Grenade Launcher Types and History

January 4, 2024  
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Categories: Learnin'

The concept of a grenade launcher has existed for as long as there have been handheld bombs. In fact, one of the earliest “grenade launchers” were essentially soldiers with really strong arms. Today, such men might have a career playing baseball or football. But as early as the 8th century, when rudimentary incendiary grenades arrived on the scene in the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, individuals were tasked with throwing these at an enemy.

Grenades in the National Historical Museum.

Grenades that were filled with liquid fire from the 10th to 12th centuries in the National Historical Museum, Athens, Greece. (Public Domain)

It is notable, too, that these stone or ceramic grenades – which were essentially filled with the infamous “Greek fire” – spread to the Muslim armies in the Near East and eventually reached China.

 

Ancient Greek Fire illustration

Image from an illuminated manuscript, the Madrid Skylitzes, showing Greek fire in use against the fleet of the rebel Thomas the Slav. (Public Domain)

 

As gunpowder then made its way from China, the concept of grenades took shape in Europe. The very word “grenade” was derived from the French for “pomegranate” as it was reminiscent of the fruit, and it is thus fitting that today, we still associate hand grenades with lemons and pineapples!

Enter the Grenadiers and Early Launchers

Beginning in the mid-17th century, “grenadiers” were tasked with literally throwing a grenade. Recruited from the largest and strongest soldiers, these men were essentially the elite of the day – and it was truly a risky job as the only fuse of the era was a burning wick. If not timed accordingly, it could be a deadly proposition.

As not every army could find men with the arms of Super Bowl champ Tom Brady or baseball legend Roger Clemens, efforts were made to aid in the launching of grenades and small bombs. The earliest devices were ones that dated back to antiquity – namely, a sling, which could be employed to throw early fuse bombs.

Hand Mortars

Moreover, even before the nations of Europe began to employ grenadiers, hand mortars began to enter the scene. First developed in the mid-16th century, these were large bored wheellock firearms that had a bronze barrel and were mounted on a short musket stock. Hand mortars were developed to lob shots over the massed armies on the battlefield as well as over high walls. Most of the barrels tended to be short – as few as two to four inches – and some were far longer, with barrels up to 13 inches long.

Hand Mortars on display at the Bayerisches National Museum.

German grenade rifles from the 16th century (wheellock) and 18th century (flintlock) in the Bayerisches National Museum, München. (Public Domain)

The grenades were lit separately while the hand mortar was then fired to launch it. As with thrown grenades of the era, there was always the danger the grenade would detonate too soon! One early casualty was the French Count de Randan, who died of wounds suffered when the grenade exploded early while he was leading his men into battle during the Siege of Rouen in 1562.

The Primitive Grenade Launchers in the First World War 

Though ordnance technology improved greatly in the 18th and 19th centuries, it wasn’t until the First World War that efforts were made to produce an actual “grenade launcher.” In fact, during that horrible conflict, some of the early attempts simply revisited solutions from antiquity and the Middle Ages.

Sauterelle

This included the French Arbalète sauterelle type A, or simply Sauterelle. Designed in 1915 by inventor Elie André Broca, it was a crossbow that could be used to launch grenades across no-man’s-land. It was designed to be mounted at a 45-degree angle against a trench wall, and it required a crew of two. It could be employed with a variety of ordnance, notably the British Mills bomber. It operated like a crossbow, except instead of bolts/arrows, it launched a grenade. To load the weapon, the firer used hand cranks to draw the strong back, a grenade was loaded in a cup and made ready, and the push of the trigger propelled the grenade. A misfire could be a true problem for the crew!

Primitive Grenade Launcher Sauterelle

The French Arbalète sauterelle type A – one of the first successful modern grenade launchers (National Archives).

Initially dismissed by the French high command, the Sauterelle proved mildly successful – but was then replaced by the Leach Trench Catapult, which Claude Pemberton Leach invented in early 1915.

Leach Trench Catapult

Though it was designated as a “catapult,” it was essentially a combination of a crossbow and slingshot. It featured a Y-shaped frame with natural rubber bands, and it was able to throw a two-pound projectile in a high trajectory into the enemy trenches. Around 150 were produced throughout March 1915 by the Gamages department store in Central London. The Royal Engineers made an additional undisclosed number in the field during the Gallipoli Campaign in Turkey.

Black and white photo of soldiers with a Leach Trench Catapult.

