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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

About History: Grenade!

Updated: Feb 18

In warfare, throwing weapons at your enemies has a very long history indeed. In its simplest form, rocks could be hand-thrown by early man either to wound or kill their intended prey, whether animal or a rival human. The fire-hardened stick, or spear, also developed quite early on evolving first into a weapon tipped with knapped flint [1] and later, as metallurgy was discovered and harnessed, fitted with bronze and iron blades. Spears can be broadly divided into two categories: those designed for thrusting as a melee weapon, such as lances or pikes, and those designed for throwing as a ranged weapon, usually referred to as darts or javelins. Examples such as the Clacton Spear found in England and the set of ten Schöningen spears from Germany reveal that wooden spears have been used for hunting since at least 400,000 years ago. However, unlike the ranges of between 70 m and 90 m achieved by modern javelin throwers [2], spears used for hunting or in combat are more likely to have been thrown at much shorter distances.


Experimental research using experienced athletes to throw replicas of ‘Spear II’ from the Schöningen examples show that they are capable of being thrown at least 15 to 20 m. A similar set of experiments carried out by Tod Todeschi for his YouTube channel “Tod’s Workshop” explored how far a professional javelin thrower could throw a replica Roman pilum. The answer it seems is to a maximum distance of about 40 m despite the pilum being relatively heavy compared to other, contemporary javelins of the Roman period.


For increased range, somewhat later the bow and arrow joined the spear to become an indispensable tool for Stone Age hunters. The oldest known evidence of arrows comes from South African sites such as Sibudu Cave, where likely arrowheads have been found, dating from approximately 72,000–60,000 years ago. In Eurasia indirect evidence suggests the bow seems to have appeared, or reappeared, later in the Upper Palaeolithic [3]. Significantly for this discussion, bows could be used from a greater distance to bring down the forest’s large animals, as well as birds and smaller mammals. The improved range of such weapons increased the safe distance between the archer and the intended target, which was undoubtedly an import consideration when hunting, but possible more so in warfare. One of the oldest depictions of combat between archers was discovered in Iberian cave art dated to the Mesolithic. As shown above right, in Cueva del Roure (Morella la Vella, Castellón, Valencia), a group of three archers is encircled by a group of four. A depiction of a larger battle (which might date to the early Neolithic), showing eleven archers being attacked by seventeen running archers, was found in Les Dogue, Ares del Maestrat, Castellón, Valencia.


To spears, javelins, darts, slingshots, bows and arrows were later added other thrown weapons as man’s martial inventiveness searched for more ways to inflict suffering and death on his enemies. One branch of this exploration culminates in the modern grenade but along the way insect bombs, Greek fire and the first gunpowder weapons were all introduced. Some were less effective than expected but the trail has an interesting history all its own. Our tale begins, therefore, with one of the oldest and stranger innovations documented during the Roman army’s siege of Hatra in the second century AD.


The Roman’s and insect bombs


The city of Hatra rises out of the desert some 90 kilometres south of modern Mosul in Iraq. Its location, amid a network of usually dry wadis, placed the ancient city between the superpowers of the Rome and Parthia, but Hatra was also well positioned to make a fortune by taxing trade caravans crossing the desert. A client state of Parthia for most of its history, Hatra's wealth made it an attractive and frequent target for the Romans. The emperor Trajan besieged it without success in AD 116, while Septimius Severus laid siege to Hatra twice in AD 198.



Ringed by a massive, fortified wall, this ancient desert city measured two kilometres across with a huge, ornately decorated temple complex at its heart. On each occasion the Romans attempted to seize the city, Hatra’s location worked against the attackers. While the defenders had plentiful stores of water inside the city walls, the desert in every direction offered none for the besieging army. Roman foraging parties were attacked and slaughtered by Hatrene cavalrymen. It is also documented that the defenders employed entomological warfare - the use of insects and other arthropods as part of wartime tactics. In Book 3 of his biography of Septimius Severus, the ancient historian Herodian of Antioch writes of the siege:


“After passing through the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the country of the Adiabenes, Severus hurried on into Arabia Felix, the country which produces the fragrant plants we use in our perfumes and incense. When he had destroyed many towns and villages there and had plundered the countryside, he came into the territory of the Atrenians, where he encamped and laid siege to the city of Hatra. This city, located on top of a lofty mountain, was surrounded by a high, strong wall manned by many bowmen. After making camp, Severus' soldiers pressed the siege with all the power at their command, endeavouring to capture the city. Engines of every type were brought up to the wall, and all the known tactics were tried. The Atrenians fought back bravely; pouring down a steady stream of stones and arrows, they did considerable damage to the army of Severus. Making clay pots, they filled them with winged insects, little poisonous flying creatures. When these were hurled down on the besiegers, the insects fell into the Romans' eyes and on all the unprotected parts of their bodies; digging in before they were noticed, they bit and stung the soldiers. The Romans found the air at Hatra intolerable, stifling from the hot sun; they fell sick and died, and more casualties resulted from disease than from enemy action.”


