August 30, 2023
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I’d like to introduce you to Jonathan Wild. This 26 year old has lived an interesting life, born in Canada he moved to the United Kingdom as a child and eventually immigrated to the United States. He clearly possesses the gun nerd gene. He first went shooting at age 11 and started collecting guns at 18. He began designing firearms three years later and has been developing a type of semi-caseless ammunition and already holds a patent for an electrically-primed AR bolt intended to be used with this new round. But, why I’m introducing you to him is he’s the author of Expedient Recoilless Launcher: Panzerfaust. This is a Do-It-Yourself book on building and live-firing a legal Panzerfaust recoilless launcher.
Yes, Jonathan Wild did something every last one of us has wished we could do. Taking great pains to adhere to the pertinent labyrinthine laws and respect the requisite safety considerations, Jonathan has carefully constructed a fully operational replica of the World War II-era German Panzerfaust anti-tank weapon. In addition to filming some simply superlative YouTube videos (his channel is Wild Arms Research and Development) of test firing his recoilless launcher, Mr. Wild also published a useful and informative how-to book on the subject. You can find it on Amazon for only $20.99. Copyright date is 2020 and ISBN: 978-0-578-76286-9.
What Is A Panzerfaust?
Panzerfaust literally translates “Tank Fist.” A revolutionary man-portable anti-tank tool, the Panzerfaust was one of several paradigm-shifting weapons widely fielded by the Germans during World War II. The unit itself is a single-shot recoilless launcher firing a high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) warhead. It was designed to be simple and economical to make, easy to effectively employ and devastating on target. After firing the tube was simply discarded. Introduced in 1943 it was steadily improved and the name Panzerfaust covers an entire line of recoilless anti-tank weapons.
This cheap recoilless anti-armor launcher required minimal training to operate effectively. The Panzerfaust consisted of little more than a rather basic shaped charge warhead sporting simple spring steel fins all fitted into a disposable launching tube. Propulsion was derived from a generous charge of black powder. While the range was short, effect on target was impressive and it proved capable of knocking out any Allied tank. The Panzerfaust, along with the US M1 60mm Bazooka and German 88mm Panzerschreck (both rocket launchers), fundamentally changed the tactical calculus between infantrymen and armored vehicles. Inexpensive, easy to operate, and undeniably deadly, the Panzerfaust transformed any determined grunt into a potential tank-killing machine. Despite sporting a terrifyingly short range (models ranged from 30 to 150 meters), this simple yet effective weapon ultimately influenced arms development and small unit tactics to this very day.
The Panzerfaust was capable of a great deal more than just killing armored vehicles. The warheads on these weapons packed a generous payload of high explosive. The thin steel shells offered minimal fragmentation effects, but the ample blast and overpressure were nonetheless effective against enemy personnel, soft-skinned vehicles, buildings, walls and bunkers. Infantrymen so armed could employ them to blast enemy troops out of houses and trenches, blow holes through walls to gain entrance into buildings/courtyards, knock-out trucks and troop transports and any other task a 1.8 pound charge of HE was suitable for.
Introduced in 1943, the Panzerfaust was produced in five different variations. Each numerical designation corresponded to the weapon’s optimal range in meters. The first was the Panzerfaust 30 (nicknamed “Gretchen”), which had an optimal range of 30 meters (for hitting a moving tank under real world field conditions) although the warhead could be launched further, just with less accuracy. This weighed 11.2 pounds and was 3.4 feet long. The warhead was propelled by a 3.4-ounce black powder charge. To aim you simply aligned the pressed steel flip-up rear sight with the edge of the warhead.
Subsequent models included the Panzerfaust 60, 100, 150, and 250. The Panzerfaust 60 (nicknamed “the 60” and “burning club”) was the most common variant. This had a 44mm steel tube, improved firing mechanism and weather resistance, plus it had double the range of the previous model and a higher velocity. Sight apertures were calibrated for 30, 60 and 80 meters and it weighed 14.9 pounds. The Panzerfaust 100 added a second launching charge, spaced from the first so as to not increase pressure, which greatly increased the range and velocity. Sight settings were changed to 50, 100 and 150 meters.
