Rifle grenades have largely fallen out of favor but are a powerful tool for the average rifleman to carry. These propelled explosives first came to be in the late 18th century. The early grenades were mounted on flintlock muskets and propelled by a powder-only load. The Japanese experimented with them during the Russo-Japanese war, but they really became popular when used by the French in World War I.
WWI was characterized by trench warfare and rifle grenades allowed your average rifleman to engage threats with indirect fire to good effect. Early French versions were metal rods that went down the barrel with a standard fragmentation grenade attached. A grenade-launching cartridge was loaded into the chamber to launch these grenades across a much greater distance than your average soldier could throw a grenade.
By WWII, every major military was packing rifle grenades. These tools had become more capable and powerful and could be launched out to 300 yards. They essentially became handheld mortars and anti-tank weapons that were organic to a rifleman. After WWII, they kept declining in popularity, but they do remain an option within several military forces across the world.
Related: The brutality of trench weapons in World War I
How rifle grenades work
The idea is fairly simple. A rifle has to be fitted with a grenade-launching attachment at the end of the barrel. These attachments could be cup-shaped or tube-like muzzle devices. The grenades would then be mounted to the launcher, and the rifleman would load a grenade-launching cartridge.
A grenade-launching cartridge works a lot like a blank. It lacks a projectile and is loaded with gunpowder. The main difference is that these grenade-launching cartridges are often loaded with more powder to launch their very heavy projectile. There have also been designs that used a live round, notably the French V-B rifle grenade launcher, however, these are rare.
American rifle grenade launchers featured multiple spots for the projectile to sit. The different positions cut off more or less gas, giving the grenade less or more range respectively.
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Rifle grenades in bolt-action platforms were pretty simple during WWI and WWII, yet, when the world moved to semi-auto rifles, a solution had to be found. The solution was typically a gas cut-off that prevents the gas from attempting to cycle the rifle instead of launching the grenade. In turn, gas cut-offs became common on military rifles due to rifle grenades.
Grenades fired by semi-auto rifles were big and heavy, for example, the M9 weighed 20 ounces. That’s a heckuva lot more weight than your traditional .30-06 round. This meant the rifle grenade had some substantial recoil.
The advantages and disadvantages of these weapons
Rifle grenades offered the average rifleman a powerful tool for dealing with enemy personnel, light armor, and bunkers. A soldier with an M1 Garand could engage a tank with an M9 rifle grenade and effectively penetrate several inches of its armor. Further, anti-personnel grenade options allowed a soldier to engage a dug-in enemy at several hundred yards and potentially from behind cover.
These grenades could be very powerful and carried a fairly heavy payload, making them almost mini mortars. The rifles could also launch white phosphorus and smoke grenades, and flares. There were even adapters that allowed soldiers to adapt standard hand grenades for launching. These explosives had a traditional fuse, and an experienced grenadier could use these hand grenades as a proto-airburst option.
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When compared to more modern under-mounted grenade launchers, rifle grenades delivered a much bigger payload per shot and also gave you a wider variety of payloads allowing a rifleman to function as a grenadier. Rifle grenades’ launchers were also smaller, lighter, and less logistically complicated than under-mounter ones.
On the other hand, an under-mounted grenade launcher doesn’t prevent the weapon from firing as a rifle-grenade setup does. Also, grenade launchers can be fired faster and always from the shoulder and 40mm boom booms are smaller and lighter than rifle grenades meaning you can carry more.
A combination of portable rocket launchers like the M72 LAW and under-mounted launchers like the M203 largely replaced the rifle grenade, but some modern forces still use them, notably the French and Japanese.
The United States, Israel, and Belgium use something known as the SIMON, which is a rifle grenade with a bullet trap designed to breach doors. In the United States, it’s known as the M100 Grenade Rifle Entry Munition. While it might not be often used, it does provide some special niche that makes it a viable option.
Rifle grenades are an interesting part of indirect warfare history. They’ve changed and evolved alongside modern warfare, and that evolution has maintained their relevance.
Feature Image: French soldiers using a rifle grenade in WWI. (National WWI Museum)
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