Who hates grenade launchers? Seriously, grenades are awesome, and the ability to fire grenades several hundred yards is awesomer, or is it more awesome? I don’t know, but damn do I appreciate a grenade launcher. In Afghanistan, in every firefight I was in, there were two weapons that made a considerable difference: machine guns and grenade launchers. Americans love grenade launchers and today we are going to do a brief history of them.


The First Grenade Launchers

The grenade launcher isn’t a new weapon. In fact, neither are grenades. The earliest grenade launchers came out of the mid-1700s. They were basically slings that allowed grenadiers to propel grenades much further than pure arm strength could.

In World War I we saw a number of novel designs, including a crossbow-like system and even a catapult design. We also saw the advent of rifle grenades. Rifle grenades were a unique system of launching grenades. They used the rifle as essentially a mortar. A muzzle device allowed you to mount a grenade to the barrel. Early rifle grenades utilized a blank round to propel a grenade.

Later systems used a bullet trap or pass-through system that allowed a standard round to propel the grenade. These systems aren’t used by the United States military these days but did have some advantages.

First, they functioned more like a weapon in between a grenade and a proper light mortar. So, the grenades could be much bigger and more powerful. Hell, there was even an anti-tank grenade powerful enough to punch through early Cold War armor. Second, they didn’t change the handling of a rifle or needed a special launcher to drop warheads on foreheads.

However, they were slower, and a soldier couldn’t instantly go from grenade to close-range engagements. Also, with the stock to the ground and no special sighting system, these grenades were not exceptionally accurate.


The M79 Grenade Launcher

Standalone grenade launchers were introduced in the 1930s, more or less. These early standalone systems were aimed at less-lethal use of tear gas rather than high explosives. In the 1950s, the Army kicked off the Special Purpose Individual Weapon scheme that looked to improve the firepower of the individual infantryman.

M79 Grenade Launcher
M79 Grenade Launcher (Wikimedia Commons)

This program led to the creation of the M79 stand-alone grenade launcher. These grenade launchers fired a 40mm grenade out to 400 meters. It was a single-shot, break-action weapon that gave the infantryman a very capable tool for infantry engagements.

The M79 became an infantryman’s favorite and earned nicknames like the Thumper, the Bloop Tube, Blooper, Big Ed; the Australians even called it the Wombat Gun.

The M79 offered the squad a small piece of artillery allowing a dedicated grenadier to rain hate down on the enemy. It served exceptionally well in Vietnam and beyond. However, the M79 user often didn’t carry a rifle, so the Army wanted to develop a system that functioned with the standard infantry rifle.


The M203

The M203 came to be because of the Army’s interest in mounting a grenade launcher to a rifle. AAI designed the weapon in 1967, and it was revolutionary for the time. This single-shot, breech-loading weapon proved to be quite capable.

It saw combat in the latter days of the Vietnam War and served in the Global War on Terror. Hell, it’s serving to this day.

It also propagated more grenade launchers among infantrymen. The Marine Corps issued one M79 per squad, but when the M203 came around, the Marines issued three per squad.

M203 Grenade launcher
The M203 Grenade Launcher (DVIDS)

Now the grenadier could engage with their rifle or grenade launcher. As the M203 became popular, it was modified to launch high explosives, smoke grenades, tear gas, and whatever else the mission called for.

In Afghanistan, the M203 made a massive difference when the enemy hid behind compound walls. It’s tough to hide from an experienced and well-trained grenadier. In fact, it got to the point where our best grenadier carried dozens of grenades and only a few 5.56 magazines.


The Mk 19

Let me describe something for you. It’s fully automatic, belt-fed, mounts to vehicles… and it fires 40mm grenades at a rate of 360 per minute. That sounds sweet, right? Well, that’s the Mk 19. This crew-served machine grenade launcher comes from the Mk18, a hand-cranked, crew-served grenade launcher.

Mk 19 grenade launcher
Mk 19 Grenade Launcher

The Mk 19 provides an absolutely brutal option for vehicle- and tripod-mounted gunnery. You can obliterate a beaten zone with explosions and shrapnel and create a wall of death and dismay for attackers. It’s tough to hide from an M203, but it’s impossible to hide from an Mk 19.


The M32 Grenade Launcher

The M32 is the pride of my hometown, and you’ll find my hometown’s name stamped on most M32s in the service. This is a 40mm grenade launcher, but it’s a repeater. It’s essentially a giant revolver that packs six rounds of 40mm. This thing hit the fleet right during my first deployment and a few grenadiers got their hands on one in Afghan land.

MK 32 Grenade Launcher
MK 32 Grenade Launcher (Wikimedia Commons)

It was fast to fire but slow to reload. In action, it was great to lay down a wave of pain quickly and give a squad a ton of firepower as the fight started. The Marines and spec-ops commandos were the only wielders of the weapon, and in asymmetric warfare, it was a brilliant addition to an infantry squad.


The M320

The latest grenade launcher designed for infantry forces is the M320 series. The M320 is a fascinating design that allows the user the capability to mount the launcher or carry it as a stand-alone weapon. As a standalone, it is light and handy with a collapsing stock and robust sighting system.

For those who choose to mount the grenade launcher, you have something very similar to the M203. Although, it’s a fair bit shorter it is just as capable. The M320 has become the U.S. Army and Marine Corps’s grenade launcher of choice. The M320 can fire the Pike missile (no relation to this author) without modification. This rocket-propelled 40mm missile is guided and opens up the grenadiers’ capabilities tenfold.


The Future

Grenade launchers might be the future of warfare, especially as airburst grenade-launcher technology advances. Concepts of the OICW have shown lots of promise with small and light grenades. These weapons could essentially eliminate or at least minimize the effectiveness of cover. While we aren’t there just yet, the grenade launcher will certainly advance and improve.

What say you? What is the future of grenade launchers in combat?