Prior to World War 2, armies of the world embraced several anti-tank measures such as awkward, small-caliber towed guns, long, heavy and cumbersome anti-tank rifle and infantry-level grenades of various designs. Towed guns required tow vehicles or mover animals and were not very mobile. Anti-tank rifles were nothing more than oversized service rifles which were heavy in practice and expensive to manufacture necessary numbers. Infantry-level anti-tank grenades required personnel to be dangerously close to approaching tanks when used and the results of such weapons were usually mixed in their execution.
In September of 1939, Germany invaded Poland, officially beginning World War 2. Germany's skillful use of armor, infantry and aircraft led to Poland's quick demise in which The Low Countries and France soon followed. As German tank armor strength continued to grow heading into 1940, many of the existing anti-tank weapons were quickly becoming obsolete though sheer desperation forced their continued presence as frontline implements. The most common towed anti-tank gun caliber was the 37mm and these proved effective against light-armored vehicles. Their caliber size allowed them to be modestly portable as well, though still not effective in a fluid battle. Armies then moved beyond light tanks and introduced medium tank models which improved armor protection and primary gun strength.
The US Army had let their opportunity for casual anti-tank weaponry improvement slip by before the time of World War 2 in Europe. Its primary anti-tank weapon was the 37mm M3 towed anti-tank gun which suffered from the aforementioned limitations of other 37mm field systems early in the war. To make matters more difficult, the Americans had elected not to adopt an anti-tank rifle unlike the Germans, British and Soviets. What value the armor-piercing ammunition the Browning 0.50 caliber machine gun had was lost as increased armor combat vehicles began to appear in Europe.
Work on battlefield rocketry was being undertaken in America as early as 1933 at the storied Aberdeen Proving Ground under the Ordnance Department's "Rocket Branch". The division was headed Captain Leslie Skinner who had privately engineered rockets for decades prior. At this point in history, American Army authorities held little interest in sinking money and resources into an effective battlefield anti-tank rocket; that was until the results of the German advances of 1939-1940 alerted leaders to their need. Studies were initially held with British-originated naval anti-aircraft rockets and launchers, which the American program evolved into a portable launcher in the 20lb range that fired an effective, rocket-propelled penetrator while also providing little to no recoil.
Swiss Army gunner Henry Mohaupt developed the 2.36" M10 "High-Explosive, Anti-Tank" (HEAT) "spigot" shaped-charge grenade that was shown to US Army authorities who, in 1940, had little interest. After testing by the Ordnance Department proved it held sound penetration capabilities, just the munition was adopted as the M6. Skinner continued development of a shoulder-mounted launcher unit, still convinced of its battlefield merits, while the M6 grenade evolved along its own lines. Skinner was then joined in his exploits by 2nd Lieutenant Edward Uhl and the two finalized an improved launcher and rocket which was successfully test-fired. When pressed into a formal evaluation of their design at Aberdeen Proving Ground, the weapon exhibited excellent results against five competing "spigot" mortar designs, all of which managed to miss their target - a moving tank.
The United States officially entered World War 2 shortly after the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. The American declaration followed and war industry mobilized for overseas combat. All manner of weapons systems were then adopted including the Skinner design as the 2.36" T1 in prototype form. The production contract was handed to General Electric (Bridgeport) on May 20th, 1942 and the weapon was formally designated as the 2.36" Rocket Launcher M1. The finalized product included improved sights, a revised action and a shortened launcher body. The grenade (designated "M6 HEAT") joined production under the E.G. Budd Company brand label.
Design of the Bazooka was fairly straight forward, incorporating a simple launch tube body, integrated sights for aiming, a protected internal power supply, a rudimentary shoulder support structure and pistol- grip assembly which held the trigger unit. The tube was open at the breech and the muzzle for the loading and exiting of the rocket projectile which was electrically-actuated by way of a battery pack found in the base of the shoulder support. The grip and shoulder support were made of wood and electrical components were held in a small box fitted atop the launch unit body. A red light was situated at the power box positive contact and illuminated when the trigger was squeezed. A guard was affixed to the muzzle to deflect any still-burning propellant from the firer's face and hands.
