Saving Private Ryan made us ask the question: Could you really throw mortar rounds like a grenade?

Many were skeptical. In fact, if you’re going to search on google, you’d see forums asking about whether it’s real or not. To tell you shortly, it is indeed possible.

Saving Private Ryan Scene

Private Ryan striking the mortar round
Private Ryan striking the mortar round. © DreamWorks Pictures/Paramount Pictures

In the scene, the troops are defending the bridge at the fictional French town of Ramelle against German SS Panzer Grenadiers and Wehrmacht infantry supported by a mixed bag of armor. They have been baited into attacking Capt Miller’s prepared ambush but threaten to outflank Miller’s group and force them out of cover and into the open. Miller’s men are low on ammunition and out of grenades, and all that’s left are mortar rounds. Private Ryan told him that they could use those without the tube. He then begins smashing the rear end of the rounds on a piece of metal to trigger them before chucking them at the German soldiers. The rounds explode on contact with the ground throwing dead Germans in all directions.

Launching The Mortar Round

To understand how this is possible, let’s look at how these mortar rounds work.

Mortar ammunition was designed to be loaded in a lightweight, smooth-bore, metal tube attached to a base plate with a bipod. The round is comprised of a chemical propellant to launch it into the air and a tube. This tube is called, you guess it, mortar. The gunner simply has to slide the mortar round in the tube to fire. Once it reached the base, it would hit a fixed firing pin that would then trigger the mortar round to launch, at the same time charge the impact fuze, and then explode once its fuze hit something.

M224 mortar being fired. (US Army/Wikimedia Commons)

During WWII, designers added a two-step arming process on impact fuzes to prevent the rounds from exploding prematurely. You see, impact fuzes on these mortar rounds were very sensitive and just the physical force of dropping one on the ground would trigger the charge. So before firing, a safety pin had to be removed first to prevent triggering the charge accidentally, to then be followed by a sudden force (like the propellant on the base of the tube) arming the round. Soldiers who wanted to use it as Private Ryan did, had to remove the pin first, hit the tail on something hard, and then yeet (if you’re not familiar, this is Gen Z slang term for throw) it at the enemies. It would then explode on contact with the ground.

It’s Been Tried And Tested

But Private Ryan is a fictional character, and everything is possible in movies, right? So how could we know for sure?

Take Sgt. Beauford Theodore “Andy” Anderson. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during WWII. In the Battle of Okinawa, the Japanese launched a counter-attack against the American battalion. Many were wounded, and they were out of grenades. Out of desperation, he picked up an enemy mortar dud and threw it back to them. The explosion killed several Japanese. With that, Sgt. Anderson took a box of 60mm mortar rounds, pulled their safety pins one by one, smashed them on rocks, and then football threw them to the enemy troops while alternately firing his carbine. By the time the counter-attack stopped, he’d already thrown 14 mortar rounds.

This seemingly genius hack does not come without real risk. If the thrower fumbles the toss and it lands at his feet it will blow him and anyone near him to smithereens.  Additionally, the blast radius of a mortar round is 45-50 feet, three times larger than a grenade, you may think that you can hurl the mortar round 45-50 feet with no problems but they weigh three pounds which is 3 times as much as a football. Most likely, the average throw will be within the blast radius of the mortar round, if you are not in cover when it lands, there is a good chance you will catch a chunk of its shrapnel at near-supersonic speeds.

So while it looks good in movies like Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge, there are only two documented examples of U.S. troops throwing 60mm mortar rounds as grenades in WWII, once at Okinawa and another incident in Italy.  Both were in circumstances of complete desperation, which is probably the only time the risks are justified.