The PzB 39 anti-tank rifle lacked behind the stopping power of her contemporaries by war's end.
Authored By: Dan Alex | Last Edited:
Credit: Left side view of the Panzerbusche 39 / PzB 39 anti-tank rifle
The Panzerbuchse 39 (PzB 39) was a short-lived anti-tank rifle utilized by the German Army in World War 2. The type was developed from a World War 1 design that was originally fielded by German troops to counter a new British weapon known as a "tank" (then known officially as "landships"). Despite the PzB 39s promising start, the evolution of better armor protection on Allied tanks rendered the German PzB 39 system obsolete against all but the lightest armored vehicles. Development of better alternatives did not stop with the PzB 39 but no other notable anti-tank rifle systems emerged from prototype stages before the end of the war.
In World War 1, the British became the first nation to field the tank in a tactical battlefield fashion - specifically to break the stalemates of trench warfare plaguing Europe. The appearance of these tracked armored systems, coupled with similar advancements being made by the French, forced the hand of the Germans in response. The first tank-versus-tank battle took place between British and German tanks but this proved indecisive - though a foreshadowing of things to come in World War 2. While attempting to develop their own tank systems (the repulsive 30-ton A7V comes to mind), the Germans also realized a need to counter the British and French tank deployments with a dedicated, man-portable anti-armor weapon system. This led to the development and subsequent production of the "T-Gewehr" (Mauser 13.2mm Tank Abwehr Gewehr Mod. 18) anti-tank rifle by Mauser in 1918 - essentially the world's first anti-tank rifle, purposely designed to defeat enemy armor by disabling the engine, key components or crew within. The T-Gewehr was chambered to fire the 13.2mm TuF ("Tank und Flieger") cartridge from a manual-bolt operation. This early anti-tank rifle was a highly serviceable design that saw Mauser production reach some 15,800 examples in all. In service, the T-Gewehr gave a good account of itself in limited use and, perhaps more importantly, created a new field of firearm - the "anti-tank rifle" - that would only continue to evolve into more effective forms by the time of World War 2.
The Panzerbusche PzB 38
After World War 1, German military manufacturing was severely curtailed, leaving a smaller land army limited to armored cars at its disposal and absolutely no aircraft. However, with the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, secretive military developments ensued, often times hidden under commercial guises. For many tanks, development came under the image of farming tractors and the like. Design of a new anti-tank rifle was on order and began under the leadership of B. Brauer of Gustloff Werke in Suhl. When finalized, the rifle came under the designation of Panzerbusche 38 (PzB 38) and its appearance was not unlike that of the World War 1-era T-Gewehr. The operation of the system was not unlike a standard artillery piece in which a sliding breech block ejected the spent shell casing upon firing and remained open to accept a new round. The rifle was introduced into German Army service with production handled by Rheinmetall-Borsig though it was never formally accepted as the standardized anti-tank rifle. The Germans managed between 1,400 and 1,600 PzB 38 anti-tank rifles between 1939 and 1940 though only about 60 were made available in the Invasion of Poland in September of 1939. These guns originally fired a hardened steel core until captured Polish anti-tank rifle ammunition revealed a tungsten core to be a better penetrative round. It was only natural for the Germans to emulate the best available methods.
The Panzerbusche PzB 39
With the Germans not one to rest on their laurels, Gustloff Werke took to revising their initial PzB 38 series design. More importantly, the complex manufacturing process of the PzB 38 proved rather expensive during war time. As such, steps were taken to curtail the production process and bring costs down by way of a much simpler weapon. The barrel was lengthened slightly and the weapon was made lighter for increased portability. The newer model retained the vertical block breech and caliber but the breech block was not controlled by a lever on the pistol grip. One particularly distinct addition was two magazine supplies fitted to the sides of the receiver rear. These magazines were added only to provide an ammunition supply for the operator - they were not magazines in the sense that they automatically fed the firing chamber. The firer was still required to manually reload the weapon. The new weapon was christened the PzB 39 and production switched over from the PzB 38 as soon as possible. Unlike the PzB 38 series, the PzB 39 did go on to be named the standard German Army anti-tank rifle for the rest of World War 2.
Like the T-Gewehr and PzB 38 before it, the PzB 39 was also chambered for the proven 7.92x94mm cartridge from a bolt-action system. Rounds were loaded individually as the rifle was inherently a single-shot weapon not making use of a spring-loaded multi-round magazine. Construction was of pressed steel with spot welding. The weapon weighed in at 25.75lbs and featured a length of 1,620mm with the barrel measuring in at 1,085mm. The barrel was designed to recoil within the frame and the recoil action directly ejected the spent cartridge casing while opening the vertical breech block for a fresh round. The weapon was loaded with a fresh cartridge and the breech closed by a lever on the pistol grip. This moved the barrel forward in place, cocking the weapon and making the system ready to fire. Muzzle velocity was rated at 4,150 feet per second. The weapon was sighted via a rear "V" type notch and a hooded front post. 25mm armor penetration was effective out to 328 yards.
The PzB 39 exhibited clean lines throughout, the receiver tapering off from rear to front. A positional carrying handle was set at the middle top of the metal receiver to help improved portability. The barrel extended ahead of the wooden forend and was capped with a noticeable muzzle brake and large front post sight. The weapon was braced against the shoulder through use of a simple ergonomic tubular stock. A collapsible bipod was affixed ahead of the forend. The operator managed the weapon by a traditional pistol grip and trigger unit. For transport, the bipod folded forward and the stock collapsed against the side of the receiver.
Some 568 PzB 39 series rifles were available at the time of the German Invasion of Poland, these fielded side-by-side with the preceding PzB 38 series. Production swelled in the coming years that nearly 25,300 were available by the German Invasion of the Soviet Union. Early on, the PzB 39 was put to good use and was capable of penetrating the then-current generation of light tanks being found on the modern battlefield. However, its complicated breech mechanism was prone to collecting battlefield debris that could lead to jams. Additionally, penetration was limited in range and thicknesses of 25mm. That being said, the PzB 39 - and the PzB 38 for that matter - were outmoded with the arrival of the heavier medium tanks and better armored heavy tanks of the Soviet Union and the Allies. As such, the PzB 39 held an operational tenure until about 1944 to which the rifle series saw only extremely limited service beyond that.
The GrB 39 Grenade Launcher Conversion
1942 saw one branching development of the PzB 39 anti-tank rifle series - this becoming the new Granatbuchse Modell 39 (GrB 39), essentially a makeshift grenade launching rifle system. The base PzB 39 was fitted with a Kar 98K-type threaded barrel attachment and a new shortened barrel assembly. This now enabled the PzB 39 system to fire the standard issue German infantry rifle grenade (anti-personnel and anti-tank types were available) with hollow charges. A specialized sighting system was further installed for accurized ranging of these larger projectiles. The GrB 39 found a home In German infantry squads for a time, seeing use until their disbanding at the end of the war in Europe in May of 1945. The GrB 39 was only effective out to 136 yards and even then against light or unprotected targets.
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