At peak production the Germans were churning out Panzerfausts at a rate of 400,000 per month. The Panzerfaust 100 saw limited service toward the end of the war. The Panzerfaust 150 and 250 never saw significant action. The Panzerfaust 150 was initially designed as a single-shot throw-away weapon and small numbers were tested on the Eastern Front. It was then redesigned to be reusable, but never made it into the field. The Panzerfaust 250 sported a separate pistol grip and was intended to be reusable, resembling the subsequent Combloc RPG-2. It never made it off the drawing board. All Panzerfaust weapons were fairly low-velocity designs with warheads that travelled between 100 and 150 feet per second.
The warhead on the Panzerfaust 30 was 5.5 inches in diameter and employed a shaped charge allowing it to penetrate 200mm (7.8 inches) of armor. The shaped charge was based upon the Munroe Effect. This curious bit of frenetic physics was the result of a serendipitous discovery by one Charles Munroe in 1888. While the basic concept dates back to 1792, it was Munroe a century later who really divined the particulars. While working as a civilian chemist at the US Navy’s Torpedo Station at Newport, Rhode Island, Munroe observed that a block of high explosive guncotton detonated against a metal plate left a stark impression of the manufacturer’s name that had been embossed into the explosive material. By varying the distance between the explosive and the target Munroe could alter the degree of penetration of the letters. Inspired by this curious observation, by 1894 Munroe had created the world’s first effective shaped charge.
A modern shaped charge is a cone-shaped block of high explosive with a metallic liner that creates a concentrated lens effect when detonated. This peculiar design generates a high velocity jet formed by the explosive collapse of a metallic cone to kinetically penetrate armor. A shaped charge allows a relatively lightweight man-portable warhead to defeat simply amazing amounts of armor plate without the need for a high velocity projectile. This basic concept has been successfully employed up until the present day.
The average World War II German infantryman didn’t care about the Munroe Effect or how it worked. All he cared about was killing Soviet tanks. The Panzerfaust turned him into a tank hunter. The weapon’s reach was short, typically 60 to 100 meters with a high trajectory so correct range estimation was important. Velocity was low (100 to 150 fps) which made hitting moving targets more difficult.
To fire a Panzerfaust 60, first you pulled a safety pin which held the rear sight in place. Rotating the rear sight up also freed a sliding safety. The sights were crude, consisting of a flip-up rear sight with three aiming apertures (30, 60 and 80 meters) and a front bead sight on the warhead. Slide the safety forward to place the weapon on Fire. With the tube tucked under the gunner’s armpit and a clear back-blast area, the gunner placed the front sight on the target and lined it up in the correct rear aperture for the range. If the target was moving he had to estimate the proper lead.
The trigger lever runs parallel with the launch tube. Depressing the front of the trigger lever releases a simple spring-steel snap-strip fitted with a firing pin. This snaps down and fires a primer which ignites the black powder launching charge. Half of the propellant’s thrust propels the projectile while the other half is vented out the back of the tube to counter recoil. The warhead is blown out the front of the tube while a large fiery blast exits out of the back of the tube. The back-blast danger area extended for approximately 2 meters behind the weapon and also indicated the firer’s position with its fire and smoke.
On impact the Panzerfaust’s warhead blasted a hole through the tanks armor. An informal test showed the Panzerfaust to punch a 2.75-inch hole in armor while the 88mm warhead from the Panzerschreck’s rocket made an approximately 1-inch hole and the US M1 60mm Bazooka made an approximately .5-inch hole. Effect on target was terrific with massive spalling which killed or injured the crew, destroyed equipment and detonated ammunition. Approximately 70% of Soviet tanks destroyed in urban combat in Eastern Germany were knocked out using either Panzerfausts or Panzerschrecks.
