Monday, October 14, 2019

Panzerfaust, A Valuable Anti-Tank Weapon

The Best Anti-Tank Weapon of World War II

A soldier carrying a Panzerfaust from the Hermann Göring Panzer Division, Russia, 1944 (Cassowary Colorizations, CC BY 2.0).
The Panzerfaust ("tank fist") was a late-war German hand-held anti-tank weapon. If there's one thing that you can say positive about the Wehrmacht, it was that it always supplied its ground troops with first-class weapons. From pistols to machine guns to grenades to semi-automatics, the German Army had the best in the business. The Panzerfaust was an outstanding addition to the German small arms which had an impact on the final year of the war. The Panzerfaust's main failing was that it did not come sooner, coming into widespread use only after the German armies were so run down that nothing could save them.

A German soldier in South Ukraine aiming a Panzerfaust at a Soviet position, December 1943/January 1944 (Gronefeld, Gerhard, Federal Archive Figure 101I-709-0337A-10A).

What Was the Panzerfaust?

The Panzerfaust was a cheap launching tube from which an individual soldier could fire a high-explosive charge over a moderate distance. It was the forerunner of rocket-propelled grenade launchers such as the Soviet RPG family of grenade launchers (most famously the RPG-2). The Panzerfaust was not the equivalent of the United States Army Bazooka which was developed around the same time. However, it is easy to get the two confused (even the official German Archive does), so let's take a brief look at the Panzerschreck to make the difference plain.

A German soldier aiming a Panzerschreck near Vitebsk, Russia, March 1944. Note that there is no shaped charge at the end of this weapon (Miner, Johannes, Federal Archive Picture 101I-279-0943-22A).
The Germans had their own equivalent to the Bazooka called the Panzerschreck ("Tank scare") which was a completely different weapon. German infantry generally used the Panzerfaust and Panzerschreck interchangeably, but the Panzerfaust was much more common (6.7 million Panzerfaust units built as opposed to 289,000 Panzerschrecks). Tests showed that the Panzerfaust also created a bigger entry hole due to its larger warhead and the unique shape of the charge.  You were much more likely to be equipped with a Panzerfaust than a Panzerschreck, and the Germans spent much more time developing and refining the Panzerfaust than the Panzerschreck, which at heart was just a cheap copy of the Bazooka. The Panzerfaust in the opinion of many (but not everybody) was simply a better weapon than the Panzerschreck or the Bazooka.

A German soldier in South Ukraine training with a Panzerfaust (Gronefeld, Gerhard, Federal Archive Picture 101I-710-0371-19). 

How Was the Panzerfaust Developed?

Contrary to common belief, the Panzerfaust was not a late-war expedient conjured up with little thought. It also did not fire rockets. HASAG Hugo Schneider AG, Werk Schlieben, began work on the concept during the summer of 1942 when things were still going well for the Wehrmacht. Dr. Heinrich Langweiler led a team in Leipzig which came up with the Faustpatrone ("fist cartridge"), which was a recoilless gun. The Faustpatrone was basically just a test of the concept and was considered too small to be very useful in the field, but HASAG delivered 500 of them by August 1943. They were used mostly for training.

A German soldier at the Luftwaffe military officer training center holding a Faustpatrone in 1944. (Hoepner, Federal Archive Picture 101I-672-7634-03).
Virtually concurrently with its development of the Faustpatrone, HASAG began developing another model under the name Panzerfaust. The main difference was simply that the Panzerfaust was bigger. Whereas the Faustpatrone had a metal launch tube with a length of 80 cm (31½ in) and a diameter of 3.3 cm (1.3 in), the Panzerfaust 30 tube was 104.5 centimeters (3.4 ft) and 44 millimeters (1.7 in) in diameter. The Faustpatrone warhead was 400 g (14 oz) of a 50:50 mix of TNT and tri-hexogen, while the Panzerfaust 30 warhead was 2.9 kilograms (6.4 lb) and contained 0.8 kilograms (1.8 lb) of a 50:50 mixture of TNT and hexogen explosives. Obviously, given these differences, the Panzerfaust offered the soldier more firepower. This was critically important because both weapons were only effective at about 30 meters. If you were going to get that close to a tank, you had better make have success with your first shot or you were unlikely to get a chance for a second.

A Panzerfaust being tested. Note the huge arc of the trajectory - these weapons required some practice to use properly.
Development of the Panzerfaust continued until the closing days of the European Theater of Operations. Based on feedback from soldiers, engineers lengthened the weapon and added a crude site to aid with aiming, increased the weapon's range. They also added a shield on later models, but those were more common on Panzerschrecks. All of these enhancements added to the Panzerfaust's effectiveness.

Finnish soldiers aim their Panzerfausts at Soviet armor during the Battle of Tali-lhantala, June 30, 1944. 

When Was the Panzerfaust Used?

