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Anti-tank rocket launcher


The innovative M72 LAW was the first modern disposable anti-tank weapon

Country of origin United States
Entered service 1962
Caliber 66 mm
Weight (loaded) 2.5 kg
Weight (empty) ~ 0.7 kg
Rocket weight 1.8 kg
Length (collapsed) 670 mm
Length (extended) 1 m
Muzzle velocity (up to M72A3) 145 m/s
Muzzle velocity (post M72A3) 200 m/s
Sighting range 350 m
Range of effective fire (against stationary tank) 200 m
Range of effective fire (against moving tank) 165 m
Maximum range 1 000 m
Armor penetration over 300 mm RHA


   The Talley Defense Systems M72 LAW (Light Anti-armor Weapon; it is sometimes called the LAWS, or Light Anti-armor Weapon System) is a disposable, single-shot anti-tank rocket weapon. It is very small, light, and easy to use, and is intended to be issued as needed to as many soldiers as deemed necessary. It represents a radical departure to the traditional approach of issuing a reloadable anti-tank weapon to a dedicated grenadier, although this approach is not unprecedented; the German Panzerfaust disposable recoilless gun of World War 2 was developed around the same concept.

   The origins of the M72 LAW are rooted in a requirement established in 1956 by the US Army, for a "Lightweight Anti-Tank Weapon" that could be carried and fired by a single soldier. Various possibilities were explored, but it was ultimately decided that the weapon should be a small, single-use launcher that would simply be discarded once fired. Between 1956 and 1958, a design was submitted to the Army by the Hesse-Eastern Division of Flightex Fabrics, which entailed a 66 mm rocket with a shaped charge warhead, launched from a small, disposable fiberglass tube made just strong enough for decades of rough handling, and one shot. Development was finally initiated in February of 1958 at the newly-established Rohm and Haas research laboratory at Redstone Arsenal. The propulsion system was designed first, after which the remainder of the weapon was designed by a team under Paul V. Choate, Charles B. Weeks, and Frank A. Spinale.

   Once development was underway, work proceeded quickly, with the first shoulder-fired launch occurring in October of the same year. The complete weapon matured quickly, and it was type-classified by the Army in March of 1961 as "66 mm HEAT, Rocket, M72". Full-scale production was initiated by Hesse-Eastern in 1963, and the weapon achieved operational service with the US Army and US Marine Corps in the same year.

   In its closed position, the M72 LAW is identifiable by a cylindrical fiberglass launcher, usually olive drab in color, with a long, narrow, and rectangular sight housing on top along the tube's entire length. A carrying sling is attached to a swivel on the rear cover, and another swivel on the underside of the foreword section of the launch tube.

   When opened, the M72 LAW is around 30% longer, with the inner tube extended from the back end of the outer tube. A rail that is retracted entirely into the sight housing on the launcher when collapsed is now clearly visible, extending from the rear of the housing to the front of the rear sight cover. The front cover is completely removed from the weapon, while the rear cover dangles on a hinge below the back end of the outer tube. The carrying sling is detached from the swivel on the rear cover, and is usually left attached to the front swivel. After being fired, the sling is usually removed from the tube.

   To fire the M72 LAW, the operator must pull out the arming pin, and remove the rear cover and sling assembly (FM 3-23.25 warns operators not to discard the rest of the sling assembly until the rocket is fired). The operator must then extend the launcher by grasping the rear sight cover with their firing hand, and the forward area of the launcher with their non-firing hand --- the launcher *must* be fully-extended and locked to fire it safely, which is achieved when it has been extended far enough that it is impossible to telescope it back together. The launcher must then be shouldered, and the flip-up sight reticule raised; when the target is in the operator's sights, the arming trigger handle must be pulled to the "ARM" position, and when ready to fire, the operator is to squeeze the trigger bar. Unless there is some sort of malfunction, the rocket will launch almost instantly.

   The front and rear sights on the M72 LAW are of the flip-up ladder type, with reticules printed on two small panes of plexiglas. The maximum sighting range is 350 m, in increments of 25 m up to 200 m, and in increments of 50 m beyond that range. Stadia lines and range markers are included, for calculating lead on crossing targets.

   A 2-stage propulsion system is used to launch the 66 mm rocket from the M72 LAW. The first stage is a simple black powder charge, which is ignited when struck by a firing pin upon squeezing the trigger bar. This charge hurls the rocket clear of the operator and simultaneously initiates its ignition, so that by the time the solid-fuel sustainer rocket is in full burn (which has an exceptionally powerful thrust for its size), it is well clear of the firing position. As the M72 LAW family has evolved, increasingly more powerful motors have been fitted to them, increasing their range and muzzle velocity.

   The weapon may be fired from a standing, kneeling, or prone position. The M72 LAW must be fired at an angle from a prone position with the venturi pointed away from the operator, who would otherwise be seriously injured by the backblast.

