The Buzz

Russia's Old Tank Killer Could Still Terrorize NATO

One of the most iconic weapons of war ever made arose from Soviet experiences in World War II, when Red Army infantry had no answer to invading German panzers. Simple and effective, the broomlike RPG-7 became one of the most effective antitank weapons of the postwar period. Widely exported, the “RPG” became a symbol of revolution and terror, fielded by armies and guerrillas from Berlin to Phnom Penh.

The Soviet Union in World War II had a serious problem: it had no effective handheld antitank weapon for its infantry. The Soviet Army had hundreds of infantry divisions fielding as many as a million infantrymen at any one time, but individual grunts had little to defend themselves with from German armor such as the Panzerkampfwagen II and III.

The development of shaped-charge antitank weapons dramatically improved the infantry’s odds of stopping an armored attack. The principle of the shaped charge was first demonstrated by Charles Munroe, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, in 1888. A cone-shaped cavity is placed against a slab of metal, or tank armor, and an explosive charge is detonated behind it. The cavity channels the force of the explosion through the cone to the tip. This enables a shaped charge warhead to penetrate armor up to seven times the diameter of the charge.

Shaped charges developed for military use became known as high-explosive antitank (HEAT) warheads. The great advantage of HEAT warheads was that unlike traditional armor piercing antitank rounds, they did not rely upon projectile velocity and density to penetrate armor. A HEAT charge lobbed at a tank by hand had the same effectiveness as one fired from a high-velocity tank gun.

The German Army was the first to field an effective, man-portable antitank weapon, the Panzerfaust. The Panzerfaust was basically a stick with a shaped-charge warhead launched by a black-powder explosion, and yet early versions could penetrate up to 140 millimeters of armor. The final version, the Panzerfaust 250, featured a reloadable launch tube and a pistol grip.

The Soviets took the Panzerfaust 250 and developed their own version, the Ruchnoy Protivotankovyy Granatomet-2, or RPG-2. Commonly mistranslated as “rocket-propelled grenade,” it actually means “handheld antitank grenade launcher.” The RPG-2 entered service with the Soviet Army in 1949. Rocket-propelled, it had a range of 150 meters and could penetrate 180 millimeters of armor. This made it possible for the rawest of recruits from the motherland to destroy the latest NATO tanks, including the American M26 Pershing and British Centurion, with ease. The RPG-2 was widely exported abroad, and armed both North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong units during the Vietnam War.

The RPG-2 was followed up by an improved version, the RPG-7, in 1961. The RPG-7 had a slightly better range: two hundred meters versus 150 meters. Unlike the RPG-2, which had simple iron sights, the new version had the PGO-7 telescopic sight, which had 2.8× magnification, an illuminated reticle, and a sight reticle to assist in ranging and aiming at moving targets. A cone-shaped blast deflector was added to the rear of the launch tube and a foregrip was added for increased stability. The PG-7 HEAT round could now penetrate 260 millimeters of tank armor, increased to three hundred millimeters with the improved PG-7M warhead.

The RPG-7 enhanced the portable antitank weapon concept in other ways. The RPG-7D, designed for paratroopers, broke down into two pieces to make it easier to air transport. New grenades included the OG-7 high explosive round, useful for unarmored targets and enemy infantry. The advent of so-called explosive reactive armor, which uses boxes of explosives reduce the effectiveness of HEAT rounds, caused the Soviets to develop the PG-7R tandem HEAT round. The longer, bulkier grenade featured not one but two explosive charges, the first to neutralize reactive armor and the second to detonate against the armored vehicle itself.

The RPG-7 was issued at the squad level in the Soviet Army and the rest of the Warsaw Pact nations, meaning every squad of six to nine infantry had one dedicated RPG gunner and his assistant. This meant that a Warsaw Pact infantry company could mass up to nine RPGs to defend its sector at close range, in addition to antitank guided missiles.