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Force Multiplier

Force Multiplier

Across the centuries, the infantry in all armies have been equipped with a wide range of weapons designed to provide fire support to make them more flexible. These weapons include hand grenades, light mortars, and rifle grenades. An average soldier can throw a hand grenade, weighing just over 1lb, out to a range of about 30 yards to harass attacking forces. Light mortars, with a calibre of 50mm, have a minimum range in the region of 100 yards. This, in theory, leaves a gap of 70 yards uncovered by projectiles with an explosive filling. It was during WWI that this gap was filled by using grenades fired from rifles fitted with discharger cups on the muzzle. In other words, rifle grenades, but before reaching this practical design, many other types had been used.

Origins of the rifle grenade

In the late 17th century, a weapon designer called John Tinker developed a method of firing grenades from flintlock muskets, referred to as hand mortars. When using a hand grenade, the thrower was exposed to the enemy, making himself a target. The new method of firing the grenade eliminated this danger and an experienced firer could even project a grenade over walls to indirectly engage the enemy taking cover. By the mid-18th century, European armies were using special detachable ‘cup dischargers’, which could be fitted to the muzzles of muskets such as the Brown Bess, to discharge grenades. These early forms of fire support weapons were used during the Napoleonic Wars and their use even spread to naval forces when boarding enemy ships.
By the time of the First World War, armies were being issued with grenades specifically designed for the purpose of being fired from a rifle. The true rifle grenade had arrived and would prove of great value during the four years of static trench warfare. Two main types of launching grenades from rifles were developed, these being grenades fitted with steel rods that were inserted into the barrel of the weapon, and discharger cups, which fitted to the muzzle of the barrel. Among those types fitted with the long rod was the ‘Hales’, named after a British man, called Marten Hales, an explosive expert and inventor.

Hales developed his first rifle grenade design in 1907, but it was not until 1915 that it was introduced into service with the British and remained in use until the end of the war in 1918. Four types were developed, weighing between 1.3 lbs and 1.5 lbs, all of which used the long rod inserted into the barrel of the rifle and were launched using a special ballistite blank cartridge. The recoil on firing was fierce and the user had to position the butt of the rifle on the ground. An alternative method was to hold the butt alongside the hip. The problem with this method was it could cause damage to the rifle and prevent its normal use as an infantry weapon.

The Mills bomb No. 23 used the same long rod method of launching but it was replaced by the Mills No. 36 fitted with a gas check disc screwed to the base. A special discharger cup was designed to be fitted to the muzzle of the rifle and held the grenade in place until firing. After removing the safety pin, the striker lever was held in place by the cup and the grenade was launched using a ballistite cartridge. This had an effective range of between 175 and 200 yards, and with the blast radius of the grenade around 75 yards, it was an effective weapon, with its plunging effect against trenches and machine gun positions. Other armies also used their own designs, including the Americans after 1917 who used the long rod method.

Development and refinement

By the time of WWII rifle grenade designs had progressed, but some of the original types were still in use. Among these was the British Mills bomb No. 36, using the discharger cup. The No. 85 British rifle grenade entered service in April 1945, making it too late to be used in Europe. However, this device, measuring 10.5” in length, with a HE filling of 4 oz of RDX/TNT was used in the Far East campaign. Developed into three types, the No 85 remained in service until 1947.

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The US Army used its standard fragmentation grenade (MKIIA1) fitted with a tail unit. This was fired from the Garand M1 rifle and was successful in all theatres of the war.

The Germans developed the 30mm calibre Sprenggranaten, which was launched from a special muzzle adaptor known as the Schiessbecher (the ‘shooting cup’) attached to the K98 rifle. Developed in a range of types, from HE to anti-tank, and even illuminating types, the Sprenggranaten was used in all theatres of the war. Almost 1.5 million Schiessbecher devices were produced before production ended in May 1944. Introduced into service in 1942 at the same time as the 5cm Granatwerfer light mortar was being withdrawn from use, the Sprenggranaten replaced it in many roles.

The Americans also had the M9 rifle grenade, a specialist anti-tank weapon, weighing about 1.23 lbs and measuring just over 11” in length. Using a hollow-charge warhead with an explosive filling of 4 oz of Pentolite, it was effective against light armoured vehicles. For heavier tanks, such as the Panther and Tiger, either Bazookas or AT guns had to be used.

Collection and display

With over 26.9 million produced, the M9 was an important grenade and proved useful against defended positions such as machine guns and buildings. Japan and Italy also developed a range of rifle grenades, which together with the other types make them of interest to collectors. Earlier types, such as the Hales designs, allow collectors to build up a complete picture of this diverse and versatile weapon, stretching back more than 100 years. Older types from the Napoleonic Wars are much scarcer to source, but they are certainly items of interest when they come up for sale.

Militaria dealers also count re-enactors among their customers, as they like to include original examples in displays where possible. There are very good quality replica copies of rifle grenades that can be used to explain how they functioned and how they were used with the rifle. Watching such demonstrations is fascinating and provides a better, in-depth understanding after reading about them in books. It is not unknown for the experience to convince military enthusiasts to become collectors or perhaps even join a re-enactment group. Military history can have that effect on people and keep these hobbies moving forward.

Rifle grenades are still in service today and even though science and technology have changed the design, the principle remains the same, which is to give the infantry a powerful weapon they can carry with them. New designs, fitted with bullet traps, have been developed to allow firing rifle grenades from the shoulder to engage targets directly. This method replaces the ballistite cartridge and involves collapsible baffles inside the tail assembly for the standard ball ammunition. Rifle grenades can be fired from inside buildings and increase firepower in defensive positions to engage infantry and armoured vehicles. Inert examples of these new designs will keep the collectors busy and re-enactment groups depicting more recent military operations will certainly need examples for their displays.