The little-studied and nearly forgotten last airborne operation of World War II, Operation Varsity, eventuated along the Rhine River on March 24, 1945. The participants had no way of knowing it, but they were six weeks from V-E Day and the end of the War in Europe. That end happened for many reasons, in part because the Western Allies forced the Rhine in March. (But had the Allies been held or thrown back, the Germans still would have lost, because the Red Army was coming from the East in any event).
Both sides came to the Rhine fight with Operation Market-Garden in Holland and Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (called “The Battle of the Bulge” by the Americans in its path) in the Ardennes fresh in mind. One was an Allied fight, one a German, but both were ambitious offensives that fell far short of their goals. The American division that would be tabbed for Operation Varsity, the 17th Airborne, had come in at the end of the Bulge to hold the cleared salient to Bastogne open, and to push the Germans back. They knew what fighting against German armored counterattacks would be like. The Germans holding their side of the river knew that the Allies had as many as four paratroop and glider divisions opposite them, and they knew just how weakened their units were by the endless meatgrinder of combat (one division was down to 4,000 men, counting walking wounded; that was about what the 17th was short after the Ardennes casualties, but the American unit got replacements).
One thing everybody knew: paratroops were overmatched by tanks. The Germans expected the Allies to land by night and planned to crush them by tanks at first light. The paratroops knew they needed to kill tanks. The problem was: it takes a hard hit by a heavy shot to kill a tank, and things that fired hard-hitting heavy shots tended to be bulky and heavy — not something you could jump out of a C-46 or C-47 with.
In the Ardennes, along Dead Man’s Ridge northwest of Bastogne, a paratroop sergeant named Isidore Jachman had engaged a German tank formation with the only organic AT weapon the airborne infantryman had, the 2.36″ (~60mm) Rocket Launcher (aka Bazooka).
Jachman engaged two tanks, killing one and forcing a German retreat, but enemy fire killed Jachman, who became, posthumously, 17th’s only Medal of Honor recipient prior to Varsity. His citation:
For heroism January 04, 1945 at Flamierge, Belgium. When his company was pinned down by enemy artillery, mortar, and small arms fire, two hostile tanks attacked the unit, inflicting heavy casualties. Staff Sergeant Jachman, seeing the desperate plight of his comrades, left his place of cover and with total disregard for his own safety dashed across open ground through a hail of fire and seizing a bazooka from a fallen comrade advanced on the tanks, which concentrated their fire on him. Firing the weapon alone, he damaged one and forced both to retire. Staff Sergeant Jachman’s heroic action, in which he suffered fatal wounds, disrupted the entire enemy attack.
57mm and halftrack prime movers.
The AT armament of the paratroops would be carried by gliders. By 1945, the inadequate 37mm gun (called by the British the two-pounder) was retired and the standard gliderborne airborne-unit AT gun was the 57mm, a good weapon for 1941 but hopeless against 1945 main battle tanks; the British users called it the six-pounder. (British and American guns had different carriages but the same tube).
In other American units, the prime mover for the 57mm AT was a half-track or a 1 1/2 ton Dodge 6×6 truck. The glider units had to make do with jeeps as prime movers. Carrying a sufficient ammo supply was a problem, and the gun and the jeep each needed their own Waco or Horsa glider.
My platoon was three 57mm Anti-Tank guns. A squad of 10 men for each gun. This gun was a reworked British “6 pounder”, so called because it fired a 6-pound projectile. Our version had good ballistics. A muzzle velocity of about 3000 fpm. It would penetrate 2 inches of armor plate and ricochet with killing velocity about 50 times. It sure didn’t look very impressive. The gunner had to kneel or sit to look though the sight.
A British 6 pounder (57mm) showing the crew’s kneeling position.
His crew got a lucky hit on a Panther that let them barrage the tank and drive the crew out of it.
We had gotten our kill! That hole in their defense had to be covered by adjoining Panthers. Later a Bazooka team got another one. … At least we were no longer kidded about our “Little Pea Shooter”. Most didn’t consider the 57mm much of a weapon.
The 57 had definite limits when engaging modern tanks. But it was far more accurate and longer-ranged than the bazooka!
British forces had another option. Two batteries that airlanded on Varsity had three troops each with 6-pounders and one with 17-pounders. The 17-pounder was a high velocity 76.2mm weapon. This was, much more than its 6-pounder sibling, an effective AT weapon, but it was a lot bigger — by the time it, and its crew and prime mover were all lined up, it was a 17 thousand pound logistical nut to crack. They could only deliver these by the gigantic General Aircraft Hamilcar glider. And glider delivery was always risky. Two Glider Pilot Regiment Sergeants, Peter Young and Neville Shaw had one of these heavy guns in a Hamilcar that didn’t get off its departure runway. Young:
Our load was a 15-hundredweight truck and a 17-pounder antitank gun, with a crew of eight soldiers, 70 rounds of ammunition, and spare petrol. The total weight was around 17,800 pounds.
We have the distinction of completing the shortest flight. On take off, the Halifax [tow plane] got into a tangle in the slipstream of the aircraft in front and cast me off. There was no choice but to put down in the overshoot. There was a spare loaded glider, but it was decided not to use this.1
Shoulder patch of the now-forgotten 17th Airborne Division.
In the American forces, there was no formal anti-tank organization, unlike the British unit’s. Instead, the 17th’s 155th Anti-Aircraft Battalion picked up anti-tank duty, and the weapons to go with it. (This may have been because of the weakness of the Luftwaffe by March 1945). Oddly enough, the unit had a mix of British 6-pounders and American 57mm, but since the tubes and ammo were the same, the mixture had no practical effect.
But a new wonder weapon came to the battalion less than two weeks before showtime: the 75mm Recoilless Rifle.
Exactly two of these newfangled gadgets replaced six-pounders, one in each of two batteries. One of the crewmen, Corporal Eugene Howard, remembers:
It looked a lot like a fancy bazooka. It had a 7 foot long rifle barrel mounted on a yoke, with a pin on the bottom of the yoke to fit onto a .50-caliber machine gun tripod. The rifle weighed about 175 pounds and the tripod weighed about 65 pounds.
The gun was fitted with a new electronic sighting device that made it more accurate than the sight on the 57 mm [recoilless rifle]. In one respect it was like a bazooka: when the gun fired, a blaze of hot gases came out the rear of the gun with an equal force to the projectile coming out the muzzle. It had an effective range of about 1,500 yards.
The jeep was modified to carry the gun. The tripod mount was secured to the floor of the back section of the Jeep. A cradle for the barrel was welded to the front bumper of the jeep. One of the advantages of the gun was that it could be fired from the jeep. It could even be fired with the Jeep moving. Since we did not have to pull the 57-millimeter we would get a jeep trailer to haul ammunition. This meant we could haul more ammunition than we could for the 57-millimeter.2
Howard found the 75mm recoilless rifle worked well. The first time they were called on to use it, they killed a “self-propelled 88” (probably actually a 75mm StuG-III). Then they got the jeep into defilade, and began running the 75 against German vehicles, troops, and even an OP in a church steeple.
But that’s another story. What Howard and his gunner Pete found out was that the 75mm was an effective tank buster, within its limits, and they set a trend in paratroop AT weapons that lasted until the missile age. (Indeed, Russian and Chinese factories still produce much improved, larger caliber lightweight recoilless rifles).
Wright, p. 68.
Wright, p. 9.
Wright, Stephen L. The Last Drop: Operation Varsity, March 24-25, 1945. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.
This Bronze 1857 “Napoleon” is a Steen reproduction. They didn’t shine like this in field use!
Long after the Bronze Age was over for swords, knives and pole-weapon heads, the prehistoric alloy was still used for cannon. Why?
Because while iron and early, uneven-quality steel were fine for contact or melee weapons, they weren’t a sure thing for containing the violent deflagration of gunpowder that launches cannon projectiles towards one’s enemy. Bronze could be cast and machined with high consistency.
It turns out that this question has already been studied at length — and we’ll quote from a 2002 thesis by Chuck Meide at the College of William and Mary. (The whole thesis will be attached at the end of this post as a .pdf. It’s full of gems like this).
Writing at the end of the muzzle-loader era, British artillery officer Manley Dixon in 1858 summed up nicely the required material qualities necessary to create ordnance:
The material should be hard, so as not to yield too easily to the action of the ball when passing out of the bore; tenacious, so as to resist the explosive power of the Gunpowder and not to burst; and lastly, elastic, so that the particles of the material of which the Gun is composed should, after the vibration caused by the discharge, return to their original position (McConnell 1988: 15).