“After conducting the siege for twenty days, he [Severus] then went to Palestine…”


Neither ancient author specifically mentions which insects were weaponised. Philip Wexler, however, asserts that the Atreni filled terracotta pots with “live scorpions, assassin bugs, and other poisonous insects from the surrounding desert” (Wexler, 2014, 16). According to Wexler, “scorpion stings inject a complex combination of toxins, causing intense pain, thirst, great agitation, muscle spasms, convulsions, slow pulse, irregular breathing, and torturous death. Assassin bugs, large blood-sucking insects with sharp beaks, inflict an extremely painful bite and inject a lethal nerve poison that liquifies tissue.” The psychological or terror-inducing effect of an attack of this sort, regardless of how many Roman soldiers became actual casualties, must have been somewhat successful as it goes a long way to explain the army’s morale problems. Interestingly, Cassius Dio does not mention insect bombs directly, but he does report that the defenders “hurled down upon them, among things, the bituminous naphtha…[which] consumed the [siege] engines and all the soldiers on whom it fell” (Cassius Dio, “Roman History”, Epitome of Book LXXVI, 11). The naphtha Dio refers to is most likely another ancient weapon known today as “Greek Fire”.



Byzantium


Rudimentary incendiary grenades appeared in the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, not long after the reign of Leo III (717–741) (Forbes, (1993), 107). Beginning in AD 672, Byzantine soldiers learned that Greek fire, consisting of a combustible compound emitted by a flame-projecting weapon, could be used in naval battles to great effect to set enemy ships ablaze. Greek fire’s ability to continue burning while floating on water no doubt enhanced the effectiveness of this weapon but also the fear of it. Probably based on a mixture of naphtha and quicklime (although no one is entirely certain of its make-up), the Byzantines are also recorded as throwing stone and ceramic jars containing Greek fire at their enemies (Forbes, op. cit.). In its earliest form, a burning cloth-wrapped ball, perhaps containing a flask, was launched at enemy forces using a form of light catapult, most probably a seaborne variant of the Roman light catapult (or scorpion) nicknamed an “onager” (a wild ass). These machines were capable of hurling missiles weighing around 6 to 9 kg (13 to 20 lb) to a distance of 350–450 m (380–490 yd).


Dated to c. AD 800 to AD 1000, the hollow ceramic vessel shown right, consists of a piriform body, with a short neck and a domed rim. The body is decorated with centrally placed horizontal bands, and two registers of geometric stamped decoration. Intended to be filled with “Greek Fire”, it was lit by a wick and used as an early form of hand grenade. As with the flame projecting weapons, these “grenades” were typically used in naval battles against both ships and their crews. Thrown with the intention of the pottery vessel shattering on the deck, the burning wick would ignite the explosive liquid. Several thrown aboard an enemy ship might quickly cause a conflagration and almost certainly induce panic. If nothing else sailors would have had to be diverted to fighting fires thus weakening the manpower available to fight or defend the ship from being boarded.


Chinese “grenades”


The use of similar explosive missiles soon spread to Muslim armies in the Near East, with these innovative weapons reaching China by the 10th century (Forbes, op. cit.). So, if we scroll forward in time we find the distinctive shape of the Byzantine “grenades” is echoed by archaeological finds in China. Recent excavations have uncovered 59 stone “grenades”, like the ones pictured right, from the ruins of a building believed to have once served as a weapons store, located in a section of the structure known as the Badaling Wall. This, the most visited section of the Great Wall of China, lies approximately 50 miles northwest of Beijing's city centre (Georgiou, Newsweek, 2023).



Archaeologists have previously found hundreds of stone vessels in China like those found recently in the Badaling section. They appear ideally designed to be filled with gunpowder, which had been first developed in China at some point during the first millennium AD, with the earliest confirmed reference dating to the 9th century AD. Once sealed and fitted with a fuse to initiate detonation, such bombs could be thrown by hand or launched by catapult. These grenades are thought to have been common weapons for guards on the Great Wall during the Ming Dynasty (Georgiou, Newsweek, 2023) and were certainly used much earlier in China by the middle of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) in the many wars fought between that dynasty and its neighbours.