The Panzerfaust was only produced during World War II. There was some limited use of these weapons after the war. The first production units of the Panzerfaust began arriving in August 1943, virtually at the same time as the Faustpatrone. Initial reports from the field were good. It was light and disposable, with the tube made of cheap steel, so the troops were willing to carry it into battle and fire it. However, there were a couple of complaints. The most important one was that it was difficult to aim (a particular fault of the Faustpatrone). Dr. Langweiler's team solved that by lengthening the tube and adding a sight. The second problem was a little more difficult to solve. Getting to within 30 meters of enemy tanks was not that difficult, but getting away alive was. From this point on, development focused on extending the weapon's range. This was done successfully and efficiently, but the development ate up time that the Wehrmacht no longer had.


There were a few instances of Panzerfausts being used after World War II. The Polish People's Army used captured Panzerfausts beginning in 1949, designating them PG-49. The Poles liked the weapon so much that they made their own knockoff of the Panzerfaust 100 in 1951-52 designated as Pc-100. The Soviets based their famous postwar RPG-2 in part on the Panzerfaust. There were reports of Panzerfausts being used in Afghanistan as late as 2006-2010, and there may still be some in the hands of irregular forces ready to be used.

An experienced German First Lieutenant (note his Tank Destruction Badge) demonstrating the Panzerfaust to an audience in Italy, April/May 1944 (Federal Archive Figure 101I-313-1005-04A).

Who Used the Panzerfaust?

The Panzerfaust was developed by German engineers for use by the German Wehrmacht. However, they were not the only ones that used it. The Reich gave the Panzerfaust to its allies which were also helping to defend the frontier. These included the Italian Social Republic (RSI), Bulgaria, Romania, and the Government of National Unity (Hungary). During mid-1944, Adolf Hitler and General Keitel managed to convince Finland to remain in the war for a couple of months with the promise of aid that included a large batch of Panzerfausts. Thus, the Panzerfaust helped to achieve strategic war aims of the Third Reich, even if the effects were only temporary (Finland defected in September 1944, taking its remaining Panzerfausts with it).

A Finnish soldier with a Panzerfaust. This photo was taken on June 30, 1944 (SA-Kuva).
The Czech resistance used captured Panzerfausts during the Prague uprising of May 1945, which lasted until 9 May 1945.

The Germans gave the Empire of Japan plans and specifications for the Panzerfaust. The Japanese, however, went against the trend and preferred the design of the American Bazooka. The Japanese Type 4 was based on captured Bazookas found at Leyte.


Was the Panzerfaust an Effective Weapon?

The Panzerfaust was very effective, but like all weapons, it was more effective in some situations more than others. Given its limited range, the Panzerfaust was least effective in open settings such as beaches and fields. It was very dangerous to sneak up on an enemy tank in places where there was little cover.


There are two well-documented examples of the Panzerfaust's lesser effectiveness outside of urban areas. First, the Finns, who received a large batch of Panzerfausts and Panzerschrecks in mid-1944, did not particularly like the weapon. This was likely due to the more rural nature of military actions in Finland as opposed to urban combat. Part of the problem may have been lack of training, as Finnish soldiers rightly felt that they had done pretty well with the weapons they already had and did not need to adapt to using a new weapon. The Finns preferred the Panzerschreck and adapted that into their own postwar 55 S 55 weapon.

Finnish soldiers are being taught how to use Panzerfaust and Panzerschreck. This photo was taken in by Military Official J.M Wuorela in Syskyjärvi in July of 1944. (SA-Kuva photo archive, photo number 156315).
Second, the Panzerfaust did not make much impact in the Battle of Normandy, particularly during the lodgement phase on the beaches. However, the Allied troops certainly noticed the danger of Panzerfausts and became very careful about following an all-arms strategy where tanks did not advance without strong infantry support to keep German soldiers away from the tanks.

Panzerfausts  in Budapest, October 1944,
German soldiers in Budapest armed with sub-machine guns and Panzerfausts as the Red Army approaches in October 1944 (Faupel, Federal Archive Picture 101I-680-8282A-19A).
In urban settings, though, the Panzerfaust was extremely effective. A soldier could fire his Panzerfaust from a second-story window, for instance, and disable a passing tank and then retreat quickly without fear of being captured or shot. This dovetailed nicely with the German situation in late 1944 and 1945 when the Wehrmacht strategy centered around urban strongpoints ("fortresses") and the battlefield changed from eastern forests and fields to built-up areas. German forces held out far longer than they otherwise would have in some cities such as Budapest because they had access to Panzerfausts. In fact, Panzerfausts were considered so critical in Budapest that they continued to be made during the siege itself at the Hungarian Manfred Weiss Steel and Metal Works, located on Csepel Island (much as the defenders of Leningrad continued to make their own tanks during that siege).

