Anti -Tank Warfare: Where is it Today?

Hey all! Military post today! Sorry this is late; it took me a while. Just a quick heads-up before we begin: This week’s post will be delayed as I will be in Seneca State Forest with some relatives! And it’s West Virginia so no screens… for so long…

Though you may know nothing about what tank or anti tank warfare is, it is very relevant to understanding modern conflicts. (War in Ukraine.) Essentially, tanks allow an army to move quickly without having to fight a war of attrition. Anti-Tank warfare is destroying tanks. Anti-Tank Warfare began pretty much right with Tank Warfare. The two have been evolving with each other for about 100 years now. The first official anti-tank weapon was the T-Gewehr, or in English Tank-Gun.* This was a simple and relatively ineffective ultra-high power rifle designed to penetrate the armor of a tank and hit the personnel or an engine or some other vital part of the tank. This, simply put, was a bad rifle. It had trouble penetrating even the thinnest armor, and, if you’ve ever shot a rifle you know that a 13.2×92mm rifle HURTS.

Throughout the interwar years, anti-tank weaponry didn’t progress much. Because… you know… no fighting. But Hitler made sure everyone was ramping up their tech at the start of 1939 with the invasion of Poland. Here a clear division was made: Anti-Tank vehicles and Anti-Tank handheld weapons. Anti-Tank vehicles were primarily made up of Anti-Tank Guns, basically large cannons mounted to wheels so they could be moved. The Polish made good use of their Anti-Tank Gun, the Bofors 37 mm cannon. Early in the war, during the Blitzkrieg, German tanks prioritized speed and maneuverability over armor. This meant that light Anti-Tank Guns had an easy job penetrating armor and knocking out tanks. But as tanks got heavier, so did Anti-Tank Guns. The Germans were at the head of this innovation, designing their PaK (PanzerabwehrKanone or in English Anti-Tank Gun) guns to take out very large tanks. The Pak 38, Pak 39, Pak 40, Pak 41, Pak 42, Pak 43, and finally Pak 44 grew in increasing strength until they could pop any tank in one hit. These powerful weapons, while extremely dangerous, lacked 2 things: A. Cost Efficiency and B. Maneuverability.

A. They were extremely expensive for a defensive weapon. B. They were large and heavy, with no propulsion method, forcing them to be towed everywhere by trucks. (Though this would be solved by Self-Propelled Guns and Tank Destroyers.) Now, for infantry weapons…

Handheld Anti-Tank Weapons can be divided into two categories: Anti-Tank Rifles and Anti-Tank Projectors. Anti-Tank Rifles use extremely high-power cartridges to penetrate the armor of tanks and damage them or kill their personnel. The main targets here are: The personnel, the engine, the tracks, or an ammo rack. If you are shooting personnel, you can stop the tank to hit with further shots if you kill the driver, stop them from shooting if you kill the gunner (or at least slow them down by hitting the loader) or just disorganize them by killing the commander. The engine will stop movement after being critically damaged and possibly even light on fire, forcing the crew to evacuate or be cooked. If the ammo rack is hit, you might get a cinematic explosion! Despite all of this, Anti-Tank Rifles had only one thing going for them: Cost efficiency. They were quite cheap to produce. But they were bad at everything else, from ease of use to penetration. So what of Projectors?

I’m using the term “projector” because there are a few cases of a handheld AT Weapon which does not satisfy the term I want to use, which is rocket launcher. The fact is, most “projectors” were actually rocket launchers. But there were a few exceptions, so I will continue to use this somewhat clunky term. So, how do these projectors work? In essence, they use a form of propulsion to fire a projectile out of a tube. This projectile contains two things: An armor piercing cap to break through the tank armor, and an explosive to accomplish every/any of the above listed targets of an AT weapon. So, lets flush this out:

As before stated, the main way of launching the projectile was with a rocket (essentially a second, smaller explosion). But the one main exception to this rule was the British PIAT. It used a spring to push the round out. And no, it didn’t suck, it could surprisingly enough shoot up to 1,050 feet. And this was firing a 2.5 pound metal charge which makes one wonder what it felt like on your shoulder given that every action has an equal and opposite reaction… sheesh. This extreme pain was not present in rocket launchers, as instead of bracing them against your shoulder you put them in your armpit or on top of your shoulder. There is quite a backblast though. (That force has to go somewhere.) So how about the charge? At this point, all charges are what is known as “shaped charges” which funnel the explosive out of a point for maximum effectiveness. Rocket launchers are sometimes single use, and sometimes reusable. The Panzerfaust (literally tank-fist in German) was a cheap single-shot weapon with surprising penetration for it’s time. It was used up until 45′ by the German army because of it’s reliability, but the German army also saw potential in other fields. The famous American Bazooka, so often caricatured in popular culture, was a model for AT Rocket Launchers as it displayed the value of reusability. It could fire rockets as fast as the user could load them (given a few seconds to cool.) Germany modeled it’s Panzerschreck (tank’s fright) after the American Bazooka, and it served as a model for AT Weapons for years to come.

So now to answer the real question: Where are AT Weapons today? Well, up until 1989 they really didn’t change much. Tracking systems were designed, they were made bigger, badder, and longer range, but there was no revolution. But the Javelin missile system has changed armored warfare forever. This fire-and-forget missile could be launched up to 3 miles and hit an enemy tank with pin point precision and 100% penetration capability. But it’s biggest feat is the explosive it fires ejects a smaller explosive right before it hits with perfect timing to trigger any reactive armor before the actual HEAT (high-explosive anti-tank) round hits. This weapon has been a major player in the war in Ukraine, as it allows untrained civilians and recruits to take out Russian tanks with ease. It could be the end of all tank war at some point in the future. Thanks for reading, and enjoy your (if you live in the continental U.S.) summer!

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