Here across the pages of MilitaryHistoria and TankHistoria you can often see very starkly how military technology evolves, leaving one weapon system in the ascendant and other systems scrambling to keep up.
Thus, knights in armour were mown down by longbows and arrows. Archers became redundant with the arrival of the musket. Likewise, artillery put paid to many forms of castles and fortifications.
Machine guns made the movement of large formed bodies of men across the battle field exceptionally costly. The technologies of defence excelled during the First World War. The Second World War brought mechanisation and airpower to new peaks.
We will take a look at one evolutionary strand of weapons system, the anti-tank rifle. As a weapon specifically intended to counter tanks on the battlefield, it did not appear to have had a long life. In fact, we were going to call this piece “The short life of the anti-tank rifle”. But – spoiler alert – with a slightly different title, the anti-tank rifle is still very much alive.
The arrival of the tank on the battlefield, at Flers-Courcelette, in the autumn of 1916, caused shockwaves amongst the German army. Although glacially slow, cumbersome and prone to breaking down, the tank was largely impervious to small arms and machine gun fire. Its length allowed it to traverse trenches and held open the real possibility of deep and rapid (by the standards of the day) penetrations of the German front line. Other than field artillery firing over open sights, there was no defence against this new weapon of war.
But necessity is the mother of invention. A new technological advance is often met quickly with a counter-response. The first specifically anti-tank weapon system utilised the standard German infantry weapon of the day, the Mauser 7.92mm Gewehr 98 rifle. The Germans reversed the bullet, firing it backwards from the rifle, so that the blunt end struck the target first, allowing a broader impact on the target.
The reverse bullet was a controversial concept. It was seen as a form of “dum dum” bullet that could cause excessive damage to human flesh and bone and was seen as somewhere between unsporting and illegal. But using it in an anti-armour role was not ideal, and could be damaging for both for user and rifle. A second German evolution, still working with the basic infantry rifle, was a special armour-piercing projectile, the “K bullet”.
This was employed from around 1917 and reportedly could penetrate around 12 millimetres of armour (British tanks of this period offered between 6 – 12 mm of armoured protection).
Bearing the brunt of the tank threat in 1917-1918, it was the Germans who came up with the first specific anti-tank rifle – the Mauser 1918 T-Gewehr. Based broadly on the big game hunter “elephant guns” of the late 19th century colonial period, the T-Gewehr used a significantly larger bullet – 13.2mm. And here, already, we start to see the evolutionary challenge for anti-tank rifles.
The anti-tank rifle must be portable and operable by basic foot soldiers. As tanks evolved and added thicker and sloped armour, more powerful weapons were required to deal with them. The size of projectile and the amount of explosive power to propel the projectile needed to increase in order to keep up. The T-Gewehr weighed in at 18 kilos loaded. Which probably qualifies as heavy, but manageable.
World War Two.
After the First World War, it was clear that the tank was here to stay. And it was evolving at pace: better engines, thicker armour and greater firepower. Nations rushed to develop countermeasures. The first anti-tank gun was probably the German 37mm Pak 36, in 1928. In terms of hand-held infantry systems, the 1920s and 1930s saw weapons based on some form of heavy rifle.
Because these rifle systems were developing at roughly the same time and for the same perceived threat, there was some commonality of approach and design. Most had bolt action mechanisms with magazines carrying 4-10 rounds. Design commenced on what became the British Boys anti-tank rifle in 1934, with a calibre of 14mm and a weight of 17.5kg, intending to provide an anti-tank weapon system for use at the platoon level.
Read More: The Largest Battles of World War Two
It was influenced in part by the Polish Wz 35 anti-tank rifle (7.9mm and 10kg), designed in 1935. Unlike most other designs, however, the Wz 35 round was not intended to penetrate an armoured vehicle but to generate “spall”.
A high velocity impact on the outside of a vehicle’s armour often caused fragments of metal (spall) to break off on the inside and ricochet around the enclosed space, causing damage to weapons, equipment and crew. This concept was later refined into the High Explosive Squash Head (HESH) anti-tank round used by tanks and anti-tank guns from the mid-1940s and into the Cold War.
Germany was pressing ahead with its own system. The Panzerbüchse 38, based on a 7.92mm rifle calibre (16kg) quickly evolved into the improved Panzerbüchse 39 (12.5kg) by 1940.
The Finns received the Boys from the British but also produced an indigenous model – the Lahti L-39 (20mm calibre and heavy, weighing 49.5kg).
