Modern Day, WW1, WW2

The Highly-Explosive History of the Hand Grenade

  • The word “grenade” comes from the Latin word “granatus.”
  • The “Mills Bomb” – developed in 1915 – was the first safe-to-use grenade. 
  • Grooves are purposely machined on a grenade to improve grip. Contrary to popular belief, the grooves do not aid in fragmentation.

It is no secret that once the safety pin is removed and the grenade thrown it goes boom. And whoever comes in its way is going to have an unlucky day.

Hand grenades have been widely used across countless battlefields for centuries. However it wasn’t until the beginning of trench warfare in World War One, that grenades established themselves as a necessity for war. In close combat, these nifty devices can turn the tide of battle.

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It is a safe bet that these deadly explosives will continue to stay in service for a long, long time.

A Russian Grenadier
A Russian Grenadier from Preobrazhensky Life Guards Regiment about to throw an early fuse type grenade.

History of the Grenade and Grenadiers

The term “grenade” comes from the Latin word “granatus,” which literally translates to “filled with grain.” The grain inside is a mixture of an explosive compound that goes off once ignited.

Before 1915, most grenades were unreliable, dangerous, and even lethal for the thrower. Holding one in your hand meant that you were playing with the odds. Finally, British Engineer William Mills fixed the problem.

Mills designed the very first grenade that was safe to use – for the thrower, at least.

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Besides the weapon itself, the one throwing it had a significant share in history. Britain, France, and many other states created a regiment of Grenadiers. The select few received rigorous training for building strength and improving precision. 

Historically, only the tallest soldiers were selected as Grenadiers. Even today, the Queen’s Company Grenadier Guards prefer men over 6ft for ceremonial purposes. However, this requirement does not persist in war. As a result, soldiers under 6ft can get a chance to hurl grenades.

The Mills Bomb
A British officer demonstrates how to “lob” a Mills bomb during the First World War

The Dangers of Grenades 

Grenades are particularly effective in close quarters, such as inside a building or deep within a trench. However, these devices are potent weapons, having devastating consequences if mishandled. 

Grenade shrapnel goes off in all directions putting anyone inside the killing radius in serious danger of losing their life. Those just outside the radius could still easily lose a limb or two. Ironically, these metal shards are also known as “military confetti.”

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A single-hand grenade can be deadly to individuals within 10 meters. It can also cause severe injuries up to 20 meters away. This shrapnel can spread as far as 200 meters from the detonation point. Yet, wearing body armor could save your life.

The lethal proximity of high-explosive hand grenades can vary significantly. However, the general blast radius is typically around 20 meters. Once the pin is out and the lever released, the soldier has only two to six seconds before the grenade explodes. 

Different Types of Grenades 

A Training Grenade
A well camouflaged trooper of the Household Cavalry throws a dummy L111A1 grenade during a training exercise. Indecision is not an option.

The British military uses a variety of hand grenades – each for a different purpose. For example, smoke-screening grenades are non-lethal, but they come in handy to obscure vision. 

The L109 HE (high-explosive) fragmentation grenade is another deadly weapon. It is helpful in defense operations. If the user is well-trained, it’s effective in offensive operations too. On the other hand, stun grenades are used for non-lethal building/room clearance.

As the name suggests, its purpose is to disorient occupants upon entry to seize the upper hand.

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The signal smoke explosives generate smoke in many vibrant colors. Red, yellow, purple, green, blue; almost an endless palette . Troops use these grenades to mark their location, or for allowing pilots to locate the designated landing zones.

In 2017, road workers in Devon discovered a collection of eight white phosphorus grenades. One theory suggests that the Home Guard buried these grenades during WW2 in anticipation of a German invasion. But, the records of their location disappeared over time.

Grenades are helpful in combat, but sometimes on a battlefield, one needs more than just hurling a grenade. When such a situation arises, grenade launchers come into play. These are usually 40mm weapons that can launch grenades as far as 2,200 meters away. The grenades are loaded using belts containing 32 grenades each.

These specialized grenades explode upon impact rather than timed hand-thrown grenades. So other than high-tech jets and intricate rifles, it is safe to say that technological advancement has also made its way down to grenades.