Panzerfaust! A Fist To Knock Out Tanks
By Leszek Erenfeicht

Since times unremembered there has been, as aptly described in the early 20th Century “a race between the shield and arrow.” No sooner than one individual discovers a sure way to defeat armor, when another makes a better, more durable armor to defend himself from this new threat. AFVs, in one form or another, were known to the humanity for ages – what else were the battle elephants of Hannibal or hand cannon-toting ironclad wagenburgs of the Czech Hussites? The WW1 mechanized armored fighting vehicle was a logical consequence of the technological developments in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And so was the creation of specialized anti-tank weapons. The most efficient way to combat armor was, still is, and for some time still would be the artillery, once the classic one with long-barreled guns, now in the form of rocketry, especially the ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles). There were still some places, when either guns or missiles were unable to keep pace with the infantry – these inglorious kind of troops, who were always the enemy favored by the tanks, so confident in their invulnerability at the hands of mere humans, devoid of armor protection. However, this situation couldn’t last forever, and so the individual anti-tank weapons started to be devised right from the moment the first tank staggered into the battle, screeching and throbbing. With those first tanks roaming the battlefields at a mere crawling speed, carrying armor that barely protected the crews from small-arms ball ammunition and artillery shrapnel, the issue was quite straightforward: specialized armor-piercing hard-cored ammunition for the rifles and machine guns was enough to inflict casualties inside, when aimed at the vision slots and weapon ports. After first encounters, lessons were learned the hard way and the armor protection was thickened enough to deny ordinary small arms the chance to pierce anything. The last year of the Great War saw premieres of the two specialized anti-tank weapons: the AT rifle, essentially a king-sized Mauser rifle chambered for a 13mm equally king-sized rifle round, and the heavy machine gun, in form of the 13mm TuF – a Maxim derivative, shooting the same king-sized round fully automatic. But these rounds were as few and far between as were the guns, so the intrepid – and desperate – infantrymen tried to get through the thick hide of the tanks using other improvised weapons, like satchel charges made of bundled hand grenades.

Between the wars those two trends guided the development of the infantry’s own antitank weapons: larger caliber anti-tank rifles and HMGs were designed or fielded by nearly every army of the world, as well as specialized antitank grenades; essentially equally king-sized in comparison with these intended against mere humans.

During the same time, despite rapidly thickening armored protection, tanks developed from hardly movable crawling pillboxes into agile and deadly maneuverable machines, eventually causing a pronounced crisis in the infantry AT defense: their hide thickness had finally overgrown the armor-piercing ability resulting from kinetic energy that any bullet from man-portable weapon could achieve.

Some Physics To Start With

If the kinetic energy of a bullet fired from a weapon one human could carry ceased to be enough to pierce the armor plate, some other ways to defeat it were needed. The natural choice was explosives, proven efficient enough during the recent conflict. But the problem was how to deliver them where they could be most effective – close to the armor, wheels and tracks, or engine. It was back to square one and to people running on the battlefield with satchel charges – not an enviable job. Besides, the tanks were now fast enough to outpace the would-be assailant. Instead of chasing the tank around, place the charge in such a way that the vehicle would run over it. Thus, AT land mines were devised – simple, effective and reliable under most conditions. The problem was that they had to be placed before the tanks appeared, and no one knew when and where they would appear. One simply cannot bury mines all throughout the country, waiting for the enemy tank to arrive. Anti-tank mines are big, heavy, and completely passive – once set somewhere they could only wait, and it took engineers to first set them, and then remove. Thus the hapless infantryman was again left to his own devices.

If not explosives, then maybe fire. As early as WW1, incendiary bottles and flame-throwers were used against bunkers; including moving pillboxes. Then the AT rifle pushed them aside as the safer and more efficient long range weapon. But then petrol bottles came back with a vengeance during the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s, having had their hour of glory during the Winter War, when Finnish soldiers dubbed them “Molotov cocktails” – a name that stuck ever since.