Troops of 29th Indian Infantry Brigade in the trenches, Gallipoli, 1915, with the Leach Trench Catapult. (Public Domain)

 

The Wufmashine

The German Army had produced a similar weapon – the Wufmashine – a spring-powered device that also propelled a hand grenade around 220 yards (200 meters).

Though better than thrown grenades, these early weapons were lacking in accuracy and range.

Early Trench Mortars and Rifle Grenades

It was also during the war that a Hungarian priest named Father Vécer developed a simple system that was employed by the Austro-Hungarian and was known as Priesterwerfers. However, the German military adopted it as the Granatenwerfer 16 – or Small Grenade Launcher Model 1916. It featured a spigot shaft while the body was attached to a heavy steel base plate. It functioned like a mortar, where the operator essentially lobbed “pineapple” style bombs at enemy positions.

Granatenwerfer 16/Small Grenade Launcher Model 1916

The Austrian-designed Granatenwerfer 16 – or Small Grenade Launcher Model 1916 – seen on display at the Michigan Antique Arms Show.

Cup Discharger

The British Army also employed a number of trench mortars, including the 2-inch howitzer and Stokes mortar, but efforts were already made to develop the first true grenade launchers. There had been prior attempts as early as the late 18th century to mount a “cup discharger” to the muzzle of flintlock muzzles, where the grenades were propelled by the force of the powder being set off.

However, efforts to refine the technology were slow going. At the Battle of Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese military experimented with rifle-fired grenades, while a British designer, Frederick Marten Hale, patented a “rod grenade,” which was little more than a rod attached to a specially designed grenade. However, the British Army wasn’t entirely sold on the idea, and it wasn’t until the First World War, when both sides dug in, that the need for such a weapon was considered necessary and adopted a rodded variant of the No 2 grenade as a solution.

Hales No. 3 Rifle Grenade

A Hales rod grenade (Australian War Memorial).

That led to the further development of the No. 3, which was also known as the Hales rifle grenade – while a rodded version of the Mills bomb was also produced. In either case, the rod could be inserted into the barrel of a standard service launch, and a blank cartridge could be used to launch the grenade from the gas pressure in the barrel.

Using a live bulleted cartridge by mistake could result in serious injury – or worse – to not only the operator but anyone immediately near him. The early grenade firing cartridges were normal cases filled with propellant powder and plugged with a hard wax compound. Later, specially crimped cartridges, which were also dipped in colored stain, were introduced.

Moreover, the rod grenade placed an extreme amount of stress on the rifle barrel and stock. Such firearms would be employed to fire regular ammunition, and instead, select rifles were dedicated to the grenade launching role. The British Army also sought to reinforce the rifles by wrapping the stock and barrel with wire.

No. 1 Mk III SMLE Rifle

The British Army also reintroduced the “cup” style grenade dischargers, which attached directly to the nose cap on the No1 Mk III SMLE rifle. After the end of the First World War, the rod-type rifle grenade was deemed obsolete as the British adopted the gas check equipped Mills Bomb that fired from a rifle via the cup launcher.

A modified British No. 1 MK III SMLE rifle made to fire rifle grenades (Private Collection).

Viven-Bessières

The British were far from alone in developing rifle grenades, and it was actually their French allies that took the concept further with the Viven-Bessières rifle grenade, named after its developers Jean Viven and Gustave Bessiere (commonly known as the V-B). It was used from 1916 onwards and consisted of two elements, which included the discharger and the projectile. The discharger cup had a diameter of 50mm (two inches), and it was fitted to the end of a rifle – typically the 8mm Lebel.

Black and white photo of soldiers with VB Grenade Launchers.

U.S. soldiers with the French VB Launchers (U.S. Military History Institute).

Rifle grenadiers employed the V-B at the infantry company level.

The United States military sought to adopt the VB when it entered the war, but at issue was the difference in the service cartridge, and instead, the U.S. looked to develop an improved rod-grenade. Colonel E. B. Babbitt of the U.S. Ordnance Department developed what was to become known as the Babbit grenade, which was designed for use with the M1903 Springfield rifle. It was made of cast iron or steel with an outside with grooves for fragmentation. It was also propelled with a special blank cartridge.

A French soldier with the V-B Launcher (National Archives).

As with other rod-grenades, the Babbit was not without issues. The metal rod could damage the barrel’s rifling, while the grenade’s length made it awkward to carry.

