One of the
longest-serving types of infantry heavy fire support weapons, the
recoilless rifle is basically a small recoilless artillery piece.
The secret to their operation lies in allowing excess gasses from
the propellant charge vent-out through a venturi at the back end of
the tube, resulting in a forward recoil force that counteracts the
recoil from the muzzle and the projectile (though it must be noted
that most are not entirely recoilless).
These weapons are often
confused with rocket launchers, and while the principles of
operation are extremely similar, the difference lies in how the
projectile is fired. If the propellant is located behind the
projectile, the weapon is a recoilless rifle; if it is located
inside the projectile, it is a rocket launcher. Even considering
these differences, it is often difficult to discern where recoilless
rifles end and rocket launchers begin, but because the projectiles
thrown by recoilless rifles contain none of the propellant charge
used to fire them, they are capable of delivering a larger payload
than what is practical to achieve with a rocket.
Also, it should be noted that the rifling (or lack thereof)
determines the definition of the weapon. Recoilless weapons with
rifled tubes are called "Recoilless Rifles", while those with smooth
bores are called "Recoilless Guns". The term "Recoilless Weapon" is
also used as a catch-all that includes rocket launchers, though in
the context of this introduction, it will be used from here onward
only for recoilless rifles and guns.
Recoilless weapons also produce an extremely violent muzzle flash
and backblast when fired (to reiterate, these weapons are artillery
pieces), so they are usually too dangerous to fire from indoors or
in front of walls. However, some recoilless weapons mitigate the
backblast effects through the use of a "countermass", which
decelerates the gasses enough to make the backblast area
significantly smaller, without creating a dangerous backpressure
inside the weapon.
The first operational recoilless weapons were fielded in the First
World War, with the most famous example being the Davis Gun.
Recoilless weapons were used mostly to attack airships and
submarines, but their potential as ground-based fire support weapons
was widely overlooked (even though it was proven on several
occasions in real combat), and they fell out of use during the
Interwar Era as more familiar weapons overtook them in development.
Some experimentation with recoilless weapons took place throughout
the Interwar Era, but the lack of a munition suitable for engaging
tanks, and the size and weight of early recoilless weapons (which
didn't give them many relevant advantages over regular artillery
pieces) always held them back.
This changed in the late 1930s, when evolving artillery technology
allowed increasingly smaller and lighter recoilless guns to be built
for fire support, which finally matched the power of small pack
howitzers and mountain guns in a much more compact form. The value
of recoilless weapons for fire support was graphically demonstrated
during the 1941 Battle of Crete, there German paratroopers
overwhelmed a numerically superior Allied defense force (which had
already successfully repelled an amphibious assault). Later in the
war, the application of shaped charge ammunition turned recoilless
rifles and guns into extremely formidable tank-killers, a role which
has ever since been the dominant application of these weapons.
The early Cold War saw the introduction of increasingly more
powerful recoilless weapons through the 1950s, with NATO and the
Warsaw Pact locked in an arms race between tank armor and anti-tank
munitions. However, as recoilless weapons were increasingly viewed
by most militaries as anti-tank weapons, the widespread
proliferation of anti-tank guided missiles by the early
1950s saw development stagnate once again.
However, the pendulum is once again swinging back in favor of
recoilless weapons, as numerous insurgency and counter-insurgency conflicts across the world are
increasingly favoring the capabilities of the recoilless weapon over
the anti-tank guided missiles. The ability of most recoilless weapons to fire a wide
range of ammunition makes them extremely valuable in urban and
anti-personnel warfare, so there is in fact a future for them;
unless the attention span of the powers that be again zeros-out too
quickly, that is.
Notable Recoilless Rifles
Panzerfaust: This was the first disposable, direct-fire,
man-portable anti-tank weapon. It was a cruse weapon even by 1940s
standards, with a very short effective range, but its effectiveness
against tanks during World War 2 was legendary. It had another
extremely important innovation in the form of an over-caliber
warhead (which was wider than the diameter of the tube, since it was
located in front of the muzzle), which saw little impact on later
recoilless rifles and guns, but was applied to numerous rocket
launchers produced during and since the Cold War.
US-made 57 mm weapon was the first man-portable recoilless rifle. It
was introduced in the closing days of World War 2, but saw
substantial combat use in many conflicts that followed, including
the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
One of the longest-lived and most successful recoilless rifles, the
84 mm Carl Gustaf has been used by many nations, most of which still
operate it, and it was employed as both an anti-tank weapon, and a
general-purpose fire support weapon. The current iteration of these
weapons is the
Carl Gustaf M4, and the preceding M3 version was produced under
license in the US as the M3 MAAWS.
in the early 1950s as a replacement for a wide range of 75 mm and
105 mm recoilless rifles, the US-made M40 became one of the most
widespread and successful weapons of its type, and many nations
still operate them. A wide range of 106 mm ammunition was developed
for this weapon.
alternative to the Carl Gustaf, the US-built M67 was a 90 mm
man-portable recoilless rifle developed as a replacement for the M18
and the 1940s-era "Bazooka" anti-tank rocket launchers. The M67 was
generally less impressive than the Carl Gustaf, but effective enough
that it remains in service with several nations.
Miniman: This Swedish 74 mm recoilless gun is a disposable anti-tank
weapon, much like the Panzerfaust. The Miniman had good performance
by 1960s standards, but was quickly overtaken by advances in tank
armor technology. It has since been superseded by the
AT-4: Developed as a quick successor to the Miniman, Sweden's AT4
utilized a larger 84 mm version of the earlier weapon's projectile,
added features to the warhead that greatly increased its lethality
after penetration, and used a more ergonomical disposable launch
tube. Unlike the Miniman, the AT4 was widely exported, and also
manufactured under license abroad as well (notably in the US, as the
ALAC: This new
Brazilian recoilless rifle uses a tube much like that on the AT-4,
but fires a projectile more like that of the Carl Gustaf M2. Both
anti-tank and anti-structure versions are manufactured, and the ALAC
is being aggressively marketed around the world.
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