Icon Logo Gun Mart

A Versatile Weapon

A Versatile Weapon

When William Mills, a British inventor and engineer, developed a hand grenade that would become known as the ‘Mills bomb No36’, he could not have foreseen what an influence it would have on warfare. The first examples were introduced in 1915 and over the next 100 years, his basic design would remain in service until 2021. Indeed, such was its impact that between 1915 and 1918, the British army would use some 75 million of these devices. Even at this early stage in the history of the hand grenade’s development, it was proving to be a versatile weapon. For example, as well as being thrown by hand, Mills’ grenades could be adapted to be projected out to greater ranges using a rifle firing a ballistite cartridge.

Different countries, different grenades

By 1939 and the outbreak of war, all armies had some form of hand grenade in service, and some had several types including anti-tank and even designs specially developed for firing by rifles. The British and German armies used versions based on the designs from WWI, as did the American and Russian armies. The Japanese grenades were deadly but were not among the most reliable designs, whilst the Italian hand grenades were called ‘Red Devils’ by the Allies because of their unreliable nature.

Rudimentary forms of hand grenades, amounting to pottery spheres filled with gunpowder, were known before the 17th century. A basic, wick-type fuse was lit, which burnt down to the powder filling causing it to detonate. Later, the spheres were made from cast iron, and these were used throughout the 19th century, and troops trained in the use of these devices were termed ‘grenadiers’. During WWII, with raw materials running low, the Japanese army reverted to using a pottery casing on some grenades. All this history makes the hand grenade of interest to collectors, but it is the large number of types used during WWII that allow collectors to really expand on them as an item of interest.

This interest has a natural crossover with re-enactors who wish to add examples to their displays at shows. Deactivated examples of many types of hand grenades are offered for sale at militaria fairs around the country and on specialist websites. Alternatively, replica versions of hand grenades, such as the British ‘Mills 36’, German M24 ‘stick grenade’, and M39 ‘egg grenade’ are available from specialist companies such as Epic Militaria (www.epicmilitaria.com) or Soldier of Fortune (www.sofmilitary.co.uk), both based in Wales, which are perfect for either re-enactment displays or battle re-enactment scenarios. Some re-enactment groups have access to 3D printers and can produce a range for themselves and these appear sufficiently authentic to include on static displays as examples.

Like many other types of ordnance, hand grenades appear deceptively simple, but look inside and the complexity of these rather small items will become evident. This is made possible with examples that have been ‘sectionalised’ by cutting away the outer casing to expose the inner workings. These were made as an instructional aid to train the soldiers in the handling of these devices. During the war, soldiers were naturally nervous about handling grenades and these training aids helped them become confident in their use. Large posters showing the components of hand grenades were pinned to the walls of classrooms and all of these items, along with training manuals, are sought after by collectors.

An adaptable weapon of war

At some shows, several re-enactment groups may attend to depict the armed forces of different countries, including Italy and, sometimes, Japan. At these events, the groups present static displays of kit and weapons, including hand grenades in various forms, such as the German ‘Heft Hohladung granate’, meaning, quite literally, ‘heavy weight altitude charge grenade’, a specialist anti-tank grenade weighing a hefty 3kg (7lbs 11oz). It was not so much thrown as ‘placed’ by hand on the target tank, where it was held in place by magnets until the hollow charge detonated. This gave a stand-off distance for the molten metal from the hollow charge to form and penetrate the armour.

story continues below...

At the other end of the scale, the conventional hand grenades were a fraction of the weight, such as the ‘Einhandgrenate 39’, the so-called egg grenade that weighed 10oz, a mere one-twelfth that of the Heft Hohladung. It measured just 3” in height and was deadly either in combat or set as a booby trap to catch out unwary soldiers. The 39 contained 6oz of TNT and was operated by the friction igniter method, similar to that on the stick grenade, with a four to five-second delayed action. It could be fixed in place, say, a doorway, and connected to a tripwire so that a soldier entering the room would be caught in the blast. An outer casing could be added to produce more shrapnel to increase its lethality.

Unarguably, the most readily identifiable hand grenade of both world wars is the German ‘Steilhandgranate’ or so-called stick grenade. Nicknamed the ‘potato masher’ by the Allies, it was a direct development from the type used in WWI. The basic version was the ‘24’, from which several variants were developed, including the ‘Nebelhandgranate 39’ which was a smoke grenade. It measured just over 14” in length and weighed 1lb 5oz, of which 6oz was TNT explosive filling. Several charge heads could be strapped around one grenade to create a ‘bundle charge’ for demolition purposes, such as clearing a dugout. The grenade was also used by Germany’s allies including Finland and Hungary.

The British army used several grenades apart from the Mills 36, including the No.69, a small device weighing less than 1lb that could be fitted with different fragmenting casings, and the No 82 ‘Gammon’ grenade, which was a demolition charge.

The American army and US Marines used the Mk II A1 fragmentation grenade, developed from the Mk I of which some 17.5 million were used in WWI. The Mk II A1 weighed 1.31 lbs, was used in all theatres, and could even be used as a rifle grenade by fitting a fin-stabilised projection adaptor.

The Japanese used several types of grenades, including the Type 91 and Type 97, as well as a stick grenade design. The Type 97 was versatile and could be converted to use as a rifle grenade and even fired from the Type 89 50mm mortar, the so-called ‘knee mortar’.

Italian hand grenades were notoriously unpredictable in their function and the types known as ‘Red Devils’, which included the Breda 35 and SRCM 35, often failed to detonate. Most grenades have fuses known as ‘all ways’, which means they will detonate however they land because the fuse is a burning type. The fuses in Italian grenades were an impact-type, which could fail. Also, these unexploded grenades were liable to detonate if disturbed.

Long History

Hand grenades were used in their millions and produced in millions more, which allowed them to be used in many post-war conflicts such as the Korean War and even Vietnam. Apart from their versatility, grenades were capable of being used in all weather conditions, making them a vital part of equipment carried by any infantry unit. It is this long history that continues to fascinate collectors and re-enactors alike.