DP 64 Nepryadva

The DP-64 Nepryadva was actually designed specifically for use aboard naval ships and civil vessels, including for counter-piracy operations. (Creative Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin)

Black and white photo of three soldiers with Babbit Grenade launchers.

The Babbit Grenade launcher in U.S. military service (National Archives).

Rifle Grenades in the Second World War

Development of rifle grenade launchers continued in the Interwar era, and a number of unique designs took shape.

Black and white photo of the Moschetto di Fanteria

The Italian Moschetto di Fanteria Mod. 91/28 con Tromboncino combined a carbine and a grenade launcher with mixed results (Public Domain)

This included the Italian Moschetto di Fanteria Mod. 91/28 con Tromboncino (“Little Trombone”), which combined a grenade launcher with a carbine. The launcher was actually permanently mounted to the carbine but could only be used at a time – as the weapon utilized a “shared bolt” system. To fire the grenade launcher required the carbine’s bolt to be removed from the receiver and instead installed in the launcher, and a single trigger worked both weapons depending on where the bolt was installed. It fired a 38.5 mm caliber grenade, as well as the standard-issue 6.5x52mm Carcano cartridge.

Black and white photo of two soldiers with a rifle grenade launcher.

Two French soldiers sitting in a trench, one holding a rifle with an attached grenade launcher.

Its biggest drawback was the slow process of moving the bolt from one breech to the other, and while dubbed a Little Trombone, it was a heavy weapon, plus expensive to produce. It saw only limited use in the Second World War. Today, the weapon with the launcher is legal to own in the United States as a Curio & Relic, but the grenades would be considered destructive devices.

Type 100 Launcher

During the same period, the Japanese military developed its Type 91 fragmentation grenade, which could be thrown by hand, and fired from the Type 100 launcher, which was designed for use with the Type 38 and Type 99 Ariska bolt action rifles. The launcher was unique in that it employed a gas trap system incorporating a barrel extension that tapped off the excess propellant gasses to launch the grenade from a cup that was offset from the barrel. The effective range was approximately 100 yards.

Type 100 Launcher

The Type 100 launcher was designed for use with the Type 38 and Type 99 Ariska bolt action rifles. (IMFDB)

The Type 91 grenade could also be launched from the Type 89 grenade discharger. The latter launcher earned the nickname “knee mortar” as American troops in the Pacific War erroneously believed it could be fired by being propped against the leg. However, anyone who attempted to fire it that way would receive, at best, a severe bruise and, more likely, a broken thigh bone from the weapon’s recoil.

No. 68 AT

A member of the Home Guard demonstrates the EY rifle with a No. 68 anti-tank grenade (Public Domain).

The British military returned to the cup-launched rifle grenade concept with its No. 68 AT (anti-tank) grenade, which was one of the first anti-tank ordnance with a shape charge and the first high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) type warhead. It was introduced in November 1940, but even by that early stage of the war, the No. 68 AT was largely ineffective against the armor of German tanks.

Gewehrgranatengerät

The German military also developed an attachable rifle grenade launcher – the Gewehrgranatengerät or Schiessbecher (‘shooting cup’) was based on the rifle grenade launchers employed during the First World War. Intended to replace all previous rifle grenade launchers, the 30mm shooting cup could be mounted to any of the German military’s Karabiner 98K. It could also be mounted on the G98/40 rifles, the StG44 assault rifle, and even the FG-42. However, it was apparently not compatible with the semi-automatic G/K-43 rifle.

Black and white photo of a soldier with a "shooting cup".

The German Gewehrgranatengerät or Schiessbecher (‘shooting cup’) was based on the rifle grenade launchers employed during the First World War. (Public Domain)

Nazi Germany’s Japanese allies also adopted a version of the Gewehrgranatengerät – which was designated the Type 2 rifle grenade launch. It could be attached to the Type 38 and Type 99 Ariska bolt action rifles and could fire a special hollow charge grenade.

22mm Rifle Grenade Launcher

In the late 1930s, the United States military also developed a spigot-type 22mm rifle grenade launcher (the size was the diameter of the base tube, not the diameter of the warhead section). It was a detachable adapter that could be attached to the end of a muzzle – and, like other rifle grenade launchers, propelled the ordnance via a blank cartridge inserted in the chamber and fired.

The M7 grenade launcher was developed specifically for the M1 Garand semi-automatic rifle. It enclosed the muzzle and was held in place by the rifle’s bayonet lug. A number of accessories were developed for the launcher, including the M15 auxiliary sight.

