September 29, 2021
By Will Dabbs, MD, Movie Guns Editor
In the early morning of September 25th, 1993, an Army buddy of mine was flying a 101st Airborne Division UH60 Blackhawk helicopter as part of the “Eyes Over Mogadishu” mission in Somalia. The familiar events depicted in the book and movie Blackhawk Down would occur some eight days later. He had landed his aircraft for refuel only to be interrupted by a mortar barrage. Their flight of two Blackhawks then lifted off and circled to gain a vantage on the enemy activities in the city below.
At this point, the city of Mogadishu was a hornet’s nest of militia activity, but there had not yet been a great deal of violence directed toward American forces. US troops were in the country as part of the Unified Task Force (UNITAF) Operation Restore Hope, a well-intended undertaking attempting to establish sufficient security to facilitate UN famine relief efforts. Prior to this operation one in ten Somali children under the age of five had died from malnutrition. There had thus far been sporadic exchanges between UN forces and irregular troops allied with sundry warlords, but things seemed tenuously under control. This was an illusion.
An RPG-7 round rose from the war-torn cityscape below and connected with the crew compartment of my buddy’s helicopter. The antitank warhead detonated, killing the three crewmembers in the back and igniting the aircraft’s onboard fuel stores. He attempted to guide the crippled helicopter toward friendly positions occupying the Mogadishu seaport, but lost altitude quickly and impacted the top of a nearby building. The doomed aircraft hit the ground hard and skidded more than 100 meters before coming to rest against an embankment. What followed was one of the most compelling though seldom told stories to come out of the Battle of Mogadishu.
The rocket launcher that Mohamed Farah Aidid’s forces used to shoot down this first Blackhawk helicopter was a versatile and ubiquitous product of the Cold War. The RPG-7 is the most commonly used antitank weapon in the world. Rugged, portable, reusable, and deadly, the classic RPG-7 can be found most anyplace organized groups of people try to kill each other. The RPG-7 is an evolutionary development of the earlier post-war RPG-2.
RPG doesn’t actually mean “Rocket-Propelled Grenade,” and the RPG is actually a hybrid rocket system in the purest sense. The acronym is short for Ruchnoy Protivotankoviy Granatomyot in Russian. This directly translates into “Handheld Antitank Grenade Launcher.” While the RPG-7 does indeed fire a rocket-propelled projectile, it is initially launched by a modest gunpowder charge that pushes the round through its first 100 meters or so. This booster charge produces a characteristic ample puff of grey-blue smoke and operates in the manner of a recoilless rifle. Once the round is clear of the launcher the sustainer motor ignites and accelerates the rocket out to about five hundred meters. From that point on the round coasts under its own momentum. Most RPG rounds include a self-destruct feature that detonates the warhead automatically at around 920 meters.
The RPG-7 was first delivered to the Soviet Army in 1961 and is currently in use with the militaries of at least 104 nations. Israel produces ammunition locally to feed their captured launchers, while a company called Airtronic here in the US manufactures an Information Age upgraded version of the weapon today. There are at least nine different types of warheads produced in four broad categories for a wide variety of applications. Around nine million copies have seen service.
Rocket-propelled antitank weapons really came into their own during WW2. Both the United States and Germany produced parallel designs that ultimately revolutionized the anti-armor capabilities of Infantry forces. Prior to the advent of the shaped charge heavy cumbersome antitank rifles like the British Boys .55-caliber weapon tried and failed to keep up with developments in armor technology.
The earliest official mention of shaped charge technology dates back to 1792 and a German mining engineer named Franz Xavier von Baader. Von Baader suggested in a mining journal of the day that by orienting a blasting charge above an empty conical space one could focus an explosive’s effect and thereby conserve blasting powder. Here the idea languished until the late 19th century.
Charles Munroe was a civilian chemist working at the US Naval Torpedo Station in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1888. He observed that when a block of explosive guncotton was detonated alongside a steel plate the manufacturer’s name that had been stamped into the explosive block would be cut into the steel. By raising the charge above the plate Munroe could alter the depth and intensity of the impression. The resulting phenomenon became known as the Munroe Effect.
While weapons designers piddled with the idea for decades, it was not until 1932 that a German student of Physics named Franz Rudolph Thomanek conceived an antitank round using this principle. By creating a conical shaped charge with a mechanical standoff from the target a warhead forms a type of explosive lens that focuses the shock of an explosion onto a single spot. The resulting effect is entirely kinetic but tends to liquify steel armor at that focused point and punch into the interior of an armored vehicle. The result is predictably ghastly.