Bronze and iron were the only two metals with these requisite qualities available to historic gunfounders, and bronze was long considered the superior metal for ordnance manufacture. Up until the third quarter of the sixteenth century, however, iron guns outnumbered bronze pieces, though the former were almost all wrought iron, of decidedly inferior quality. The most powerful guns had to be cast, not hand-wrought, and as cast iron guns were overly heavy or dangerously unreliable, bronze was the material of choice throughout the 16th century. Though Henry VIII’s Mary Rose (wrecked in 1545) displayed a marked diversity of bronze and iron ordnance (Guilmartin 1994: 148) by 1569 the decision was made to equip Queen Elizabeth’s navy entirely with cast bronze guns (Lavery 1987: 84).
The main disadvantage of bronze guns was their price, which was generally three to four times higher than iron guns (Cipolla 1965: 42). In 1570 England, iron ordnance cost £10 to £20 per ton while bronze cost £40 to £60. With improvements in iron casting techniques, the price of iron began to fall by the turn of the century, and the difference in cost began to steadily increase, so that by 1670 iron cost only £18 per ton, while bronze cost £150 for the same amount (Lavery 1987: 84). As the principle maritime powers continued to increase the size of their navies in the 17th century, this cost became prohibitively expensive. An example, to put this greater cost in perspective: the four small bronze cannons carried as cargo on the French ship La Belle (wrecked in Matagorda Bay, Texas in 1686) cost more to manufacture than did the entire vessel! (personal communication, John de Bry, 1996)
Not surprisingly, rulers in the first half of the 17th century began to mandate and subsidize experimentation in iron gunfounding, in order to improve the quality of iron ordnance. Other than expense, however, bronze guns were still superior to iron ones in almost every way. Bronze was stronger, withstood the shock of discharge better, and lasted longer at sea. Bronze also was easier to cast, could be re-cast, and could be easily embellished with decoration. Because of this last quality, along with their hefty price tag, bronze guns also served as status symbols, an aspect whose importance should not be overlooked in the 17th century, when capital ships represented not only the might but the prestige of the king.
Despite the fact that bronze is 20% heavier than iron, bronze guns were lighter than their counterparts because the stronger metal could be used to make thinner guns of the same caliber (Tucker 1989: 10). The dramatic weight differences between bronze and iron guns of the same caliber are illustrated in Table 1 (keeping in mind that a gun of the same size and metal could vary by as much as 2-3 hundredweight or 224-336 lbs) (Tucker 1989: 10). The reduced weight of bronze ordnance was particularly important for field artillery.
Table 1. Comparison of the weight of bronze and iron British naval guns, ca. 1742. Adapted from Gardiner1979: Table 8. Original source, undated table in British Admiralty records (ADM 106/3067). “cwt”=hundredweight, or 112 pounds.
One especially salient advantage was that bronze guns were less likely to break while firing, and when they did the barrel usually bulged or split open longitudinally at the breech rather than explode. When iron cannon burst they tended to shatter and fly to pieces, which caused much more catastrophic damage to nearby personnel (Tucker 1989: 10; Kennard 1986: 161; Guilmartin 1983: 563). Figure 7 illustrates the striking difference between two failed guns, one of bronze and the other of iron. Improved iron casting techniques and gun design, however, would help solve this problem, though the reinforced guns had thicker metal at the breech and reinforces, increasing their weight. While iron guns were never considered as safe as bronze pieces, by the 1630s both England and Sweden were exporting iron guns of reputable quality (Cipolla 1965: 43; Kennard 1986: 161).
Figure 7. Two guns, one bronze and one iron, that have catastrophically failed (burst). The upper gun is a bronze 6-pdr, cast by Richard Gilpin in 1756 (526 lbs/238.8 kg, 4’ 6”/1.372 m long). This English gun burst at St. Lucia in 1783, tearing open longitudinally at the first and second reinforces. Currently housed at the Museum of Artillery Rotunda, Woolwich, from McConnell 1988: Figure 15. The lower gun is all that is left of an iron cannon that exploded, with massive loss of life, while firing on English troops invading St. Augustine on 10 November 1702. Photograph by the author.
The sole disadvantage of bronze as a gunfounding material was its propensity to heat up quickly, which meant that when firing a great number of shots in continuous action it was prone to becoming soft and susceptible to sagging or other bore damage (McConnell 1988: 15). Due to the nature of 16th and early 17th century naval tactics, however, this defect was not readily apparent; by the time of the great broadside to broadside slugfests of the 18th century, ships had already exchanged their bronze guns for iron ones. It would not be until the sieges of the Peninsular campaigns of the early 19th century that this defect became widely known (Kennard 1986: 162; Fisher 1976: 279-280).
What caused bronze to finally lose its throne? First came some centuries of technological improvements, which had English and Swedish gun makers producing solid, safe iron naval guns by the time of the American Revolution.
Terrestrial artillery was another matter. Bronze first was replaced in large siege guns in the early 1800s, but the weight advantage kept bronze 6-pounders and mortars in the field for the British Army in the 1850s and 60s respectively, and the US didn’t give up the smoothbore 12-pounder bronze Napoleon until long after other armies had done so — until the 1880s, in fact.
The thesis covers all this and more (including what all the confusing traditional names for muzzle-loading bronze artillery, such as culverin and falconet, signify).
If you missed last week’s Boys Mk.I., that’s OK, there are other anti-tank rifles on the market. Just the thing for when “they” come, although to be sure these haven’t been tested against flying saucers.
Collector weapons dealer Bob Adams (whose long dark night of ATF persecution seems to be over, in his favor) has several Anti-Tank Rifles for sale at the moment.
Description and pictures to follow shortly. This is a live destructive device requiring a $200 transfer tax. It has a Russian Heavy Machine Gun (DShK) tripod adapted to it by the Finns during WWII. The tripod alone is rare.
All he has at the moment is the stock photo and a picture of such a weapon in use by the Finns.
This was recently deactivated by drilling holes in the barrel. It can be re-activated by replacing the barrel and filing a Form 1 with ATF or rebarreled (or sleeved) to .50 BMG with no ATF registration.
We’re kind of doubtful a .50 x 99 conversion would be quite that easy, but people have done it.
Finally, we get to the king of beasts, historically speaking:
The .50 barrel is mounted. The inset shows the original 13 x
Rare Mauser Tank-Gewehr 13mm WWI Anti-Tank rifle with extra .50 barrel. Rare and historic German military anti-tank rifle made in 1918 by Mauser to defeat early tanks. All matching and complete with original bipod. Very good condition with much blue & some brown patina. Very good or better original bore which can be improved. Excellent .50 Browning 45″ barrel w/scope rail installed on barrel for shooting. Original parts unaltered and complete with the original barrel! Note: ATF has ruled these are not a destructive device.
This is a close-up of the single-shot breech and the sturdy scope-mount rail as installed. As you can see, it attaches to the barrel, leaving the receiver unmarked.
Of these, in our opinion the one with the greatest historic significance and the best potential for appreciation is the original T-Gewehr. But all these guns are priced in Barrett territory, which makes them (in our opinion, for whatever value you may give that) underpriced.
Recently we’ve been talking about AT Rifles. The biggest that were deployed were the semi-auto Solothurn (used by Germany and Hungary), the comparable Lahti (Finland), in 20mm, and the daddy of them all, the 20 x 125mm Type 97 of Japan.
You don’t hear much about Japanese anti-tank warfare. In part this is because, by the time Japanese forces were about to fight Allied tanks, they were logistically starved, down to eating tree bark, and, in some of the last island campaigns, their own and American dead.
The 1200 Type 97s made were scattered across the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. You couldn’t count on a supply of special anti-tank ammunition. Anti-tank tactics, for the retreating Japanese, involved infantry swarms on isolated tanks, or use of anti-tank artillery or general purpose field guns in direct-fire AT engagements.
The Russians had already encountered (and captured) some of these weapons in the fighting at Khalkin Gol in the so-called Manchurian Incident in 1939, so they knew what to expect when they declared war on Japan in 1945. The US on the other hand did not see the weapon until late in the war (we believe, in the Philippines).