The Japanese Type 97, produced from 1938, had a 20mm calibre.
It had some modern innovations, firing tracer rounds with a semi-automatic mechanism. But it was the heaviest weapon system of its kind by a long way, weighing in at a whopping 68kg.Russia had two models in play at roughly the same time – the PTRD-41 (14.5mm and 17 kg) and the PTRS-41 (14.5mm and 21kg).
The Boys first saw operational service in use with the Finns during the 1939-40 Winter War against Russia and was used in France in 1940 and again in the North African campaign, initially against the Italians and then the Afrika Korps. It was also employed by the US Marine Corps in the Pacific.
The Japanese Type 97 was used against the Soviet Army at Khalkhin Gol in 1939. The Polish Wz 35 saw very brief service in late 1939 as Poland was overrun by the Nazis and the Soviets. The two Soviet weapons, the PTRD-41 and PTRS-41 were employed from 1941 to about 1943.
At the start of the Second World War, although tanks had been increasing in capabilities all through the 1930s, the armour thickness of most frontline armoured vehicles – tanks, armoured personnel carriers and armoured cars – was still relatively thin.
The Germans employed the Pz I (15mm thick armour), Pz II (14mm), Pz III (14.5mm). Even the Pz IV could only muster 14.5mm armour on the chassis front and 20mm on the turret. The German’s ubiquitous armoured personnel carrier, the Sdkfz 251, had 14.5mm armour at the front and 8mm on the sides. The Soviet BT series of light tank had 6-13mm of armour (but the T-34 that followed had 40-60mm armour).
In the early months of the war there were some successes. But the commonality of experience is interesting, given the diverse range of designs, from different nationalities across different continents. Overall, although there were undoubted successes, the performance of anti-tank rifles was disappointing.
The rifles were often ineffective at anything other than very close range, often with rounds bouncing off or otherwise causing minimal damage. Sloped and thicker frontal tank armour was routinely impenetrable. Lucky shots could damage vulnerable parts of the tank (or crew), but generally it became clear to armies fielding anti-tank rifles that, by around 1941, the anti-tank rifle was either approaching obsolescence or was already obsolete.
The compromises needed between weight and power were proving too great. They were too heavy for tactical flexibility – two and three man crews, donkeys, skis and wheels frequently had to be employed to move them to, from and around the battlefield. The recoil could damage or break collarbones. The thicker armour of the newer tank designs meant they were not troubled by anything other than a very lucky shot.
Anti-tank guns were developing in power and capability, offering better opportunities for confronting increasingly heavy armour. And, for the infantry themselves, a new generation of hand-held anti-tank weapons was being rushed into service: the bazooka for the Americans (late 1942), the PIAT for the British (in service 1943) and the panzerfaust/panzerschreck for the Germans (1943).
Browning machine gun
An honourable mentioned should go the Browning .50 calibre heavy machine gun. Although clearly not a “rifle”, its sheer power made it a dangerous weapon for all manner of armoured and soft-skin vehicles (jeeps, trucks and so forth), as well as aircraft and static fortified positions.
Development began in the latter part of the First World War. The calibre and cartridge used was influenced in part by the German T-Gewehr’s 13.2mm round. The Browning .50 (12.7mm) round can penetrate 23mm of steel plate at 200 metres.
The weapon was in service all through the Second World War and is still in service (and highly effective) today. It is probably the reason why the US did not bother itself with producing an anti-tank rifle system during the 20s and 30s.
Anti-tank rifles continued to turn up – in the Korean War, Vietnam and even, most recently, in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Although its capability against tanks had more or less disappeared, high-powered, large calibre rifles were effective against buildings, bunkers, aircraft, soft-skin vehicles and people. To be fair, anti-tank rifles were also used in this way during the Second World War.
The Boys training manual states:
“This weapon is also useful for penetrating houses and sandbag emplacements.”
Modern times – “Anti-Materiel Weapons”
And so we come to more modern times. A highly credible successor to the anti-tank rifle is the Barrett 12.7mm sniper rifle (in service from the late 1980s) and similar versions of that system.
They can be employed against a range of other targets – engines, radar and communications equipment, missile platforms, and even as a bomb disposal option. The type of weapon system that originally aspired to defeat tanks on the battlefield, is now either a very potent sniper rifle or an “Anti-Material Weapon”.
The anti-tank rifle looks to have a long life ahead of it after all.