When tanks and armored vehicles made their first appearance during World War I, it wasn’t long for the first anti-tank weapons to appear as well. The Germans desperately trying to design something that could stop these British steel behemoths, first did try to come up with special ammunition that could be fired from the regular infantry guns.
The result was the specialized armor piercing ’K bullet’ (mostly used by snipers only due to its cost), and the more simple ’reversed bullet’ used by regular soldiers. Both solutions used an increased propelling charge, and neither of them were popular with the troops. One of the reasons was their limited effectiveness. Notoriously even the more specialized K bullet had only a roughly 30% chance of penetrating 8mm-s of armor, even on a perfect hit… The other problem was the increased wear and tear that the guns suffered from the increased propellant charges used by these bullets, causing the rifles to jam or in extreme cases to explode, wounding or even killing the soldier.
The first purpose built anti-tank rifle did soon follow as well, called the Mauser 1918 T-Gewehr, but it was just as unfriendly to the troops using it. Its large caliber design resulted in extreme recoil after firing, infamously capable of breaking the collar bone or dislocating the shoulder. The American forces were also working hard on an anti-armor machine gun (originally developed against aircraft) – the iconic Browning. The improved versions of this extremely popular .50 caliber design are still in use today.
The anti-tank weapons were at the peak of their carrier at the beginning of the Second World War, when their typically 15-30mm penetration was still adequate against the early tank designs. The solutions they used were different however, and we can mostly categorize them in two main groups:
- The first type focused on firing special, high-caliber armor piercing rounds. Thanks to the usual caliber size varying between 12 to 20mm, these rifles were huge, very heavy weapons, often with punishing recoil. Typical examples were the British Boys anti-tank rifle and the Soviet PTRD.
- The second type went completely the other way, and focused on extreme shell velocity, using regular rifle-caliber bullets. While the recoil was much better with this solution, the high velocity resulted in increased wear and tear for the extremely long barrels. Examples include the Polish wz. 35 anti-tank rifle and the German PzB-39.
At the first stages of World War II these weapons were used with relative efficiency, a great example being the Polish wz. 35 that was used successfully against the early German Panzer I and Panzer II models during the invasion of Poland. While in general most bullets did not do great internal damage once they managed to pierce the armor, they could be used to kill our wound the tank crew, who had to operate the tanks from fixed positions. Anti-tank crews knew well where the tank operators did sit, and were focusing on hitting these specific locations through the weaker parts of the armor.
The threat that these rifles posed, greatly influenced the development of the spaced armor technology, which was implemented soon by the newer German tank models. The additional external steel side-skirts would cover up the less armored parts of the hull and turret, shattering, deforming or deflecting the incoming bullets before they could reach the main armor of the tank. Soon however the thickness of the armor simply did outgrow the potential of these weapons, and with the introduction of HEAT ammunition, they became quickly obsolete in their original role.
They were used until the end of the war none the less, mostly fighting older tank models and other lightly armored vehicles. Some anti-tank-rifles had found new uses however… Finnish snipers used them to harass the enemy, for example by firing phosphorus bullets into the tanks open hatches, while Russian snipers used their large caliber anti-tank rifles in an bunker-buster role, firing high-explosive shells through the viewing slits of German fortified positions.
After decades of silence, these rifles made a re-appearance not so long ago, when they served as the basis of the modern long range sniper rifles and anti-material rifles. While no longer capable of penetrating the hull of today’s main battle tanks, they can still cause serious damage to their external modules, including periscopes, optics and sensors.
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