Grenades come of age


Hand grenades as we might recognise them today first appeared around 1467 in Europe. These cast-iron bombshells and “grenades” were found to be particularly effective when exploded among enemy troops in the ditch of a fortress during an assault. Echoing the Byzantine and Chinese examples previously discussed, several hundred ceramic hand grenades dated to the 17th century were discovered during modern construction in front of a bastion of the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt, Germany. They were most likely intentionally dumped in the moat of the bastion before 1723. Many of these grenades retained their original black powder loads and igniters.


Hand grenades were in such general use from the late 17th to early 18th century that selected soldiers in many European armies were trained as grenade throwers, or grenadiers, who specialised in close quarters combat, mostly with the usage of grenades and fierce melee fighting. During the English Civil War, on November 9th, 1643, the Parliamentarian forces of William Brereton attacked the 14th century sandstone bridge linking the Welsh village of Holt with the English village of Farndon across the River Dee. The Parliamentarians seized the bridge when they cast “some ‘grenados’ amongst the Welshmen”. The discovery of grenade fragments in 2004 revealed that grenades were used against the Jacobites in the battle of Killiecrankie (July 27th, 1689) during the Scottish Jacobite Uprising. The unexpected find provided evidence of their first use in Britain 30 years earlier than that previously recorded at Glen Shiel (June 10th, 1719) during the 1719 Jacobite Rising. At the time of the discovery, archaeologist Dr. Tony Pollard of Glasgow University said: "The 17th century grenades were iron spheres, slightly bigger than a cricket ball, packed with gunpowder and with a fuse on the top, like a cartoon bomb." Simple time-fused iron grenades were especially used in siege warfare throughout the 18th century, but as a battlefield weapons grenades were not very effective largely due to unreliable slow-burning fuses and inconsistent times of detonation. As a result, they saw limited infantry use but were ideal for boarding actions during the Golden Age of Piracy. For example, according to his account, dated January 31st, 1719, the Governor of Jamaica informed the Council of Trade and Plantations that grenades were used by the notorious pirate Captain Thompson to defeat two pirate-hunters sent to capture the latter:


“But at the South West part of this Island [Port Royal, Jamaica] they mett wth. two vessels, one of which upon their approach hoisted a blagg [black] Flag at the topmasthead, and then the engagement began, the other proved to be a sloop the pyrate [Thompson] had lately taken: one of our vessels after an obstinate dispute was boarded and overcome by the pyrate, who threw vast numbers of powder flasks granado shells and stinkpots into her which killed and wounded several, and made others jump overboard…” (British History Online, 2019).


After about 1750 grenades were virtually abandoned because the range and accuracy of firearms had increased lessening the opportunities for close combat. Indeed, in 1902, the War Office in London announced that hand grenades were obsolete and had no place in modern warfare. Within two years, however, the success of improvised grenades in the trench warfare conditions of the Russo-Japanese War (1904) brought about a rapid reassessment. Very quickly the then Board of Ordnance was instructed to develop a practical hand grenade, and ten years later the grenade really came into its own during the trench warfare of The Great War (1914-18). Their effectiveness in attacking enemy positions has meant grenades are now a standard part of the combat infantryman’s equipment [4]. From the 20th century onward there have been essentially three types of hand grenade: anti-personnel grenades which may wound by fragmentation, blast or both; specialised grenades such as incendiary, smoke and anti-riot gas; and anti-tank weapons that may work by blast or by the shaped-charge effect.



Modern grenades are initiated by two types of fuse. Impact fuses are designed to detonate a grenade as it strikes the ground. This has the advantages that the grenade cannot be avoided or thrown back by an opponent before it explodes, and it will not roll back toward the user if thrown uphill. In contrast, time-fuses are designed to detonate a grenade after a pre-set delay regardless of when it hit the ground. Time-fuses are more common than impact fuses as they are generally safer to use. The delay allows the grenade to be more accurately thrown but is too brief for enemy soldiers to toss the grenade back once it has landed among them. The fuse may be initiated by one of several ways, and a four to five second delay is now usually considered best.


Modern explosive grenades also come in two basic types: offensive and defensive. Both typically consist of a core of TNT or some other high explosive encased in a container. Blast or ‘offensive’ grenades have a limited danger-zone and can thus be used safely by troops attacking in the open. However, the splinters from fragmentation or ‘defensive’ grenades can kill or wound at ranges beyond the maximum throwing distance; the thrower therefore needs protective cover. The iron body, or case, of fragmentation grenades are designed to break into small, lethal, fast-moving fragments once the TNT core explodes. Such grenades usually weigh no more than 0.9 kg (2 lbs).


