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Infantry Anti Tank Weapons

No single area of infantry firepower saw greater change and improvement throughout the Second World War than that of anti tank capability.  None of the major combatants entered the war with a credible defence to the tank placed in the hands of their infantrymen.  Dependence rested firmly with the towed Infantry Anti Tank Guns maintained in small numbers by most Battalions.

The only infantry anti tank weapon in service with any army in 1939 was the Anti Tank Rifle.  In a time used to rocket launchers, it is difficult to believe that such weapons ever existed, but until late 1942 to early 1943 they were the only means at the disposal of the regular infantryman, other than close assault.

The ATR was nothing more than an extension of the Bolt Action Rifles already in use.  The German Army had been the first to face a tank assault in 1916.  Their initial response was the Mauser Modell 1918.  This founded the basic design and characteristics of all subsequent anti tank rifles.  It simply scaled up the tolerances and dimensions of the normal rifle.  This was to enable a much larger calibre bullet to be fired at a higher muzzle velocity.  The intention was to overcome the light armour plating then in use, designed to repel standard rifle rounds, by using a projectile that was both heavier and faster.  The weapon enjoyed some initial successes against the crude machines then crawling upon the battlefield, but improved armour gradually overcame it.

Surprisingly, during the inter-war years, no serious consideration was given to a new generation of infantry anti tank weapons.  Consequently when thoughts turned to war again in the late 1930's the only precedent to start from was the anti tank rifle of twenty years previous.  Britain, Germany and Russia all produced new designs based on the same basis, only the United States excluding the idea.  The rifles produced all shared similar characteristics; notably long barrels, single fire only, penetrating roughly 25 mm of armour and weighing in at around four times as much as a service rifle.  You would be forgiven for thinking that the men who designed these absurdities had never seen a tank before.  The tank had undergo constant and steady improvement from the end of the First War to the start of the Second.  Only a handful of machines could be threatened by the penetrative capability of the rifles, and these were gradually being phased out.  To compound the irony even further, few rifles were even in service at the commencement of the war, so when they did enter large scale usage their shortcomings were even more painfully highlighted.

It was not until the mid point of the war, 1942 moving into early 1943, that a new type of weapon began to appear at the frontline.  The underlying principle of anti tank ammunition had up until this point been based on nothing more complicated than kinetic energy.  If a solid round of sufficient weight could be impacted against armour plate at sufficient speed if could punch through, causing carnage for the men inside the machine.  But solid rounds were becoming ever less useful against armour plate.  Extra armour could easily be added, lessening the effect of anti tank rounds.  If brute force was no longer working, the only other option was explosives.

Throwing a bomb against armour does not in itself serve much purpose.  The plate absorbs the concussion and any shrapnel is simply bounced off.  The threat to the integrity of the plate comes when the force of the blast is directed deliberately and accurately against a single point.  There are a variety of names for these types of munitions - shaped charge, hollow charge, high explosive anti tank.  They all operate within the same broad principle.  When the round hits armour plate an igniter sets of the main charge.  In a normal high explosive round the blast is unfocussed, radiating out in many directions.  In the shaped charge, the opposite occurs.  The blast is funnelled into a virtual stream of energy.  For an instant, the full force of this stream is directed against a single spot on the armour plate.  It acts in the same way as a blowtorch, burning through the metal before exploding into the interior of the tank, all in a single moment.

The overwhelming attraction of this method for the infantry is that the velocity at which the round is fired is completely immaterial.  That means the usual requirements for a large, heavy weapon, able to absorb the recoil of launching are deleted.  As long as the bomb could be delivered on target, the hollow or shaped charge would operate.  As detailed below, several novel and highly innovative means of delivery were found.

Yet almost as soon as the weapons began to reach the troops, newer and better tanks were appearing.  But the gap had been narrowed, if not closed, and now increasingly favoured the infantryman.  The ability of a single rifleman, armed with a weapon he could carry on his back (no doubt cursing its weight) to engage and destroy, or at least disable, an armoured fighting vehicle with a multiple crew changed the face of the war.  In 1940 the German Panzers had been unstoppable, and early on during 1941 the German Army had had their first taste of impotence against the Russian T34 and KV tanks.  The emerging series of infantry anti tank weapons ended the previously one sided struggle.  Now troops could ambush tanks, stalk them through streets and hedgerows and deliver a killer blow from a distance, whereas previously they would have had to board the tank with grenades, mines and sub machine guns.

Yet there were still limitations, range being the most important.  None of the weapons below were effective above 100 metres and many of them had a chance of success at only half that distance.  Several weapons produced a notable sheet of flame and accompanying smoke on firing, compromising attempts at concealment.  The appearance of super heavy tanks was also an unwelcome development.  But for all the drawbacks, all the limitations, the new range of weapons helped level the field for the infantryman.  And in the absence of armoured targets, they naturally enough used the weapons against other objectives, such as machine gun nests, fortified houses or bunkers.