At about the same time, experiments started to determine if there was a chance to militarily employ a certain physical phenomenon connected with explosives called the Monroe effect. It was so called as to honor American naval torpedo engineer Charles Monroe, but it was actually first described five years earlier, in 1883 by a German researcher, Maximilian Foerster. Both discovered that when the explosive charge is shaped in a peculiar way, by forming cavities in the front side of the charge contacting a steel plate, the explosion force would be focused in this precise point and inflict more damage. But despite Monroe actually blowing a hole with a shaped charge in a large safe in 1890 and describing it ten years later in an article in Popular Science, still for half a century no one tried it in a military application. Another German, Helmut Neumann, filed a patent in 1911, but still he didn’t as much as mention the armor-piercing potential of his invention. For 20 more years it was largely forgotten. Then in the 1930s a Swiss-based filial of a German armament concern started to experiment with the military application of the “Neumanns-Verfahren” (Neumann’s Method) as it was known then.

A shaped- (or hollow-) charge acts somewhat like a large magnifying glass, focusing the sun’s rays in one small spot. In this case there is of course no sun, all the energy is delivered by the explosion, but it acts similarly – a high-speed warm solid (in a shaped charge/liner) focuses opposite to the cavity in the charge, instead of spreading the pressure evenly, like in any other contact explosion. The energy/velocity of this stream is high enough to make thick armor plates plastic, malleable, and the jet/solid enters the plate. If the plate is not thick enough to let the energy dissipate before it hits the other side, it would be pierced. Contrary to our magnifying glass analogy though, the plate is not burned through, as many people tend to describe the shaped-charge effect. It is rather pierced or even bored through by pure kinetic action. The detonation is fiery and spectacular, but the piercing effect is caused not by temperature, but extreme overpressure, due to density reaching into millions of pounds per square inch. When even that is not enough, the cavity can be lined with metal (most frequently copper for its density and ductility), and this liner disintegrates into an elongated stream of metal particles, a “Warm Solid” advancing at hypervelocity (5-6 miles per second), which bores the steel plate even deeper. The more perpendicularly the stream hits the plate, the deeper it penetrates, but the energy dissipates along this penetration. The after-effect on the vehicle hit by a shaped-charge depends on how much energy remains. The inner surface of the plate boils out around the exit hole, and the metal expelled by popping bubbles immediately freezes back into deadly spall, affecting crew and mechanisms alike. If the armor was not thick enough to absorb the energy of the metal particles flow from the liner, another source of spall forms, with parts of the liner attaining speed of up to 1.5 mile per second.

The world has discovered the practical meaning of that theory at dawn of May 11, 1940, when German paratrooper engineers set their semispherical shaped-charges over the turrets and observation posts of the Belgian fortress Eben-Emael, guarding the vital Meuse crossing. The tanks, jubilant after the 1939 campaign in Poland had shown their relative immunity against infantry weapons, had just found a deadly adversary to haunt them ever since.

A Question of Delivery

In their initial form the shaped charges of Eben-Emael were still useless against moving tanks. Huge semi-spheres containing two dozen (Hl 12.5 kg) to ten dozen (Hl 50 kg) pounds of TNT laced with pentrite were capable of destroying any tank ever roaming the planet – but first there was a slight problem to crack: how to deliver them to the target. Fortress cupolas were not moving. Two-man teams could place any charges they pleased on their tops and retreat after lighting the fuze to a relative safety. Not that easy, mind you, with a moving foxhole barreling at 30 mph cross-country...

Artillery was again the first solution. German gunners were the first in the world to get HEAT (High Explosive Anti-Tank) ammunition for their 75, 88 and 150mm cannon, even before the war broke out in 1938. Nevertheless, they were far from popular for several reasons. Rifled barrels are used to make the projectile spin around its longitudinal axis to enhance stability – and this they did, but at the same time this same rotation dispersed the piercing jet. To reduce spinning, the muzzle velocity was diminished by reducing the powder charge. This made the hollow-charged projectiles high-angle fired ammunition – even if fired from a cannon. This however made them extremely vulnerable to even a minute failure in distance measuring, while at the same time reducing the distance of engagement and accuracy. For these reasons up until the end of WW2 and the advent of smooth-bore cannon, HEAT ammunition did not catch on with tank or anti-tank gunners, who were instead able to fire flat-trajectory kinetic energy projectiles at pinpoint accuracy from their super-long (>70 calibers) barrels. The developments in such ammunition and guns enabled the gunners to keep one step ahead of any armor developments well into 1950s. And so, again, the only people to appreciate effective anti-tank defense by using HEAT ammunition were those used for high-angle fire: infantry gunners, using their short-barreled 75 and 150mm infantry gun-howitzers, so aptly called in German the Infanterie-Geschuetz (IG).

Soviet Antitank Disaster

But the IG were artillery after all, and were not present in every other foxhole along the main line of resistance (MLR). In the Polish Campaign of 1939, as in the West, in 1940, enemy tanks were virtually absent – any that appeared in sight where quickly and effectively dispatched by their own Panzers, antitank and anti-aircraft artillery and some were even hunted down by Stuka dive-bombers. This situation rapidly changed after Hitler’s worst gamble in mid-1941 when he invaded Russia. At first everything was going splendidly. The only worry of the generals was that people have to sleep sometime, and in that time were not able to drive extra miles into seemingly endless countryside. Then, in autumn and winter, they ran too far, too fast and soon. Aided by a fierce winter, the Russians were back with a vengeance with more tanks than anyone ever imagined to exist. There were enough Russian tanks advancing for all the Stukas, Panzers and all kinds of artillery – and still enough of them left unattended to roll over the infantry. Soviet tanks attacked in huge masses, not by pairs or platoons as Polish or French ones, but wholesale – by full regiments or even corps. The Russian armor was plentiful, fast, modern, well armed and armored – which sometimes was enough to make up for effective tactics they lacked. Older models like T-26s and BTs, were relatively easy to destroy, but as they wore out, they were replaced by T-34s and KV-1s, better protected, more powerful, better suited to the marshy terrain by utilizing wider tracks and outgunning with their 76mm cannon against the German Panzers armed with 37, 50 or at best 75mm short-barreled cannon. Almost overnight the entire antitank artillery of the Wehrmacht, based upon the 37mm Pak 35/36 cannon became obsolete ; and even that got spread very thin along the long MLR. The infantry was all of a sudden left to fend for themselves in antitank defense. Just like in WWI, the ‘intrepid individuals’ became the last line of anti-tank defense, and gradually, efficient ways of individual anti-tank combat were worked out, even if very demanding of the people involved in such endeavors. One had to work his way within a few feet of the charging tank, avoiding being shot or driven over, then place a charge (bundled potato-masher grenades or an antitank mine fitted with grenade fuze) over the engine grills or throw a Molotov cocktail (sometimes in an extreme form of a jerrycan full of petrol with a smoke grenade attached) – then live to tell the tale, which was sometimes the most difficult part. It was no sooner than mid-1942 that these intrepid men, called the Panzerknacker, or Tank Crushers could also enjoy the benefits of the Monroe effect. The first hand-delivered shaped-charges were the drogue-stabilized Panzerwurfmine 1 kg Luftwaffe (PWM 1/L) and Panzerwurfmine 1 kg Luftwaffe kurz (PWM 1/L k) grenades, as well as magnetic mines: Panzerhandmine 3 kg (PHM 3), Panzerhandmine 4 kg (PHM 4), Hafthohlladung 3 kg (Haft. Hl. 3) and its improved form, the Hafthohlladung 3.5 kg (Haft. Hl. 3.5). The mortality rate amongst their users was appalling, and these tank destroyers became Wehrmacht super-heroes quite early on. On July 21, 1941, a mere month after Operation Barbarossa was launched, when the Wehrmacht was still covering hundreds of miles per week inside the USSR, that the Special Award for Single-Handed Tank Destruction (Sonderabzeichen für das Niederkämpfen von Panzerkampfwagen durch Einzelkämpfer) was instituted: a silver embroidered stripe with a black tank silhouette affixed. These were worn high on the sleeve, one such stripe for every tank, then a stripe with golden tank replacing five individual ribbons.