During WW2, Munroe Effect munitions were used in the German Panzerschreck, Panzerfaust, Panzerwurfmine, and Mistel. The British used the concept in their PIAT launchers. Soviet RPG-43 and RPG-6 antitank hand grenades employed shaped charges as did the American M-9 bazooka and M9A1 antitank rifle grenade. Tank warfare would never be the same.
On an RPG-7 rocket the foremost cone is simply empty space enclosed in sheet steel. This architecture provides the necessary standoff. The explosive lens focuses its jet of superheated plasma onto a thin sheet of copper located within the warhead. The resulting explosively-formed copper dart is what penetrates the armor. The actual explosive charge is located in the rear half of the device. How deep a hole a shaped charge can cut is a general function of the diameter of the warhead.
I have tested this effect myself using Tannerite. I formed an improvised shaped charge by affixing a paper Solo drinking cone inside a toilet paper tube. I packed the outside of the cone-shaped bit with Tannerite, sealed it all up with duct tape, and then arranged the toilet paper tube to establish the proper standoff distance. I then taped the whole shebang to the trunk of a big cedar tree standing in the lake behind my house, retreated a safe distance, and shot the thing end on with a .223 bolt-action precision rifle. The end result was a roughly half-inch hole bored cleanly through the foot-thick trunk. I can think of no real practical application for such stuff in my little world, but it made for a fascinating way to kill a lazy Saturday afternoon.
The rest of the RPG-7 round consists of a set of large folding metal fins as well as a smaller set of offset fins at the base. The large fins create uniform drag and keep the round pointed in the right direction. The smaller fins impart a gentle spin to help stabilize the round in flight.
I’ve yet to see a movie get an RPG-7 right. The 1984 John Milius classic Red Dawn was one of the first American films to include an RPG-7, but their launchers were scratch-built props. The Red Dawn RPGs actually used the caps from Crest toothpaste tubes on the noses of their rockets. The projectiles were guided along thin wires and propelled by model rocket engines. The biggest anomaly I have seen in movies is that the round always moves too slowly.
The velocity of an RPG round is in the vicinity of 925 feet per second. That is roughly the same speed as a typical .45ACP bullet. As a result, live RPGs seem much closer to guns than model rockets. There’s not a great deal of delay between firing and impact. Total time from launch to mandatory self-destruct at 920 meters is only about three seconds. RPG rounds also do not typically leave obvious smoke trails, either, though the initial backblast can easily give away a firer’s position.
The ample fins on the back of the RPG warhead also create a curious crosswind effect. When viewed from the side in flight the rear portion of the warhead has a much greater air resistance than the front bit. In still air this doesn’t make any difference. Crosswinds, however, produce some odd paradoxical performance.
An RPG round in flight subjected to a crosswind will tend to yaw such that the tail sweeps away from the wind and the nose moves upwind. This causes an RPG rocket fired into a crosswind to track into the wind. This effect is more pronounced the greater the range to target and the higher the windspeed. Only the most experienced and lucky RPG gunners can land accurate rounds on target at significant ranges in windy conditions. In many cases multiple RPGs are fired in salvoes as a result.
While the initial booster charge has the effect of removing the rocket motor a safe distance from the firer prior to ignition, it does create a significant backblast. YouTube has some darkly humorous videos of terrorists wandering behind RPGs just as their miscreant pals touch them off with tragic effect. However, military manuals claim you can safely fire an RPG-7 in an enclosed space so long as you have two-meters’ worth of clearance behind the weapon. I do, however, suspect that such a maneuver would indeed reliably clear your sinuses.
The typical RPG-7 weighs 15 pounds with its 2.7x PGO-7 optical sight and is 37.4 inches long. The internal diameter of the launch tube is 40mm. The RPG-7D is an airborne version that breaks into two smaller components for easier portage.
The launcher comes with adjustable flip-up iron sights welded to the tube. The rear iron sight is adjustable out to 500 meters. The PGO-7 includes an internal mirror system to orient the line of sight outside the area occluded by the warhead. The reticle in the PGO-7 is graduated out to 500 meters and includes stadia used for range and windage estimation. These range-finding stadia are calibrated for 2.7 meters, the height of an American Cold War-era M60 tank. The RPG-7 optics mount is Combloc standard and can accept passive IR or image intensifying night sights as well.
