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GRENADE LAUNCHERS AND THEIR AMMUNITION

:
INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENTS
© Anthony G Williams
This article is based on various presentations given in 2013-15 and on
articles published in Jane's International Defence Review (November
2013) and in Small Arms Defense Journal (Vol.7 No.1)
Grenade launchers and their ammunition are currently experiencing the
fastest and most dramatic period of development of any small arms. This
article will provide a summary of shoulder-fired and crew-served
grenade launchers, concentrating on developments in ammunition types.
NATO 40mm Systems
NATO is currently focused on the 40mm calibre for under-barrel or
stand-alone shoulder-fired launchers and also for crew-served automatic
launchers. However, while the calibre is standard, there are now four
different performance levels to choose from. Two are long-established,
dating back to the Vietnam War: the 40mm Low Velocity (or LV) which
uses 40 x 46SR (Semi-Rimmed) ammunition in shoulder-fired or
underbarrel launchers, and the 40mm High Velocity (or HV), which fires
40 x 53SR rounds from crew-served automatic launchers.
40mm LV ammunition is currently made by about 25 different companies
in 18 countries, in a wide range of lethal, less-lethal and other natures.
Apart from conventional HE and HEDP these include thermobaric HE,
HE Jump (a low-cost airburst, in which a small nose charge fires on
impact, kicking the grenade a couple of metres into the air before it
explodes), and HE anti-diver, designed to explode underwater. Nonexplosive loadings include shot loads, smoke, illuminating and signal
flares, a huge range of less-lethal ammunition matching that available in
37mm riot guns and including both impact and chemical types (the latter
for non-military use), and even reconnaissance projectiles – the
SPARCS from STK has a parachute-borne camera.
The universality of the ammunition means that there are numerous
stand-alone and underbarrel launchers made to fire it. The M79 was the
classic single-barrel stand-alone type but this has largely been replaced
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in service with fifteen countries. which means that attempts to design shoulder-fired weapons for this cartridge have so far been unsuccessful. 40mm HV ammunition is made by some 15 companies in a dozen countries. When more firepower is required. which is itself being replaced in the US and other armies by more modern underbarrel launchers like the L123A1 and M320 from Heckler & Koch. There is much less variety than with LV in the types of ammunition 2     . most notably the GMG (Grenade Machine Gun) from Heckler & Koch. at the cost of significant bulk and weight. belt-fed launchers generally known as automatic grenade launchers or AGLs. It fires grenades which are typically 30 percent heavier than the LV at three times the muzzle velocity. six-shot revolvers such as the USMC's M32 are also available from several companies. Recoil is several times greater.by underbarrel launchers such as the M203. The original launcher was the MK19 which is still very much in use. The ammunition is therefore used in crew-served. increasing the maximum ballistic range from 400 to over 2000 metres (although the effective maximum is significantly less in both cases). although NORINCO of China recently announced one. although more recently a wide range of competitors has emerged. tripod-mounted. which can fire a wider range of munitions and can be fitted with a stock and sights for the stand-alone role.

Cartridge case lengths vary from 46 to 51mm. The first of these is the Medium Velocity or MV ammunition. the Rheinmetall rounds have a modified case rim to prevent their use in unmodified LV launchers. have introduced what is now usually called Low Velocity Extended Range ammunition (LV-ER). As a result of the recoil problem. which sits in between the low and medium velocity types and is 3     . However. so this ammunition is currently best suited to the solid and heavy six-barrel revolver type launchers. STK of Singapore and Rheinmetall again. the additional recoil can be considerable. with Rheinmetall also developing MV rounds. considerably improving their hit probability. namely Arcus of Bulgaria.available. The first of these were from Martin Electronics (now part of the Chemring Group). in fact. and when fired at shorter ranges have a much flatter trajectory and shorter flight time than LV rounds. In recent years two new performance levels have been introduced for shoulder-fired launchers. so HE/fragmentation or HEDP are the standard natures. The heavier grenades fired at a higher muzzle velocity result in a maximum ballistic range in the region of 700-800 metres. intended to provide a greater effective range than LV plus a larger and more destructive grenade. some manufacturers. owing to the requirement to fit into the ammunition feed and to develop a certain level of recoil to operate the launcher. especially in lighter weapons.

