The Grenade: An Explosive History

September 22, 2020 Topic: History Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: GrenadesExplosivesTechnologyMilitaryWarMilitary History

The Grenade: An Explosive History

Grenades evolved from the Middle Ages into the modern era, giving soldiers an easily delivered and effective close-range weapon.

By World War II, it was common for most infantrymen to be proficient in the use of grenades, but specialists still were trained for tactical duty in preparing and delivering grenade packs against tanks and machine-gun pillboxes. Lobbing a grenade ever farther was an important incentive for improvements. The idea of using a rifle to do so was first advanced during World War I. A variant Mills bomb was developed with a base plug and rod to fit over the rifle barrel as a launch adapter. Other adapters included a simple tin can-looking affair, a discharger cup, whose base was integrated over the rifle barrel. Launch was via a blank cartridge. By World War II, TNT had been improved with the more powerful RDX (explosive nitroamine) and Composition B, a mixture of the two.

The American military developed a tube-launched small rocket and shaped-charge aerodynamic grenade to disable tanks. The latter would become the powerful M-10 grenade, while smaller versions of rifle grenades were adapted for the M-1 Garand rifle and M-1 carbine. With a new stabilized rocket launcher added in late 1942, the weapon became the bazooka rocket grenade, the world’s earliest RPG. The Germans copied the bazooka as the Panzerschreck; the Russians would use it as the basis for what would become the RPG-7, the weapon of choice for modern-day terrorists. There were also launcher adapters for the conventional pineapple grenades, but the user had to pull the grenade pin before seating it for launch. American forces continued to use bazooka rocket grenades through the Korean War.

By World War II, the gas grenade had expanded in other directions. Smoke bombs or smoke grenades were used as nonlethal tactical weapons, usually in canister form, for screening military movements, signaling (using different colored dyes with potassium-based smokes), targeting, and marking landing zones. There were also exploding smoke grenades, using highly flammable and poisonous white phosphorus with a bursting charge to spread more than smoke. These were employed both as antipersonnel agents and for illuminating enemy positions. Along with these were incendiary grenades containing thermite reactants, aluminum metal, and iron oxide; they were used to destroy weapon caches, artillery, and vehicles. Not requiring oxygen, some were also used for underwater demolition. Like other grenades, the incendiary grenades had rifle-mount applications with extra charge-assists to boost effective ranges.

The Grenades of Today

Grenade technology, following functional demand and progression, has continued to inspire improvements. Many military applications have been translated to law-enforcement work. Tear gas grenades are a common example, along with so-called stun or flash grenades used as diversionary weapons to disorient and confuse criminals with intense light and noise. Yet another crossover is the sting grenade, designed to explode with a nonlethal payload of small, hard rubber balls that can incapacitate suspects without killing them.

This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons