As soon as the tank appeared on the battlefield in 1916, armies began to develop weapons to counter it. Armour can be defeated in several ways, but the two most effective means of attacking armour are by kinetic energy attack and chemical energy attack.
- Kinetic energy attack uses hard, solid penetrators that attempt to punch their way through armour simply by means of concentrating their kinetic energy at a point
- Chemical energy attack is the use of stored energy, ie in an explosive, to defeat the armour
Both techniques rely on applying overwhelming force to a point in the armour such that it is overwhelmed and broken. The use of kinetic energy penetrators in small arms is very limited, primarily by the inability of the firer to withstand significant recoil energy generated by effective kinetic energy weapons, but it was this type of weapon that was first used against tanks.
The German army responded to the appearance of the tank by developing and deploying the T-gewehr M1918 in February 1918. The Mauser Company began mass production at Oberndorf am Neckar in May 1918. The first of these off the production lines were issued to specially raised anti-tank detachments.
The rifle was a single shot bolt action rifle with rounds manually loaded into the chamber. The weapon had no method of reducing the recoil such as a soft buttpad or muzzle brake and was reportedly very unpleasant to fire. The 13.2 x 92mm bullet had an armour piercing steel core that weighed 51.5 g with an initial velocity of 785 m/s (2,580 ft/s). At a range of 100 m an armour plate 22 mm thick could be pierced.
T-Gewehr 13mm anti tank rifle
In the 1930s Captain H C Boys developed the Boys Anti-Tank rifle at the Royal Small Arms factory, Enfield. This was a .55″ calibre, magazine fed, crew served rifle that fired a solid steel projectile capable of defeating an inch of armour at 100 yards and 3/4″ of armour at 250 yards. This made it quite an effective weapon against the lightly armoured vehicles of that era and, when properly deployed, posed a considerable threat in the early part of WW2. The Finns used it particularly effectively in the Winter War where it proved very capable against the T-26 tanks deployed by the invading Russian forces.
As tank armour increased in both thickness and strength, a tungsten cored round was introduced which extended the effectiveness of the Boys rifle for a little longer. Even after it became ineffective against tank armour later in WW2, the Boys rifle remained in service as a potent anti-materiel weapon, being used effectively in the deserts of North Africa against airfields and aircraft by the Long Range Desert Group (forerunners of the SAS) and by US marines against Japanese improvised fortifications in the Pacific theatre.
Rifle, .55″, Anti-tank, Boys.
By 1941, tank frontal armour had reached a thickness that made it impenetrable to any practical infantry served kinetic energy weapon and so attention switched to utilising the stored energy of explosives to defeat armour. Explosive warheads can be delivered at low velocity as they do not require kinetic energy to penetrate the target. Several different weapons were developed to deliver the explosive warjead: the Germans and Americans developed rocket propelled systems – the Panzerfaust and Bazooka respectively – whilst the British developed the spring launched PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank). All of these used variants of the Schardin or High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) shaped charge warhead and were capable of defeating armour many inches thick.
Our thanks once more to the Royal Armouries for providing examples of these weapons for us to study during the course of this talk.