Below are detailed the important types of infantry anti tank rifles and weapons deployed by the major combatants during World War Two.

The British Army

The Boys Anti Tank Rifle

Length 162 cm
Weight 16.3 kg
Calibre 0.55 in (13.97 mm)
Magazine 5 round box
Muzzle Velocity 990 metres per second
Armour penetration 21 mm

A pre-war shot of the Boys, as indicated by the old style ammunition pouches worn by the men.  The Boys was largely abandoned by the troops in the field by 1942

The Projector, Infantry, Anti-tank (PIAT)

Length 99 cm
Weight 14.5 kg
Bomb weight 1.4 kg
Armour Penetration 100 mm

The PIAT in position, a three tube ammunition container and spare bomb at the ready in the foreground

The Boys Anti Tank Rifle was one of those weapons designed to meet an urgent frontline requirement and in true British fashion took three years to arrive.  It was named after Captain Boys (often misspelled as Boyes), but he unfortunately died before the outbreak of war, which given the performance of his contribution may have been ironically fortuitous.  

The Boys was a typical weapon of its type, firing a high velocity, large calibre rifle round.  It was fed by a detachable five round magazine, but remained a bolt action weapon.  The first few encounters against the Panzer Waffe painfully demonstrated its premature obsolescence, facing the British Army with what was to become a familiar problem; withdraw the weapon completely or retain it until something else came along?  They chose the latter and the Boys was widely distributed to infantry battalions and rear echelon troops, as well as being fitted to armoured cars. 

Its replacement was a perfectly unique device.  The Projector, the British Army term for a 'launcher', was unlike any other weapon of its class.  Rather than using rocket propulsion, the bomb was delivered by means of a spring powered spigot.  Quite what persuaded the army this was the way to go is uncertain, but it produced a remarkably flexible weapon and one which was seemingly loathed by any man required to use it.

To cock the weapon, the recoil spring had first to be compressed, requiring something akin to 90 kg of pressure to be applied.  This was done by pulling the T shaped butt plate while twisting the weapon anti clockwise.  The 'easiest' method of achieving this was by standing on the butt plate and pulling upwards, but this proved highly unattractive during combat and means were found to accomplish the task lying down.  The bomb was primed and placed in the trough.  The gunner then had to brace, aim and pull the large trigger.  The spigot shot forward and entered the hollow tail tube, detonating a small propellant cartridge as it did.  The bomb left the trough on a somewhat wobbly trajectory, but the shaped charge warhead did not require too great a velocity to do its work.  The gunner's work, however, was not quite done.  The intention was to harness the recoil from the propellant cartridge to drive the spigot back against the return spring and lock it ready for a second shot.  This was not always the case though, especially if the gunner let the fearsome recoil loosen his grip and the weapon jerked.  In this case, the Projector had to be reloaded manually, as described above.

This odd method though bestowed two distinct advantages.  The report of the Projector was not much more than a rifle and more importantly there was no tell-tale flame and smoke produced.  It also meant that the weapon could be fired in safety from inside a room or bunker, with no need to clear a safety zone behind the gunner for the exhaust discharge.  Another trick was the PIAT could be fired at a high angle, as an impromptu mortar, as well as on the horizontal to engage other targets.  High explosive and smoke bombs were available in this role, and range was increased to around 350 metres. 

The United States Army

Rocket Launcher, M1A1 (The Bazooka)

Length 139 cm
Weight 6 kg
Calibre 2.36 in (60 mm)
Bomb weight 1.5 kg
Armour Penetration 100 mm

A watchful rifleman carrying his Platoon's Bazooka during the Normandy campaign, illustrating just how unwieldy the weapon was when not in action

The US Army entered World War Two with no serious anti armour weapon for its infantrymen.  A few Boys rifles had been procured for evaluation, but their sole claim to fame was that a handful were taken into the Pacific theatre by Marine units as bunker busters.  The Army had a hollow charge grenade, but no means of delivering it until a Colonel Skinner suggested his rocket launcher, which no one had at that point considered seriously.

The combination proved an immediate success and within a year of Pearl Harbor the Bazooka was arriving in frontline use.  It was a simple weapon comprising a hollow launch tube into which a primed missile was inserted.  The rocket was detonated electrically, igniting the propellant which launched the projectile down the tube, causing a notable exhaust signature which meant the weapon was less than discreet.  Danger was also to be found at the other end of the tube, as rockets could sometimes continue to burn after firing which required a wire mesh screen to be fitted to the muzzle.

