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40 mm grenade launchers.

Lightweight man-portable grenade launchers first came into the limelight during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. With air support, artillery and mortar fire often too slow in coming on line quickly, GIs wanted a weapon they could easily carry and that would enable them to deliver high explosive against enemy troops outside grenade throwing range.

Since the Vietnam era the weapon system has been considerably modified by the US and many other countries to provide combat infantrymen with a wide range of firepower options. The most recent examples now even incorporate a fire control system. This article charts the development of the 40 mm grenade launcher and looks at some of the products available today on the world market.

Early Weapons

The father of all modern 40 mm grenade launchers is the American M79, which was developed by Colt and entered service in the mid-1960s just as the Vietnam War was beginning to escalate. The weapon's light weight and essential simplicity made it an instant success in the jungles of Vietnam. It was a single shot weapon that had to be broken open like a shotgun to reload it, so had no complex working parts that could jam in jungle conditions. The basic iron sight required little training or expertise to use and GIs could easily become expert at using it with a high degree of accuracy at ranges up to 100 metres. GIs nicknamed it the 'thumper', 'blooper' 'thump gun' or 'bloop tube' because of its distinctive sound. While being very effective a delivering close range fire support, the M79 was also provided with a wide range of useful ammunition including smoke to protect troop movements, high explosive anti-tank (Heat) to counter enemy armoured vehicles, illuminating rounds to help with night operations and CS gas for riot control.

The one major drawback of the M79 was that the grenadier equipped with the weapon could not engage targets with small arms fire without having to stow his M79 and draw another weapon. To rectify this problem, the US Army looked to developing a grenade launcher that had all the capabilities of the M79 but which could be strapped under the barrel of the service's standard assault rifle, the M16.

The result was the experimental under-barrel grenade launcher, the XM-148, which was rushed to service in Vietnam in 1967 by the US Army in co-operation with AAI. Early examples were plagued with teething problems but these were resolved when the M-203 was accepted for service in 1969. This was even more popular with GIs than the M79 and since then it has been in continuous production. By the year 2000, almost 300,000 of them had been produced by a number of companies with Colt leading the pack.

The M-203 grenade launcher kit consists of a base launcher rail that is attached under the barrel of an M-16 or M-4-series assault rifle, the barrel and trigger mechanism, a quadrant sight that is attached to the carrying handle of the rifle and a new hand guard. The assembly is very simple and takes less than five minutes to attach to the rifle. Once attached, the M-16 or M-4 may be used normally, except that a bayonet or rifle grenades cannot be used.

Like its close cousin the M79, the essential simplicity of the M203 is its key selling point and the concept has been widely copied by allies and opponents around the world.

During the 1960s the US military was keen to experiment with other means to deliver the versatile 40 mm round and it was soon working on fielding a high velocity weapon capable of using the ammunition. This would enable targets to be hit with greater accuracy and hardened targets to be successfully engaged. The M79 and M203 had to sacrifice velocity and accuracy to reduce launcher weight to the absolute minimum. The requirement was to provide a weapon similar in size and weight to a .50 calibre heavy machine gun that could be used in infantry battalion fire support companies or mounted on vehicles, boats and helicopters.

The first high velocity or high-pressure 40 mm grenade launcher was the Saco Defense Mk 19 which also featured an automatic loading mechanism to allow it to delivering a devastating rate of fire. The Mark 19 could hit targets at ranges measured in hundreds of metres, was highly accurate and had far more armour piercing capability. The original model, the Mk 19 Mod 0, was designed for use by US Navy patrol boats and Seals in Vietnam. It was a spectacular success, well liked by its troops, but mechanically complex and difficult to care for. The weapon at first was restricted to use on patrol boats, vehicles and helicopters until the 1980s when the Mod 3 variant, which has a tripod mount, 47 per cent fewer parts and is strippable without special tools, was introduced into US service. More than 21,000 Mk 19s have been built for US forces and the weapon is in service with 22 other armed forces. Saco is now part of General Dynamics.