The M7 saw service during the Second World War and the Korean War, and it could fire grenades up to 200 meters (220 yards). A variety of grenades were developed, including the M9 anti-tank round, M17 fragmentation, and M22 smoke grenade. The M7 was updated at the end of the Second World War and subsequently improved to address accuracy.

The M7 should not be confused with the M1 grenade launcher that had been previously developed for the M1903 Springfield rifle. The success of the M7 led to the development of the M8, which could be mounted on the M1 Carbine, which fired the .30 Carbine M6 grenade cartridge. A downside of the M8 was that if the rifle wasn’t braced properly, the recoil could crack or even break the stock.

Post-World War II Rifle Grenade Launchers

The U.S. spigot-type launcher proved more versatile than the cup-based systems. The 22mm rifle grenade launchers were adopted by the United States as well as by a number of allies, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and India. It was employed after World War II by the Pakistani military, and China copied it as the Type 64 – which was used during the Vietnam War, fired from M44 Mosin-Nagant carbine rifles.

Interestingly, the Liechtenstein firm Energa developed what was to prove to be one of the successful early Cold War rifle grenades. It was then produced in Belgium as the ENERGA anti-tank rifle grenade, which in theory and on paper could penetrate up to 10.8 inches (275 mm) of armor and up to 23.6 inches (600 mm) of concrete. It saw service with the U.S. military – which produced it as the M28 rifle grenade – as well as by the British Army, which utilized it with the Projector (No. 4 Rifle) Mark 5, an attachment for the Lee-Enfield No. 4 Rifle, while it could also be used with the L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle (the British model of the FN-FAL).

It also saw service with South Africa and the Netherlands, but in the 1960s, it was replaced by the M31 HEAT rifle grenade, a fin-stabilized anti-tank rifle grenade designed in the late 1950s.  The spigot-type launcher was initially designed to be fired from the M1 Garand but could also be employed from both the M14 and M16 rifles. Official military manuals recommended that it be fired from either the standing or kneeling position.

Soldier holding a STANAG 22mm Rifle

Japanese Type 06 rifle grenade attached to the barrel of a Howa Type 89 assault rifle (Creative Commons).

Though rifle grenades and the launchers were replaced with the introduction of the disposable single-shot rocket launcher and the 40mm dedicated grenade launcher, all current NATO military rifles are designed to be capable of launching STANAG 22 mm rifle grenades from their flash hider without the use of an adapter.

The Russian military also utilizes a cup-type grenade launcher that can be mounted to its Kalashnikov rifles, firing the Soviet-designed RGD-5 hand grenades.

Handheld Grenade Launcher

Blanch-Chevallier launcher

The sole known Blanch-Chevallier launcher in the collection of the Royal Armouries.

Even as rifle grenades were being developed, efforts were underway to develop handheld launchers. One notable innovation in this direction was the Blanch-Chevallier grenade launcher, which French-born engineer Arnold Louis Chevallier designed after he immigrated to the UK just prior to the First World War. He came up with a wholly new design and chose Herbert John Blanch of the London gunmaking firm J. Blanch & Son to build a prototype. The rear half of the launcher comprised a Martini tilting-block action previously used by the British army in the Martini-Henry and Martini-Enfield rifles.

The rifle’s standard barrel was replaced by one with a large 6.35 cm (2.5″ in) bore, which also featured retaining clips at the muzzle and a sprung piston platform at the base. The grenade would have been launched by a .450 blank cartridge, with the large coil spring acting to dampen the resulting recoil along with a thick rubber butt-pad. Two drawbacks became evident – first, to absorb the recoil of firing, it had to be extremely heavy, and a supply of grenades would have added to the weight; while the weapon as constructed could not load the standard No.5 hand grenade or the No.3 rifle grenade.

It would have required that Britain tool up for production of its proprietary grenade.

Due to those concerns, the design wasn’t adopted and there is no evidence that the Blanch-Chevallier grenade launcher was ever trialed by the British War Office, but it was a concept that would be revisited.

Project NIBLICK

After the Second World War, the United States Army’s Operations Research Office (ORO) undertook Project NIBLICK. It called for the development of a modern grenade launcher that could increase the firepower of the American infantryman by providing an explosive projectile that was both more accurate and had a further range than a rifle grenade but could be more portable than a mortar. It resulted in the 40x46mm grenade.