Initial M1 production models incorporated a forward grip ahead of the standard pistol grip though these were eventually discarded when it was found they provided little support value. Sights were also originally intended to make the M1 ambidextrous in its usage, but ultimately it was relegated to favor right-handed shooters in the end. Interestingly, first forms did not incorporate shoulder strap sling loops for transport forcing infantry to devise home-made straps for a time. A seldom-used bipod was also part of the original M1 design though its added weight and nonadjustable nature led to it be discarded in the field.
Construction of the M1 was simple, allowing for low-cost serial production in the numbers required. The system was also very portable despite its length and easy to operate between the two required crew - one to load the weapon and the other to fire. Original sights allowed for ranging between 100 and 400 yards and a safety mechanism allowed for a safe and active fire mode. The weapon would automatically set itself to safe upon a rocket projectile having been fired.
The 2.36" Launcher Family - M1, M9 and M18
The 2.36 launcher appeared in four major forms during the Bazooka's active service life: the M1, M1A1, M9/M9A1 and M18. Performance of the M1 and M1A1 was nearly indestinquishable. The M9/M9A1 was heavier than the M1/M1A1 model by nearly 3lbs (13.1lbs versus 15.87lbs) and featured a longer running length of 61 inches (versus 54.5 inches), which improved effective engagement ranges from 250 yards to 300 yards. It also allowed for a rate-of-fire increase of 10 rounds per minute (compared to the 5rpm limit of the M1/M1A1 models). The later M18was the lightest form of them all at 10.3 lbs. Its length was slightly reduced from that of the M9 family to 60.5 inches while engagement ranges were the same as well as its listed rate-of-fire.
Of note is the much improved portability of the M9/M9A1 and the M18 as both were able to be broken down into two major sections. This proved very effective for airborne units who often dealt in space-strapped conditions aboard transport aircraft. Being able to land with an anti-tank capability broadened the tactical value of the paratrooper considerably.
The 3.5" Launcher Family - M20 and M25
The original M20 launcher weighed 15lbs and featured a running length of 60.25 inches. Broken down, the launcher was a handier 33 inch length. Effective range was listed out to 300 yards with a rate-of-fire nearing 4 rounds per minute. The M20B1 followed these same qualities save for its 14lb operating weight. The M20A1 sported a weight of 13lbs, a 60 inch length and a 6 round-per-minute rate-of-fire. The M20B1 and M20A1B1 utilized different construction techniques. The seldom-overlooked M25 model was a repeat-firing Bazooka fitted atop a tripod. The weapon was fed by a three-round magazine cassette on top of the breech while other qualities of the launcher were shared with the M20 family. This system weighed 100lbs (60lbs for the launcher, 40lbs for the tripod), sported a 68.5 inch length and 350 yard reach. Unlike other M20 models, the M25 broke down into a 39.5 inch length and featured a rate-of-fire of up to 10 rounds per minute.
The Bazooka Firing Process
The full action of the Bazooka required the two operators to work in unison. The firer set the launcher upon his shoulder and usually took on a kneeling position with the weapons safety activated at this point. The loader inserted a rocket projectile into the breech end and removed the projectile's arming pin. The projectile was then inserted fully into the breech until locked in place by an awaiting latch. A coiled wire was then unfurled from the rocket's fin assembly and wrapped around a contact spring found on the launcher. At this point, the loader communicated a ready signal to the firer and the firer was ready to make his decision. He (and those around him) did have to take special care when firing to make sure that the back-blast of the open breech end did not endanger any nearby allies.
The open-ended design of the Bazooka ensured that there was little to no recoil force on the weapon or firer, as these forces were jettisoned from the rear of the launch unit and countered by the exiting projectile at the front.
While useful, the M1 held certain deficiencies in its design, which was more or less accelerated to fulfill the battlefield need. As such, teething issues arose and forces a revision of the base system which gave rise to the M1A1 of 1943. The ambidextrous sights were removed and its engagement range reduced to the span of 100 to 300 yards. A new guard was installed to protect the operator's face from generate heat along the launch tube body. A new flash deflector was added to the muzzle and sling loops installed for supporting a shoulder strap. Improvements were also made to the original M6 rocket and this produced the M6A1 designation (M7A1 for training rounds). Production of M1A1 systems totaled nearly 60,000 units. It is notable that the newer M6A1 rocket was not supported by original M1 launchers. The M6A3 became a later, round-nose rocket version of the pointed M6/M6A1 form.