A camouflaged German paratrooper carrying his Panzerfaust, France, Jun-Jul 1944 (Thönessen (nn), Federal Archive Bild 101I-586-2221-14).
The Panzerfaust 30 was just the beginning of a family of weapons. Later models of the Panzerfaust increased its effectiveness. Development continued until the end of the war primarily to increase the Panzerfaust's range. The numbers following the name indicate the range of each weapon in meters:
  • Panzerfaust 30 (Klein) introduced August 1943
  • Panzerfaust 30 introduced August 1943
  • Panzerfaust 60 introduced Summer 1944
  • Panzerfaust 100 introduced November 1944
  • Panzerfaust 150 introduced in small numbers in March 1945
The last Panzerfaust to make a difference in combat was the Panzerfaust 100, which was finalized in September 1944 and began to reach units that November. The Panzerfaust 60 was the most produced version, reaching production levels of 400,000 by September 1944. Actual useful ranges in combat conditions were likely somewhat shorter than the published ranges. A Panzerfaust 250, which, besides having an extended range would have been reloadable, was in development when the war ended and was not completed.

While this is from a postwar motion picture, it shows how Panzerfausts were used. Note that the soldier is standing in full of the tank crew, which is unrealistic. 
In addition, the Panzerfaust was effective because it was readily available. Unlike most other German weapons, there was no scarcity of Panzerfausts. The Reich economy was floundering by mid-1944, but that did not impact Panzerfaust production. The weapon was cheap to make and did not rely on rare materials. Both the firing tube and the warhead could be built by whatever cheap metal was available.

Panzerfausts used by the Grossdeutschland Division, East Prussia, October 1944,
Members of the Grossdeutschland Division, East Prussia, October 1944, carrying their Panzerfausts. In the background is an armored personnel carrier. They are in Memel and advancing to counterattack Soviet troops (Otto, Albrecht Heinrich, Federal Archive Picture 146-1995-081-31A).
German tactical doctrine developed to increase the effectiveness of the Panzerschreck and Panzerfaust. As with every weapon, the Panzerfaust's effectiveness increased when used in certain proven ways. The Wehrmacht directed that separate Panzerfaust teams be sited in staggered trenches within 115 meters of each other. This assured that advancing enemy tanks would coming into their range sometimes from multiple angles but in all cases at a distance no greater than 69 meters. These tactics required some training which often was not given to raw recruits, leading some soldiers to be disappointed by the Panzerfaust.

German soldiers at a training demonstration of the Panzerfaust in France, Spring 1944 (Rogue, Federal Archive Picture 101I-264-1623-30). 
There was a problem with the use of the Panzerfaust, but it was unrelated to the weapon itself. The Panzerfaust was a deceptively simple weapon to use - just point and press a lever and you were done. It became a "panacea" weapon late in the war and its capabilities were oversold. When the Reich began raising Volkssturm units late in the war, the new recruits received little training and often went into battle in their street clothes topped off perhaps their old War War I caps.

Volkssturms using Panzerfausts,
This photo was taken on 10 March 1945, the day that Berlin was declared a "Defense Area." Note the barricades in the background in front of a railway bridge. In the foreground are three Volkssturm soldiers holding their only weapons - Panzerfausts - and wearing their "uniforms." (Scherl Agency, Federal Archive Figure 183-J31320).
It became almost a joke that these new overage Volkssturm soldiers were issued nothing but a Panzerfaust with a single warhead and told to go destroy an enemy tank. German officials sarcastically commented that once fired, the tube could be used as a club. These patriotic men marching off to war with their Panzerfausts made for good propaganda photos, but firing a Panzerfaust required some training. Their trajectory was like a softball pitch with a huge arc. In addition, getting into a position to use a Panzerfaust effectively required a large dollop of skill, dedication, and bravery. Without these crucial ingredients, the Panzerfaust was virtually worthless. An unenthusiastic recruit could fire his single warhead from too far away or at a worthless target and then his hands were clean - he could walk away without blame or shame. Thus, the Panzerfaust was effective only when given to properly trained and motivated soldiers, which were in increasingly short supply as the calendar moved forward.

A German NCO in France or Belgium holding a Panzerfaust. Note that his uniform sleeve sports a Silver Tank Destruction Badge, indicating that he has personally knocked out an enemy tank (colorized, Ash Bridge, Federal Archive Figure 101I-300-1897-10A).

What did Soldiers Think of the Panzerfaust?

In general, soldiers liked the Panzerfaust and used them gladly. That the soldiers liked the Panzerfaust is more important than you might think - a lot of new weapons fail when the common soldier won't use them. Panzerfausts were easy to aim and fire and could be thrown away once used. One of the most prestigious German military decorations was the Tank Destruction Badge (German: Sonderabzeichen für das Niederkämpfen von Panzerkampfwagen durch Einzelkämpfer). You earned this badge by single-handedly destroying an enemy tank or an armored combat vehicle using a hand-held weapon. Established on 9 March 1942, this badge was prominently displayed on a soldier's uniform sleeve. There were two classes of this badge, a silver class for destroying a single tank and a gold badge (established 18 December 1943) for destroying five tanks. One Wehrmacht soldier,  Günther Viezenz, gained renown by destroying 21 enemy tanks, so he wore four gold badges and one silver badge. The Panzerfaust made these highly coveted badges easier to earn.