The Type 97 was a real beast, weighing 50 kilograms empty (110 lbs). There is some irony in the nation with the smallest soldiers producing the largest anti-tank rifle. The Japanese Army had a clever solution — handles clipped on to the rifle that let four men carry it, like stretcher bearers (a similar approach was used to handle heavy machine guns).
The gas-operated semi-auto rifle was fired from a bipod attached to the gas tube and a rear monopod attached to the forward end of the buttstock. It used a locking wedge to hold a bolt and carrier together initially on firing. We’ve never seen a photo with an optical sight, but there must have been one; Japan made superior optics even then, and many Japanese MGs were fitted with optical sights so it stands to reason the AT rifle would have had them.
By 1944 the AT rifle was a no-hoper in terms of engaging American tanks. But Japan’s ally, Germany, came through with samples and drawings of the Panzerschreck aka Ofenrohr anti-tank weapon. Essentially it was the US Army’s 2.36 inch rocket launcher, scaled up to 88mm bore (about 3.5″) and capable of a frontal-armor penetration and kill on most world tanks.
Japan made a modified copy of the German AT rocket launcher, which they called the Type 4 Anti-Tank Rocket Launcher. The firing mechanism was a direct copy, and the rocket and warhead were very similar, albeit scaled down to 75mm.
The tube was a meter and a half long (1525mm, or 61″). Fortunately, the unwieldy tube broke down into two halves for carrying. Crew drill and firing positions were very similar to that of the American or German counterparts, although the Japanese provided a bipod like the one on their light machine guns. The sighting system was rudimentary: a rear peep sight and two front posts, one over the other, the upper post for 50 meters and the lower accounting for the rocket drop at 100 meters. The sights were welded to the left side of the tube and protruded about 2 inches to the left; the gunner took the left side and the loader the right of the weapon. As with any rocket launcher, the backblast was hazardous and the launch signature made the area of the launch a magnet for enemy suppressive fire.
This weapon, had it been issued in quantity, might have been problematic for American (and once they joined the war on Japan in the summer of ’45, Russian) tankers, except that production of the system began very late, and very few were produced (perhaps only hundreds). Those that were produced may have been retained for defense of the home islands, a defense that was canceled by the unconditional Japanese surrender to the Allied Powers. A Honshu defender who had a Type 4 was well equipped indeed, as many of his fellows had nought but lunge mines (which are exactly what they sound like) or bamboo spears. Still, he would one of millions of lives saved by the nuclear bombing and resulting cancellation of the invasion, and is probably a lucky man that he never fired a Type 4 at an American tank.
Natzvaladze, Yuri A. The Trophies of the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War. Mesa, AZ: Champlin Fighter Museum, 1996.
No sooner had we written that the T1E1 Anti-Tank Rifle of 1940-44 was “the only US AT Rifle” when we saw another AT Rifle mentioned in passing in a very interesting Bruce Canfield article on Winchester’s Light Rifle. (Hat tip, TFB). We got the notion to look it up and found this AT Rifle… but, while it’s a Winchester Anti-Tank rifle not the one Bruce mentioned. He referred to a WWII rifle that was a scaled up version of David M. Williams’s short-stroke gas-piston action. This is a WWI bolt gun, and a strange one it is.
The Winchester Pugsley .50 AT Rifle
The gun in the photo (which comes from Houze’s Winchester Repeating Arms Company, where this oddball is briefly covered on pp. 189-192) is clearly not a finished work, but a development mule.
Edwin Pugsley. Detail of photo in Houze, p. 223.
The firearm was designed by Edwin Pugsley, an important designer for Winchester in the first half of the 20th Century. Pugsley did not have the celebrity profile of Williams; he seems to have been quietly productive, a kind man with a mischievous personality. He rose over the years into engineering management; Winchester’s success shows he was a good selection, even if he’ll never have a biopic, a Bureau of Prisons history, or anecdotes about threatening co-workers’ lives over professional disagreements. He did have some remarkable friends, incuding Carl Swebelius of High Standard (Winchester’s toolroom wound up making several prototypes for Swebelius on the strength of this friendship) and cartoonist Charles Addams, who modeled a recurring character in his “Addams Family” strip (which ran in the New Yorker) on his friend.
Returning to the rifle itself, its appearance is more redolent of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, than anything you’d expect to see from Winchester. The bare finish and exposed mechanicals show that it’s a long way from being ready to go to the Western Front, and it appears to have been put away when war’s end froze it in this state of arrested development. It’s clearly meant to have a bipod or tripod. What looks like it might be cooling fins actually appears to be a spring, associated with the gun mount, and acting to moderate recoil. Assuming the .50 round intended here was the .50 BMG, the weapon appears to have a 10-round magazine and be approximately the same size as a modern Barrett.
The pistol grip, which is styled like that of an M1911 service pistol, also serves as the operating handle: it has a 90º counterclockwise throw, then the gunner slides it back and the top-mounted magazine presents the next round. Here’s an image from the patent for this unusual feature.
The tubular receiver is billet steel. The strange pistol-grip/bolt has two forward locking lugs, and aft, has two widened bearing areas that slide on the inside of the tubular receiver. The extractor seems to be modeled on Mauser practice, and the ejector appears to be welded or otherwise secured inside the left side of the receiver to eject spent casings (or unfired cartridges) out the right-side ejection port.
The quantity built cannot be many, and it does not seem to have been ready for field trials at the time development was called off. Houze’s verdict was that “The anti-tank rifle, designed in 1918 by Edwin Pugsley, is of note more for its outlandish appearance than its mechanics.”1
But wait! That leaves the Williams gun still hanging out there, and we can’t have that.
The Winchester Williams .50 AT Rifle
Williams was an interesting character, an ex-con who became a firearms designer (couldn’t happen under today’s laws; ATF would yank one’s 07 FFL for hiring him) and had his own biopic (with Jimmy Stewrt, no less). The biopic is great fun but rather disconnected from real life, and definitely all wet about Williams’s design efforts — he did not design the M1 Carbine, and was not on the team that developed it. The Carbine only uses his patented gas system. What he did design, though, was a semi- and full-automatic action that scaled rather readily from .30 carbine to .30-06 to .50 BMG, and that was ultimately developed in four versions (with few cross-version interchangeable parts, but complete commonality of design and mechanical principles).
The four versions were carbine, rifle, automatic rifle (a BAR competitor that probably deserves its own post), and anti-tank rifle, the one that concerns us today. The principal virtues of the Williams design were light weight and simplicity compared to its competitors — even its carbine version was lighter and simpler than the light, simple M1 designed by another team at Winchester, using Williams’s patented gas piston. The Winchester Automatic Rifle was pounds lighter than the BAR, and the semi-auto service rifle version lighter than the Garand. A side benefit of this light weight was reduced material requirements, perhaps not a big deal when you’re making one rifle but of national significance when you’re making millions. (World War II German and Soviet weapons-selection documents also show that those nations took material use and machine time into account when downselection options for manufacture).
So of course, we had to keep looking, and in the same book we did find the 1940 Winchester Williams Anti-Tank rifle, just as Canfield told us.
Houze describes it as one of…
…a series of arms based upon David M. Williams’ design. While the carbine he had developed, as an alternative to the M1 carbine, was not completed until December1941, it was viewed as “unquestionably an advance on the one that was accepted.”
One of the advantages of the Williams’ design (Plates 294 and 295) was that it allowed the action to be stripped for cleaning or replacing broken parts simply by removing a bolt housing that was secured to the receiver by an interrupted thread locking ring. Williams also employed a superior lockwork than that used in either the M1 carbine or M1 rifle. Plate293
In acknowledgment of the design’s advantages, samples were made in .30carbine, .30-60 and .50 caliber.
Though Ordnance Department tests of the .30-06 rifle version demonstrated its marked superiority over the standard M1 rifle, it was to be the light machine gun and anti-tank versions that aroused the most interest. Both of the latter incorporated an ingenious device to dampen recoil. By placing two strong coil springs on either side of the barrel breech that were attached to a recoiling lug on the barrel, Williams was able to transfer a considerable amount of the recoil forces into the springs, thereby absorbing its energy. The effect of this was to reduce the general recoil of both the light machine gun and the anti-tank rifle to the point that they were essentially recoilless. This meant that both arms could be used by infantrymen without undue stress being placed upon them during firing, a major benefit from the standpoint of accuracy as well as use. However, by the time these designs were selected for any serious testing, the war was almost over.2
One of the curiosities that surfaced during this investigation was the Winchester Tank Killer.
