Today, the very concept of “potato masher” probably just as easily conjures an image of the legendary German hand grenade as it would the kitchen utensil. The hand grenade remains of course a part of the modern military arsenal—and is even used in non-lethal or stun, as well as smoke variations as well. The small anti-personnel weapon is also as unique in design as any other piece of military equipment, and as such has become popular with collectors.
The image of American soldiers with grenades hooked onto their equipment, or German soldiers with grenades tucked in their belts is all too common and actually not that inaccurate. During the World War II, these portable yet very lethal weapons were produced in the millions. But the history of hand grenades goes back much further.
Arguably the first hand-thrown explosive or incendiary bombs appeared at the height of the Eastern (or Byzantine) Empire around the eight century, when jars filled with the infamous “Greek Fire,” and thrown at enemy soldiers. A few hundred years later, saltpeter-based gunpowder was developed in China and these were used as primitive bombs.
It was in the fifteenth century that these made their way to Europe and over time were placed in metal shells, creating what could be described as the first true grenades. The word “grenade” in fact comes from the French “pomegranate,” and scholars suggest this is because the early hand grenades (as well as their modern counterparts), did in fact resemble the fruits; but also because the pomegranate tends to “explodes” as it ripens to spread seeds over a vast perimeter. The fact remains that the grenade had stuck.
The weapon was originally one of a specialty, hence the “grenadiers.” The grenades of this era were bombs that were loaded with powder and contained a fuse. The grenadiers had to have the strength to throw these heavy hulks of steel to great distances. The seventeenth-century military march, “The British Grenadiers” explains this role very precisely in a passage:
Whene'er we are commanded to storm the palisades,
Our leaders march with fusees, and we with hand grenades.
Part of the trick was determining how long to wait once the fuse was lit before throwing the bomb. Too early and there was a chance it could be thrown back, and too late was far worse. But the greatest threat was from enemy fire, and thus the grenadiers were men who had the courage to storm enemy positions, often with the so-called “forlorn hope” where the casualties were typically very high. As a result, over time the grenadiers became “elite” troops in many European armies, and grenades were just one of many weapons they wielded. Likewise, by the World War I, grenades became a more common infantry weapon issued and used by virtually everyone.
It was during the American Civil War however that the grenade truly transformed from the device that needed a lit fuse to one that had a plunger that detonated on impact. This lessened the likelihood of a bomb being thrown back, but was deadly to the thrower should the bomb accidentally be dropped.
But it was the years leading up to World War I that saw the transformation of the hand grenade into what we would recognize today. After Germany’s opening moves deep into France in 1914 at the beginning of World War I, the Allies rallied and the armies dug in and the conflict reached an impasse, each side looked at new and “better” ways to kill more of the enemy.
“I believe that the grenade became very useful in trench warfare, the trenches were often close enough to be able to lob a grenade into the enemies trench, the rifle was almost useless in trench fighting, as no one stuck their heads above the parapet - at least not more than once - and the rifle was ungainly in the narrow trenches,” says Gus Bryngelson, advanced World War I collector and author.
Bryngelson says that the grenade was also useful in clearing trenches around the next corner or past the traverse.
“Most hand grenades at the beginning of WWI were the same as those used for centuries, the French M1847 is a classic example, as it was just a hollow iron ball filled with explosives and a fuse, sometimes a match lit fuse or a friction primed fuse,” says Bryngelson. “This is the type of grenade we all knew growing up watching Boris Badenov in Rocky and Bullwinkle.”
It was also during the World War I when the role of the traditional “Grenadier” changed forever. Any soldier with a good arm was suddenly called up to toss grenades towards enemy trenches.
“It was during WWI that the ‘Grenadiers’ changed into bombers,” says British hand grenade expert David Sampson, who notes that the British versions were typically called “Mills Bombs.”
Sampson says that the so-called “Mills Bomber: was a soldier who went to war with a bag of mills grenades, from that moment everyone in the army was trained with hand grenades for defense and offense.
The actual Mills Bombs, were developed at the Mills Munitions Factory in Birmingham and were a follow-up to a pre-World War I design. This led to the first “self-igniting” hand grenade, which the War Department described as a “safe grenade.”
A variety of grenade patterns were produced and the most common design among the Allied forces feature grooves—which give the grenade its comparison to a “pineapple.” It was thought that this segmentation would aid the fragmentation when it exploded and make the device more deadly. It was also noted that this made the grenade easier to grip.
In total about 75,000,000 Mills hand grenades were produced in World War I, while the British worked to improve the early designs, finally adapting a modified version called the No. 36, which remained in service from the inter-war period until 1972.
The Americans followed the British pattern, with the grooves, but a variety of shapes and sizes was considered.
Notably, the Germans went another direction, introducing a canister-shaped grenade on the end of a short stick handle. This would of course be the infamous “potato masher” pattern, a design that was utilized in both World Wars.
The small bombs are actually as unique as the nations that created them.
“Normally one can tell what country used a grenade by the outward appearance, the potato masher for example is the epitome of the German grenade, although in WWI the Austrians and French had grenades that were very nearly the same,” says Bryngelson. “The classic British grenade is the Mills #5, and the French had the F1 with Billiant fuse, that the U.S. used as a pattern for their over engineered failure, the MK I.”
World War II also saw development in new grenades, including the lesser-known American “lemon” grenade and the German Model 1939 “egg” grenade, as well as the Japanese Type 97 and its later variations. This grenade almost resembles a Japanese lantern and thus has a look that contrasts to the Western versions.
Whilst we also think of grenades as being miniature bombs that could be thrown, there are many related “grenades” including smoke grenades, flashbangs, blank grenades, incendiary grenades, gas grenades, and even anti-tank grenades. It is beyond the scope of this article to address them all, but it is worth noting that the smoke, gas and incendiary grenades typically are in the shape of a cylinder or can. The confusingly named “blank grenade,” much like its cousin the stun grenade is meant to sound loud—while the latter also offers a flash of light, this is sometimes called a “flash bang.”
The anti-tank grenades that developed in World War II essentially grew out of the basic grenade. The Germans took the M23 potato masher and attached multiple heads to create a massive grenade—although it could only be tossed from a very short distance, thus potentially endangering the thrower as much as the intended target.
To this end, various nations since World War I experimented with grenades that could reach a greater distance. Related to the traditional “tossed” or “thrown” hand grenade are the rifle grenades, which were also first introduced in World War I. These were fired from a rifle and used a special round rather than a traditional bullet.
This system remained in place through the end of the World War II. By the Vietnam War, this led in turn to a single shot “grenade launcher,” although the grenades looked more like large ordnance rather than a hand grenade.
Today, many military assault rifles feature the grenade launcher mounted below the barrel—while the United States Marine Corps has even introduced a belt fire grenade launcher. Despite these advancements, the traditional hand grenade isn't going anyway anytime soon.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.