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).