The United States emerged from World War II with the Bazooka as its primary anti-armor and anti-structure weapon. Proven as a true war winner, the series, requiring a firer and a loader, started with the M1, upgraded through the M9 and ended with the M20B1 ‘Super’ during Korea.
The Bazooka’s basic design never changed, and consisted of nothing more than a hollow steel tube of varying diameters into which an electrically fired rocket was inserted at the back. Using a shaped charge, and depending upon the model, this rocket averaged 3 to 4 inches penetration of steel (11 inches with the ‘Super’), and in its day proved easily capable of taking out light and medium tanks, and even a heavy with the right shot placement. Roundly praised by users, the Bazooka provided the necessary punch when confronting hardened targets.
Good as it was though, the Bazooka had its drawbacks, the main ones being that it required a crew to operate and, as new armor designs came down the pike after 1945, its shell design proved less and less effective. Furthermore, by the 1950s ever more emphasis was being placed on mobile warfare, and to continue using a crew operated anti-armor weapon with declining ability was considered a grave drawback.
The Bazooka found itself being phased out in favor of the new recoilless rifle designs that proved more adept at dealing with evolving armor threats. But, like the Bazooka, it also faced the same problems in requiring two men to employ, and was similarly assigned to support weapon platoons, meaning they still had to be called on when faced by armor.
Something else was desired. A weapon that could give the effectiveness of a bazooka or recoilless rifle, but without an unwieldy length and most important, a crew. In other words, a lightweight one-man device capable of being carried fired and disposed of when it discharged its round. Something, ironically, which the Germans had already done 20 years before during wartime with their Panzerfaust.
Solicitations began in the mid 1950s, and in early 1961 the U.S. company Hesse Eastern presented their design combining the best attributes of the bazooka and Panzerfaust. In 1963 after successful trials, it received the designation M72 LAW, or Light Anti-armor Weapon. It was a stubby hollow pair of tubes that carried a round sealed inside, and was meant to be fired once, then destroyed by the user. Its utter simplicity meant that it ushered in another new family of disposable tank killing weapons that ended up being copied by allies and enemies alike in the latter half of the 20th century.
The M72 was 66mm in diameter, and the twin tubes telescoped, meaning one collapsed into the other. Closed, it was 24.8 inches long and provided a watertight seal until it was snapped out to a maximum length of 34.6 inches. Once this was done, the weapon was armed and the watertight seal was broken for good even if the soldier collapsed it again.
For aiming, two sights were provided, one in front raised by the user and one in back that automatically flipped up when the tube extended. The round was a rocket with a High Explosive Antitank warhead (HEAT) that was fired by squeezing a rectangular trigger atop the tube. The rocket motor burned out before it left the launcher, and the round popped fins and sped away at 475 fps. Effective range was 200 meters, with up to 8 inches of penetration against steel targets, 2 feet of concrete or 6 feet of soil was obtained. All this came in a package that weighed a remarkable 5.5 pounds.
Production commenced just before the Vietnam War heated up and it was here that it received its baptism by fire. Needless to say, in the early years of combat, the results varied from excellent to downright ineffective. Excellent when deployed against earthen or reinforced bunkers, and ineffective when first used against enemy armor. Hearing this, the manufacturer made changes to the weapon, increasing its reliability, safety and effectiveness of the round. Designated the M72A2, it proved the upgrades were successful when South Vietnamese troops destroyed several North Vietnamese T-55 tanks during the battle to save the city of An Loc, during the famous Easter Offensive in 1972.
More upgrades followed, mostly incremental, but enough to warrant keeping thousands stocked in the arms rooms of western European allies sharing borders with Warsaw pact nations. Everyone knew that if the Cold War ever turned hot, the primary weapon these countries would face would be the tank, thousands of them in fact, parked no more than a day’s drive or closer. In this regard, the thousands of LAWs assured that every soldier had available access to a tank-killer, one the Russian’s themselves admired enough to copy and churn out numbers for their soldiers, starting with the RPG-18.
The M72 LAW managed to hold the line until production ceased in 1983. By this time, it was clear it no longer could threaten modern battle tanks unless it made a lucky hit. As tens of thousands remained in stockpiles, replacements were sought. In the case of the U.S., they found one in the Swedish AT-4 (M136). Entering service in 1987, it was bigger and heavier, but met the requirements for a next generation disposable anti-armor weapon. With that, the LAW’s end seemed inevitable.
Reality had other plans. Years after the War on Terror began, 2006 to be exact, LAWs reentered service with the U.S. and Canada, not for anti-armor work but as a bunker buster. Cheaper than the AT-4 and at almost 1/3rd the weight, a soldier could also carry two in place of one AT4 with pounds left to spare. And, with a better HEAT round, this latest iteration of the LAW, the M72A7, continues to provide welcome destruction against caves and buildings often used for ambush. So good has it performed in fact that the U.S. Marine Corps placed an order for 7,750 from the company NAMMO-Talley a few years ago and continue carrying them into battle even as this is written.
So, it appears that for the time being, the LAW is destined for a few more years of service.
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