Building a Panzerfaust
Can you really build a legal Panzerfaust? Jonathan started out by registering his launcher as a Destructive Device (DD) with the BATF. The details of what constitutes a registerable DD are available on the BATF website. Given the scale of this project and the amount of propellant used, this is a necessary step to keep things legal.
Jonathan’s plans include the option of using factory-built inert warheads from replica launchers or manufacturing your own from scratch. His book discusses the materials and tools required and includes easily understood step-by-step instructions. Nothing in the process seems terribly challenging. It goes without saying, but proceed at your own risk if you choose to explore this project yourself. Crafting operational replica anti-tank weapons at home eclipses mountain biking, bungee jumping, and competitive bull riding for its unfettered potential to pulverize your person.
The Panzerfaust chassis is little more than a length of steel tubing with the extremely simple firing mechanism attached. The firing mechanism Jonathan uses is adapted from that of a replica launcher. His book also includes the technical drawings to manufacture these from scratch if desired. Per Jonathan’s treatise, the launcher can be fired via simple cannon fuse, an electric igniter, or a percussion primer.
Jonathan’s projectiles are powered by four ounces of cannon-grade black powder, similar to the originals. The weapon is recoilless, meaning mass times velocity of the backblast gases equals mass times velocity of the warhead. The backblast from the original launchers was purportedly dangerous out to eighteen meters. Unlimbering such a beast inside a room was a reliably bad idea.
The engineering challenge is to increase the operating pressure of the system without bursting the tube or burning ridiculous volumes of propellant. Jonathan uses a cardboard toilet paper tube to hold his powder charge. The propellant cake on a solid fuel rocket or recoilless round is called a grain. If the grain is one homogenous solid mass then it burns quickly. This creates a massive smoke plume but is not terribly efficient. However, there is a simple technique for enhancing the effectiveness of this system.
Jonathan breaks his lift charge into fourths. The first increment is pressed into the tube and seated with a cardboard disk over the top that has a small hole cut in the center. Then the next charge increment is tamped in place above that, followed by another identical perforated cardboard disk. He repeats this process until all the powder is accounted for and then seals the whole shebang with cardboard, glue, and wax to help exclude moisture.
This design allows the lift charge to ignite sequentially and create a higher pressure than might otherwise be the case. Greater pressure means better velocity and longer range. All of the cardboard components are ejected out the tail of the weapon upon firing. Black powder is both corrosive and filthy. As is the case with any black powder weapon, a vigorous cleaning is indicated after firing. His full-size replica projectile properly stabilized and reached 120 yards while the launching tube safely maintained its integrity.
Jonathan is already deep into his second book. His next project recreates the Fliegerfaust. This nine-shot, shoulder-fired, recoilless short-range antiaircraft weapon uses a similar concept to the Panzerfaust to launch 20mm projectiles in a cloud at low-flying aircraft. The Germans developed the concept at the end of World War II but never got it perfected. I can’t wait to see how that one turns out.
Modern combat involves lots of tools other than rifles. Mortars, anti-tank systems, mines, IEDs, EFPs, Molotov cocktails, and anti-materiel weapons firing special purpose ammunition all have their place. In fact, during the latter stages of the First World War highly-trained and motivated German Stormtroopers often cleared Allied trenches solely with hand grenades. In the case of the Panzerfaust, Jonathan Wild has shown us that a little ingenuity, meticulous adherence to regulations and safety, and a few basic supplies can indeed allow you to improvise a remarkably realistic facsimile at home. His book is a fascinating read.
About the Author
Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He is airborne and scuba qualified and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…at the controls of an Army helicopter. After eight years in the Regular Army, Major Dabbs attended medical school. He works in his urgent care clinic, shares a business building precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989.
The article was originally posted in Be Ready! magazine. You can purchase an original copy at OSGnewsstand.com. If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.