   The backblast area of the M72 LAW is a 30-degree cone. The "danger zone" extends to 15 m behind the weapon, with an 8 m base; all personnel, equipment, and flammable material must be clear of this area. A now widely-circulated US Army photograph taken in 1969 at Fort Lewis graphically demonstrates the force of the LAW's backblast in the "danger zone", as a heap of wooden packing crates directly behind Pvt. Barry Hill (the weapon's operator in the photograph) were sent flying through the air behind him. The "caution zone" extends from the aforementioned 8 m base 15 m behind the weapon, to a 25 m base 40 m behind the weapon. Precautions must be taken to protect the eyes and ears of any personnel inside the "caution zone", and any debris behind the weapon may be flung with significant force into this area as well.

   Most variants of the M72 LAW have a shaped charge warhead, capable of penetrating 300 mm of Rolled Homogonous Armor (RHA), though HE-FRAG warheads, HEDP warheads, APERS warheads, and non-explosive training warheads are used in several more recent models. None of the LAW variants with HEAT warheads have a precursor charge, so they will not defeat Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA).

   Unfortunately, the early service of the M72 LAW was a bleak chapter in the history of the US military. When first issued to US troops in the Vietnam War, the LAW was initially deemed effective when used against enemy-held structures and fighting positions, but its results on the defensive against tanks were nothing short of disastrous.

   By far, the most vivid example of the LAW's many problems was the Battle of Lang Vei, a garrison held by US Army Green Berets and a number of local militia. An North Vietnamese Army armored formation was approaching rapidly, and the garrison had only two 106 mm and three 57 mm recoilless rifles, a few mortars, and little ammunition for any of them, so the timely delivery of 100 M72 LAWs seemed their salvation. Instead, it only gave them false hope. Most of the launchers misfired; some launched rockets that fizzled-out and fell to the ground; some launched rockets that struck the enemy vehicles, but didn't explode, while many others did explode on impact, but failed to penetrate the thin armor of the APCs and PT-76 tanks; some rockets exploded moments after launch; the Green Berets found that the arming pins in at least two launchers were impossible to remove (in one instance, the pull ring broke through the top of the pin while leaving it in place, making the weapon impossible to arm). In a scene that evoked the horrors of the US Army's attempts to use 2.36" Bazookas on the beaches of Anzio and the fighting positions of Task Force Smith in Korea, the Green Berets resorted to concentrating their rocket fire against the tracks of the advancing tanks; this too failed. Few of the vehicles were knocked-out, and the Lang Vei garrison was overrun and destroyed after less than a day of fighting.

   After Lang Vei, the Army conducted a test-firing of a batch of M72s, to test their reliability. The report on the test results speaks for itself; “Following the battle of Lang Vei, eighteen M72 LAWs were test-fired by Detachment A-109 at Thuong Duc. Six failed to fire: Three of these six failures were due to malfunctions within the firing mechanism. A second check of all firing pins and safeties was conducted, after which a second attempt was made to fire the weapon. They again failed to fire. The tube was collapsed and extended back to the firing position, and a third attempt was made to fire the weapon with negative results. The remaining three M72 LAWs ignited, but the rocket failed to leave the launcher tube. Of the twelve rockets that did fire properly, one failed to detonate upon impact.”

   A series of major design revisions were made to the M72 LAW following numerous experiences like those in Lang Vei, resulting in the improved rocket motors of the M72A1 and M72A3, and eventually an improved launcher as well, in the M72A4. These changes also resolved the weapon's previous reliability problems. However, the LAW never overcame the stigmata of its Vietnam War catastrophes, and it soon encountered a problem that no timely improvements could overcome --- obsolescence in the face of the latest Soviet tanks. The T-64 and T-72 introduced frontal armor that was not only significantly thicker than that of preceding Soviet tanks, but the innovation of composite armor had also made this armor significantly stronger for its thickness as well.

   Confidence in the M72 LAWS series significantly plummeted throughout the US military and NATO, prompting the US Army to develop a successor. However, the resulting FGR-17 Viper anti-tank rocket launcher was an even greater embarrassment, and both the program and the remaining purchases were halted shortly after it entered service. The fallout from the LAWS and the Viper was that the US military was forced by Congress to acquire a new man-portable anti-tank weapon very quickly, and that the weapon in question had to already be in production. As the M72 LAW and FGR-17 Viper were the only such weapons then produced in the US, the Department of Defense had no choice but to acquire a weapon of foreign origin (which the US military is infamous for avoiding). The US Army ultimately selected a Swedish anti-tank weapon (the Bofors AT-4, as the M136), while the US Navy bought an Israeli system (the B-300, as the SMAW).

