Hand grenades have a long history. The earliest records of their use go back to the Eastern Roman Empire in the 8th century; Byzantine soldiers made hand-thrown incendiary bombs by filling clay jars with the infamous Greek Fire. By the 11th century, the Chinese had developed explosive versions made from cast iron spheres filled with gunpowder, although these might have been launched from primitive mortars rather than being thrown.
The idea resurfaced in Europe by the 15th century, when infantry started to be equipped with grenades that were basically smaller versions of explosive artillery shells – a hollow iron ball, with a powder charge in the middle and a fuse that had to be lit before throwing. British infantry regiments in the 18th and 19th centuries had ten companies. Eight were line companies, who would form the musket line and blast the enemy with rapid fire. The Light Company was manned by the smartest soldiers, and acted as skirmishers, sharpshooters and scouts; the Grenadier Company took the largest, strongest men and trained them to use grenades to break the enemy line.
The problem was that the grenades themselves were pretty useless. They were either too small to have much effect or too heavy to throw very far, and the fuses were prone to going out if the grenade landed on wet ground. That’s if you could get it lit; in an age before Zippo lighters, that meant having a lantern handy, or sparking a tinder box. Either way, throwing a grenade took some preparation. By the early 19th century they had mostly vanished, and the Grenadier companies became shock troops – with their size and bulk they were ideal for spearheading bayonet charges or assaulting a defended position.
Grenades made a brief comeback during the American Civil War, when both sides used them – many traditional ones with fuses, but also experimental impact-fired ones. These weren’t very successful; at one battlefield, over a hundred intact grenade bodies were found, but no fragments to indicate that any had gone off. The result was that, by the end of the century, grenades had faded away again.
Then came the First World War, and the carnage of the trenches. In this new form of warfare, the grenade returned with a vengeance. The British started making improvised ones from ration tins stuffed with gelignite and scrap metal, but in 1915 something new appeared – the Mills bomb. This was the first modern grenade, complete with pin, fly-off lever and segmented cast iron body. Every hand grenade in existence today can trace its ancestry back to that pineapple-shaped device. It was the standard British grenade until 1972, when a copy of the M26 replaced it, and India kept making them until the 1980s. They still occasionally turn up in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they’re still lethal.
Hand grenades looked like vanishing again for a while though, at least from the US military. Grenade launchers, like the M79 and later M203, can throw an explosive charge much further and with more accuracy. They have their limits, though. For the obvious reasons, grenade launchers have a minimum arming distance. That means they’re not much use in house clearing or heavy bush. The grenades are small, too, and the fuse takes up most of the space; there’s not much room for explosives. 40mm HE grenades are ideal for lobbing in the window of a fortified house, but less useful when you need to clear a room in a hurry.
Grenades have their drawbacks. They’re heavy and dangerous to use; a simple fumble can leave you suddenly standing at the center of what’s going to be a kill zone in less than four seconds. Grenade fragments are indiscriminate, and most types can throw chunks of high-speed steel farther than any soldier can throw the grenade. However, as long as we ask soldiers to fight in urban areas or against an enemy who can dig defensive positions, no advanced precision weapon can ever fully replace these alarming explosive baseballs.
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