It wasn’t exactly a “chicken and egg” scenario, as it could be argued that the egg was developed, and now it needed the chicken to “launch” it.

The M79

MSG Claude L. Yocum, HHC, 2nd Bn., 1st Inf., 196th Lt. Inf. Bde., Vietnam, armed with the M79 Grenade Launcher (Public Domain).

Though the Springfield Armory developed the three-shot “harmonica” T148, it was found that any suitable launcher would need to be a single-shot weapon.

This resulted in the development of the M79 grenade launcher, a single-shot, shoulder-fired, break-action weapon that earned a number of colorful nicknames, including “Thumper,” Thump-Gun,” “Bloop Tube” and “Blooper.” It could fire a variety of 40 mm rounds, including anti-explosive, anti-personnel, smoke, buckshot, flechette, and illumination.

It first saw service during the Vietnam War in 1965, and it quickly earned the respect of American troops, who further dubbed it “the platoon leader’s artillery.” It had an effective range of 383 yards (350 meters) and a maximum firing range of 400 meters (437 yards).

However, the single-shot weapon had a slow rate of fire and an inability to keep up a constant barrage during firefights. Even as it has been replaced by platforms such as the M203 (see below), the M79 has seen limited use in recent years due to its greater accuracy and range.

The NATIC/China Lake

The United States Navy SEALs called for an improved weapon, and that resulted in the NATIC, which was developed in the late 1960s by the Special Projects Division at the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake – the development facility for the elite unit. Whereas the M79 was essentially a grenade launcher based on a break-action shotgun, the China Lake grenade launcher (as it has come to be known) took its cues from pump-action shotguns.

The NATIC featured a tubular magazine that held three 40x46mm grenades, with a fourth in the chamber. That allowed for the rapid firing of four grenades without reloading. There were even reports of SEALs firing off all four rounds before the first one landed, while it also was noted for performing well with HE-Frag rounds.

While around 50 were produced, only four of the original China Lake launchers are still known to exist intact in museums in the U.S. and Vietnam.

The United States Department of Defense (DoD) issued a contract for new production of the NATIC in 2007, with M4-type stocks, pistol grip, and Picatinny rails. The weapon was initially marketed to the United States Marine Corps, but production was halted after two companies involved – Airtronic USA (which currently manufactures the M203) and Trident – found themselves in a legal dispute over the ownership of the design. The Marine Corps adopted the Milkor MGL Mk 1L instead.

However, it has been reported that a very small number of the newly produced China Lake launchers were sold to civilians – transferred as National Firearms Act items as Destructive Devices. Interestingly, while the Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986 banned the production of new machine guns made after May 19, 1986 – it didn’t stop grenade launchers from being offered for civilian sales. The last one that was sold by the Rock Island Auction House to a private collector had a gavel price in excess of $80,000.

CDTE

A Soldier aims an XM-25 weapon system at Aberdeen Test Center, Md. (U.S. Department of Defense).

The U.S. military had continued to see a need for a handheld grenade launcher, and among the weapons tested – but not adopted – was the XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement (CDTE) System, also known as the Punisher and Individual Semiautomatic Air Burst System. The airburst grenade launcher was developed to fire specialty programmable ammunition derived from the XM29 OICW (Objective Individual Combat Weapon) and enable small units and even individual soldiers to engage defilade targets by firing the 25mm air bursting grenades.

The CDTE was meant to reduce the reliance of small units on nonorganic assets (mortars, artillery, and air support) and the need to compete for the priority of fires when time is critical. In addition to air-bursting ammunition, a family of ammunition is being developed to support other missions, which could include armor-piercing and nonlethal scenarios. Though field-tested in Afghanistan, the program was terminated in July 2018.

The Heckler & Koch 69

Left side view of HK 69A1 stand-alone 40mm grenade launcher. (Heckler & Koch)

Developed by German-based Heckler & Koch (H&K), the HK69 is an extremely light, simple, and utilitarian weapon that can be fired like a pistol. It is known by its Bundeswehr designation Granatpistole 40 mm, which is often written shorthand as “GraPi 40mm.”

It features an angular receiver and foregrip section, a rifle-style pistol grip, a short, relatively nondescript barrel with thin brackets over the muzzle and chamber, and a T-shaped skeleton buttstock. Sling swivels are fitted to the front of the foregrip and the butt of the pistol grip.