The early model was supplemented by the improved M9 during 1944 and the M9A1 which could be broken into two halves for easier carrying.  They were both longer at 155 cm and heavier at 7.1 kg and the firing batteries were replaced by a generator.  Smoke and anti personnel rounds were also available.  But against tanks the advent of heavy German models reduced effectiveness, and while soft targets could be engaged at up to 300 m, armoured targets were limited to around 100 m, though penetration was improved to around 120 mm.  An upgraded 3.5 in weapon did not see service until well after the war had finished.  Yet the Bazooka provided the average Rifle Platoon with some hope of defeating a German Panzer and was equally well employed to reduce enemy strongpoints from Europe to the Pacific.

The Red Army

PTRD 1941

Length 202 cm
Weight 17.3 kg
Calibre 14.5 mm
Muzzle Velocity 1000 metres per second
Armour Penetration 25 mm

Anti tank rifle teams wait for the German advance.  A perfect illustration that no matter how bad your job is, someone had one worse

The Red Army was alone among the major combatants in that it never produced a viable anti tank weapon for its infantry throughout the course of the war.  The PTRD 1941 was available in time for the German invasion, but unfortunately its ammunition was not, so the Red Army found itself introducing the weapon during 1942; the same year the British and German armies were relegating their designs to the scrapheap.

The Russian weapon saw widespread use against the ever heavier German tanks.  It was useless in a frontal assault, and the weapon was too cumbersome to consider stalking for a rear engine shot.  Instead, against tanks it was used to target soft points such as visor screens or periscopes, blinding the crew.  While it may seem a desperate tactic an entire generation of 'super heavy' sniper rifles currently exists to target vulnerable electronic equipment in an identical fashion.  It was also useful against buildings or bunkers.  A semi automatic model, the PTRS 1941 was also used, 3.5 kg heavier and 8 cm longer, it was fed from a five round magazine.  It proved mechanically inferior and never supplanted the bolt action model which was, incredibly, still in use in May 1945.

The German Army

PzB 39 (Panzerbuchse)

Length  160 cm
Weight 12.7 kg
Calibre 7.92 mm
Muzzle Velocity 1200 metres per second
Armour penetration 25 mm

The size of the PzB 39 is clearly shown against this Afrika Korps soldier, perhaps pondering exactly what he is supposed to do against a Matilda tank with that?

RPzB 54 (Raketenpanzerbuchse)

Length 164 cm
Weight 11 kg
Calibre 8.8 cm
Bomb weight 3.3 kg
Armour penetration 150 mm

The Panzerschreck, also known as the Stovepipe.  This is the later model displaying the blast shield missing from the first version

For a nation which placed so much emphasis on armoured warfare, the Germans were surprisingly lacking in credible anti tank weapons, especially for their infantry, until mid way through the conflict.  

The initial weapon was the 1939 model 'tank gun', which replaced the pre-war 1938 type.  The PzB 39 was a single shot weapon using a much modified 7.92 mm round in which the empty cartridge case was ejected by pulling down the pistol grip.  It was available in large numbers for the invasion of Russia, where it was learned all too well that the weapon was unequal to the task.  An attempt to lengthen its service life came with the introduction of anti tank rifle grenades.  The barrel was sawn down by around 48 cm and a launcher cup was fitted, but it proved too heavy a weapon to deliver a relatively ineffective round.

During 1943 two enormously influential new weapons appeared.  They enabled the German Infantry, who until this point had been forced to assail Red Army tanks in close assault parties armed with hand grenades and Teller mines, to engage any tank then in service from distance.

The first of these new weapons was the Faustpatrone, or 'fist cartridge', later renamed the Panzerfaust, 'armoured fist'.  The Panzerfaust took the basic idea of a rifle grenade but took it one step further.  Instead of firing it from a rifle muzzle, the grenade was given its own disposable launch tube.  This meant a greater amount of propellant charge could be used, increasing range, and a far larger warhead, increasing penetration.  Upon firing the grenade was propelled from the tube, allowing four stabilising fins to open up.  There was a notable discharge from the opposite end of the launch tube, so the weapon had to be fired under arm or over shoulder and suitable clearance left behind the gunner for the back blast.  Four variants were made, becoming progressively heavier but atoning with ever increasing range.

Model Total weight Calibre
Panzerfaust 30 klein 3 kg 100 mm
Panzerfaust 30 5 kg 150 mm
Panzerfaust 60 6 kg 150 mm
Panzerfaust 100 6.8 kg 150 mm

Ambush position with the Panzerfaust, identified in the accompanying text as the 100 version, the most effective of the series

In each case the numeral suffix refers to the maximum effective range in metres.  The klein had an armour penetration of 140 mm, the remainder all around 200 mm.  This meant they could easily punch a hole in any of the British or American tanks then in service and proved highly effective against the Red Army models.  Once launched the tube was disposed of, so they were treated as grenades and issued on a comparable scale, meaning any German squad had a realistic chance of facing down a Sherman or T34, but given the ranges involved it still required a brave man to try.  