but that may change in the future. So far.specifically intended for under-barrel or single-barrel launchers. 4     . all of the LV-ER makers combine their standard LV grenades with higher-powered cartridges. against point targets less than half. The two columns on the right indicate the relative recoil impulse of the four types. and that ranges are maximum ballistic figures. but the muzzle velocity and range vary. and their free recoil energy if the ammunition was fired in guns of the same type and weight. there seems to have been much interest but few contracts for MV and LV-ER ammunition. which fires their standard HV grenades from a lower-powered cartridge. to which different manufacturers have different approaches. The table above summarises some typical characteristics of 40mm ammunition. While the performance of HV and to some extent LV rounds is standardised. It should be noted that the weights quoted here are for the grenades only. These typically have maximum ballistic ranges of 600+ metres. that's not the case with MV and LV-ER ammunition. The first MV rounds used new grenade designs but Rheinmetall has adopted a simpler solution with their Velan range. the effective ranges against area targets would be around two-thirds of these figures. but it should be borne in mind that the characteristics of MV and LV-ER ammunition do vary. In contrast. not the complete rounds.

However. although China is catching up. The muzzle-loading GP-25 and GP-30 are the standard launchers. Slovakia offers a shoulder-fired magazine-fed bipod-mounted weapon using this 30 x 29B (Belted) round. a very wide range of munitions is available for it. another 40mm of similar performance. but recent ammunition developments have seen this increase to more than 2. The Russian equivalent to the NATO lowvelocity round is the VOG-25 series. the main supplier of grenade launchers is Russia. The maximum ballistic range was originally a few hundred metres less than the NATO HV. The Russian equivalent to the high-velocity round is the VOG-17 series which uses a conventional cartridge but differs in being of only 30mm calibre. As with the NATO LV.000 metres. the RAG-30. which offers an interesting level of portable firepower as it weighs only 12 kg (26½ lbs). 5     . the projectile is unusually long and similar in weight to the NATO 40mm HV.Other Grenade Systems Beyond NATO.the propellant is contained within a small element attached to the back of the grenade that travels with it. Apart from the automatic belt-fed AGS-17 and AGS-30 launchers from Russia. but there are also six-shot revolvers and an interesting three shot Arcus repeater with the tubular magazine in the shoulder stock. but differing technically in being caseless .

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Maximum ranges are 300-400 metres. presumably for the more emphatic dispersal of rioting crowds. The BMYa-31 uses a special blank round that incorporates its own captive piston (the blank containing the sealed-in gases can be ejected and the launcher reloaded immediately). apparently for special forces. The ammunition is mostly less-lethal but includes a thermobaric HE round.Russia also produces some oddities. amounts to a better on-paper performance than the NATO AGLs. 7     . Russia has reportedly introduced into service. including two different 30mm captive-piston under-barrel systems for special forces which are virtually silent when fired. much bigger and heavier than the VOG-25 series. These rounds weigh 450 g and contain 90g HE which. The BS-1 uses a conventional blank cartridge to drive a captive piston forwards in the launcher (the trapped gases need to be bled off before the launcher can be reloaded).500m maximum range. Also in use in Russia is the 43mm GM-94 stand-alone launcher that resembles an oversized pump-action shotgun and fires VGM-93 ammunition at ranges of up to 600 metres. the 40mm Balkan AGL that fires unique caseless grenades. in conjunction with the 2.

magazine-fed QLZ87 which is available bipod or tripod mounted and weighs only 44 lbs with a tripod. which is mainly used with lesslethal grenades for riot control. incompatible series of 35mm grenades and associated launchers. There are three different. The best-known Chinese grenade is the conventional 35 x 32SR highvelocity DF87 series ammunition which has a ballistic range of 1. Two of them are low-velocity types for underbarrel grenade launchers: the caseless low-velocity 35mm DFS10 round for the army's QLG10 launcher. The HEDP grenade. 8     . the belt-fed. It is used in a pair of automatic launchers.750 metres.China initially adopted Russian equipment but has now developed its own in 35mm calibre. is claimed to penetrate 80mm armour plate as well as having a lethal radius of 11 metres. and the Type 91 UBGL firing plastic-cased ammunition. tripod mounted QLZ04 which weighs 55 lbs including tripod (about half that of the MK19) and the even lighter. which is slightly heavier than NATO's 40mm HV. 26½ lbs on a bipod. which is like a slimmed down VOG-25 and has a similar performance.