Today there are so many variants of hand grenades according to their country of origin, preferred design, function and so on that reviewing them all would take too much time and would be largely repetitive. Instead, we will focus on some of the more iconic anti-personnel hand grenades include:


Steilhandgrante The Steilhandgranate or German stick-grenade, nicknamed the ‘Potato Masher’, was basically the same design in both World Wars. It was a time-fused blast or offensive grenade. The fuse was ignited before throwing by removing the endcap and pulling a cord revealed inside the handle (as shown below). The fuse gave a delay of four to five seconds before detonation.


Mills Bomb By contrast, the contemporary British No 36 grenade introduced in 1915 was known in World War 1 as the Mills Bomb. It was a time-fused fragmentation grenade with a cast-iron body and brass or zinc alloy fittings. The time-fuse starts to burn only when the No 36 grenade leaves the thrower’s hand. The system, using a finger lever, has been widely copied. For example, the French Grenade á main offensive of WW2 also used the conventional finger-lever design. Immediately before throwing, the grenadier grips the grenade so that the lever is pressed against the side and pulls out the safety pin. As the grenade leaves the thrower’s hand the lever flies off releasing the striker spring to force the striker down on to a percussion cap thus lighting the four second time-fuse. The US Mk2 or ‘pineapple’ grenade was the US Army’s defensive grenade and an improved version of the Mills Bomb.


French ‘bracelet’ grenade Introduced in 1915, this anti-personnel grenade (below left) had a unique arrangement for igniting the time-fuse at the last possible moment. A leather leash connected to the primer was slipped over the wrist of the throwing hand and tightened. On throwing, the leash pulled out a friction wire thereby lighting the time-fuse.


Japanese Type 97 grenade Immediately before use of this WW2 era grenade (below right), a ring was pulled and a metal safety cap fell away from the impact igniter protruding from the end of the grenade. To initiate the time-fuse, the igniter was struck onto any hard surface, immediately thrown, and exploded four to five seconds later.



The second major class are chemical and gas grenades, which usually burn rather than explode. This class comprises smoke, incendiary (fire-setting), illuminating, chemical-warfare, and tear-gas grenades. The latter are used by police for riot and crowd control. Several uses may be combined, as in a white phosphorous grenade that has smoke, incendiary, and anti-personnel effects.


The last of the three basic types of grenades are the anti-tank versions that contains a special shaped-charge explosive intended to penetrate the armour of a tank. Since these are usually delivered by small rockets launched from shoulder-held tubes, they are commonly referred to as rocket-propelled grenades (RPG). The most iconic of them are probably the World War II era German Panzerfaust (below left) and the later Russian (formerly Soviet) RPG family (below right).


Panzerfaust


The Panzerfaust (lit. ‘tank fist’ or ‘armour fist’, plural: Panzerfäuste) was a family of single-shot man-portable anti-tank systems developed during World War II by Nazi Germany starting in 1942. The weapons were the first single-use light anti-tank weapons based on a pre-loaded disposable launch tube, a weapon configuration which is still used today (two modern examples being the AT4 and NLAW).


The Panzerfaust-design consisted of a light recoilless launcher tube into which was inserted a single pre-loaded high-explosive anti-tank warhead that protruded from the muzzle. It was an inexpensive, easy-to-use anti-tank weapon for the common infantry man, being issued as a single unit of ammunition meant to be operated by a single soldier. Firing was done from under the arm at an upward angle as the effective firing range was barely beyond that of hand grenades (30–60 m (98–197 ft) max). The launcher was disposed of after use.


RPG


Studying German and US anti-tank rocket designs, in 1944 the Soviets started development of the RPG family of weapons that aimed to combine the best features of the German Panzerfaust and the US Bazooka rocket launcher. While the RPG-1 was unsuccessful it was quickly superseded by the RPG-2, the first effective man-portable, shoulder-fired anti-tank rocket propelled grenade. Its 70 mm (2.8 in) high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) shaped charge round could penetrate about 150 mm (5.9 in) of homogeneous armour. The basic design and layout were further upgraded to produce the ubiquitous RPG-7 (Russian: РПГ-7, Ручной Противотанковый Гранатомёт (Ruchnoy Protivotankovyy Granatomot), lit. 'handheld anti-tank grenade launcher') frequently encountered in most modern conflicts since it was first used in 1967 by Egypt during the Six-Day War against Israel. The current model produced by the Russian Federation is the RPG-7V2, capable of firing standard and dual HEAT rounds, high explosive/fragmentation, and thermobaric warheads.