Curiously, it was during the testing of the .50 caliber Williams anti-tank rifle that the Winchester company seriously considered entering the automotive business for the second time in its history. On this occasion, however, unlike in 1909, the company toyed with the idea of manufacturing a light armored vehicle in which the anti-tank rifle could be mounted. Based upon a surviving photograph of the Winchester “Tank Killer,” it had an overall length of approximately twelve feet and a height of four feet. The forward section of the vehicle had sloping armor, and the tracks were powered by a 1939 Chrysler Imperial engine. No record exists as to its width or crew capacity, though the size would probably have only allowed two. Other than the one built in December 1944, it is doubtful whether any others were made.3
Unfortunately, we have been unable to find a photograph of the Winchester Tank Killer. Houze notes (p. 285) that the late Lt.Col. WilliamS.Brophy had “an 8×10-inch black-and-white print of this photograph with manuscript notations of the vehicle’s specifications,” but the current whereabouts of this image is unknown. We are also still in the dark as to how many of the AT rifles were made, and when, if ever, they were tested. It seems unlikely it would have had a chance, having less power than the .60 calibre (15.2 x 114) T1E1, although certainly being lighter and more easily handled.
Germany, Poland, the UK, and the USSR all developed anti-tank rifles and used them with mixed results (the Germans, in World War I, then all of them, in the early years of World War II) Other nations including Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Finland and Japan built anti-tank rifles, essentially huge rifles that fired a kinetic penetrator meant to kill tanks. Increasing tank armor during World War II rendered these weapons obsolete rapidly. But most people don’t know that the USA made an effort to develop its own anti-tank rifle — and a strange gun it was!
During World War II, the US Army Air Corps/Air Forces and during Korea the US Air Force, experimented with .60 caliber machine guns — the cartridge was the Cartridge, .60-caliber, T17, and it was developed in 1939 for the T1 and T1E1 Anti-Tank Rifles, a project that hasn’t seen much publicity. It made it as far as test firings in 1942 and 1944. Now all that remains is a few traces of documents that seem no longer to exist in the Springfield Armory archives, and some old photos.
The anti-tank round measured 15.2 x 114mm and was developed no later than 1939. It is a close cousin of the 20 x 102mm cartridge developed for the M39 aircraft cannon (and that would become a decade-plus later the cartridge of the General Electric M61 Vulcan powered-Gatling cannon). Some sources suggest that the 20mm came first, before the 15.2mm (.60) round, but that’s an error. Williams is correct in that the 15.2 came first, and he notes that the round, because of its MG history, is widely available to collectors:
Finally, there is one experimental ATR round which is quite commonly available – the American .60 inch (15.2 x 114). The reason for this is that although the big, gas-operated T1E1 ATR it was designed for was cancelled, the round was adopted for various aircraft MG projects during and after WW2. During this process it was necked down (to make the .50/60) but eventually reached production status when it was necked up to 20 mm to create the 20 x 102 used in the M39 and M61 Vulcan aircraft guns.1
An official history prepared by the United States Air Force described the .60, in the context of 20mm history, like this:
In 1939 the Army developed a caliber .60 antitank cartridge. Early in World War II our ordnance engineers anticipated a need for a machine gun heavier than our caliber .50 Browning and began work on this caliber .60 which would fire a 1200-grain projectile at the then “hypervelocity” of 3500 fps.
This round was later necked down to caliber .50 and achieved a velocity of 3900 fps! Later yet, it was necked up to 20 mm, known as the 60/20, and fired a 1500-grain projectile at 3300 fps. This round gradually evolved into the M50-series which is now the most widely used 20 mm ammunition in the world.2
It was a powerful round, a little harder-hitting than the excellent Soviet 14.5 x 114mm round used in the Simonov and Degtyaryev anti-tank rifles. It fired an 1180 grain (76.5 g) kinetic penetrator projectile at 3,600 feet per second (1,100 m/s) for a muzzle energy of over 34,000 ft/pounds (46 kilojoules). For comparison’s sake, 7.62 NATO produces about 2,700 ft/lb. (3.6 kJ), and 5.56 about 1300 ft/lb (1.7 kJ). As powerful as it was, if it had been fielded in 1939, it might have been powerful medicine for early-war Axis light tanks, which often had less than 30mm frontal armor.
According to a 1947 ballistics survey, the early rounds (presumably the AT gun ammo) were the Armor-Piercing TS4, BC 2, BC 3, and Tracer BC 3 rounds, and possibly the incendiary T1E6 and HE T19. The rounds that were probably postwar MG rounds (used in guns based on wartime Mauser revolver-cannon designs) included Ball, Incendiary, API and API-T all with T designations.3
But the rifle, which might have been adopted if it were ready with the ammunition in 1939, was not ready for testing until 30 October 1942. By this time its penetration, 32mm at 450m, had been left behind by combat-driven armor development; desultory tests continued, with the weapon being fired once again in June 1944. The gun was ultimately put away without ever being publicized — which is why so many people don’t know the USA had an AT rifle.
The T1 (later T1E1, after an unknown modification) Anti-Tank rifle was a man-portable, gas-operated, tripod-mounted semi-automatic anti-tank rifle designed to be emplaced, displaced and served by a crew of two to three men. The tripod appears to be that used on the M2HB .50 caliber machine gun, and the T1E1 appears to have been about as much a challenge to move and emplace as a .50 can be.
Its design history is lost in time — the only archival material a computer search of Springfield Armory reveals is a single 3/4 view photo — which itself has not been digitized. Apart from some references to the ammunition for its importance in the early development the hugely successful NATO aerial rounds, DTIC is silent on it, and even the familiar backdoor into DTIC through an NTIS search produces only ammunition reports.
The most unusual feature of the T1/T1E1, compared to foreign AT rifles (especially repeating and semi-auto guns), was its feed: the stout .60 rounds were loaded in a Hotchkiss-style tray, which almost certainly makes the T1E1 the last firearm ever designed with this feed. (Japan used several improved Hotchkiss designs to great effect in WWII, but the Japanese weapons were designed earlier). Trays were made to hold five and eight of the .60-cal. rounds. The strange buttstock of the T1E1 was also reminiscent of some early Hotchkiss versions.
The weapon had, in its testing phase, no iron sights and what appears to be a standard rifle telescope.
What became of the test article or articles that was fired in 1942 and 1944 is not known. Scrapping seems highly possible. Had no shaped-charge weapons been available, it might have gone to combat. But the shaped charge was a short-cut to much more terminal effect on enemy tanks than the anti-tank rifle could hope for.
The two photographs shown here, which were scanned from Hoffschmidt but are clearly official US photos, are the only two we have seen of the T1E1. (The Springfield catalog tantalizingly holds out the possibility of a third). It is possible that more documentation exists, uncatalogued, in some museum or other. To our great frustration, what you read in this blog post is just about it.
The T1E1 is remembered now as a dead-end, but an exceedingly powerful one. Other anti-tank rifles tried to get greater velocity with smaller calibers, like the German and Polish 7.92mm guns, or greater power with larger explosive shells, like the many 20mm and a monster Swiss 24mm gun. But in the end, improvements in tank armor on the one hand, and Monroe Effect-based shaped charge weapons on the other, rendered them all obsolete. All of them, and most especially the T1 of which no example is thought to survive,
Rottman, Gordon L. The Book of Gun Trivia: Essential Firepower Facts. New York, 2013: Osprey Publishing.
Williams, Anthony. An Introduction To Anti-Tank Rifle Cartridges. The Cartridge Researcher: The Bulletin of the European Cartridge Research Association, Nov-Dec 2004. Updated version retrieved from: http://www.quarryhs.co.uk/ATRart.htm
The last picture, a very famous picture of a German A7V in captivity, may be of a tank captured by Britons, from the graffiti upon it.
To us, the most interesting thing is the American reporters’ complete omission of the role American tanks played in the 1918 offensives; had this been more widely reported, perhaps the Tank Corps would not have had such a hiatus between 1919 and 1940. (As it is, Armor didn’t become a basic branch for US Army officers until the 1950s. That’s the US Army for you, two centuries of tradition unmarred by progress).
The weapon was new, made of cutting-edge materials. It had demonstrated its capability in the lab and on the range, and the men had such confidence in it, that when a Laotian unit, driven out of Laos by NVA forces with tanks, begged the SF camp commander for anti-tank weapons, team sergeant Bill “Pappy” Craig (who was acting as his own weapons man, having been sent a flaky kid as a replacement who more or less defected to the NVA) gave the Laotians his two old, if proven 3.5″ rocket launchers, aka Super Bazookas. He kept the new Light Antitank Weapons for his own team.