The M9 "Airborne Bazooka"
Even before the improved M1A1 was gaining traction, the airborne branch of the US Army requested a Bazooka version with improved portability. Airborne troopers were traditionally lightly-armed units and tank-killing powers were much appreciated with the arrival of the M1. However, the launch tube was fixed to its 54.5 inch length which made it a cumbersome weapon for a paratrooper to haul into the tight confines of a transport aircraft, let alone drop and land with the unit strapped to his body. A formal request for a modified Bazooka was issued in November of 1942 and this produced the new M9 designation.
Several prototype forms made up the M9 development process and resulted in a two-piece, breakdown unit which reduced travel lengths to 31.5 inches. The gain in portability allowed engineers to slightly lengthen the launch tube itself, thusly promoting an increase in engagement ranges by as much as 50 yards. Additionally, the longer launch tube improved accuracy and all this at the expense of a few extra pounds of travel weight. As the original battery ignition system of original Bazookas proved prove to failure in cold weather environments, a new magneto system was devised. The muzzle was also revised to use a conical blast deflector and the safety system appeared near the grip handle. The solid wooden shoulder support of the M1 was dropped in favor of a wire, two-position rest which reduced weight and cost while simplifying production. The M9 was adopted in June of 1943 though deliveries did not begin until August of the following year. Production was slow and netted just 26,087 units before the improved M9A1 was issued to the tune of 277,800 units.
The M18 "Improved Bazooka"
Improvements to the Bazooka line could still be made, particularly in the area of weight saving and this was seen through the T90 prototype which was adopted as the aluminum-body M18 Bazooka. Weight was reduced by nearly 6 pounds and body connections were either screwed or riveted for improved robustness. The wire shoulder support was simplified to a single-position assembly. The M18 arrived late in the war, introduced in April of 1945, as the war in Europe concluded in May after Hitler's suicide in his Berlin bunker.
The war in the Pacific would last until August to which a formal Japanese surrender took place in early September, marking the end of World War 2 as a whole. This limited overall production of M18 units to just 500 units and, of these, only 350 made it to the frontlines before the end of the war.
The 3.5-inch "Super Bazooka"
As early as 1943, a "Super Bazooka" with improved capabilities was under consideration, firing a larger 3.5 inch projectile able to pierce up to 11 inches of armor. The revised weapon was adopted as the M20 but not until October of 1945, well after hostilities of World War 2 has ended. Production was slow now that there proved a lessened need and first units were not seen until 1948. It was only the arrival of the Korean War, which pressed American forces back into action, that Super Bazooka production spiked. The weapon was needed largely to counter the threat posed by North Korean T-34/85 Medium Tanks, the same war-winning design fielded by Soviet forces in World War 2 - though with 85mm main guns rather than their original 76mm designs. American forces still utilized the smaller-caliber M9 and M18 models but the M20s proved their effectiveness in both anti-tank and bunker-busting sorties. Improvements to the original M20 then followed and this produced the M20A1 and M20A1B1 marks before the end of the war in 1953.
The M20 incorporated features found in both the preceding M9 and M18 lines. One of the key additions was an adjustable bipod assembly and an aft- grip handle. The breech was wrapped by a solid conical deflector and sling loops were standard at a central and aft point. The weapon was also given a collapsible sighting device and single-action safety. While the wire shoulder rest was retained from earlier forms, it was simplified to a single-position structure.