Derivations


Grenades also can be launched from the muzzle of a rifle either by the force of a cartridge or by the expanding gases of a blank cartridge. Just two examples are shown below. In World War One the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) in Enfield, London developed a cup attachment for the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) rifle that used a blank cartridge to launch a Mills Bomb. By World War Two, the US M1 Garand rifle was fitted with an adapter that allowed the firing of a more streamlined grenade, in contrast to the round shapes of hand grenades. The version shown below right is a US M7 grenade launcher with an M9 rifle grenade fitted on the end of an M1 Garand rifle.



In the post-world war period rifle grenades and their launchers were slowly replaced by a new generation of projectile weapons. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, disposable single shot rocket launchers such as the M72 LAW (light anti-tank weapon) and dedicated 40 mm grenade launchers were introduced and fielded. First seen in the United States armed forces, these 40 mm grenade launchers generally took the form of separate weapons or as an under-barrel attachment to a rifle, such as the M203 grenade launcher attached to an M16 rifle. They fire small-arm grenade rounds shaped like bullets that contain their own low-energy propellant charges. An example of the former is the M79 grenade launcher (below left) that first appeared during the Vietnam War to give the infantryman a more accurate explosive projectile with a longer range than rifle grenades, while being more portable than a mortar. The M79 is a single-shot, break-action grenade launcher that fires a wide variety of 40×46mm grenades, including explosive, anti-personnel, smoke, buckshot, flechette (pointed steel projectiles with a vaned tail for stable flight), and illumination rounds. Although the M79 remains in service in many units worldwide in niche roles, it has largely been replaced by M203 style under-slung grenade launchers that attach to the infantryman’s rifle (below right).



Ironically, the UK and US militaries both field a new generation of grenade launchers, namely Heckler and Koch’s M320 Grenade Launcher Module, which can be fitted to the infantryman’s rifle or in a stand-alone mode like its forebear the M79.

While it may seem we have come a long way down the technology path, the latest grenades echo their ancient origins. The projectile’s range may have improved to nearly 400 m (for the M320; 700 m for the RPG-7) but to achieve this it is essentially still propelled by a derivation of the gunpowder harnessed in 9th century China. Even Byzantine Greek fire has evolved into the smoke generating or incendiary grenades of today.


Bon appétit!

 

Reference:


British History Online (2019), 'America and West Indies: January 1719', in Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies: Volume 31, 1719-1720, ed. Cecil Headlam (London, 1933), pp. 1-21, Available online (accessed January 4th, 2024).


Georgiou, A., (2023), ‘Ancient 'Grenades' Discovered Along Great Wall of China’, Newsweek, Available online (accessed October 23rd, 2023).


Forbes, R.J., (1993), ‘Studies in Ancient Technology’. Leiden, p. 107.


Gott, R., (2018), ‘The Sting of Defeat: A Brief History of Insects in Warfare’, Entomologytoday.org, Available online (accessed November 11th, 2023).


Lockwood, J.A., (2019), ‘Bugs of War: How Insects Have Been Weaponized Throughout History’, History.com, Available online (accessed November 11th, 2023).


Wexler, P., (2014), ‘History of Toxicology and Environmental Health: Toxicology in Antiquity II’, Academic Press, Extract available online (accessed November 11th, 2023).


Endnotes:


1. From circa 200,000 BC onwards, Middle Palaeolithic humans began to make complex flaked edged stone blades for use as spear heads. These stone heads could be fixed to the spear shaft by gum or resin or by bindings made of animal sinew, leather strips or vegetable matter.


2. The men’s world record of 98.48 m is held by Jan Železný of the Czech Republic who achieved that distance in 1996 at an athletic meet in Germany. His countrywoman Barbora Špotáková holds the women’s world record with a throw of 72.28 m, which won her the gold medal at the 2008 IAAF World Athletics Final in Stuttgart.


3. The Upper Palaeolithic is last subdivision of the ‘Old Stone Age’ corresponding to between 50,000 and 12,000 years ago.


4. More than 50,000,000 fragmentation grenades were manufactured by the United States alone for use in World War II.


5. The Royal Regiment of Guards was formed by King Charles II at Bruges in Flanders since when it has fought in all the major wars in which Britain has been involved. In 1815, at the Battle of Waterloo, the Regiment gained the title of Grenadiers after participating in the defeat of the French Imperial Guard. ‘The First or Grenadier Regiment of Footguards’ as it was then known is more widely recognised today as The Grenadier Guards.

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