Current production ammunition falls into four broad categories. The 93mm PG-7VL HEAT (High Explosive Antitank) round is a general purpose warhead effective against both armored vehicles and fortified emplacements. The dual 64mm/105mm PG-7VR HEAT warhead is specifically designed to defeat modern armored vehicles equipped with explosive reactive armor. The smaller 64mm warhead detonates the reactive armor block making way for the main warhead to penetrate the vehicle. These shaped charges can defeat up to a whopping half meter of steel.
The TBG-7V Tanin 105mm thermobaric warhead is designed for urban warfare. This weapon is crafted to destroy voluminous structures from the inside out. The OG-7V is a close-range 40mm fragmentation warhead that turns the RPG-7 into a close combat grenade launcher. The OG-7V round has no sustainer motor and fills roughly the same role as our 40mm grenade launchers might.
Architecture and Origins
The RPG-7 sports a wooden or polymer sheath that helps protect the firer from the heat of launching. The front pistol grip includes a manually-cocked hammer and a simple crossbolt safety. The rear grip just gives you something else upon which to cling. There is a removable folding bipod available as well as fixed sling swivels on the right side of the tube.
Registered transferable RPG-7 launchers come available from time to time. However, it would be tough to justify the expense, transfer tax and hassle as there will literally never be live RPG rounds available to American civilians. There is a cool sub-caliber training device that fits inside the RPG tube and fires 7.62x39mm tracer rounds, but these kits are both rare and expensive. Acquiring your own operational RPG-7 with subcaliber device requires patient stalking on online fora as well as a fair amount of cash.
The Rest of the Story
The Blackhawk burst into flames immediately upon being hit. Pilots in the other aircraft said it looked like a comet going in. My friend had just enough time to drag his fellow pilot clear before the aircraft became fully involved. Everything happened so fast that Somali militia on the ground presumed the entire crew died in the crash. Both American pilots were badly burned. My buddy suffered a broken wrist, and his comrade was temporarily blinded. Help was nowhere close.
The two Army pilots retreated into an alcove to take stock of the situation. For a variety of reasons their survival radios were too noisy to use given the proximity of hostiles. Between the two of them they had a pair of Beretta M9 pistols with a single magazine each and a pair of survival knives. When the armed militia troops got close my buddy emptied one of the M9s, causing the approaching irregulars to take cover and open fire. A grenade thrown by one of the attackers inexplicably failed to detonate. Now, he had two handguns and one magazine of ammunition. When the attacking militia approached a second time my buddy unloaded with the second handgun, this time striking one of the approaching militia members. The Somalis had at this point become quite agitated.
The two aviators were now essentially defenseless in the face of a hostile mob of armed militia. My buddy was quoting scripture to his friend, feeling that they were at the moment of capture. At that point a young Somali unexpectedly appeared out of nowhere and said simply, “American boys!” My pal lifted his comrade and followed the kid who led them to safety with a nearby combat unit from the United Arab Emirates. Their Somali guide then disappeared.
My buddy is a man of deep Christian faith whose experience in those dark streets of Mogadishu has become a powerful testimony. He unreservedly gives God the credit for saving his life along with that of his comrade that day. As regards the unknown Somali kid he had this to say, “Perry (his fellow pilot) and I believe he was an angel, to show us the way.”
Where Do You Get One?
My RPG is a demilled version from Gun Parts Corporation. The demilling process involves cutting a chunk of the tube away on the left aspect of the launcher underneath the heat shield and welding a steel rod in place through the firing pin assembly. The end result is utterly inert but looks just super cool hanging on the wall of the man cave.
I bought an empty Chinese rocket via eBay several years ago that is inert but otherwise crafted from original components. This rocket includes the empty sustainer motor and folding fins. These rockets can be tough to find these days and are too long to seat fully inside the tube given the restrictor bar. The warhead I use in my launcher is a 3D-printed version I found online. You really can get just about anything on eBay.
As of this writing SARCO, Inc. offered RPG-2 rockets, spent RPG-75 tubes, and sundry support gear. They also sell replica Panzerfausts, Panzerschrecks, and bazookas as well as the kits to make your own at home. If your proclivities wander to truly weird inert ordnance, that’s the place to start.
RPG-7 Antitank Rocket Launcher Technical Specifications
- Bore Diameter: 40mm
- Warhead Diameter: 85mm
- Weight: 15 lbs. with PGO-7 Optical Sight
- Length: 37.4 in
- Velocity: 115 meters/sec (boost)/300 meters/sec (flight)
- Maximum Effective Range: 700 meters
- Sights: PGO-7 2.7X Optical/Flip-Up Backup Iron Sights
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.
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.