In the context of the Mk 19, Brashear has developed a new-generation fire control system for the weapon. Known as the Safcs II, it provides day and night ballistic solutions and can also be used with a wide range of other weapons and munitions such as the M2, sniper rifles and so forth, thanks to a programmable ballistic computer. The system, which incorporates a laser rangefinder (with a range of 4000 metres), takes into account temperature, atmospheric temperature and cross-winds to name but a few variable parameters, and can accommodate a night vision sensor to supplement the original x5 direct-view optics. At time of writing some 20 units were being tested for type classification by the US Army Picatinny Arsenal. If the figures claimed by Brashear are confirmed, the Safcs II will enable the Mk 19 to make a quantum leap in performance as the manufacturer says that with the system a typical target at 1000 meters could be engaged with a first hit probability of 54 per cent compared to only three per cent without it.

The Mark 19 has also spawned a whole range of similar weapons loosely based on its concept.

Over the past 40 years the grenade launcher has become a common feature of many battlefields and conflict zones. During the 1980s the Soviets made extensive use of the weapon in Afghanistan and the South African's developed their own family of 40 mm grenade launchers for use in their border wars. As a result of these efforts the South African company Armscor fielded one of the first stand-alone 40 mm grenade launchers to incorporate an automatic loading mechanism. The MGL, now made by Milkor, has been exported extensively and is immediately recognisable by its distinctive drum magazine, similar to that of the old Tommy gun. Automatic hand-held grenade launchers are now an important segment of the global market for this class of weapon.

Low Cost

One of the enduring factors in the continued popularity of 40 mm grenade launchers is their simplicity and low cost. A basic M79 type launcher or under barrel M203 type launcher is available to today for between $ 200 and $ 800 new and considerably less on the surplus market. While a Mk 19 style tripod mounted weapon can be purchased for between $ 1500 and $15,000. Ammunition costs for low velocity rounds are less than high velocity rounds. Most 40 mm weapons are designed to fire common ammunition, either to Nato or Russian standard, so there is a large market in 40mm ammunition, although high velocity and low velocity rounds are generally not interchangeable. Most major ammunition manufacturers around the world produce a variety of 40 mm rounds and the technology is becoming increasingly sophisticated.

IMI, in conjunction with International Technologies Lasers, has developed a sight that is part of an overall system that includes a whole range of grenades called MPRS (Multiple Purpose Rifle System). The sight is in fact more a fire control system than a simple aiming device. It has a laser rangefinder, but also three modes: air burst, time delay and point detonation. Depending on the type of target, its location (behind a wall, for example) range and the mode selected by the firer, it automatically calculates a corrected aiming point. In a video displayed at the recent Eurosatory show, Israel Military Industries revealed a number of additions that can he made to the system. A remote display would enable the user to aim his gun around the corner of a street wall without exposing himself to enemy fire, or a grenade equipped with a minicamera would show when the round is precisely above a suspected target behind a hill to trigger it via datalink in an air burst mode. A recent addition to the family is a non-lethal munition.

On the subject of munitions, Nico Pyrotechnik offers a wide range of 40 mm ammunition and has recently introduced a new series of non-lethal and tracer munitions. A word on the term non-lethal has to be given in this context, as it is often misunderstood. The munitions rated as non-lethal will be so under two conditions: firstly, they have to be used at the specified range, not under; secondly, they must be aimed at the chest, never the head. Failing this, they can indeed be lethal. The same goes for noise grenades that are not intended to hit anyone.

Another important manufacturer of 40 mm grenades is Singapore Technologies, which, in recent years, has introduced an airburst munition. This is used in conjunction with a specific fire control system and sight mounted atop the launcher.

Stand-alone Weapons

A variety of stand-alone or dedicated grenade launchers are available to meet operational requirements. The influence of the M79 family is still strongly felt. Modern designs make use of advanced production techniques such as pressed metal components to save weight and cost.

Germany's Heckler & Koch HK-69A1 Granatpistole is designed to be a light and handy launcher for low-velocity grenades. It is a single-shot break open weapon of the same concept as the US M-79 and is fitted with a retractable stock.

Saco Defense (at the time) had partners with Computer Devices of Canada and Sweden's Bofors to produce the Striker, which is the first of a new generation of automatic grenade launchers that uses computerized aiming and special microchip-controlled grenades to produced enhanced casualty-causing abilities.

