Army Sergeant First Class Willie James Marshall (right) holds a rocket-propelled grenade found August 15, 2004 in the An Najaf cemetery in Iraq. U.S. Army soldiers are searching through the mausoleums, tombs and catacombs of the cemetery for weapons caches, improvised explosive devices and anti-Iraqi forces.
When Iraqi forces knocked out an M1A1 Abrams tank in August 2003, many speculated about the weapon they used. Mainstream opinion was the Iraqi forces had a new antitank weapon because their old RPG-7s were incapable of taking out the world’s most potent, heavily armored tank. But it was, in fact, most likely an RPG-7. Like the tanks it was originally designed to kill, the RPG has progressed and become capable of engaging more-modern armored vehicles. Rarely has an antitank weapon had such a long service life: over time, most targets evolve beyond a weapon’s capabilities. Fortunately, injuries to the tank’s crew were minor, but the August 2003 incident showed the 42-year-old RPG-7’s viability.
RPG In Wartime
The RPG-7 has seen action in virtually every conflict. During Vietnam, U.S. troops erected wire-mesh fences around their base camps to detonate RPG rounds (by shorting the firing circuit) launched by Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese (NVA) forces. Needless to say, the circuit’s shortcoming has long been corrected. The RPG has also proved effective against helicopters: a typical VC or NVA tactic was to wait until a chopper flared for landing and then fire an RPG into it.
The Soviets learned the same lesson in Afghanistan, when the Mujahideen turned RPGs into anti-helicopter weapons. In Somalia, the U.S. learned it again. (This was graphically documented in the book Black Hawk Down.) Forty years on the RPG-7 survives in frontline service with the Russian military and others.
How It Works
The RPG-7 succeeded the RPG-2, itself derived from the World War II German Panzerfaust antitank weapon. The RPG’s concept is simple: the launcher is essentially a tube with grip stocks and a sight (the RPG-2 has basic iron sights; the RPG-7, stadiametric optical sights for hitting moving targets). To load and fire the weapon, a cardboard booster tube is screwed to the rocket-grenade base, and the entire assembly is then inserted into the launcher tube from the muzzle end. An index notch on the launcher’s muzzle engages a stud on the grenade’s rocket motor to ensure that the booster percussion primer is aligned with the launcher firing pin.
The firing mechanism constitutes a trigger and single-action hammer that must be cocked to fire the grenade. The hammer strikes a firing pin that impinges on the booster’s primer, firing it by the age-old percussion method. The booster fires and ejects the grenade out of the launch tube. After about 10 meters, the rocket motor ignites and carries the grenade to its maximum range. Once the rocket motor ignites, the rocket velocity increases from 120 to 150 meters per second (mps) to upwards of 300 mps. With a competent grenadier, most PG-7 grenades have approximately a max range of 500 meters and an effective range of 300 meters. The grenade self-destructs after 5 seconds. Because the RPG-7’s warhead is outside the launch tube, the warhead’s diameter can vary. On the other hand, anti-armor weapons like the M72 LAW and the AT4 have warheads inside their launch tubes, which limit the warheads’ diameters.
The original RPG-7, slightly different from current models, was modified shortly after its introduction. Redesignated the RPG-7V, it continued to the present day virtually unchanged. In 1968, an airborne model, the RPG-7D (“D” is for desant, or Russian for “parachute”), was introduced. It could be disassembled into two sections when the airborne grenadier jumped. Both the RPG-7V and -7D have a bore diameter of 40mm and the same length when ready to fire. The latest models are the RPG-7V1 and RPG-7D1, which have specifications identical to their predecessors.
Russia is not the only producer of the RPG-7: Bulgaria, China, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Poland and Romania also produce the weapon, a testament to its simplicity and excellence. Widespread use of the RPG-7 continues across the world, and the weapon is offered from several manufacturers (and on the gray and black markets).
A short-lived variant of the RPG-7, the RPG-16, showed up in a few Soviet units in the early 1980s. The RPG-16 had a 58.3mm launch tube, which probably increased its range, though doing so would have been problematic without some kind of guidance feature. The RPG-16 was never marketed outside Russia, likely being a prototype given to their troops for testing. It was never adopted; Russia promotes the RPG-7 to this day.