Designed to engage enemy troops and strongpoints out to a distance of 350 meters, it can also be used to deploy smoke grenades and illumination flares.

The GL06

GL 06

The GL06 was developed as a lightweight grenade launcher for the less lethal role. (Brügger & Thomet)

In the early 2000s, Swiss-based Brügger & Thomet saw a need for a lightweight grenade launcher for the less lethal role. Its GL-06 was developed as a dedicated stand alone grenade launcher and not a conversion of an underbarrel grenade launcher – intended for military and police applications. The GL-06 has a layout similar to that of the popular HK 69 grenade launcher.

Designed from the ground up for lightweight, accurate, and rapid deployment, the B&T GL06 launcher and SIR (Safe Impact Round) ammunition family were introduced as a “less lethal” system created specifically for public order, law enforcement, and peacekeeping operations.

The South African Neopup

Denel PAW-20 Neopup

The Denel PAW-20 “Neopup” (“Personal Area Weapon, 20mm) is a weapon of South African origin (IMFDB).

A hybrid between a traditional assault rifle and a grenade launcher, the Denel PAW-20 “Neopup” (“Personal Area Weapon, 20mm) is a weapon of South African origin. It utilizes various 20mm point-detonating rounds fired from a detachable box or rotary drum magazine and is intended for use as an infantry support weapon.

The semiautomatic, gas-operated weapon’s intended targets include infantry in the open and behind light covers, as well as unarmored or lightly armored vehicles and thin-walled buildings.

Less Lethal Launchers

Anti Riot Weapon Enfield 37

The five round ARWEN 37 can fire a variety of ordnance consisting of direct impact batons, chemical irritant delivery munitions and smoke delivery munitions. (ARWEN).

In addition to the common 40mm rounds, there have been attempts to develop more compact and less lethal grenade launchers, and these include the single-shot ARWEN Ace and the five-round ARWEN 37, which can fire a variety of ordnance consisting of direct-impact batons, chemical irritant delivery munitions, and smoke delivery munitions. Unlike many grenade launchers, the ARWEN (Anti Riot Weapon Enfield) launchers are noted for having rifled barrels for greater accuracy.

Underbarrel Grenade Launchers

During the Cold War, the shortcomings of grenade launchers that mounted to the muzzle became readily apparent, and a number of alternative options were considered – including underbarrel grenade launchers.

XM148

XM148

Early Colt AR-15 with XM148 grenade launcher. (Public Domain)

Colt Firearms, which produced the AR-15 as the M-16 for the U.S. military in the 1960s, led the effort to develop a grenade launcher that could be employed with its rifle. This resulted in the CGL-4 (Colt Grenade Launcher), which was created by Colt’s Design Project Engineer Karl R. Lewis. Weighting about three pounds and with a length of 16.5 inches (42 cm), it was designated as the XM148 by the U.S. military.

It became the first grenade launcher designed to fit under the barrel of a rifle, making the M-16 two weapons in one. It sought to equip grenadiers – the squad or fire team members assigned with the M79 – with a rifle instead of just a handgun. In Vietnam, it was found that a grenadier couldn’t carry both the M79 and an M16 assault rifle. By combining the two, a squad could increase its firepower.

However, the XM148 had a few significant flaws.

Its cocking mechanism was hard to squeeze, and the site was hard to use, while the trigger design was complicated and required constant maintenance. The first units were delivered to Vietnam in December 1966 for field testing, but by the following May, the Pentagon had deemed the XM148 unsuitable for use in the field.

M203

M16A2 Rifle with M203 Grenade Launcher (Public Domain).

Where the XM148 failed, the M203 hit the mark. The breech-loading, single-shot, indirect-fire weapon was also designed to supplant the M79. The M203 was developed as a “tactical” accessory and was first field tested in Vietnam in 1969.

It is capable of firing 40mm grenades up to 400 meters (437 yards), and it was developed to attach underneath standard military rifles of the era, including the M16 and M4. Loaded, it weighs 3 1/2 pounds and has a 9-inch barrel. It can fire a variety of rounds, including HE, smoke, and even buckshot grenades.

