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Antitank Weapons

Antitank Weapons. Tanks first appeared in battle in World War I. Their bolted armor plate protected crews, weapons, power train, on‐board ammunition, and fuel against machine gun and artillery fire. Firepower was provided by artillery cannon and machine guns. Full tracked, tractor‐like chassis provided mobility to both weapons and armor, but mobility was considerably inhibited by trenches, shell craters, and Western Front mud. No antitank weapons specifically designed for that purpose were employed against 1917–18 tanks.

By World War II, antitank weapons included rounds from high velocity cannon, shaped charge warheads on shoulder fired rockets, and antitank mines. Cannon, on towed mounts, tanks, or motorized gun carriages, were adaptations of artillery or air defense weapons. Cannon sought to defeat armor using explosive (blast energy), high velocity (kinetic energy), or shaped charge (chemical energy) warheads. Kinetic energy from high velocity rounds is a function of half the projectile mass multiplied by the square of projectile velocity. Shaped charge cannon warheads, similar to those of portable shoulder fired antitank rockets, are designed to defeat armor with a high velocity jet of extremely small particles formed from detonation of a cone‐shaped explosive charge. Since penetration by shaped charge is a function of the diameter of the explosive cone, larger diameter charges promise greater penetration than smaller diameter warheads, where size and weight are limited by cannon caliber or the need for man‐portability. Finally, antitank mines are designed to immobilize tanks, principally by damaging track and suspension gear. Armor had been improved to counter new antitank weapons. Welded seams replaced riveted joints, cast or rolled homogenous armor replaced boiler plate; all served to limit antitank lethality to ranges of about 1100 meters.

By the 1991 Persian Gulf War, large diameter long range antitank guided missiles, with acronyms like SAGGER, TOW, HOT, MILAN, and HELLFIRE, guided by wire, radio, or laser, fired from vehicles or aircraft, with effective hit‐kill ranges of four kilometers or more, had been fielded. Shaped charge antitank mines, and small, self‐forging penetrator warheads were employed for attack of less well protected areas, e.g. belly, sides, and tops of armored vehicles. Tank cannon rounds featured more powerful kinetic energy penetrators which, for the first time, were competitive with shaped charge warheads. Together with vastly improved fire control, day and night, these weapons more than quadrupled World War II lethal tank gun engagement ranges. To counter more lethal antiarmor weapons, armored vehicles featured armor with tougher penetration resistant materials, including ceramics and depleted uranium, and more effective, less penetrable, geometries, all logical extensions of the never‐ending armor/antiarmor competition.


Robert M. Citino , Armored Forces: History and Sourcebook, 1994.

Donn A. Starry

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