The Bazooka's Practical Battlefield Effect on Tanks
Tanks were/are traditionally constructed with most of their armor protection at the front facings for both turret and hull and this requires anti-tank teams to gain a more advantageous position, usually against their moving target giving rise to teams "hunting" a tank down - to engage along its more vulnerable sides or rear. The Bazooka was capable of engaging all available German tank types with success through skill and, sometimes, sheer luck. It was recorded that a single, well-placed shot was all that was needed while other scenarios required multiple shots in order to accurately pierce vital engine components or the crew compartment. Bazookas were used against the lighter Panzer III and Panzer IV tanks as well as the heavier Panzer V ("Panther") and Panzer VI ("Tiger") tanks. A shooter would need to understand the limitations of his weapon as well as the weaknesses of the target in question.
Bazooka shots against the overlapping wheel system used in German tanks more often did nothing to immobilize the vehicle as the projectile could only pass through the out wheel assembly. Similarly, engaging tracks was risky and not a guaranteed approach to stopping the enemy force. It was realized that the bazooka held the advantage against the sides and rear of both hull and turret, where penetration was particularly afforded at the turret. A well-placed shot to the engine compartment may have sparked an engine fire which would have forced the tanker crew out of their vehicle, only to be killed by awaiting enemy riflemen.
The Bazooka at War
The Bazooka was not an American-only weapon during World War 2 and Lend-Lease allowed the system to be delivered to Allies around the globe. The largest foreign operator of the type became Free French forces which received some 11,350 units during the war. The Soviet Union received approximately 3,000 examples but held them in lower regard against their proven anti-tank rifles. Brazil received about 2,900 examples while Britain took on a stock of over 2,100 units. China was given 2,000 examples while all parties eclipsed the meager 170 or so examples delivered to Canadian forces.
World War 2 production of Bazookas totaled 476,628 examples along with 15,603,000 rockets.
The Bazooka, in its varied forms, was used across all major theaters concerning World War 2 - their first use in North Africa and then later across the Mediterranean, mainland Europe and the Pacific. They proved effective against all enemy tanks in service, assuming more vulnerable areas were targeted, while also being able to tackle fortified positions as "bunker busters". HEAT, and training rockets were eventually met with smoke rounds that could conceal movements of allies or blind attackers. White phosphorous warheads (M10 projectile) proved particularly effective, producing smoke, causing sensory irritations and even burning skin. Listed engagement ranges were around 300 yards but realistic ranges were kept under 100 yards to ensure accuracy.
Bazooka Versus Panzerschreck
The Germans first noted the "Bazooka" in the fighting across North Africa following the Allied invasion but they did not receive any captured examples for evaluation until some fell to capture from Soviet forces along the East Front (the Soviets received the Bazooka via Lend-Lease). The Germans appreciated the concept enough to adopt a more potent version as the "Raketenpanzerbuchse 43" in 1943 (popularly known by the name of "Panzerschreck"). Despite its Bazooka influence, the resulting German design was a very different weapon of larger 88mm caliber, a magneto-based action and large, square blast shield. However, these changes came at a price for it made the Panzerschreck a weapon twice as heavy as the American Bazooka and less accurate with a shorter engagement range. The 88mm projectile gave the same penetration values of the smaller American 2.36" design. The original RPzB 43 was followed by the improved Raketenpanzerbusche 54 in August of 1944. Panzerschrecks were also nicknamed "stovepipe" in German Army service.
Captured Bazookas were identified in German nomenclature as the "6cm Raketenpanzerbusche 788(a) - "6cm" to indicate their caliber and the lowercase "a" to indicate their American origin.
The Bazooka's Post-War Service
While a frontline anti-tank weapon in World War 2 and the Korean War, the Bazooka saw only limited service in the upcoming Vietnam War (1955-1975). Recoilless rifles and more modern rocket launchers eventually superseded the Bazooka line beginning in the 1960s. The most popular (by quantity) of the Cold War -era designs were the American 66mm M72 LAW (Light Anti-tank Weapon), the Swedish 84mm Carol Gustav (recoilless rifle) and the wide range of Soviet RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenade). The USMC in Vietnam saw their trusty Bazookas being phased out before June 1966. "Leathernecks" did not receive their new LAWs well for the weapon's ability to take in water during patrols.
Bazooka operators included Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Greece, Indonesia, India, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, Philippines, Portugal, South Africa, South Korea, Soviet Union, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and the United Kingdom among others (see Operators listing below for full list).