Panzerfaust used by US GIs,
A US GI of the 2nd Armored Division prepared to use his captured Panzerfaust (colorized). 
The best compliment paid to the Panzerfaust, however, was by Allied soldiers. They captured some Panzerfausts during the Sicilian campaign where they were first used and liked them. Other GIs also used the captured Panzerfausts that they came across. General John Gavin of the 82nd Airborne mentioned this in his classic 'On to Berlin" (1978):
I visited [Commander of the 504th PIR Rubin] Tucker to see how he was getting along in his defensive role [at Nijmegen, Holland, during Operation Market Garden]. He and his regiment were in fine form. They had captured a truck load of panzerfausts with training instructions in German which they had translated. They were the best antitank weapons we had for the remainder of the war.
Seriously, that is the best compliment any weapon can receive.

Captured Panzerfaust,
Private William J. Hendrick, Co C 2nd Combat Engineers, 2nd Div, First U.S. Army, shows off a cache of Panzerfausts left by retreating Germans, 16 March 1945, Bad Neuenahr, Germany
As Gavin indicated, GIs often preferred them to the Bazooka and occasionally even went into battle with them (such as British paratroopers during Operation Market Garden in September 1944). The US Army's 82nd Airborne Division used captured Panzerfausts from their first capture in the Sicilian Campaign (Operation Husky) to the end of the war. The Soviet Union did not use them as much, but Marshall Georgiy Zhukov officially recommended their use in a directive published during February 1945.

Two Luftwaffe ground troops with their Panzerfausts in Normandy, September 1944 (Hoess, Federal Archive Picture 101I-680-8254-08A).


The Panzerfaust was an extremely effective weapon in a nation dealing with a struggling economy. It was a cheap weapon to make, proved effective when used properly, and was easy to use. The Panzerfaust proved most useful in the urban settings that characterized the final months of World War II. The Panzerfaust's main drawbacks were that it required training and had a limited range which exposed its user to great danger. Both of these limitations could be addressed, and to some extent were, but the war situation made them impossible for Germany to overcome completely. Overall, the Panzerfaust was a useful weapon, proving its value many times over and well worth the investment.

A female Volkssturm recruit learning to use a Panzerfaust, March 1945 (Federal Archive Picture 146-1973-001-30).


Monday, September 16, 2019

The Fliegerfaust, First Shoulder-Fired Anti-Aircraft Missile Launcher

Aerial Fist - and the First

Fliegerfaust shoulder-fired ground-to-air launcher,
A soldier carrying a Fliegerfaust.
As the Luftwaffe declined and the war turned against the Reich, the men fighting hard on the ground came under incessant Allied air attack. The "German glance," which was a fearful look back over one's shoulder for Allied ground-attack planes whenever venturing into open land, became habitual. As was invariably the case, German scientists had ideas about how to enable the ground-pounders to fight fack. Their solution was the Fliegerfaust, literally, "pilot's fist." This is one of the weapons that the German high command would have been anxiously anticipating coming into use as the Allies closed in from both the east and west.

Fliegerfaust shoulder-fired ground-to-air launcher,

The Fliegerfaust was developed by HASAG (Hugo Schneider AG) of Leipzig. This weapon was similar in appearance to an American Bazooka or German Panzerschreck, but unlike those weapons, it was intended to be fired at aircraft (though, presumably, in an emergency or moment of opportunity, it could be used against ground targets). This is one of the little-known late-war Wehrmacht weapons that doesn't get a lot of individual attention. However, collectively they have created a mystique about what "might have been" had the war lasted a little longer. Although the Fliegerfaust apparently was used in combat, it best can be placed alongside the Maus tank and the Messerschmitt P.1101 single-seat, single-jet fighter as a "1946" weapon. However, the Fliegerfaust was more than just a mere prototype or fantasy weapon, because it worked, apparently was used in combat, and could definitely (and probably did) kill the enemy.

Fliegerfaust shoulder-fired ground-to-air launcher,

The Fliegerfaust A was a prototype model, while Fliegerfaust B was the production model. A third model, simply called Fliegerfaust, was the projected next step in the weapon's evolution. Each Fliegerfaust was composed of long tubes from which could be fired 20 mm rounds. The weapons differed in their number of tubes and some minor firing differences.

Fliegerfaust shoulder-fired ground-to-air launcher,

Precise details on the Fliegerfaust are sketchy because none survived the war (or at least are not known to have survived, though there are claims that one did). The Fliegerfaust A had a total of four barrels, while the Fliegerfaust B had nine barrels. The Fliegerfaust A had poor accuracy, so the barrel was lengthened in the Fliegerfaust B to minimize shot dispersal. Each barrel contained one 20 mm shell. While all of the Fliegerfaust A rockets fired simultaneously, the Fliegerfaust B fired four rockets, then, after a two-second delay the final five (some sources say they fired in pairs roughly .1-.2 seconds apart). With the Fliegerfaust B, the soldier could quickly replace the clip of rockets for a second firing. The weapon was intended to be mobile, weighing 6.5 kg (loaded, the barrels alone were quite light) and measuring 1.5 meters (51.25 inches) long. The shells weighed about 90 grams apiece. The final version, which was only in prototype form, was composed of six barrels of 30 mm caliber.