He would live to regret that decision.
The time was early February, 1968, as all of South Vietnam convulsed with what the People’s Army of Viet Nam called the “General Offensive/General Uprising” and the West knows as the Tet Offensive.1 The place was the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp on Route 9, a scrawny , risky road running west past Khe Sanh, where a large Marine force was besieged on one large hill and several hill outposts.
Lang Vei was the northwesternmost permanent Allied presence in the Republic of Vietnam. This map of Special Forces compounds the year before the attack hints at just how far out it was — it’s the solitary little dot in Quang Tri province. The Marines at Khe Sanh were almost as isolated.
The LAW is a 66 mm weapon, as its name implies a Light Antitank Weapon, which answered the question: “What if you took the German disposable Panzerfaust concept and redeveloped it with the latest Space Age propellants, explosives, and materials — could you make a compact tank killer?”
The result was a small, environmentally sealed, extensible shipping container/launch tube that was, on its design, marginal on modern tank front turret and glacis armor, but effective on side, rear, top or bottom skins. It was effective through 360º on armor of World War II vintage tanks, still widely deployed by potential adversaries.
The LAW’s adversary that night should have been well within its capabilities, as the 1950s-vintage PT-76 light amphibious tank was never intended to slug it out with AT defenses. It was built to support river crossings — something the Soviet Army’s offensive doctrine demanded an answer for — with a better-than-nothing tank mounting a descendant of the first generation T-34’s 76mm main gun in a truncated-conical turret. The NVA also deployed a Chinese copy of the PT-76 with a domed turret like that of the T-54/55, mounting a version of the improved 85mm gun from the improved late version of the T-34; they also used T-34s themselves, but the only tanks confirmed at Lang Vei were PT-76s.
Lang Vei, with three destroyed PT-76s highlighted, the next day. Central PT-76 is adjacent to destroyed TOC bunker. The two visible in the upper right were killed by James Holt’s 106mm Recoilless Rifle.
The PT-76 would go on to perform adequately at another SF camp, Ben Het, the next year (in the light of Lang Vei, Ben Het was reinforced by attached artillery and tanks, but one of the PT-76s actually knocked out a defending M-48 MBT before being destroyed itself). The PT-76 was also used by the Egyptian Army in the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel.
The Lang Vei TOC bunker entrance and tower before the attack. The bulk of the TOC was underground and the roof was supported by 8×8″ beams.
Knocked-out PT-76 and ruins of TOC the day after. The bunker was blown by the NVA after the surviving USSF escaped to the Old Camp and then out by Marine CH-46. The fuel drums full of rocks, from which Schungel engaged tanks coming from the left are at the left of the TOC.
This 50-odd minute documentary is rife with errors2, and omits even the names of those Green Berets that did not talk to the filmmakers, but does include a broadly accurate reenactment of the fight, and snippets of rare interviews with SF defenders, including men from all key groups (the defenders who held out in the TOC bunker, then evaded under air-strike cover; the guys evading on top of the hill, some of whom escaped and some of whom were captured; and the guys isolated with the Laotian battalion at Old Lang Vei). The story of the fight, though is complex enough that you ought to read an overview before trying to make sense of a 50-minute video retelling, or it may confuse you.
The reputation of the LAW never recovered both from the blow of its failure at Lang Vei (it didn’t work much better at the next camp attacked by tanks, Ben Het, either), and the Army’s failure to face that failure squarely and forthrightly. Denial kept things from being resolved.
The camp itself was overrun. Of the eleven attacking PT-76s, three were left on site, destroyed by the defenders or by air; four more were blasted by air or artillery and destroyed in the immediate area. A 12th PT-76 had been caught in the open and killed by the USAF on 24 January.
Of 24 USSF on the site, 10 were killed, captured or missing, and 14 got away, all but one of them wounded. When an awards formation was held shortly afterward, only half of the survivors could stand up to get their medals.
One posthumous medal was presented in Washington: here VP Spiro Agnew presents the award to Eugene Ashley’s widow and uncomprehending son.
Rich Allen, who was single, had traded places with Ashley before a fifth and final assault of their small element at the Old Camp to try to relieve the besieged new camp. Because Gene had a wife and son, Rich asked to take the more exposed front position. He was reloading his BAR — the camp had a lot of BARs — when he heard a burst go past him and mortally wound his friend.
Allen would be the only man who survived without a wound.
The Vietnamese VNSF and Montagnard CIDG strike force suffered similar casualty percentages. 209 of the Yards would be missing or killed, about 70 wounded went out with the Americans from the Old Camp, and 160 more escaped overland to the Marine base at Khe Sanh — where the Marines treated them as POWs. A SOG element at Khe Sanh was able to get them sprung and evacuated to Nha Trang.
The Marine commander at Khe Sanh, Col. David Lownds, had been lying when he’d told General Westmoreland he would reinforce Khe Sanh if it were attacked. He never had any intention of risking his men on a night movement on a road on which the NVA would certainly have prepared ambushes. He did, however, authorize his transport helicopters to pick up survivors, which the Marine crews did (amid enemy fire).
The official Army history of Special Forces in Vietnam doesn’t mention the 1968 Lang Vei battle, and dismisses the 1967 fight at the Old Camp that ultimately forced the camp to relocate, with a very few lines, and an ominous foreshadowing of the tank menace:
In I Corps on 4 May 1967 at 0330 Camp Lang Vei, Detachment A-101, Quang Tri Province, was attacked by a company-size force supported by mortars and tanks. About one platoon of Viet Cong gained entry into the camp. With the assistance of fire support from Khe Sanh, enemy elements were repelled from the camp at 0500. Two Special Forces men were killed and five wounded; seventeen civilian irregulars were killed, thirty-five wounded, and thirty-eight missing. Enemy losses were seven killed and five wounded. 3
And referring to NVA armament, to wit, tanks…
…major changes in enemy armament occurred. Introduced in quantity were tube artillery, large rockets, large mortars, modern small arms of the AK47 type, antiaircraft artillery up to 37-mm., and heavy machine guns. Tanks were employed on one occasion against the CIDG camp at Lang Vei, and others were sighted in Laos and Cambodia near the border and in South Vietnam. In central and southern South Vietnam, North Vietnamese Army replacements were used to bolster main force Viet Cong units that had lost many men.
The enemy launched his Tet offensive on 29 January 1968. This was followed by a massive buildup at Khe Sanh and the armor-supported attack that overran the camp at Lang Vei in I Corps. Pressure on CIDG camps, except for the attack on Lang Vei, was unusually light during the entire Tet offensive and for approximately sixty days thereafter.4
The tank menace had been well reported by the border camps and by the secret cross-border penetration patrols of MAC-V SOG. A Mike Force patrol had found a recently-used tank park near Lang Vei shortly before the attack. But intelligence officers dismissed the eyewitness (and in the case of some of the border camps, ear-witness) reporting, as implausible. The data conflicted with the theory, and they threw out the data.
We suppose that’s why we have intelligence officers.
In the months and the years that followed the hilltop fight, the Army made many half-hearted attempts to understand why and how the LAWs had failed. The testimony that they did fail is clear: they failed to fire, squibbed, hit the PT-76s and bounced off, hit and didn’t penetrate. And the weakest tank in the enemy inventory, a tank with a bare 15mm or so of armor, rolled over the defenses with near impunity. But most of the investigations were aimed at proving “that couldn’t have happened,” and shoring up the reputation of the M72 which had performed well in tests and poorly in combat.
The most plausible explanation is that long-term storage, careless handling while in storage (in the Army, the hard left of the bell curve goes into ammo handling), environmental problems, or the shock of parachute delivery had somehow affected the functioning of the rockets. The Lang Vei survivors reported so many diverse problems with the weapons that engineers were at a loss to duplicate the failures or even come up with an Ishikawa diagram or failure tree that plausibly explained them.
