During the Second World War, Germany produced more mortars than all the western allies – plus all of her own allies – combined. They made 68,000 of the things, ranging from a neat but over-complicated little 5.0cm platoon mortar to heavy 10.0cm and 12.0cm models – and even a 38cm spigot mortar that launched a 331-pound bomb designed to demolish enemy defensive positions. The most common was the 8.0cm Granatwerfer 34, the standard infantry mortar and Germany’s equivalent to the American M1 81mm. Every infantry battalion had six GrW 34s, giving the commander an accurate and powerful artillery capability. The Germans loved mortars.
But not as much as the Soviets did. Germany’s 68,000 mortars dwarfed any other country’s production – except for the USSR, who produced an incredible 458,000 of them between 1941 and 1945. The smallest was the 37mm spade mortar, a simple steel tube with a hinged spade at one end that could be used for digging or as the mortar’s baseplate. The standard infantry weapons were both 82mm, the M-37 and improved M-41, and there were also some monsters like the 280mm M1939.
The Soviets loved mortars and, after the war, they continued to make vast numbers of them. Some of the more interesting ones included the 82mm 2B9 Vasilyek automatic mortar, which can fire a clip of five bombs in less than three seconds, and the nuclear-capable 240mm 2S4. Now, the Russian military is increasing its use of combination guns – long-barrelled breech-loading mortars that can carry out direct, as well as indirect, fire. The first of these was the 2S9, a 120mm tube mounted on a BTR-D airborne armored fighting vehicle, followed by the wheeled 2S23 variant. The latest one is the 2S31, on a modified BMP-3 chassis. This is a very sophisticated weapon that can fire more than eight miles, has a direct fire anti-tank capability and is capable of launching a range of guided rounds.
Mortars – especially the traditional muzzle-loading variety – aren’t very glamorous compared to a lot of other weapon systems, but they’re a vital asset that’s always highly valued by the infantry. If you’re in a FOB in Afghanistan, your mortar teams are the only heavy support you can rely on without having to call higher with a fire mission request. They can be man-packed– it’s not pleasant hauling the parts and ammunition around, but it can be done. They’re also effective. Mortars are lower energy than conventional artillery, so they can fire ammunition that wouldn’t survive the stress of being blasted out of a cannon. That doesn’t just make guided ammunition cheaper; it means standard HE bombs can be made of lower grade steel or even cast iron, which costs less than the high-strength steel used in conventional shells and also produces a better fragment pattern on detonation.
Right now, the US Army uses three mortars. The light one is the 60mm M224, which can be used as either a handheld weapon (with the tube held in one hand and the baseplate on the ground) or on a conventional bipod. This is issued at company level, and it’s the only US design in the inventory. The heavy mortar is the Israeli-made Soltam K6, an impressive beast that can throw a 31-pound bomb to 7,920 yards. Depending on its mount, it’s known as the M120 or M121. Finally, the backbone of the US mortar arsenal is the 81mm Royal Ordnance L16A2, made under license in the USA and issued as the M252. It’s the standard British Army mortar, a slightly elderly design that’s been around since 1965 (1987 in the USA) but has survived because it’s just very good at throwing bombs.
None of the US military’s mortars are what you’d call modern, and none of them have world-beating performance either, but they’re all excellent designs; simple, reliable and combat-proven. There’s a program underway to upgrade the 60mm and 81mm weapons with lightweight tubes, and that will extend the infantry’s explosive reach by making it easier to move the mortars around. With the new, lighter M224A1 weighing in at 43 pounds, split into three loads, it would also be feasible to issue them more widely. Right now, the M224 is a company-level weapon, while many armies issue a light mortar to every infantry platoon. That can really speed up tempo by giving junior commanders an HE weapon of their own. The US Army can feel pretty good about the mortars it has, so why not spread the joy a bit more widely?
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.