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RPG-2 Grenade Launcher Evolution

How the Soviet's simple Rocket-propelled Grenade Launcher evolved from the Panzerfaust.

RPG-2 Grenade Launcher Evolution
The RPG-2, demilled display piece seen here, is descended from the German Panzerfaust and is the first Soviet rocket-propelled grenade launcher to enter service.

The trinity of modern Russian small arms consists of: the AK, the PKM and the RPG. These are the rifle, the belt-fed machine gun and the rocket-propelled grenade launcher. The last of those is often portrayed by the iconic RPG-7. While, the RPG-7 may be the longest serving and most widespread member of the RPG family, the forerunner RPG-2 was a revolutionary weapon that led to the RPG-7’s development.

RPG does not stand for “Rocket Propelled Grenade”, but rather is the Russian abbreviation for “Ruchnoy Protivotankoviyy Granatomyot” or “Hand-held Anti-Tank Grenade Launcher”. The RPG-2 was developed in 1949 and went into Soviet and Combloc military service in the 1950s. Compared to the man-portable anti-tank weapons of the era, small recoilless rifles, the RPG-2 is lightweight, cheap to make and simple to use. While sufficient to defeat tanks designed with World War 2 level protection, by the mid-1960s the RPG-2 was obsolete. It was then replaced by the bigger and more powerful RPG-7 in Soviet military service.

While Russians will tell you they developed the RPG-2 themselves, the fact is that it’s largely based on the German Panzerfaust 150 and 250 anti-tank rocket launcher systems. During World War 2 the Soviet Red Army attempted to copy the original one-shot Panzerfaust. From captured samples they built a copy designated as the RPG-1. However, they weren’t able to copy the German technology. Both the Panzerfaust 150 and 250 were developed at the end of the war by the German firm HASAG. The Panzerfaust 150 was used in combat for the last few weeks, while the Panzerfaust 250 never made it out of the factory. When the Red Army overran the HASAG facility in Germany, they shipped everything they could back to Mother Russia.

RPG-2 Grenade Launcher
Panzerfaust armed Finnish tank hunters pass by an obliterated Soviet tank at the Battle of Tali-Ihantala, 1944, Continuation War. Photo courtesy SA-VAR.

The original one-shot Panzerfaust model is characterized by its large external warhead, rocket propulsion, fin stabilization and ability to be operated by a single soldier. Panzerfaust stands for “tank-fist” in German. It was developed as a single-shot alternative to the Panzerschreck, which is an improved copy of the American Bazooka. The Panzerfaust’s exposed warhead was a way to reduce the size and weight of the launch tube. The trade-off is the rocket doesn’t have sufficient tube length to build up speed before it leaves the launcher. The low velocity issue is still the main drawback of the later Russian RPG. To further simplify the design, the Panzerfaust replaced the electric firing system of the Panzerschreck and Bazooka with a percussion cap and hammer system. Due to the smaller tube size, the Panzerfaust had to use folding stabilizing fins


The Panzerfaust 150 is the first operator reloadable version of the German Panzerfaust. It also features a redesigned warhead with higher velocity and an effective range out to 100 meters. While retaining the lever activated trigger, the Panzerfaust 150’s launcher tube could be reloaded up to 10 times. The further improved Panzerfaust 250 has an even faster rocket motor and the launcher tube is made to be completely reusable with no limit on how many times it’s reloaded. Another big change is to the ergonomics by adding a pistol grip and a better sight. The Panzerfaust 250 has an effective range of 150 meters. All of the main features of the German Panzerfaust 250 were carried over to the Russian RPG-2. The Russian RPG-2 can be considered as a completion of the Panzerfaust 250 concept with a lot of Russian refinement.  


RPG-2 Grenade Launcher
The pistol grip assembly of the RPG-2 was so simple and reliable it was carried over basically unchanged to the later RPG-7.

The launcher tube of the RPG-2 is really just a piece of seamless steel tube with a few holes and some tabs welded on for mounting the iron sight, the trigger grip and the sling loops. The heat shield is very thin and made from a press-formed sheet of wood. It seems to me that it’s probably more of an insulator sleeve to protect the operator’s hand and face from a launcher tube heated by the sun, or in cold weather. On some models of the RPG-2, it has a detachable venturi exhaust director at the back. The launch tube’s wall thickness is noticeably thinner than the RPG-7’s. The thin steel construction is sufficient to withstand the black powder rocket motor of the RPG-2 grenade. There’s an index cut at the top of the muzzle used to align with a stud on the RPG-2 grenade when inserting it into the launcher tube.

RPG-2 Grenade Launcher
The RPG-2’s heat shields are very thin wood halves held together by metal bands. Note the de-mil hole cut in the tube wall as required by BATFE regulations.

The RPG-2’s trigger unit is an original Russian design. The Panzerfaust has a more angled pistol grip, like that of a modern Glock pistol’s grip, and its trigger seems to be a double-action type. The RPG-2’s trigger is a single-action type with an exposed hammer the operator must first manually cock before firing. The straight grip angle of the RPG-2 may look odd at first, but it’s fairly good for balancing the weapon. It’s actually angled upward a little bit with the bow of the trigger also tilted up to match. The shape of the grip on the other hand, is like just a 2x4 with slightly rounded edges. The trigger pull is nothing to write home about but it’s not the worst rocket launcher trigger that I have tried. The safety is a simple cross-pin type which locks both the trigger and the hammer. Simple and reliable, the RPG-2’s trigger and pistol grip unit was also used on the later RPG-7 with little changed.