Other than the ineffective LAWs, the anti-tank weapons the defenders had included obsolete 57mm and obsolescent 106mm recoilless rifles, lightweight cannon that used the discharge of a countermass (in the case of these ones, gases through a de Laval venturi) to “punch above their weight.” The guns had been scrounged by team members and there was very little ammo for the 106s — perhaps as few as ten rounds. The recoillesses were positioned, necessarily, in fixed positions that were located before the attack and attacked. The Montagnard crews were killed or wounded. Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Schungel tried to get one of the 106 RCLs into action during the fight; another was crewed by James W. Holt, an Arkansas soldier who went missing that night while seeking more 106 ammo or LAWs (his remains were recovered in 1989, and identified only in 2015, thanks to advances in DNA technology). Holt managed to kill three PT-76s, according to a DOD POW-MIA narrative of the fight stored in the Combined Action Combat Casualty File for Lang Vei reliever (and later DNH in an air crash) Major George Quamo of MAC-V SOG.
Shortly after midnight on February 7, 1968, a combined NVA infantry-tank
assault drove into Lang Vei. Two PT-76 tanks threatened the outer
perimeter of the camp as infantry rushed behind them. SFC James W. Holt
destroyed both tanks with shots from his 106mm recoilless rifle. More
tanks came around the burning hulks of the first two tanks and began to
roll over the 104th CIDG Company's defensive positions. SSgt. Peter
Tiroch, the assistant intelligence sergeant, ran over to Holt's position
and helped load the weapon. Holt quickly lined up a third tank in his
sights and destroyed it with a direct hit. After a second shot at the
tank, Holt and Tiroch left the weapons pit just before it was demolished
by return cannon fire. Tiroch watched Holt run over to the ammunition
bunker to look for some hand-held Light Anti-tank Weapons (LAWs). It was
the last time Holt was ever seen.
But the same narrative shows that apart from the 106, the other defensive means were ineffective.
LtCol. Schungel, 1Lt. Longgrear, SSgt. Arthur Brooks, Sgt. Nikolas
Fragos, SP4 William G. McMurry, Jr., and LLDB Lt. Quy desperately tried
to stop the tanks with LAWs and grenades. They even climbed on the
plated engine decks, trying to pry open hatches to blast out the crews.
NVA infantrymen followed the vehicles closely, dusting their sides with
automatic rifle fire. One tank was stopped by five direct hits, and the
crew killed as they tried to abandon the vehicle. 1Lt. Miles R. Wilkins,
the detachment executive officer, left the mortar pit with several LAWs
and fought a running engagement with one tank beside the team house
without much success.
.... NVA sappers armed with
satchel charges, tear gas grenades and flamethrowers fought through the
101st, 102nd and 103rd CIDG perimeter trenches and captured both ends of
the compound by 2:30 a.m. Spearheaded by tanks, they stormed the inner
compound. LtCol. Schungel and his tank-killer personnel moved back to
the command bunker for more LAWs. They were pinned behind a row of dirt
and rock filled drums by a tank that had just destroyed one of the
mortar pits. A LAW was fired against the tank with no effect. The cannon
swung around and blasted the barrels in front of the bunker entrance.
The explosion temporarily blinded McMurry and mangled his hands, pitched
a heavy drum on top of Lt. Wilkins and knocked Schungel flat. Lt. Quy
managed to escape to another section of the camp, but the approach of
yet another tank prevented Schungel and Wilkins from following. At some
point during this period, McMurry, a radioman, disappeared.
The tank, which was shooting at the camp observation post, was destroyed
with a LAW.
That’s the only reference to a LAW having an effect on a tank.
Team Sfc. William T. Craig and SSgt. Tiroch had chased tanks throughout
the night with everything from M-79 grenade launchers to a .50 caliber
machine gun. After it had become apparent that the camp had been
overrun, they escaped outside the wire and took temporary refuge in a
creek bed. After daylight, they saw Ashley's counterattack force and
And there you have it.
Signals intelligence showed that the Lang Vei defenders weren’t making it up — the attackers, too, made note of the rockets’ poor performance in their after-action reporting.
(In an interesting aside, the degree of enemy success at Lang Vei was due in part to infiltration, not unlike the insider threat our guys have faced in Afghanistan:
Subsequent intelligence and prisoner of war interrogations indicated that the attackers were aided from inside the camp by Viet Cong who had infiltrated the CIDG units, posing as recruits. One prisoner of war said that he had been contacted by the Viet Cong before the attack and directed to join the CIDG at Lang Vei in order to obtain information on the camp. After joining the CIDG, the man recruited four other civilian irregulars to assist him. One man was to determine the locations of all bunkers within the camp, the second was to report on all the guard positions and how well the posts were manned, the third was to make a sketch of the camp, and the fourth was to report on supplies brought into the camp from Khe Sanh. The Viet Cong had contacted the prisoner who was under questioning on four occasions before the 4 May attack to get the information. On the night of the attack, the prisoner of war and another CIDG man killed two of the camp guards and led the Viet Cong force through the wire and minefield defenses into the camp’s perimeter. This technique of prior infiltration was a Viet Cong tactic common to almost every attack on a camp.5
Nothing to do with LAWs or tank fighting, but … interesting).
And there the situation stood. The Army continued to buy LAWs in the hundreds of thousands, and sponsored dozens of improvements great and small. The Soviets would even make a conceptual copy, after their proxies encountered the weapon in Vietnam (where no one was impressed by it) and Angola (where it proved a surprisingly useful antipersonnel weapon, although less so than the RPG-7). The first Soviet version was the RPG-18 and it was closer to the original M72 than to the current version at the time it was introduced, the M72A2.
The LAW would later be replaced in the United States by the combination of the extremely effective Javelin fire-and-forget ATGM, and much-improved LAWs, which continued to be produced as a multipurpose light weapon after most development and production was transferred to Norwegian licensee NAMMO. The LAW is now at M72A7 and counting, but its reputation hasn’t recovered much, and SF teams have preferred to kill enemy armor long before it gets within LAW range — which new weapons like the Javelin and AT-4 make possible. When in 2003 a small Special Forces team (from the same SF Group as was engaged in Vietnam, 5th SFG(A), as it happens) found itself attacked by an Iraqi armored and mechanized force, the Green Berets destroyed so many Iraqi tanks and APCs that what had started as a ferocious attack turned into a headlong rout.
The Special Forces guys used the Javelins. The Iraqis, who fought bravely if futilely, didn’t get the chance to get within LAW range.
But to this day, nobody really trusts the LAW, even though today’s M72A7 is far more effective than its 1968 version. Why not? Lang Vei, where men who trusted the LAW were killed and captured, and the post was lost.
The offensive began on the Asian lunar New Year, known as Tet in Vietnamese; the Americans had been expecting the NVA to violate the traditional holiday truce — that is, after all, what Communists do — but were taken aback by the scale and fury of the offensive, which was led in many urban locations by local Viet Cong. The offensive was a failure for the NVA — their VC guerrillas were finished as a fighting force for the rest of the war — but was reported in the US as an NVA victory, based largely on the Saigon hotel bar rumor reporting that characterized the “new breed” of war correspondents.
Errors are too many to list here, but one of the most grievous is using random tubular mock-ups in place of LAWs. They also include the statement that the NVA/VC took the US Embassy during Tet, whereas none even got inside the chancery building (between the Marine guards and responding MPs, the NVA sappers that got inside the wall of the compound were all expeditiously slain); the use of later M16A2 rifles in some scenes; the lack of description of what became of the CIDG that surrendered (they were murdered); the use of wrong vehicles such as late-1980s CUCV trucks and 1970s-vintage Dodge M880s. It appears to be based largely on Phillips’s The Night of the Silver Stars, which seems to have been written in part to rehabilitate the reputation of certain Marine officers at Khe Sanh, who did not cover themselves in glory that night
Kelly, Francis J. “Splash”. Vietnam Studies: US Army Special Forces, 1961-1971, p. 110
Kelly, Francis J., pp. 126-127
Kelly, Francis J., p. 110
Cash, John A.. Battle of Lang Vei. Chapter from: Cash, John A., Albright, John, and Sandstrum, Allen. Seven Firefights in Vietnam . Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, US Army, 1985. Retrieved from: http://www.history.army.mil/books/vietnam/7-ff/Ch6.htm
Jones, Gregg. Last Stand at Khe Sanh. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2014.
We’ve introduced before the American involvement in armored warfare in the last months of World War I. At the time we promised you a report on the battles, and a description of the hardware involved. This is the hardware post.
While American manufacturers, notably including Ford Motor Company, quickly pledged to build tanks, their industrial production had no material affect on the war; but a time tanks were coming off American production lines, the war was over. And the first American tanks were, or were intended to be, built on foreign patterns.
