A History Lesson on Grenade Launchers

Grenade launchers have been around for at least 300 years, but for most of that time they were Heath Robinson contraptions that probably caused more danger to their users than the enemy. The West Spring Gun used by British and Empire armies in WWI, or the French Sauterelle crossbow from the same period, were simply catapults that launched ordinary hand grenades at the enemy. Some of them could launch grenades quite a long way – the West could throw a Mills bomb over 240 yards, far enough that it needed a special nine-second fuse – but they were complicated, unreliable and often dangerous.

During WWI, armies moved back to launching grenades off the muzzle of a standard service rifle, an idea that dated back to the Napoleonic era but worked a lot better when you weren’t trying to do it with a flintlock musket. It still wasn’t very popular, though. Using rifle grenades meant messing around with ballistite cartridges, and they weren’t very accurate.

In the early 1950s, the US Army began working on a solution. The work was done as part of Project SALVO, a long-running but ultimately doomed attempt to revolutionize small arms. Alongside the main effort was Project NIBLICK, aimed at throwing explosives further and more accurately than a rifle grenade. The plan was to issue each soldier with a lightweight weapon that combined a flechette-firing rifle and a semiautomatic grenade launcher. 1950s technology wasn’t up to the task though, and the grenade launcher project continued as a standalone weapon. The final product was the T148, which held three grenades in a “harmonica” magazine. A few were made, and trialled in the early days of the Vietnam War, but they were too fragile and complex. Luckily Springfield Armory had also developed a backup design, the S3. This used the T148’s stock and barrel, but abandoned the magazine system; instead, it was a simple break-open weapon like a giant single-barrel shotgun. Some improvements turned it into the S5; in 1960 the US Army adopted the S5 as the M79.

xm25The M79, also known as the Thumper or Bloop Tube, immediately became popular with troops in Vietnam. Sturdy, reliable and weighing only six pounds empty, it could easily place a grenade through a small window at 100 yards – or it could be rested butt-first on the ground and used as a mini mortar to drop its projectiles behind cover. Its effective range was 380 yards and there was almost nothing that could go wrong with it. Issued one per fire team by the US Army, and one per squad in the USMC, it became an invaluable support weapon through most of the war.

It wasn’t perfect, though. The grenadier could only carry a limited supply of grenades – 20 in his vest, and maybe another dozen in a Claymore bag. When they were gone, his only weapon was an M1911. The launcher also wasn’t much use at short range or when the enemy were in close contact with friendly troops. To remedy these problems, the M203 entered service in 1971; that gave the grenadier an M16 with a shorter, lighter grenade launcher under the barrel.

Now the US Army is heading back towards the idea of a standalone grenade launcher. This time it’s the XM25 Punisher, which is a much more advanced system than the old M79. It’s a semiautomatic weapon that fires 25mm airburst grenades from a five-round box magazine; a built-in laser designator and computerized sight make it possible to detonate a grenade right over an enemy position.

Of course, the XM25 isn’t perfect. Like the M79 it’s been salvaged from the wreckage of a combined rifle and grenade launcher project, but it isn’t a simple, no-frills weapon by a long way. It weighs 14 pounds – more than twice as much as an M79 – and, like the older weapon, it isn’t much use at close range. If the enemy is close to friendlies, or the grenades are gone, the grenadier is back to drawing his pistol. It looks like the people who choose the Army’s weapons have forgotten the lessons of Vietnam. The Marines, who believe every Marine is a rifleman first, don’t want the XM25. As impressive a piece of kit as it is, I think I agree with them.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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