RPG-2 Grenade Launcher
The RPG-2 is ready to fire with the sights flipped-up and the hammer cocked. It’s a very simple weapon to use.

The Soviets made a small number of night-vision capable RPG-2 launchers. These used the old school active IR technology that relied on an IR searchlight powered by a backpack size battery. Most of the RPG-2s were made with only flip-up iron sights. The rear sight has three open squares with a small vee-shaped notch stamped on the bottom of each opening. The notch lines up with the stamped flip-up front sight. The three open squares are marked for 50 meters, 100 meters and 150 meters range. The maximum range of the RPG-2 anti-tank grenade is 150 meters, just like that of the Panzerfaust 250’s.  

There are at least 12 factory grenades made for the RPG-2 by six different countries:


Soviet Union:
PG-2
PG-2 Improved Model 1
PG-2 Improved Model 2

China:
Type 50
Type 50-I
Type 56
Type 56-I

Poland:
Granatnik PG-2
Granatnik Improved PG-2


Romania:
ZG-RG

North Korea:
LCC-32

Vietnam:
B50 PG-2

Because of its sheet metal construction and black powder propellant, the RPG-2 grenade is very easy to fabricate in a small workshop. The Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, the Moro Islamic terrorist in the Philippines, and the Karen State in Myanmar have all been known to make RPG-2 grenades locally with whatever ordnances and explosive they could find.

RPG-2 Grenade Launcher
The RPG-2 was widely fielded by NVA and Viet Cong forces during the war in Vietnam.

The RPG-2’s grenade is similar in design and layout to the Panzerfaust 250. It has a larger oversize HEAT warhead in the front. Plus a stabilizer tube section in the middle, with six spring-loaded folding fins. At the rear is the screw-on rocket motor. Just like the Panzerfaust, the RPG-2’s rocket motor uses black powder as its propellant. The RPG-2’s rocket motor utilizes six shorter black powder charges in tandem, instead of the two longer and separate charges in the original German design. Technically, the RPG-2 is a type of recoilless rocket system. Its rocket motor completely burns out before the grenade exits the launcher tube. None of the RPG-2 grenades have a sustainer rocket motor like that of the RPG-7. Once fired, the RPG-2 grenade simply coasts all the way to the target.

The majority of the RPG-2 grenades are of the HEAT (high-explosive anti-tank) shape charge type. The typical explosive used in the HEAT warhead is TNT. The cone liner of the shape charge is made from copper alloy. The impact fuze is mechanical and located behind the TNT charge. The whole grenade is made from thin stamped sheet metal.

RPG-2 Grenade Launcher
A diagram of the RPG-2’s HEAT grenade as illustrated in the U.S. Army’s Foreign Weapons manual.

The RPG-2 gun crew consists of a gunner and an assistant gunner. Each carries a canvas RPG-2 backpack containing the tool kit, three PG-2 grenades and three rocket motors (aka, booster/propellant charge). Unlike that of the larger RPG-7 and its backpack, the RPG-2’s backpack carries everything inside protected by a large canvas cover. The grenades and rocket motors are stored separately, and only put together before loading into the launcher. The lower part of the RPG-2 backpack is reinforced by a lightweight metal sub-frame which holds its shape when set down on the ground. An extra firing pin is part of every RPG-2 tool kit.

The RPG-2 and China’s licensed copy, the Type 56 saw extensive use during the early years of the Vietnam War. It was fielded by both the Viet Cong and NVA forces. However, by the later 1960s the RPG-2 and the Type 56 were having problems defeating armor fielded by the U.S. military and the ARVN. The US-made M48 and M60 Patton tanks were basically immune to the RPG-2 HEAT grenade. The RPG-2 even had difficulty disabling the M113 armored personal carrier with its thin skin aluminum armor. In approximately late 1967, the North Vietnamese began to replace their RPG-2 variants with the newer Russian RPG-7.

On the other side of the Asia in March 1969 China and the Soviet Union fought a short border conflict at the Zhenbao/Damansky Island on the Ussuri River. The Chinese forces landed a dozen or so Type 56/RPG-2 grenade hits on four attacking Russian T-62 main battle tanks with no penetrations. After peace resumed, the Chinese Type 56 was quickly withdrawn from Chinese active duty military service. Although some of these remained in the hands of the militia and reserves up to the 1980s.  

The RPG-2’s successor is the iconic RPG-7. The RPG-7 has twice the effective range of the RPG-2 from its more powerful grenade with sustainer rocket motor. The RPG-7 comes with an optical sight with a range correction and target lead reticle. It also allows the mounting of night-vision sights by removing the day optic. The RPG-7 HEAT grenade uses a smaller and more sensitive piezo-electric fuze at the tip of the nose cone. By the late 1970s, even the RPG-7 was being replaced by the RPG-16 in the Russian military. The RPG-16 is basically a super-sized RPG-7 with a 58mm launcher.

RPG-2 Grenade Launcher
Today a demilled RPG-2 makes a great display piece for collectors, especially when dressed up with accessories from www.Sarcoinc.com as seen here.

A de-milled Russian RPG-2, as seen here, is a great piece for the Combloc collector. A large number came to US shores in recent years and can still be found with a little bit of searching. In addition, www.Sarcoinc.com has the dummy grenades and a number of RPG-2 accessories allowing a collector to dress one up for display!

RPG-2 Launcher Specifications:

  • Caliber: 40mm
  • Length: 47.2 inches
  • Weight: 6.29 pounds unloaded
  • Sights: Flip-up iron sights
  • Max effective range: 150 meters
  • Rate of fire: 3 rounds per minute
  • Crew: Gunner and assistant gunner 

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