   The M72 LAW family nonetheless lives-on in production and service, despite its less than stellar reputation, as the utility of a small, light, easy to use, disposable support weapon is self-evident. Notably, it has returned to the front lines in almost every US ground conflict since the Vietnam War, and the M72 LAW has also been used profusely by the US military and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its single-use design also makes the LAW an attractive weapon for hasty delivery to non-state groups, as this offers increased probability that anti-tank weapons will not proliferate after the end of a civil war (particularly if the recipient is the loser, and the victor is likely sell-off surplus ordnance to anyone willing to buy it).

   The known operators of the M72 LAW include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Egypt, El Salvador, Finland, Greece, Indonesia, Israel, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, Portugal, Romania, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, the US, the UK, Vietnam, and Yemen. It has been retired from service with Cambodia and Denmark. There are also some non-state users of the M72 LAW, who have acquired them by a number of different means; some bought them off the black market, stole them, had them covertly smuggled-in by nations who would prefer not to have their involvement known, and some have even had their launchers openly and directly delivered to them. The National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) was one such non-state operator, and the LAW has been observed in the hands of militia and insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere.

   The M72 LAW is still in production, and is manufactured in the US by NAMMO Talley, NAMMO in Norway, and MKEK in Turkey. The unit cost of a new example varies from $750 to more than $2 200, depending on the model. Due to the overwhelming numbers and distribution of the M72 LAW, it is likely to remain in service far into the foreseeable future.




   M72: Original production model. Utilizes the M54 rocket.

   M72A1: Has improved rocket motor.

   M72A2: Has improved rocket motor. It is unclear how it differs from the M72A1.

   M72A3: M72A1 or M72A2, with improved safety features.

   M72A4: Has an improved launcher assembly, and higher-velocity rocket with an improved warhead.

   M72A5: Essentially an M72A3 with an improved launcher.

   M72A6: Armed with an HEDP warhead, for use against structures, personnel, and light armor. The M72A6 is not expected to be effective against main battle tanks.

   M72A7: Modified M72A6 for use by the US Navy.

   M72E8: M72A7 with a Fire-From-Enclosure (FFE) capability, developed by NAMMO Raufoss in Norway.

   M72E9: NAMMO Raufoss-developed version of the M72A5, with a significantly more powerful shaped charge warhead.

   M72E10: This is basically an M72E8 with an HE-FRAG warhead, for use against personnel.

   M72AS: Training RPG with a 21 mm munition and an inert warhead.

   M190: Reloadable training weapon, that launched an M73 35 mm rocket.

   Picket: Enlarged version of the M72 LAWS with an 82 mm rocket, developed in Israel. Did not enter service.

   HAR-66: Turkish hybrid weapon with an M72A2 rocket and an M72A3 launcher.

   HAR-66 AP "Wasp": A HAR-66 launcher and rocket, with an anti-personnel warhead.

   XM191: Incendiary rocket weapon with a rocket based on that used in the M72 LAWS. Though generally considered effective, the napalm-based filler of the rockets and some other design features were considered inadequate. Was replaced in development and service by the M202 FLASH.

   M202 FLASH: An evolution of the XM191, and also an incendiary rocket launcher. In service with the US and South Korea.

   RPG-18 "Mukha": Soviet-made RPG weapon based on the same design principles of the M72 LAW. It is uncannily similar in design, and was unquestionably influenced by its US-made predecessor, leading many in the West to assume that it was simply a reverse-engineered M72.

   RPG-22 "Netto": This weapon is essentially an enlarged RPG-18, with a wider 72 mm bore.

   M80 "Zolja": Yugoslav-built equivalent of the M72 LAW. This weapon has also been widely-assumed by many sources to be a reverse-engineered M72, but it is larger overall, with a slightly smaller 64 mm bore.


Related weapons


   Panzerfaust: This German-made recoilless gun from World War 2 was the first disposable infantry anti-tank weapon, and the inspiration for the M72 LAW. The Panzerfaust ("Tank Fist") and it's evolutions are no longer in service.

   LAW 80: Similar weapon developed in the UK. Though despite sharing a similar name and design philosophy, the LAW 80 is unrelated to the M72 LAW.

   RPG-76 "Komar": Polish-built disposable anti-tank weapon. Though a rocket launcher like the M72 LAW, its over-caliber projectile is more evocative of the World War 2-era Panzerfaust.

   Miniman: A 74 mm disposable anti-tank weapon developed in Sweden, and designated as the Pansarskott m/68 in Swedish service. There is definitely no mistaking this particular weapon for a clone of the M72 LAW, as it is a recoilless rifle rather than a rocket launcher.

   Armbrust: German-built disposable anti-tank weapon. The Armbrust boasts a countermass and a self-sealing muzzle and venturi, giving it a low enough backblast to safely fire from confined spaces, and a negligible flash, smoke plume, and muzzle report.



   Article by BLACKTAIL

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