Fliegerfaust shoulder-fired ground-to-air launcher,
It is unclear if this is a Fliegerfaust or a post-war Soviet knock-off. However, it shows how a soldier would have held the Fliegerfaust.
The chief drawback of the Fliegerfaust was technological. The Reich scientists did not have time to develop a guidance system, so the Fliegerfaust simply fired standard (modified) artillery shells. With a maximum range of roughly 500 meters (theoretically, up to 2 km, though accuracy deteriorated drastically the further the shell flew) and a preferable range of 200 yards or less, the Fliegerfaust required nerves of steel and very good aim against a fast-moving target. The shells had a 60-meter dispersal at 500 meters out, which did increase the odds of hitting a moving target with at least one shell. A simple heat-seeker missile would have been a devastating addition, but that was too advanced for the time. The shells were formidable, flying at 350 m/s and relatively straight due to spiral muzzle brake grooves which imparted a stabilizing rotation. Upon striking a solid surface, a small explosive charge released a barrage of shrapnel.

Fliegerfaust shoulder-fired ground-to-air launcher,
Berlin, April 1945. Note the prominent Fliegerfaust at the bottom of the photo. There are also two others if you look very closely.
It seems certain that the Fliegerfaust was used in combat. Unfortunately, authentic photos of the Fliegerfaust are scarce because it was a top-secret project. A photo that was taken in front of the Adlon Hotel in the heart of Berlin (across from the Brandenburg Gate) right after the battle shows three Fliegerfaust weapons lying within the pile of rubble. However, while 10,000 were ordered (a typical late-war massive order which was probably never expected to be filled), it is estimated that only about 80 of the weapons were completed. The Wehrmacht threw everything that it had available, including the Fliegerfaust, helicopters, and the Maus tank, into the final fighting around Berlin. Nobody survived to recount their experience using the weapon.

Fliegerfaust shoulder-fired ground-to-air launcher,

The Fliegerfaust did not turn into a war-winning weapon for the Third Reich. However, it is the first shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile and the ancestor of very effective short-range man-portable systems like the Soviet/Russian 9K34 Strela-3 and the NATO FIM-92 Stinger. Collectively, these weapons now are known as  Man-Portable Air-Defense System (MANPADS) and they are used around the world today. If you are a gamer, you are likely to see the Fliegerfaust in World War II-themed games such as Call of Duty, so hopefully, the information on this page will be useful to you. Unfortunately, very little is known about the Fliegerfaust, but it definitely existed and apparently was used in combat.

Fliegerfaust shoulder-fired ground-to-air launcher,
Individual shell for the Fliegerfaust.


Monday, August 5, 2019

Muzzle Brakes in World War II

Muzzle Brakes Were Used Extensively in World War II

Junkers Ju 88P-5 with muzzle brake
A Junkers Ju 88P-5 medium bomber fitted with an 88 mm gun. This was only a prototype and apparently never used in combat. The gun has an elaborate muzzle brake.
Muzzle brakes are those odd little perforated areas that you sometimes see at the end of a gun barrel. Guns without muzzle brakes are cylindrical and end that way, but some guns have these odd little muzzle brake contrivances at the end that you can see through. Obviously, they are not part of the regular barrel but added on to some barrels for some reason. So, let's explore muzzle brakes and find out how they were used during World War II.

Incidentally, at the end of this article are two special cases in which the Germans used muzzle brakes in "wonder weapons" that you may not have heard of.

What Are Muzzle Brakes?

muzzle brake
German antitank guns of the normal type. At the left is the 3.7-cm Pak; at the right, the 5-cm Pak 38; in the rear, the 7.5-cm Pak 40. Note the muzzle brakes on the rear two guns.
Muzzle brakes alter the direction of gases as they exit the barrel of a gun that has just been fired. This produces certain effects on the gun and how the gases and flash disperse that the user of the gun may find desirable (or, for that matter, undesirable). You have probably heard of a pistol "silencer" used by assassins in fiction. A muzzle brake may be thought of as a variation on a gun silencer, though they have different effects and purposes. Theoretically, you may put a muzzle brake on any barrel, but some barrels will never have a muzzle brake for reasons we will get to below.

