is of interest to weapon collectors, especially the different types of ammunition with the colour-coded markings. Original examples are available, but most likely to be seen in museums, and there are replica versions available for re-enactors to use either on static displays or to demonstrate the weapon’s use.

Which comes out on top?

This is a matter of personal opinion, and the pros and cons of both weapons have to be considered. Without ammunition, the PIAT could not be used, and its weight and bulky 39” length made it unpopular with those who had to carry it. For example, carrying a PIAT in this otherwise useless condition was the equivalent of carrying two Panzerfaust 60 or 100, which could be fired and then jettisoned. The Panzerfaust had greater penetrative power but neither weapon had great accuracy, except at close range.

Each had a lasting effect after the war and became iconic display items at shows, which makes them recognisable when seen in museums. Collectors are fascinated by the science behind the two designs that used very different approaches to achieve the same objective, which was to launch an AT projectile at a target. At least in the case of the Bazooka versus the Panzerschreck, they shared similarities. In this instance, I would put my money on having the Panzerfaust as my weapon of choice. But that is only my opinion.