AG36

Latvian soldier with G36KV assault rifle with AG36 grenade launcher. (U.S. Department of Defense)

The German-based firearms firm Heckler & Koch developed the AG36. This single-shot 40 mm grenade launcher operates on the high-low system and was designed primarily for installation on the G36 assault rifle. It has a break-action steel barrel but was noted for its extensive use of polymers and high-strength aluminum to reduce its total mass while also making it extremely durable. Unlike the American M203, the AG36 swings out laterally for loading, allowing for the use of longer rounds when necessary, e.g., baton or flare rounds. The AG36 was further capable of firing nearly any 40x46mm ordnance, including flexible baton rounds, CS gas, white phosphorus, and HE. It saw service in Afghanistan and Iraq during the GWoT.

The H&K AG36 platform has been further refined as the AG-C/EGLM (Enhanced Grenade Launching Module), which can also fire HE, smoke, illuminating, buckshot direct fire, CS gas, and training grenades. As a modular design, it can also be used as a standalone weapon and will accept an adjustable shoulder stock.

Soldier holding an M320.

The M320/M320A1 40 MM Grenade Launcher Module (GLM) is a lightweight grenade launcher that attaches under the barrel of the M16 series rifles (M320) or the M4 series carbines (M320A1). (U.S. Department of Defense)

More recently, the United States DoD adopted its version of the H&K platform as the M320 Grenade Launcher Module. This single-shot, lightweight 40mm grenade launcher attaches under the barrel of the M16 series rifles (M320) or the M4 series carbines (M320A1).

It was designed to enable U.S. warfighters to more accurately engage the enemy in daylight or total darkness out to 400 meters with 40mm low-velocity grenades and to replace all M203 series grenade launchers mounted on the M16/M4 series of rifles and carbines. It features a side-loading unrestricted breech that permits the system to fire longer 40mm projectiles (NATO standard and non-standard). The system further comes with a hand-held laser range finder and a Grenadier Sighting System. Much like the AG36, a key distinguishing feature of the M320 is its folding foregrip ahead of the trigger for use when the weapon is in a standalone configuration.

Russia’s Underbarrel Launchers

The Russian GP-25 grenade launcher for the AK-series rifles. (Public Domain)

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union also developed a number of under-barrel 40mm grenade launchers, and this included the GP-25 “Kostyor” (Russian for “Bonfire”), which was developed in the late 1960s and introduced in service in the 1970s for use with the Kalashnikov family of assault rifles. It was designed to fit without any adapters and was similar to the U.S. M203, while the ordnance consisted of 40mm internal propellant caseless ammunition, which contained the propellant inside the warhead instead of a cartridge case. It was first employed in combat during the Soviet-Afghan War and remains in service with the Russian Army today.

At the latter stages of the Cold War, the Kremlin introduced the improved GP-30 “Obuvka” (“Shoe”) for the AK-100 series of assault rifles, while the GP-34 was a universal platform that could be used with nearly all of the AK-style and AN-94 rifles in service with the Russian military.

Special Purpose Individual Weapon

The Special Purpose Individual Weapon at the former Aberdeen Proving Ground Museum in Aberdeen, Maryland, USA. (Public Domain)

In the 1960s, another new type of grenade launcher was developed as part of the U.S. Army’s Special Purpose Individual Weapon (SPIW) program, which sought to combine the capabilities of a rifle, a controlled pattern shotgun, and a light mortar. It could fire a single medium-sized dart, a cluster of small darts, a microcaliber bullet, or a high explosive round. At the time, some military experts even predicted that SPIWs, or something like it, would become the basic infantry weapons of the future.

Several different configurations received testing. Yet, by the end of 1969the SPIW was still purely experimental, and no such weapon was available to the infantryman fighting in Vietnam. More than 50 years later, such weapons still have yet to be developed.

Double Barrel Grenade Launchers

In the final months of the Cold War, the Soviet arms industry began development on a new concept in small arms – a double barrel handheld grenade launcher. It featured a vertical arrangement (over/under) of its barrels and could fire 45mm counter-sabotage grenades.

DP 64 Nepryadva

The DP-64 Nepryadva was actually designed specifically for use aboard naval ships and civil vessels, including for counter-piracy operations. (Creative Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin)

The DP-64 Nepryadva was actually designed specifically for use aboard naval ships and civil vessels, including for counter-piracy operations. The side-break breech-loading launcher could fire grenades indirectly at ranges up to 1,300 feet (400 meters), in which the ordnance would act like small depth charges against light watercraft and even submerged swimmers. It could fire either a high-explosive fragmentation grenade or a less lethal grenade – allowing it to be used against underwater and exposed targets. It has seen limited use in the war in Ukraine.