Renault FT17. This one is preserved at a Polish military museum, part of the global FT17 diaspora; this tank was a gift from Afghanistan to Poland for Polish support. The tank may have been used in the Russo-Polish War and captured by the Soviets, then given to Afghanistan; or it could just be a tank the Kingdom of Afghanistanw bought on the world market in the 1920s or 30s. It is the 37mm, 20-caliber variant. The US Army also used these tanks, and built a copy under license.
This was because America was fresh in the war, and largely unprepared; apart from our tiny professional military caste, most Americans hadn’t even been following it very closely. There was a vague understanding of things called “tanks,” but no grasp of their design details, let alone how to build them.
That should’ve been slightly embarrassing, because the concept of the tank came from arming and armoring the American-designed Holt tractor in the first place.
With no tanks in production, the US certainly had no tank tactics or operational art, and it set out to learn from the experienced nations that would provide the tanks: Great Britain and the Republic of France.
After over three years of war, the British and French were eager to share what they’d learned. You might think that they’d be reluctant to give up any share of their tank production to the war’s newcomer, but their problem was a mirror image of the Americans’: the Yanks had volunteers but no experience, training, or tanks, and the European Allies had too much experience, production lines producing more tanks than they could use, and a shortage of manpower after years of blind, wasteful attrition on the Western Front. Indeed, the French and especially the English hoped that the Americans would just provide them with warm bodies, to be expended as replacements in their own bled-out regiments, under the leadership of the same guys responsible for bleeding the regiments out. The US commander, General John Pershing, forcefully declined this offer every time it was made.
The Americans would fight in their own units, under their own leaders. Decision made.
Despite that one disagreement, coalition warfare went remarkably well. American tank units — once trained — worked with British Commonwealth and French units, and even incorporated, at one point, a French tank company in their task organization. At one point, this produced a moment of combat laughter when an American unit sent their valiant French interpreter to stop and redirect a supporting French tank — only to have the turret hatches clank open, and an American TC pop out — “What the hell do you want?”
This FT17 is on display in Compiègne, France. The card-suit markings were used by French and American tank units in WWI. The high-contrast camouflage was intended to break up the tank’s outline, especially versus aerial reconnaissance. The TC’s ingress and egress was through the double-door hatch in the back of the turret. Most photos in this post expand with a click.
Light Tanks from France
The confusion was obvious, because the American tankers were in a French Renault FT, the light tank America adopted from France. Attempts to build this simple, light (about 7 metric tons) two-man tank in the USA bore no immediate fruit. Ford first redrew every Renault drawing and redimensioned them in Imperial units, with the predictable result that none of the Ford parts fit the Renaults, and vice versa. Even the tracks didn’t match: the French tracks were 13″ wide, and the US copy 13 3/8″. The US-designed and built Mk VIII Liberty tank was in the style of the larger British tanks, but powered by the US Liberty engine (the engine was one of the few success stories in American war production in WWI, but the tank wasn’t). In any event, mere token numbers of the American tanks got to the American Expeditionary Force by the Armistice. The hundreds of tanks actually used were all made in France.
The other side of the Compiègne tank. Note the 8mm Hotchkiss armament.
The Renault FT light tank was a product of French doctrine, which emphasized small, maneuverable tanks that could act as mobile pillboxes for the infantry in the advance. France produced a couple thousand of the FT, which came in a single 8mm Hotchkiss MG version, or in a stubby 37mm L/20 cannon version (the gun barrel was only 720 mm, about 28″, long — shorter than a lot of duck guns). The USA used both versions, organized into Light Tank Companies and Light Tank Battalions, on the Western Front.
This FT was delivered to Switzerland for tests in 1921, in hopes of a sale. It is preserved today in Thun.
All these pictures make the size of the FT unclear — it looks pretty big. Actually, its nearest analogy might be a 1960s VW Beetle, although it’s taller. It would fit in the average garage. This maintenance photo, from tank expert Steven Zaloga’s photobucket, gives you a better idea of the sheer size, or lack of it, of the FT:
In Wilson, this image is identified as American crewmen receiving training on the FT17 at the 311th Tank Center at Bourg, France. The men are wearing American uniforms.
This period French manual illustration doesn’t help as the poilus inside are drawn rather small. It does show the layout of the tank, though. The FT is laid out much like WWII and modern tanks — armament in a turret, engine in the back:
There were quite a few variations of the FT17. For example, the British tank museum at Bovington preserves a prototype with a one-piece cast turret; versions exist with spoked steel idler wheels (the big wheels up front) and with built-up wooden idlers.
Cast armor was unusual in World War I. Most tanks were protected by face-hardened armor, which is obvious when you see the shattered plates of a destroyed one.
St. Chaumond Heavy Tank. The “prow” was for negotiating trenches, the main gun a French 75, the secondary armament 8mm Hotchkisses, fired by crouching soldiers who couldn’t stand up or sit down in the cramped tank.
France had made heavy tanks too, the Schneider and the St. Chaumond. In fact, France had been developing tanks for about as long as Britain had, but seems to get short shrift in English-language sources. In any event, the large French tanks were little loved by the French, and were rejected by the Yanks:
Neither vehicle could be truly classified as a tank. Instead, they were nothing more than armored artillery carriers requiring infantry skirmishers to lead them into battle, carefully marking the routes that should follow. Underpowered and lightly armored, they did poorly traveling cross-country, and their crews suffered badly if they received direct hits from artillery fire.1
The French, by late 1917, had put their faith in the light tank; while they still operated the clumsy behemoths, their production was heavily weighted to the small FT, optimized for accompanying infantry in the assault.
The Americans turned instead to Britain for heavy tanks.
Heavy Tanks from Great Britain
Britain had a completely different concept of tank warfare than France – attempts to reconcile these differences had been unsuccessful, with each nation going its own way – and their vision was of the tank going out ahead of the infantry to make a breakthrough, which infantry would then exploit. Each British tank, then, was a sort of a landship, capable of fighting independently or in conjunction with other tanks. They normally employed a team with a cannon-and-MG-armed “male” tank “married up” with an MG-only “female.” (A tank that bore both cannon and MGs? “Hermaphrodite.” Heh.) As you might expect these landships were large and well-armored and armed for the day.
A rare operating survivor: Bovington’s Mark V.
British tank models were logically, if unimaginatively, numbered in sequence from the pioneering Mark I of 1915, and the two models the Americans acquired were the Mark V and the Mark V*, which Americans usually referred to in speech and even in writing as the Mark V Star. Readers familiar with British small arms of the period will recognize the * as a marker of a modification, but the Mark V* was quite a bit different from the ones which had no stars upon thars. (Apologies to Dr. Seuss. Couldn’t resist). It was longer, heavier, and improved in many small ways.
The Mark V is what you think of when you envision the classic, lozenge-shaped tank of World War I. Relatively few of these tanks survive; most of the survivors are in Ukraine, Russia or the other former Republics of the Soviet Union, and are remnants of UK/US intervention at Archangelsk, and Western support to the White Armies in the Russian Civil War. The Soviets preserved this history to a greater extent than the Americans or Britons did. For example, two Mark Vs were preserved in Luchansk, Ukraine. They were in bad shape, with battle damage, rust, e…generations of looting, more rust, and…
…and replaced. (In he picture below, one of the restored tanks is in place, the restoration of the park is yet to get started).
One fascinating find during the restoration: a rifle cartridge case. But it doesn’t look like a Russian 7.62 x 54R to us; it looks like a rimless case. Could this tank have belonged to the American contingent at one time? The case looks too short to be a .30-06. The button appears to be a British Army one, too. A mystery!
Another fascinating find: what appears to be one of the same tanks during the Civil War, captured by the White-aligned “Don Army” of rebellious Cossacks:
Lugansk/Luhansk is in disputed territory in the Ukraine and was seized by Russian troops and Russian-controlled militia in 2014. It has been the scene of much fighting, and it’s unclear whether the monument tanks have survived. It’s the least of the many pities of that civil war, one supposes, but a pity nonetheless.
Returning to our American tankers of a century ago: as nearly as possible, American tankers tried to keep the Mark Vs and the different V*s sorted by assigning them to different Heavy Tank Companies, which were assigned to Heavy Tank Battalions.
All tanks of the period were very unreliable; for every one killed by enemy countermeasures (artillery, mines, and the Anti-Tank Rifle) literally dozens broke down or got bogged down. An important part of tank planning was the establishment of engineering organizations to recover, repair, and return to the combat force those abandoned tanks.