The second weapon to arrive was even more deadly.  At some point during the war the Germans captured models of the M1A1 Bazooka and ammunition.  Depending on what you read these were obtained in North Africa or from a delivery sent to the Red Army.  The Germans had already made an 8.8 cm anti tank grenade and were producing a small artillery piece to discharge it.  The simple idea of the Bazooka changed that and the 'rocket tank gun' appeared.

The early RPzB 43 was almost a direct copy, but incorporating the 8.8 cm missile which proved terribly more damaging than the US 60 mm equivalent.  As with the Bazooka, back blast was a problem and the gunner was vulnerable to the exhaust flame of the rocket.  The early models required the gunner to wear some form of protective clothing to fire it, but latterly a shield was fitted, taking the weight up from 9.3 kg to that given above.  Maximum effective range was quoted at between 120 m and 150 mm markedly higher than its Allied contemporaries.

The combination of the plentiful Panzerfaust and lethal Panzerschreck (tank terror, a nickname applied to the RPzB) proved murderous to Allied tank crews.  The defensive war being fought by the Germans offered innumerable opportunities to ambush advancing armour, most potently in the Normandy bocage where the British and Americans first encountered the threat.  Unlike the allies though, the Germans do not appear to have developed alternative rounds such as high explosive, maintaining their belief in the weapons as pure tank killers.  The initial irony that the 8.8 cm design was inspired by the Bazooka was given further life by the fact that US troops pressed captured models into use when sufficient ammunition was available.

sPzB 41 (schwere Panzerbuchse)

Length 170 cm (barrel only)
Weight 225 kg
Calibre 2.8 cm
Bomb weight 0.13 kg
Muzzle velocity 1400 metres per second
Armour penetration 50 mm

The sPzB41, seen here in wintry conditions.  This is the airborne model, the standard version having much larger road wheels for towing behind a vehicle.  The above example also has a secondary splinter shield fitted just forward of the trigger

Along with their highly influential rocket projectiles, the German Army also employed a series of tapered bore weapons.  The first of these was the 2.8 cm schwere Panzerbuchse 41, or heavy anti-tank rifle.  It made its appearance on the Eastern Front in 1942, and would go on to see service in all other German theatres.  The tapered bore effect used a barrel that gradually narrowed from the initial calibre, in this case reducing from 2.8 cm to 2.0 cm.  The projectile casing used collapsible studs that gave way as the barrel narrowed.

The logic behind this system was that the squeezing effect translated into kinetic energy, which was absorbed by the round to impart greater muzzle velocity and therefore improved armour penetration.  This meant that the weapon could achieve better results than the Pak 35/36, which weighed roughly twice as much, and without the penalty of severe recoil.  There was a penalty however, namely in wear and tear, and the barrel had to be replaced every 500 rounds.

The Allies viewed the weapon as a developmental back step, however it proved very effective in action.  Its low silhouette improved its survivability and aided in ambushes, while a lighter airborne model of 120 kg was used by the Fallschirmjager to boost their often limited anti-tank defences.  It was fitted to softskin vehicles, as well as the SdKfz 250/11 light halftrack, and was still in use at the war's end.

Plans to extend the use of tapered bore weapons to more conventional towed anti-tank guns were curtailed due to lack of the high quality metals needed, though both 4.2 cm and 7.5 cm models saw limited service.

The Japanese Army

Type 97 (Anti-tank Rifle)

Length 210 cm
Weight 52 kg
Calibre 20 mm
Magazine 7 round box
Muzzle Velocity 790 metres per second
Armour penetration 30 mm

The massive 20 mm Anti-tank rifle, soon outclassed in the East and superseded by suicide attacks launched against allied tanks

The Japanese approach to the anti tank rifle was far removed from the other nations detailed here.  The Type 97 was a massive item of equipment that needed four men to even carry it.  This was done using a system of frames which, ironically, increased the weight to almost 68 kg.

Like all such weapons its heyday was soon gone.  In the Pacific and Far East, it was less likely to encounter the newer Allied tanks designed to meet the German threat for the first year or so of the campaign.  But as Shermans and Valentines started to arrive it soon showed itself a liability.  It does seem to have been retained in shore defences though for use against landing craft.  

It was replaced by typically extreme Japanese tank killing methods.  These were no more complicated than a man filling a satchel full of explosives and throwing himself underneath a tank before before igniting the charge, or digging himself a foxhole and waiting for a tank to ride over him.  It typified the view of the soldier himself as nothing more than an expendable item; as long as he destroyed something of worth to the allies, his demise was deemed honourable.


Infantry Weapons of World War Two

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