Prototype German 10-5 cm assault weapon with muzzle brake
A prototype German self-propelled Artillery Tank showing its muzzle brake. This was the 10.5 cm K gepanzerte Selbstfahrlafette ("10.5cm gun on armored self-propelled mount") "Dicker Max." While sporting a powerful gun, the Dicker Max was slow and its gun had limited traverse, so the Wehrmacht did not like it. One prototype caught fire and burned up, but the other fought in the Soviet Union throughout 1941 and was lost in combat sometime in 1942.
This is not a topic of simply historical interest. Muzzle brakes are used in the 21st Century. In fact, the most advanced guns in the United States Army arsenal, a 155 mm cannon capable of striking targets to 70 kilometers, is projected to use muzzle brakes. However, a muzzle brake is not necessary for any particular gun. Whether or not a muzzle brake is desirable depends upon the purpose of the gun. You could have two identical guns, one with and one without a muzzle brake, and they each would serve their specialized functions better than the other. You add a muzzle brake, they are not required, and sometimes a muzzle brake would completely destroy the purpose of the gun. So, adding a muzzle brake requires a thoughtful decision. You will find experts with a decided preference for one or the other. Some people just think that they "look cool." However, leaning one way or the other regarding whether to use muzzle brakes is sort of like saying that you prefer forks to knives: each setup has its purpose and there is no "one size fits all."

The History of Muzzle Brakes

German Wespe with muzzle brake
A Sd.Kfz. 124 Wespe (German for "wasp"), also known as Leichte Feldhaubitze 18/2 auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen II (Sf.) ("Light field howitzer 18 on Panzer II chassis (self-propelled)"). A total of 676 Wespes were built with guns and an additional 159 without guns for various transport tasks.
It is unclear when muzzle brakes were invented. There are patents for muzzle brakes, but they are for specific types of muzzle brakes, not for the overarching concept of a muzzle brake. If this seems odd, just consider that there is no patent for the wheel, or for fire, or for the concept of building a craft that floats on the water. You'd be laughed out of the patent office if you tried to patent something like that. For all we know, the idea may extend back into the Middle Ages and the first use of weapons with barrels.

Panzer IV with muzzle brake
A Panzerkampfwagen IV Ausf.H of the Hitler Youth Division on maneuvers in Belgium in late 1943.
The first historical record of a muzzle brake occurred in 1842. French colonel Chevalier Treville de Beaulieu drilled holes into the muzzle region of a rifle. He drilled the holes so that they were sloped backward. This caused some of the gases when the gun was fired to be redirected backward, toward the rifleman. Around 1862, the French military tried this on a 160-mm naval gun. The designs proved to be successful, according to De Beaulieu, in doubling the accuracy of the gun and reducing the recoil distance by 75% of its normal distance. This was accomplished with a loss of only 6% (1/16th) of muzzle velocity. We'll get into how muzzle brakes work and why De Beaulieu got those results (which sound very plausible) below.

German Panther tank with muzzle brake
A knocked-out German Panther showing its muzzle brake during the summer of 1944 on the Eastern Front.
The British, being very interested in this sort of thing, got wind of the French experiments and not-so-coincidentally also conducted experiments on muzzle brakes in 1862 using a bronze 9-pounder gun. Their experiments, however, were not quite so promising, as the tests showed a disqualifying reduction in gun velocity and range. Gun crews also complained about the redirection of gases and noise in their general direction. Of course, this likely had to do with the exact design of the holes in the barrel, but this was a very early stage of the development of muzzle brakes and the British can't be faulted for not getting it right (probably on a spy's incomplete information) the first time. The difference in the French and British experiments shows how critical the precise design of the holes in a barrel is in creating an effect. Muzzle brakes did not exactly take the world by storm, but everyone knew there might be some use for them in the future.

Italian Beretta Model 38 with muzzle brake
An Italian Beretta Model 38 9mm with muzzle brake. The brake on this gun directed the muzzle blast upward to counteract the tendency of the gun to rise when fired. This is considered an exceptional submachine gun.
Naturally, the Germans took up the design challenge as well, but they went about it from a different direction. In 1888, engineer Haussner came up with a recoil system. He and other designers applied the French idea of muzzle brakes to his own "buffer-recuperator" recoil system to minimize the strain on gun carriages. So, it was only when other problems were solved that the true usefulness of muzzle brakes came into view. However, not much was done with them because the old guns worked just fine and there was no reason to rock the boat.

British Boys Antitank rifle with muzzle brake
British Boys Antitank Rifle in use at practice during 1940. Note the circular muzzle brakes. This weapon was designed by Captain Henry Boys and produced by the Royal Small Arms Factory. It was capable of knocking out a light tank and remained useful against some targets throughout the war. 
World War I gave everyone a reason to look for any advantage, so muzzle brakes received renewed scrutiny. French engineers Galliot and Bory invented a muzzle brake which they named the "Galliot brake" that was theoretically effective but in real-world terms a non-starter.

Muzzle brakes in use MG 42
Nice view of some muzzle brakes in action during World War II.
During the inter-war period, the United States developed the M1Thompson submachine gun to use a muzzle brake. This is the gun that you see in 1930s gangster movies being fired from cars as they drive by rival gangs. The Auto Ordnance Company developed a muzzle brake for the "Tommy gun" in 1921. Other armies continued developing muzzle brakes for various weapons, and by World War II, they were at a sufficient state of development to be applied to gun barrels ranging from pistols to tanks.