The heart of the Striker is its computer controlled sight and the special ammunition (known as Programmable Air Burst). This technology allows the grenadier to programme the type of target to be engaged and for the weapon's computer to select the ammunition needed to achieve maximum destructive results.

In Asia, Singapore Technologies is a leader in grenade launcher technology and has several products on the market.

Its 40GL has been widely exported and is used by the Singapore armed forces. It can be mounted on a rifle or used as a stand-alone weapon. The barrel is swung to the side for loading.

Croatian RH-Alan has produced the RBG-6, which is a direct copy of the South African MGL Mark I and is identical in almost every way to that weapon. The Yugoslav state arms industry has also produced its own copies of the MGL. The MM-1, manufactured in the US by Arms Tech, is a short-barrelled MGL available in three calibres. The MM-1 is equipped with a fore grip and stock, and is fed by a revolving cylinder.

Bulgaria's state-owned Arsenal produces the six shot 40 mm Avalanche grenade launcher.

Under Barrel

The M203 concept of mounting a grenade launcher under the fore barrel of an assault rifle has been widely copied around the world. Almost every major design of assault rifle--M16, AK-47 derivatives, and many others--have been provided with under barrel grenade launchers. These can either be purchased directly from the original equipment manufacturers or bought as kits to be installed at a later date. The kits involve the grenade launcher, sighting devices and the mechanism to connect the grenade launcher to the firing system of the assault rifle.

The US military is by far the biggest user of the M203, which has been widely exported to allied nations. Colt is now the main supplier to the Pentagon and since the weapon's inception a number of product improvements have taken place.

The M203PI (Product Improved) is developed by RM Equipment and can be attached to any assault rifle and to some submachine guns.

The M-203PI (short barrel) has a 229 mm-long barrel instead of the 305 mm of the standard M-203PI and is lighter but has a shorter range.

South Korea's Daewoo licence produces the M203 as the K-201 for use on the country's K-2 and K-1A1 assault rifles, but can also be installed on M-16A1, M-16A2, M-4, and Car-15 assault rifles. The MKE Mod 2000 is the Turkish licence produced version for use on the Heckler & Koch G3 used by the country's army. With some modification it can also be fitted to the AK series, FN FAL, and M-16A1 and -A2 weapons.

Egypt's Maadi produces a derivative of the M-203 for use on the AK-series of weapons used by that country's army.

The Soviets were very keen to copy the American M203 and develop a version for use on the AK-47 family. These were then exported to Soviet allies or were license produced by them. Several of these countries have since evolved these Soviet era designs into modern products.

The GP-25 was the basic Soviet under-barrel grenade launcher for the AK-47, AK-74 and AKM weapons. It is also known as the BG-15 or AK-GL. It has subsequently been fitted to the Chinese Type 68 and 81, Finnish Valmet assault rifles and Yugoslavian AK-derivatives. After seeing combat use in Afghanistan in the 1980s the Soviets began to experiment with modifications and enhancements,

The RG-6 was developed in response to a Russian Army need for a multi-shot grenade launcher for use in Chechnya. It is basically a GP-25 grenade launcher with a rotating cylinder mechanism behind the barrel. It has proved popular with Spetsnaz and Alpha team Special Forces units. The current weapon offered by KBP in a head-on competition with the South African MGL-6 (quod vide) is the 40 mm 6G-30. This weapon is specifically designed to engage the enemy in trenches and over-the-brow firing caseless high fragmentation Vog-25 and Vog-25P rounds to a range of 400 metres. Like the MGL-6, it uses a six-tube barrel ammunition feed capable of providing a rate of fire of 16 rounds per minute.

In a more orthodox Russian calibre (no pun intended), KBP offers an interesting low profile, four round (one chambered) 43 mm device. Known as the GM-94, this 4.8 kg weapon is particularly indented for urban warfare as, apart from the usual rounds, it can fire air fuel explosive, smoke incendiary and non-lethal ammo. It also fires specific rounds that can be used in confined spaces. It is of the pump load type with fully closed receiver and can be had with fixed or folding stock.