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Chad and Uganda) and the Middle East (in the hands of Syrian insurgents) as well as South America. and this weapon provides an example of what that means in portable grenade launchers. which makes it much more difficult for shoulder-fired launchers 10     . the Chinese 35mm low-velocity DFS10 and their 35mm high-velocity DF87 series. The recoil figures quoted are calculated on the same basis as for the NATO grenades in the table shown earlier.The most interesting weapon using the 35 x 32SR round is the lightweight semi-automatic QLZ87B (now known as QLB06).000m range against area targets and 600m against point targets. The table above provides the basic data for the Russian 40mm lowvelocity caseless VOG-25.6. in which you may recall that the 40mm HV round developed a recoil energy figure of 17. range and light weight (only 9.20 lbs empty) not approached by anything except the RAG-30. which has a 1. the high-velocity 30mm VOG-17. Much is said about achieving "overmatch" over potential opponents. The QLZ87 and QLB06 seem to have been widely distributed to third-world countries since they have been spotted in Africa (in Sudan. This offers a combination of firepower.1 kg . so NATO troops may well be on the receiving end of their fire in future conflicts. significantly greater than either the Russian or Chinese high-velocity rounds.

is claimed to be usable as a personal weapon when firing inert steel slugs.000 metres for area fire. 600m against point targets. as well as for supporting fire with HEI shells. as we shall see. at a range of 300m the mid-range trajectory height is 1. plus the 25 x 59B round which was originally conceived for the now-cancelled GD XM307 crewserved belt-fed launcher. it is worth mentioning a different approach that is not strictly a grenade launcher but doesn't really fit in anywhere else: the South African Neopup PAW 20 (Personal Assault Weapon). but is still being offered as a private venture for the externally powered ATK LW25 Chain Gun.7 kg (12½ lbs). although the Chinese have done it. Effective range is 1. Finally. given its compact dimensions and weight of 5. This semiautomatic gun fires standard 20mm cannon shells at subsonic velocity from a small cartridge case and.2 m (4 feet) compared with 26m (85 feet) for the 40mm LV. The Future The future of 40mm grenade rounds has been under threat for several years due to the rather protracted development in the USA of two different rounds in 25mm calibre: the 25 x 40B for use in the XM25 selfloading shoulder-fired launcher that has been tested in combat and which the Army plans to introduce into service.to be designed around the NATO HV ammunition. Both of these rounds were designed around a new concept in small arms: a time-fuzed 11     .

It weighs 6. which is in service.50 calibre rifle. although the launcher uses a manually-operated bolt action. The launcher requires a sophisticated sighting. but without the airburst facility. a modified version of their self-loading .000m (at which distance the mid-range trajectory height is about 100 metres (330 feet. compared with 400m/1.airburst HE fragmentation grenade designed to strike at personnel hiding behind walls or in trenches. but it also combines a 20mm grenade launcher with a rifle in 12     . The fuze is in the middle of the grenade meaning that equal quantities of fragments are hurled to the rear of the burst point as to the front. fire control and fuze-setting system. Two other shoulder-fired launchers using precision airburst fuzing come from South Korea and China.1 kg (13½ lbs) and has a maximum effective range of 500 metres. The LW25 ammunition has also been offered in the XM109 Barrett Payload Rifle. combines a 20mm grenade launcher with a 5. The XM25 has a maximum effective range of 700 metres against area targets or 500m against point targets.300 feet for the 40mm HV). The Korean K11.56mm rifle. The ATK LW25 fires a heavier grenade at a much higher velocity for an effective range of 2. Little information has been released about the Chinese ZH-05 which has largely featured on internet forums. so is similar in concept to the abandoned US XM29.

with two systems: an inductive fuze setter in the chamber for closed-bolt launchers like the Striker MK47. and another from STK using remote fuze setting. The unique selling point for these new systems – precisely-timed airburst – is already spreading. Rheinmetall has also announced precision airburst rounds for their Velan mediumvelocity system. but the grenade is relatively light. for open-bolt guns like the HK.8mm magazine and a grenade). independent of the gun. from IMI of Israel using inductive fuze setting in a modified launcher as part of their MPRS (Multi-Purpose Rifle System). achieved at an angle of elevation of 7 degrees.8mm calibre and looks very similar to the Korean gun. with a fuze-setter fixed to the muzzle (a system based on the Oerlikon AHEAD cannon system). A similar capability first appeared in four different 40mm high-velocity systems from three different manufacturers: STK. this does help to keep the empty weight down to a reported 4.26 kg (9. and Rheinmetall with an infra-red fuze setter which is also independent of the gun. and a radio-frequency setter.their standard 5. Nammo. More recently. Rather surprisingly the launcher is a single-shot type with no magazine. Effective range is claimed to be 800 metres. 13     .0 kg/11 lbs loaded with a full 5. using the same infra-red fuze setting and grenades as their HV ammunition. 40mm low-velocity systems have also appeared.4 lbs: 5.