Why Would You Want To Use A Muzzle Brake?

From the earliest experiments in France, muzzle brakes have been shown to reduce recoil and improve accuracy. However, those experiments and similar British experiments showed that this was accomplished with some reduction (which could be very great) in muzzle velocity. While muzzle velocity is not always of prime importance, it is something that engineers try to maximize for range and power of the shot. So, whenever you use a muzzle brake, you are trading muzzle velocity for some other benefits. Whether that trade-off is worthwhile depends on what you are using the weapon for.

MG-34 with muzzle brake
A standard 3-man German machine-gun squad with their MG-34.
Muzzle brake basics are, well, basic: some type of opening on the muzzle end of the weapon allows some gases to go toward the side or rear rather than forward. The trick is how you design the muzzle brake to divert the gases in a particular way, and that is where people and companies get their patents. Without going into a lengthy discourse which, if you get very serious about this, involves a lot of mathematical formulae, the principal benefits of muzzle brakes are:
  • Reduce recoil by 50% or more
  • Improve accuracy (the barrel does not rise as much)
  • They are often (not always) detachable in case you don't need them
  • They look cool and dangerous, like some special thing that makes the gun even deadlier than usual
  • Muzzle brakes make your firing position less obvious to the enemy by redirecting the flash and smoke in a lateral direction where it is less noticeable
Reducing recoil is especially important for a number of reasons, including saving wear and tear on the gun itself. However, in other situations, concealment may be the most important advantage.

StuG III with muzzle brake
A knocked-out German StuG III antitank gun near a destroyed Sherman tank in France late in the war. The StuG is presenting its muzzle brake nicely (Clifford O. Bell, collection of Charles D. Palmer). 
The major disadvantages of muzzle brakes are:
  • They reduce muzzle velocity, so your shot has less range and power (usually by a fairly small degree)
  • They can be expensive to design and manufacture
  • They magnify the gun's noise to the gunner
  • The redirected blast can be dangerous to the gunner or bystanders
  • They usually add weight
  • They may add length to the barrel, making the weapon more difficult to, say, move through city streets
  • The redirected gases can damage the gun itself or the scope
  • Muzzle brakes wear out fairly quickly due to tiny impacts
You may think up other advantages and disadvantages, but those are the ones most often considered when deciding whether to add a muzzle brake to a gun barrel.

MG-42 with muzzle brake
The classic MG-42 used a muzzle brake when in service as a heavy machine gun.
Just to illustrate some extremes, let's look at situations where a muzzle brake might be particularly advantageous or undesirable. You will never see a muzzle brake on a battleship's main gun. The side blast would be extremely hazardous to both the ship and its crew. On the other hand, a muzzle brake might be ideal for an artillery piece firing from a mountainside in view of the enemy, where you would not want them to spot your position as you rain fire down upon them. You would willingly trade a little range for accuracy and concealment. Or, a muzzle brake may be absolutely necessary when a gun is in a turret (such as a British Army Firefly) where there simply isn't enough room for a recoil.

So, muzzle brakes definitely have their uses. They are not, however, something that you necessarily need or want in all situations. Having a muzzle brake is a choice that you don't always want to make.

How Did World War II Combatants Use Muzzle Brakes?

Japanese Type 100 submachine gun with muzzle brake
The 1944 model of the Japanese Type 100 submachine gun. This had two ports drilled into the barrel to serve as a muzzle brake.
The Japanese did not use muzzle brakes as much as other combatants. One example was the Type 100 submachine gun, the only submachine gun that Japan produced in quantity during World War II (based on the SIG Bergman 1920, itself a licensed Swiss version of the German MP 18). However, the muzzle brake on the Japanese Type 100 gun was only used on certain models. The early Japanese design was very complicated, suggesting they had not worked on muzzle brakes very much. However, by 1944, the Japanese simplified the design down to simply drilling two ports into the barrel - hard to get simpler than that.

Panzer VI Tiger I with muzzle brake in Tunisia
Panzer VI Tiger I in Tunisia, June 1943. Note the muzzle brake (Pirath, Helmuth, Federal Archive Picture 101I-554-0872-35).
The Germans put muzzle brakes on many of their armored vehicles. These included the Tiger series, the Jagdpanther, the Panzer IV, and the StuG III. These armored vehicles constituted the heart of the Panzerwaffe (German tank force) late in the war. Some weapons that did not have muzzle brakes included the Panzer III, which was the Wehrmacht's main battle tank for the first two years of the war. Muzzle brakes in some models such as the Panzer III were disfavored due to the dust storm they raised, which obscured the crew's vision. Some artillery pieces such as the 5-cm Pak 38 and the 7.5-cm Pak 40 used muzzle brakes, too. Crews often removed muzzle brakes if they didn't like them because they kicked up too much dust or simply found them unnecessary. The classic MG 34 and MG 42, the latter considered perhaps the best weapon of its type during World War II, used a muzzle brake when used as a heavy machine gun.