Still in the East, Croatia's RH-ALAN produces the RGB-1 version of the GP-25. This has the added feature of being able to fire Nato standard 40 mm ammunition. The Croatian company was originally part of the Yugoslav state armaments industry and its counterparts in Serbia & Montenegro also produce versions of the GP-25 and 40 mm ammunition.

Poland's Zaklady Metalowe Mesko continues to produce its own BG-15 derivatives, known as the Pallad. It also produces a stand-alone weapon with a gripstock dubbed the Pallad-D.

The Romanian state owned Romarm produces its own BG-15 derivative known as the AG-40 that fires Nato standard ammunition and can be used in AKseries weapons.

Belgian's FN Herstal offers its F2000 Grenade Launcher as an add-on item specifically for use attached to the F2000 assault rifle.

Heckler & Koch has developed the HK-79 family of grenade launchers that can be mounted under most Nato assault rifles. The German Army uses the AG-36 grenade launcher on its G-36 and the British Army has fitted the unit to its own SA-80s.

The South African company Milkor has developed the Mk 40, which can be used on a variety of assault rifles.

Support Weapons

Crew served 40 mm grenade launchers are now in great demand but no two are the same. They feature a great variety of tripods, sighting systems, loading systems and degrees of complexity.

The W-87 AGL automatic grenade launcher from China's Norinco was originally designed with a wooden stock, pistol grip and a bipod but is now used from a special tripod that allows both ground and anti-aircraft fire. The QLZ-87 is a product-improved W-87 that has a longer barrel, through which more muzzle velocity can be developed, therefore increasing range.

Heckler & Koch markets two crew served weapons. The Grenade Machine Gun (GMG) is designed to be operated by a two-man crew in a ground or vehicle mounted role. The Grenade Machine Weapon is a lighter class of weapon that can be easily carried by dismounted infantry, although many components are common to the GMG.

The Soviet Union copied the US Mk 19 Grenade launcher and developed a crew served version for use by infantry troops in the mid 1970s. They opted for a 30 mm rather than a 40 mm round and to this day the Russians have stuck with this calibre despite the rest of the world standardising on 40 mm. While it does not really fit in the context of this articled devoted to 40 mm weapons, it must be said that the AGSq7 Plamya, or flame, is the most famous of this class of weapon and saw extensive service in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

However. Romarm produced a copy of the AGS-17 that is able of firing Nato standard 40 mm amnmnition.

Other countries have taken the crew served grenade launcher forward with innovative ideas and technology. Singapore Technologies has developed the popular 40AGL, which features a variety of optical and computerised sights, and can include a tripod, pintle, vehicle or turret, or even a naval mount.

South Africa's Denel subsidiary Vektor produces the AGL Striker that has been designed to minimise recoil. It can be fed from the left or right. The weapon may also be vehicle or helicopter mounted.

The Lag 40 SB-M1 is produced by Spain's Santa Barbara. It bears an external similarity to the Mark 19 but is internally quite different. The Lag uses a low fire rate that makes it easier to control.

Future Weapons

The popularity of the current generation of 40 mm grenade launcher dictates that research is most likely underway to ensure the future soldier has similar or improved capabilities. The American, French and other armies are looking at improved ways to incorporate grenade launchers into future assault rifles, even going as far as making them integral parts of the weapon itself. The US Army's Objective Individual Combat Weapon is intended to be a lightweight weapon capable of firing kinetic energy projectiles and an air-bursting fragmentation munition. Il will allow soldiers to effectively attack targets at greater ranges, and to attack targets in defilade. It will combine leading edge technologies in miniaturised fuzing, integrated fire control, weight minimisalion, high strength materials and munition effects.

The fire control system, using a laser rangefinder, pinpoints the precise target range at which the HE round will burst and relays this information to the 20 mm ammunition fuzing system. Fragments from the munition will defeat PASGT armour. The sighting system provides lull 24-hour capability by employing uncooled IR sensor technology for night vision.

Giat is also worked on a similar concept as part of its studies into a multi-ammunition weapon system for the French Army.

The future of grenade launchers on the battlefields of the 21st Century looks very secure.
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Title Annotation:Infantry weapons
Author:Rippley, Tim
Publication:Armada International
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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