When tanks first appeared on the battlefield in WWI, they were meant to advance in front of the infantry, run over and stop astride the enemy trenches and then clear them with cannons and machine guns firing from either side. They were lightly armored and able to stop most small arms fire.  At first, they were terrifying to German troops, but they quickly realized that a couple of field pieces up by the trenches were enough to wreck most any tank in existence at the time.

Today in modern warfare, there are plenty of options for dealing with a tank as an infantryman under attack, anti-tank mines, artillery, rocket-propelled shape charges, anti-tank missiles, and with the advent of radio communications gear, you can bring down artillery or an air strike on tanks attacking your position.

In the years between WWI and WWII, instant radio communications and close air support were just beginning to come into existence and various countries all worked on how to provide infantry with a portable weapon that could disable the existing tanks without requiring artillery so close to the front that it would be knocked out by shelling in advance of an attack by tanks.

From this came the idea of creating large-caliber anti-tank rifles that could punch through the thin armor of early tanks, cheaply and effectively. They were concealable, did not require a crew to operate and unlike cannons or aircraft, are much cheaper and could be mass-produced.

These anti-tank rifles, of course, had their tradeoffs. For instance, most could only shoot at an effective distance of about 500 meters – which is awful close to be fighting a tank. The armor-penetrating bullets did not really guarantee success in neutralizing the tanks unless they successfully hit the crew inside or some other vital area like the engine or maybe the fuel tank. Even so, they bolstered the morale of troops in the field until larger anti-tank, crew-served guns were built to kill tanks of ever-increasing size and armor protection in WWII.

By war’s end, all of these anti-tank rifles were obsolete.

Wz. 35 Anti-Tank Rifle

The Wz. 35 anti-tank rifle was initially a top-secret project of the Polish army, so it was known by various codenames. They were also held in sealed crates labeled with “Do not open! Surveillance equipment!” until Poland mobilized in 1939, just a few weeks before the beginning of the war. It was nicknamed Ur-38, from “Uruguay,” where the rifle was supposedly being exported from.

Finnish at-rifle team with Wz. 35 anti-tank rifle. (SA-kuva, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Wz was one of the first of its kind and was also one of the most effective against the early tanks of the German army. When it was used in 1939, it was able to penetrate the armor of most tanks that existed at that time, including the German Panzer IV, penetrating  37-40 mm or armor at a 100-meter distance. Still, that is very close.