The United States’ quest for a repeating firearm action grenade launcher during the Vietnam War resulted in various models in hopes of coming up with a reliable and capable squad-level one. Before the China Lake grenade launcher, what were considered the successful ones were the M79 and XM148. Even so, the performance of the two was far from satisfactory, especially in terms of the sought-after pump action power.
M79 and XM148
The M79 grenade launcher was made after World War II as a result of the dissatisfaction of the US Army with its regular rifle grenades with its insufficiency with general-purpose fire support capabilities. Through what they labeled Project Niblick, the US Army attempted to increase firepower through an explosive projectile more accurate than rifle grenades with a different range and more portable mortar.
The M79 was used during the Vietnam War and effectively defeated enemies and outpaced Viet Cong’s commando mortars. Different variants of the 40 mm rounds had also been produced, like the M381 HE (High Explosive) round, M576 Buckshot round, and M1006 less-lethal round (fires a foam rubber projectile), to name a few. However, the main issue was that it was limited to a single round fired and required manual reloading of the weapon after each shot.
XM148 was another wartime development used by the US Special Forces along with the XM177E2. Colt Firearms also manufactured it as a launcher for field testing during the Vietnam War.
Problems XM148 was, aside from being a single round fire, its extended trigger caused frequent accidental discharges as it usually gets caught on gears, tree branches, and literally anywhere. This design was intended so users could fire without removing their hands from the pistol grip. Evaluations were made, but XM148 never made it into service. Imagine the hassle of fighting in the dense Vietnam jungle with your launcher’s trigger getting caught up on every vein and branch you pass. Later on, its concept would be the foundation of the M203 we know today.
China Lake 40mm Grenade Launcher
As America’s involvement in the Vietnam War increased, the need for specialized weapon systems, especially for Navy SEALs, arose. This was when China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station entered the scene.
China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station was established during World War II under the United States Navy. Its purpose was to support the US Navy’s research, development, acquisition, testing, and evaluation of weapons systems for the soldiers.
During the Vietnam war, they were tapped to produce a more reliable grenade-launching system that would outperform the M79 and XM148. China Lake began working in 1967, spearheaded by Alfred Kermode. The result was what was known as the China Lake Grenade Launcher.
China Lake Grenade Launcher was a repeat-fire, pump-action launcher with a tubular magazine that could load three 40x46mm grenades plus one more in the chamber. This means that the operator could fire four rounds in rapid succession before reloading, which is pretty efficient. An experienced operator could fire up to 15 rounds per minute.
It had a solid wooden shoulder stock and an oblong trigger ring loop that could accommodate a gloved finger. Most parts were made from aluminum, so it was pretty light for its size. Its forward-set leaf sight was similar to the M79. Its rear square notch could be adjustable, depending on whether the leaf is folded or not.
The weapon was at 34 inches. Its barrel was 14 inches and effective within the range of 350 meters. The original number of China Lake Grenade Launcher issued was unknown, but it was thought that it was somewhere between 20 and 30.
SEALs were happy with the grenade launcher and used it during their secret operations throughout Vietnam. In addition, the 5th Special Forces Group of the US Army special forces and the USMC’s Marine Force Recon intelligence-gathering detachment were also known to have used it.
As for its performance, its repeat-fire capabilities complemented the other special forces weapons at that time. Its 10 pounds loaded weight was also not much of a burden to its operator.
Despite all these, for some reason, the China Lake launcher was not mass-produced. Perhaps it was America’s reduced involvement in the conflict that eliminated the need for projects and weapons, or maybe it was something else.
We know that the weapon was not widely used in the years that followed. Although there was an attempt to revive its design in 1992, firearms writer Samuel “Dutch” Hillenburg teamed up with machinist Brian Fauci. Unfortunately, it again died out in 2009 due to the lack of general interest. Since then, it has become part of the list of many forgotten weapons of the past.