ISU-152 with muzzle brake
A Finnish soldier who undoubtedly was the one to knock out this Soviet ISU-152 posing in front of his kill in Finland, 1944. The muzzle brake is clearly visible. The soldier may have used a Panzerfaust to knock it out (SA-Kuva).
The Soviet Union did not use muzzle brakes very much. This may have been because Soviet tactics favored head-on assaults where the sheer weight of firepower mattered most. So, the famous T-34, T-34/85, Su-85, and Su-100 did not use muzzle brakes. The most powerful Soviet tanks and artillery pieces usually did have muzzle brakes, however. This included the Joseph Stalin JS-2 with a 122mm main gun and the ISU-152.

M18 Hellcat with muzzle brake
An M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer sporting a 76mm cannon with the muzzle brake (US National Archive).
The U.S. Army developed muzzle brakes for the 76 mm gun M1. The U.S. Ordnance Department ordered this weapon in 1942, and it was ready for testing in January 1944. Production began in June 1944 and they began arriving in numbers on battlefields in January 1945 aboard the M18 Hellcat.

Sherman Firefly with muzzle brake
A Sherman Firefly mounting a muzzle brake on the end of its 17-pounder anti-tank gun.
As discussed above, the British were one of the earliest powers to begin working on muzzle brakes. The 3-inch (76.2 mm) caliber British 17-pounder anti-tank gun was one result. The British converted about 2100 Sherman tanks into Sherman Firefly anti-tank weapons by replacing the main gun with the 17-pounder gun. The huge gun barely fit into the Sherman turret, so reducing recoil was necessary. The redesign was a spectacular success, and the Firefly was one of the few Allied tracked vehicles that could knock out Tiger and Panther tanks from long range.

A Special Case: The Panzerkampfwagen E 100 (Gerät 383) (TG-01)

German E-100 super tank with muzzle brake
An American soldier cleaning the muzzle brake on a captured E-100.
The Panzerkampfwagen E 100 (Gerät 383) (TG-01) was a German super-heavy tank which Adolf Hitler ordered developed. It was based on blueprints submitted during March 1944 by the Adler company in Frankfurt. German manufacturers were well aware of Hitler's penchant for massive weapons, an obsession which his senior generals such as Heinz Guderian did not share and did their best to frustrate. The plans called for the tank to carry both a 149 mm gun and a 75 mm gun. The smaller model would be powered by a 700-hp Maybach HL230 engine, a later model with a 1200-hp Maybach engine. Although Hitler originally ordered the production of a prototype, he changed his mind in July 1944 as he realized he needed weapons soon due to the June 1944 Allied invasion at Normandy. The Adler company did proceed at a minimal pace until the end of the war, when the 751st Field Artillery Battalion of the US Army found the partially complete prototype. The main gun had a massive muzzle brake which had been completed.

A Special Case: The Luftwaffe's Gerät 104 (Device 104) "Münchhausen."

Junkers Ju 88P-5 with muzzle brake
The Junkers Ju 88P-5 "Duka" prototype with 88mm anti-tank cannon fitted with an elaborate muzzle brake.
As we've seen, muzzle brakes were in an advanced state of development by World War II. Their use was widely understood, and research on them continued throughout the war, particularly in Germany (Klaus Oswatitsch at the Gottingen Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Flow Research) and Britain (Corner, in 1942) but also by other major powers. It is fair to state that any major power that wanted to build and use muzzle brakes during World War II could figure out how to do so, though some combatants found very little use for them.

Dornier Do-217 with a Gerat 104 with muzzle brake
Prototype Dornier Do-217 fitted with a Gerat 104 Münchhausen cannon, complete with massive muzzle brake.
The Germans used muzzle brakes extensively, as can be seen on the pictures on this page, and not just on the ground. The Luftwaffe had big plans, and those involved big guns. Big guns are feasible on planes if you can vastly reduce or eliminate the recoil, and muzzle brakes made that possible. The most elaborate plan was a Dornier Do-217 medium bomber fitted with a massive Gerät 104 (Device 104) "Münchhausen."

Dornier Do-217 with a Gerat 104 with muzzle brake
Plans for the airborne Gerät 104 (Device 104) "Münchhausen."
This was a 355.6 mm (14-inch) caliber prototype recoilless rifle designed in 1939. That is the kind of gun that appears as the main gun on battleships. The Luftwaffe's objective was to use the Gerät 104 (Device 104) "Münchhausen" to engage ships of the Royal Navy - from the air. The plane would attack as a dive bomber (all Luftwaffe bombs were designed to have this capability). This idea was actually tried beginning on 9 September 1940 but did not work because the blast caused extensive fuselage damage. In-air tests continued through 1941 but then were abandoned. In case you're wondering if this is make-believe - it isn't. The Luftwaffe actually did and tried this.

MG 42