As early as the 8th century, soldiers in the Byzantine Empire learned to throw Greek fire, an incendiary chemical mixture whose composition is lost to history, in small pots with lit fuses that ignited the contents. Iron grenades first appeared in Europe in the 15th century, using burning wicks or fuses to set off densely packed blackpowder contents. The grenadier badge, showing flames emitting from a small spherical bomb, is an accurate representation of the inherently hazardous operation of hand grenades. Despite slight improvements in grenade and fuse designs, including the Civil War-era Ketchum device that used a plunger to detonate a percussion cap in the powder charge and a tail fin to ensure the plunger hit the ground when thrown, the dangers of grenades made them essentially obsolete by the turn of the 20th century. Modern fuses, similar to those in use today, that made grenades safe to carry and operate brought the weapons back in World War I. Still, grenade effectiveness was limited to the distance it could be thrown by an average soldier—about 100 feet. Furthermore, the grenade had to be lightweight. A larger, heavier device was unwieldy with a shorter throw range.

The solution to this problem was the grenade launcher, with ranges far greater than the human arm. Russia originated several devices as early as World War I, most of which used blank rounds to propel grenades several times farther than throwing range. The Japanese created tube-launched grenade dischargers, commonly called “knee mortars” in World War II, and developed sophisticated grenades that could be adapted for throwing, rifle launching or firing from discharger tubes. The U.S. developed the M7 grenade launcher in 1943. The M7 followed the Russian approach, using a tube attached to the M1 Garand barrel and launching cylindrical rifle grenades with blank rounds, usually fired with the stock on the ground because of its considerable recoil. Grenades fired from the M7 could reach out to approximately 380 yards.

Grenade launchers have evolved considerably since World War II. Today, military forces employ everything from old-fashioned muzzle-fired devices to attached or standalone launchers, single- and multi-shot, automatic and rocket-propelled weapons. Grenades also have improved over time, with far more lethal performance and flexibility. The following survey of these systems demonstrates the wide variety of this venerable, proven infantry weapon.

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