Revolver/Rotary Grenade Launchers

Developed for the South African Defense Force (SADF) in the early 1980s, the Milkor MGL (Multiple Grenade Launcher) is a repeating grenade launcher, the first commercially successful weapon of this type. Though not the first rotary grenade launcher – the Hawk Engineering MM-1 was among the earliest but failed concepts – the MGL validated the design.

AV-140

The AV-140 is a hand-held, gas plug operating, semi-automatic, revolving action, 40mm Multi-Shot Grenade Launcher (MSGL). (Milkor USA)

The MGL features a distinctive appearance, which includes a skeleton buttstock attached to the butt of the cylinder crane hinge that can fold 180 degrees over the top of the weapon, an assault rifle-style pistol grip, and a shallowly-bulged 90-degree foregrip bracketed to the barrel. It utilizes a six-round, revolver-type swing-out cylinder.

It offers a rate of fire of three rounds per second in rapid fire and 18-21 rounds per minute in sustained fire. It has an effective range of 440 yards (400 meters).

The MGL was initially made of an aluminum alloy but subsequently produced with stainless steel. The rotary grenade launcher was first used in combat by the SADF during the South African Border War, and it earned great praise from South Africa’s soldiers. The launcher has since seen action all over the world, in locations as far-flung as Central America, Central Asia, and the Philippines.

RG-6/RG30

 RG-6 or 6G30

The Russian RG-6 or 6G30 at the Interpolitex-2011 arms show. (Creative Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin)

In the early 1990s, the Russian Central Design and Research Bureau of Sporting and Hunting Weapons in Tula developed the RG-6 (also designated the RG30 by the GRAU) – a 40mm, six-shot, revolver-type grenade launcher. It was designed to increase the firepower of infantry squads in urban combat, and it could be employed to destroy manpower and light weapons in the open terrain and various shelters, including open trenches, opposite hill slopes, ravines, etc.

Like many Russian small arms, it was simple in design, while it offers reliable operation in any weather or environmental conditions. The weapon has been employed by special police operations, especially those in urban areas. It can fire VOG-25 and VOG-25P rounds with fragmentation and several types of non-lethal grenades.

The revolver-type grenade launcher features multiple barrel blocks, rotated by a previously loaded spring. That barrel block includes six rifled grenade launchers similar to a rifle-mounted grenade launcher, while it is fitted with a telescopic butt-plate. Like the MGL, it was designed with a swing-out cylinder.

The Russian rotary launcher offers a rate of fire of two rounds per second in rapid fire or 16-18 rounds per minute in sustained fire. It fires 40mm caseless grenades to a maximum range of 440 yards (400 meters). It is another platform that has been employed in Ukraine.

Belt-Fed Grenade Launcher

Mk19 Grenade Launcher

The Mk19 grenade launcher isn’t exactly a mobile platform – but it is effective (U.S. Department of Defense)

It was in Vietnam that the United States military saw a need not only for a grenade launcher that could be used by grenadiers but also a weapon that could be employed for defensive operations. This led to the development of the Mk19 40mm belt-fed automatic grenade launcher, which could provide sustained heavy fire for infantry and other military personnel. At the time, the U.S. military was seeking to find a replacement for the Mk 18 Mod 0, a 40x46mm launcher that was also the last known hand crank-operated firearm adopted by the U.S. military.

That platform, though effective enough that it was employed by the so-called “river rats” and U.S. Navy SEALs in Southeast Asia, was limited by its short effective range of just 410 yards (375 meters).

The Mk 19 was designed at the Naval Ordnance Station in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1966 and introduced in 1968, while it first saw combat with the U.S. Special Operations Forces, mounted on vehicles, boats, or on a tripod.

Though it is technically a grenade launcher, the Mk19 is also essentially an air-cooled, blowback-operated, belt-fed machine gun that fires 40mm high explosive dual purpose (HEDP) ordnance. As the launcher fires from an open bolt and can maintain a low barrel temperature during rapid fire, the rounds cannot “cook off,” yet it has a sustainable cyclic rate of 325 to 375 rounds per minute – although the effective rate of fire is 60 rounds per minute, with a muzzle velocity of 790 feet per second.

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Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu

About the Author

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are Homeland Security Today, Armchair General, Military Heritage, The Mag Life, Newsweek, The Federalist, AmmoLand, Breach-Bang-Clear, Newsweek, RECOILweb, Wired, and many (many) others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.

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