This artwork, The Tanks at Seicheprey by Harvey Thomas Dunn, is in the US Army collection. Dunn observed the attack depicted in this impressionistic illustration, the first day of the St. Mihiel offensive.
It’s reminiscent of this famous photo, which is often displayed divorced from the information about it. But this is actually a photo of an American tank in combat in the Great War — a very rare thing.
This photo was taken at Seicheprey. Compare the tank’s attitude to the background tank in Dunn’s illustration. But we know the unit, the 326/344th Light Tank Battalion2, and the driver, Corporal George Heesch.
All of the world’s tank types have their ancestry in these flimsy, brittle, unreliable machines.
Surviving WWI Tanks
Some tanks were produced in very low numbers, like the German A7V. Others were mass produced — there are images of production lines for the British tanks. All in all, thousands of tanks were produced, including nearly 2,000 Renault FTs and probably another 1,000 to 1,500, maybe more, of all other types combines. Yet, only a dozen or two tanks survived, not the war, but the century between then and now.
Wilson, Dale E. Treat ‘Em Rough: The Birth of American Armor, 1917-20. p. 9.
Wilson, pp. 116-117, note 53, explains that Patton’s battalions were renumbered by HQ on the eve of the St. Mihiel offensive. At the time this photo was taken, in September 1918, the unit was already the 344th but the old 326th was still the name everyone was using.
In the beginning, as a super-duper flechette-launching grenade-launcher infantry weapon project (the Special Purpose Infantry Weapon, SPIW) collapsed, what survived was a small grenade launcher modeled on an H&R Topper single-shot shotgun with a thyroid problem. This was the M79 bloop gun so fondly remembered by Vietnam vets. The M79 was introduced in 1961 as an infantry weapon, to restore the grenade-launcher capability lost when the M14 rifle replaced M1 rifles and carbines, which could take a grenade launcher attachment. (Grenade launcher development has always lagged rifle development in the US. Early in World War II, Springfield rifles were kept in the rifle squad for grenadiers, because there was no grenade-launcher attachment for the M1 yet, five or six years after its formal adoption).
The M79 became one of the signature weapons of the Vietnam War, and a skilled bloop gunner was a valued member of a combat unit. In dismounted infantry combat the M79 had some advantages and disadvantages versus the enemy counterpart, the B-40, which was the Vietnamese licensed copy of the Soviet RPG-2 antitank weapon employed as an anti-personnel weapon. The 40mm grenade warheads were superior antipersonnel rounds, being designed as antipersonnel or dual-purpose rounds (the Soviets would later bow to the widespread use of their squad AT weapon as an antipersonnel force multiplier by just about everyone who ever used it, and make fragmentation, thermobaric and other anti-personnel rounds for the follow-on RPG-7V, but not in time to do the PAVN and VC any good). The M79 was highly effective against troops in the open, highly accurate with training and experience, and the light, compact rounds meant that the GI could carry a lot of them. It was useless against armor, but that was immaterial to the Americans in the first years of the Vietnam War (the NVA made tank attacks, finally, in 1968).
The grenade launcher capability was much desired, as a Human Engineering Laboratory survey of Marine combat infantry man in 1967 demonstrated. Well only a few percent of them reported carrying the M 79 as their primary weapon, several commented that they wanted more M 79’s, more and 79 rounds, and a white phosphorus round for the M791.
The problem of the thing was in its very nature. Doctrinally, the grenadier’s primary weapon was the grenade launcher, and so to carry the launcher and the rounds left him with no close-in defense weapon except an M1911A1 pistol. The answer seemed logical: make a snap-on or bolt-on launcher as an accessory for the service rifle, the M16A1.
This was tried as early as 1964, when three prototypes were tested. The best of the pack seemed to be Colt’s slide-the-barrel-to-load launcher, which was developed by Colt’s Karl Lewis in a remarkable 57 days from concept to test-fire. It was combat tested in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967 as the XM148. This picture shows the XM 148 without its extended trigger.
As part of that test, 5th Special Forces Group received a handful of the weapons sometime in the quarter ending on 31 January 67, and had these comments:
This item was designed to be mounted under the front hand guard of the M-16 rifle. It has an extension bar attached to the right side of the weapon to bring the launcher trigger near the trigger of the rifle. 5th SFGA is presently evaluating five XM-148’s. Two are located with Project Delta, two with Project Omega and one in IV CTZ. Results to date are excellent.2
Delta and Omega were reconnaissance projects.
In testing of the XM148, it turned out to have its own set of problems vis-a-vis the familiar M79. The Army Concept Team in Vietnam reviewed the XM148 and concluded “It did not meet Army requirements in Vietnam.”
The Army went back to the drawing board. Not one, but three launchers were developed to meet this need. An unknown firm developed a pivoting barrel grenade launcher, about which we’d like to know more.
AAI (formerly Aircraft Armaments Incorporated) developed what the Army called a pump-action grenade launcher, the XM203, by 1968. It was very similar to the version that was finally adopted in 1971, with some minor improvements.
M203 on a later M16A2, nearly identical to the initial M16A1 hosted XM203.
AAI also developed a futuristic launcher on a principle called the Disposable Barrel Cartridge Area Target Ammunition principle. Lacking any official nomenclature or pet name, this beast was called the DBCATA, an acronym nearly as awkward as the full name. This 40mm grenade was a case that itself formed a throwaway barrel, and was an survivor of the years of engineering overreach called the SPIW project. (The projectile was exactly the same as the M406 used in the M79, except that the rotating band was pre-cut to interface with the rifling).
Its Achilles Heel turned out to be that ordinary 40mm rounds could be fired in the smoothbore, unchambered barrel — not just the standard low-pressure 40mm M79/XM148/XM203 rounds, but also the high-pressure rounds used in helicopter armament and the Mk19 crew-served grenade launcher, then being developed for the Navy’s riverine force. A high-pressure round in a low-pressure launcher turned the apparatus from a grenade launcher to an instantaneous grenade.
The comparison test concluded that the XM203 was the best of the bunch, but needed two improvements and a combat test in Vietnam to confirm the Proving Ground tests. The report of the comparison test of the three contenders is full of interesting insights. For example, for all launchers, the TOONK of firing the 40 mm round came with enough recoil to bounce an M16 or XM177 bolt back out of battery. Next time Joe went to fire his rifle, he might get a click and no bang. In the end, there wasn’t really a technological solution for this, and it was managed with training.
Here’s a training video on the then-new M203… in 1971.
When the final M203 was issued, it incorporated a number of improvements from the GLAD tests, including a folding battle sight atop the M203 handguard — the only part of the break-action launcher they’d liked — and a more robust peep sight called the “quadrant sight.”
“The system,” so often derided by the field soldier, had worked as advertised, getting him an improved weapon (which remains in service to this day). Although it was developed by AAI, the production contract went (initially, and for many years) to Colt.
An ACTIV evaluation of the M203, with 500 samples, found that it was suitable for service in Vietnam. It served for many years thereafter, and is only gradually being replaced by the H&K M320. But the ACTIV evaluation, which recommended standardizing the XM203 as the M203, reached an interesting conclusion:
The battlesight and quadrant sight are useful during training, but they are not needed once the firer becomes proficient in the pointing technique.3
They further recommended deleting the removable quadrant sight.
But by then, the M203 was in full production, and units in Vietnam were clamoring for them. The quadrant sights were never deleted, and ACTIV’s conclusion is still just right: it’s very helpful to a gunner learning to system, or getting back in the groove after some time off. But once he has his 203 knack back, it’s superfluous.
Tech Note 1-67.
5th SFGA quarterly report.
The report also notes two other new arrivals in the world of small arms, including:Submachine Gun, 5.56 mm, CAR-15. This weapon is similar to the XM-16 rifle, however, it has a shorter barrel and hand guard, a telescoping butt stock, and different type of flash suppressor. It weighs 5.6 lbs., is 28 inches long with stock closed, and has a cyclic rate of fire of 750-900 rounds per minute. 5th SFGA,will evaluate 100 CAR-15’s. They will be located in each CTZ.
Keele, Eric, and Hendricks, George. Final Report on Engineer Design Test of Grenade Launcher Attachments for M16A1 Rifle (GLAD) (U). Aberdeen, Maryland, 1968: US Army Aberdeen Proving Ground. Retrieved from: http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/393211.pdf