who have developed a recoil buffering system that enables their powerful 40mm medium velocity Velan ammunition to be fired from lightweight guns. the 25mm systems offer a much better hit probability because their higher muzzle velocity gives them a flatter trajectory and shorter flight time. the single-shot Cerberus in either under-barrel or stand-alone form. This is being applied to two launchers. On the other hand. Perhaps the most interesting Western launcher project is from Rheinmetall. Most low-velocity systems are more flexible than the self-loading XM25 because they can fire a wide range of munitions of different lengths. providing some compensation for their smaller grenades. Furthermore.There do not seem to have been any reports that precision airburst systems are being applied to the Russian 30mm or the Chinese 35mm systems. The capabilities of such systems in a portable weapon like the 35mm QLB06 would potentially be impressive. the addition of rangefinding sights would considerably enhance the effectiveness of conventional ammunition. yet it is surely only a matter of time before they appear. the 40mm systems have an advantage over the 25mm of being able to use low-cost ammunition from a wide variety of manufacturers as well as the costly precision airburst grenades. and the magazinefed self-loading Hydra which is expected to weigh around 4 kg (9 lbs) 14     . Clearly. weights and pressure characteristics.

this company is no longer operating. wide and low-pressure grenade rounds. which could also provide access to precision airburst technology. However. It is a multi-shot 40mm LV launcher weighing less than 5 kg (11 lbs). It achieves multi-shot capability with far less bulk and weight than either a self-loading or revolver mechanism. Their system of stacking several rounds in one barrel to be fired in sequence is particularly well-suited to the relatively short. 15     . which offers some unique capabilities not available in western systems. but has a gas-operated selective-fire mechanism capable of emptying the standard five-round magazine in one second.and is intended to fire both LV and MV ammunition including precision airburst rounds. Finally. both designated LG5s. Development costs were reduced by reaching an agreement with STK to use their 40mm LV grenades as the basis for the ammunition. for example the NORINCO LG6. which appear to be versions of the QLZ87 and QLB06 modified to fire 40mm HV NATO ammunition and reportedly fitted with muzzle-mounted fuze setters for timed airburst. In 2014 NORINCO advertised two new weapons for the export market. Metal Storm. Chinese companies often make products in western calibres for export only.

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This slide shows a line-up of grenade rounds. and to fire longrange ammunition to extract the maximum effectiveness from the costly system. complex and very expensive. most of these are replicas but they give you an idea of how they compare. But while simple rangefinder sights are already in use. it therefore makes sense to fit these sights to a stand-alone bipod-mounted weapon rather than an underbarrel type to achieve the necessary accuracy (implying a specialist grenadier as a part of the squad). 17     . what will be the implications of their general use? They necessarily require automatically-adjusting sights linked to a laser rangefinder. The implications Assuming that the current enthusiasm for precision airburst grenade systems continues. heavy. Such sights also provide far greater precision in firing ordinary grenades. the sophisticated systems are currently large. and preferably should also have thermal imaging and/or image intensifying capability for 24hour use. For shoulder-fired launchers. so will see increasing use in some form anyway. to give it some rapid-fire capability. a ballistic computer and a fuze setter.

Wikimedia Commons. with many US soldiers reportedly preferring to carry it as an additional stand-alone weapon. Cc-by-sa-2. Further up the performance and weight scale. but typically carry twice the HE load and avoid the need to carry a separate launcher. This suggests that there might be a case for considering the use of rifle grenades instead. will other riflemen still use UBGLs? Possibly not: there is already resistance to carrying the weight of around 1. the Chinese have a big performance advantage in starting with the portable QLZ87 and QLB06. shown here is their APAV40 DP in comparison with the M433 HEDP LV grenade. complete with shoulder stock.3 lbs) of launcher permanently attached to the rifle. (image from Rama. at some cost in weight. The French are dedicated users of rifle grenades. Afterthought If there is a specialist grenadier in the infantry section/squad.0-fr) ****************************** 18     . These are less accurate. that means the XM25 or mediumvelocity 40mm ammunition fired from a six-shot revolver or something like the Rheinmetall Hydra.In terms of current western projects.5 kg (3.