The Early Hand Grenade
The hand grenade has been employed in warfare, in one form or another, for over 3,500 years. Very early on after gunpowder was perfected, well before the first real “firearms”, there were hand grenades. The first gunpowder grenades were small, fired-clay pots that were filled with gunpowder, small stones and scrap metal, had a simple fuse stuck into them and were hurled at an enemy. This was an easy development, because other such pots had been filled with thickened, flammable oil, and thrown at an enemy to cause burns, ignite flammable structures, and sow confusion and fear – essentially, what we would now call “Molotov Cocktails” – as well as various type of smoke making and stink bomb-type noxious mixtures.
The main problems with these early types of grenades were many. Their fuses were highly unreliable, for starters; this made them extremely dangerous to use, as they could easily explode early…assuming that the fuse didn’t sputter out, turning the grenade into a dud. Also, the early grenades suffered from the same issues of modern grenades, as there was a long development arc to learn how to balance the weight of the grenade canister, to the weight of the gunpowder charge, to the outer case’s design, to how to store and carry the devices. And, through trial and error, it was soon found that hand grenades are very non-discriminatory – if the thrower is too close when the grenade explodes, its fragments will hit the thrower as well.
It is that last part is what kept the grenade from truly widespread use: safety issues aside, the range of hand grenades is limited by the strength of the thrower. And, given the unreliability of fuses, getting close enough to physically hurl a grenade at an enemy was “problematic” at best; cannons were simply better. Although solutions were tested in the 17th and 18th Centuries, such as the creation of “grenadier” units – men chosen for their physical size and strength, seen as being better at throwing objects long distances – were tried, both the technology and the battle tactics of the era eventually made the throwing of hand grenades a largely pointless exercise; grenadiers eventually stopped carrying hand grenades entirely, instead refocusing their size and strength into acting as elite shock troops, used to storm enemy formations and entrenchments…most people tried to not think about the casualty rates.
By the end of the 19th Century, however, technology had advanced to the point where hand grenades could be equipped with reliable fuse mechanisms, while advances in metals and explosives could make hand grenades vastly more effective.
Hand grenades (as opposed to “rifle grenades”, which will be a subject for another article) are today one of the most widespread non-firearm “force multipliers” in use throughout the world. There are numerous misconceptions about hand grenades and their uses, largely engendered by Hollywood (the “pulling the pin with your teeth” being among the most egregious) that we will strive to correct here.
When World War 1 arrived, the war soon bogged down into the stalemate of trench warfare, it was soon realized that the infantry needed an edge when assaulting a trench. In both the Allied and Triple Alliance camps, some people remembered the grenade, and set to work. The results were very different – the German “Stielhandgranate” (known as the “potato masher,” from its distinctive shape) and the British “Mill’s Bomb” became the default standards.
As the world passed through the inter-war years, then through WW2 and Korea, more types of grenades came into use, as the utility of the devices as married to advancing technology became evident. Today, grenades are everywhere, in a multiplicity of types.
Hand Grenade Types
There are several types of grenades in use, today. All of the types have very different characteristics, and thus should be used only in the right situation. Hand grenades can only be thrown about 30 meters/yards, and typically weigh between 0.75 and 1.25 lbs. Offensive and Pyrotechnic grenades are often rigged with tripwires as booby traps, although any type of hand grenade can be technically used as an IED.
There are five general types of hand grenades in current use:
- Special Purpose Munitions
The Defensive Grenade (the “Mill’s Bomb”, referenced above) is what most people are probably thinking of when they hear the word “grenade”. This class of grenade is a high explosive, ‘fragmentation’ grenade, like a WW2 “Pineapple” grenade. These are termed “Defensive” because such grenades are designed to be used from behind “cover” (YouTube link).
These grenades explode violently, sending out a shower of fragments in all directions. In general, if you are within about 7 meters/yards of a Defensive grenade explosion, you have a better than 90% chance of becoming either a very serious casualty…or becoming very dead. If you are within 15 meters, chances are good that you will be wounded in some manner.
In general, grenades technically have a 5 second fuse; one should expect a 3 second fuse, at best. Note, however, that when dealing with captured supplies, that anything recovered (or “dropped accidentally”) from a lone supply truck should be treated as suspect material.
Offensive grenades – sometimes called “blast” or “concussion grenades” – are designed to kill/wound/stun through “blast effect” (the physical force of the blast) rather than through fragments. See the “Stielhandgranate” reference, above. The casings on these grenades are essentially vaporized by the blast (often, the casings are waterproof paper).
For some reason, the Germans attached a handle to this grenade, which increased its throw-range (because the handle acts as a lever) by about 30% over the more “baseball”-like shapes, such as the Mill’s Bomb. It should be noted that WW2 Soviet RGD-33 stick grenade reversed this trend.
The lethal radius of an Offensive grenade is about 3 – 4 meters, with a casualty radius of about 6 – 10 meters. Offensive and Defensive grenades are usually about the size and shape of a baseball.
“Pyrotechnic” is a classification for grenades that do not cause casualties through their mechanism, but that do different things to support combat operations. In general, this means generating either smoke or illumination.
Smoke grenades produce smoke, usually in a variety of colors, the most popular being red, blue, green, yellow and white. These are useful for concealing movement, as well as signaling.
In contrast, illumination grenades use some kind of very bright-burning material, often magnesium, to light up dark places, usually well in excess of 200,000 candlepower.
Pyrotechnic grenades of all types are usually about the size and shape of a 12oz. soda can.
Almost universally, “gas grenades” employ CS gas (2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile) as their “tear gas” agent. For those reading this who may have previously served in the armed forces and have gone through the “gas chamber”, but have never had a full-strength riot grenade used on them, the real, “tactical”, grenade is far worse.
Tactically, CS grenades make fantastic contact-breakers for an outnumbered patrol that may be surprised, and has to withdraw quickly. This is because gas training is almost never taken seriously by most militaries…which is why it is vital for every unit to maintain gas masks, and train regularly to “don and clear” as rapidly as possible…However, it should be noted that gas grenades are technically classified as a “chemical weapon” in some quarters, which is why
Gas grenades are generally about the size and shape of a “regulation” softball. They do not generally break into more than 8 or 9 fragments, and have only a very tiny explosive charge in the fuse, just enough to break open the grenade body and disperse the agent within.
Special Purpose Munitions
“Special Purpose Munitions” is a catchall term for “everything else”. This includes both “stun (or ‘flash bang’) grenades” (lots of loud noise and bright flash, but no fragmentation and little real blast effect…unless you’re hold it when it goes off), low-powered “sting-ball” grenades (low explosive charge – or even compressed gas – and the “fragments” are low-velocity rubber balls), and “demolition charges” such as Thermite (which burns hot enough to melt through most types of steel) or White Phosphorous (“WP”, also known colloquially as “Willie Pete”), which disperses particles of phosphorus over a wide area.
The phosphorus tends to ignite flammable objects, and inflicts severe burns on human beings, and cannot be extinguished by water, because it carries its own oxidizing compound. The only thing that can be done to remove the WP matter is to submerge the patient in water, and remove the glowing “coals” from their body with forceps or tweezers.
Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on your personal viewpoint – the hand grenade of today is the infantryman’s personal artillery: used intelligently, the hand grenade can get at enemies hiding around corners, hidden in rooms in a building, in folds in the terrain, or behind cover – all places rifles and pistols cannot reach.
While the technology behind the hand grenade is certainly lethal, and may be upsetting to contemplate for some, it will do to remember the words of the Chinese general Sun Tzu, writing c.500BC:
“There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.”