Believe me when I say you’ve seen an M72, and you’re not even aware of it. I’m talking about all the war-themed films you’ve seen, or if you’ve been part of the service, you’d know I’m talking about the shoulder-fired, man-portable, light mini-rocket-looking weapon. Let’s take a moment to admire this cool weapon from the 1960s.

What makes up an M72?

According to the Federation of American Scientists – Military Analysis Network, M-72 LAW is a lightweight, self-contained, anti-armor weapon consisting of a rocket packed in a launcher. It is man-portable, may be fired from either shoulder and is issued as a round of ammunition. It can be stored long-term and requires little from the user beyond a visual inspection and some operator maintenance. The launcher, which consists of two tubes, one inside the other, serves as a watertight packing container for the rocket and houses a percussion-type firing mechanism that activates the rocket. It contains a nonadjustable propelling charge and a rocket, and every M72-series LAW has an integral high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) warhead.  

Why was the M72 designed?

The M72 was designed in the early 1960s for use against light armored vehicles of that era. It could penetrate about three-quarters of an inch of armor. This may not seem like much, but it’s better than a small arms fire when going up against an armored personnel carrier.  Tanks are also pretty soft in the tail.  A LAW fired into the back of a Russian T-62 would have had a good chance of disabling it with a hit to the engine compartment. More recent and improved versions of the M72-series LAWs were produced in the 1990s, including the M72A4, M72A5, M72A6, and M72A7. These newer versions increased their range and accuracy in providing warheads with increased penetration power.  The M72 EC Mk.1 could punch through almost eighteen inches of armor. 

M72A4 LAW, an American anti-tank weapon. Armémuseum (Swedish Army Museum)CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Although the M72 is mainly used as an anti-armor weapon, it may be used with limited success against secondary targets such as gun emplacements, pillboxes, buildings, or light vehicles.

2/27 Marine test-fires an M72 LAW south of Da Nang.

“The M72s provided the best balance of weight and bulk to combat effectiveness. It was considered an excellent munition to be used against insurgents firing from close and medium range. It was fast and easy to bring into operation, and it was considered to be both a good suppressive weapon and quite accurate and lethal at the same time,” says the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division Lessons Learned from March 2010.

You may wonder why a single shot LAW is superior to the older bazooka or Soviet RPG in use today.  Here is why.

A bazooka or an RPG is a weapon that needs to be fed ammunition to work.  The M-72 is itself a round of ammunition inside a tube with a trigger mechanism and sight.  An infantry squad may only have a single bazooka or RPG carried by one man who is also loaded down with spare rounds.  If the RPG guy steps on a land mine, he is gone and his now mangled RPG is out of the fight as well. In contrast, an M72 can be issued to each man in a squad, each of whom can fire one.  This means as many twenty M72 rounds are available to a squad as opposed to just five RPG rounds between the Gunner and Assistant Gunner carried in their backpacks, which translates to having a lot more firepower.

Upgrading the weapon

Decades after its first launch, the M72 would most likely be recalibrated. Nammo, an international aerospace and defense company headquartered in Norway, has seen promising results in the M72 when mounted to a drone. Nammo writer, Thorstein Korsvold, says that they have been working on a concept where the M72 is mounted on a drone for several years. The result is a flexible and powerful anti-vehicle or anti-tank weapon that can be operated remotely. With the M72 mounted on a drone, users can bring the weapon to the target in a way not previously possible. This opens up both a “top attack” option against more heavily armored targets, even main battle tanks, while at the same time removing operators from the danger zone, says Quoc Bao Diep, Nammo’s Vice President for Shoulder Fired Systems.