Aside from the Hafthohlladungs, the Panzerknackers also had other shaped-charge weapons at their disposal: the antitank rifle grenades, like 30mm kl.Gew.Pz.Gr., 40mm gr.Gew.Pz.Gr., 46mm Gew.Pz.Gr.46 and 61mm Gew.Pz.Gr.61, fired from the standard K98k rifle or the GrB 39 – a short-barreled development of the already ineffective PzB 39 anti-tank rifle. These were very popular with the troops as the most effective and user-safe method of dispatching advancing tanks – but very quickly they became inefficient, when new Soviet tanks appeared in large numbers.

Faustpatrone 42

The quickly deteriorating state of the anti-tank defense on the Eastern Front led to the April 1942 Heerswaffenamt (Land Forces Ordnance Bureau, HWA) staging of a tender for the new anti-tank weapon, designed quickly from scratch. The entry requirements were simple: a shaped-charge with effectiveness better than the Gew.Pz.Gr.61 and launched at a minimum distance of 30 meters. Not much is known about the competitors, but the HWA chose the idea of Leipzig-based Hugo Schneider AG (Hasag) company’s Dr Heinrich Langweiler, called the Faustpatrone (literally a ‘Hand-held Cartridge,’ like in ‘Faustfeuerwaffe,’ or handgun). The Faustpatrone 42 (FPatr. 42 or FP.42) was a palm-held expendable recoilless launcher, firing a shaped-charge warhead, easy to manufacture and use. It was a very light (1 kg) and compact weapon, only 350 mm long with 80 mm caliber warhead. 30 grams of black powder was able to launch the warhead as far as 60 meters, twice the requested range, but it was very difficult to hit even a tank-sized target at such a distance. The projectile was spin-stabilized by lieu of spiral cam on the shaft, interacting with a tube stud. The exhaust jet was fitted with oblique nozzles to cause the tube to spin, but in the opposite direction, to alleviate the gyroscopic effect.

It was difficult to aim for several reasons. First, if the Monroe effect was to be efficient, the spin velocity had to be kept low. Second, the short tube made for excellent transport, but at the same time rendered firing difficult. The very nature of the launcher, quite literally a ‘pocket recoilless rifle’ with its hot gases projected from the rear of the tube, made the hapless user fire it from a hand extended sideways – which of course brought the parallax problem into the equation. Tests showed that the tube was too short as proven by holes burned in backpacks and overcoats; which of course did not endear this ‘infernal machine’ to the troops.

Lack of accuracy was not the only problem. The fuze gave serious reliability problems as the inertia striker repeatedly failed to ignite the charge at low angles of impact. The original Fpatr. 42 was thus declared unfit for combat, but the idea had certainly shown a potential for further improvement. And, last but not least, nobody proposed anything better. Langweiler was told to improve his invention according to the guidelines set by the HWA in October 1942. The projectile had to be fin-stabilized and the tube be extended to provide safer firing from the shoulder thus enabling line-of-flight sighting to diminish the parallax problem. At the same time, the launcher tube was to weigh half a kilo, which was bordering on the unreasonable. The projectile was redesigned from scratch with a new fuze with built-in arming-delay device, providing safety to the shooter should the projectile hit an obstacle within 5 m of the muzzle.

Shoulder-Fired Faustpatrone

As early as November 1942, Dr. Langweiler presented a new incarnation of the Faustpatrone, which shared precious little with the original one except for name. The thin (28 mm outside diameter) launching tube was replaced with a new one of 33 mm in diameter, of nearly twice the original wall thickness to withstand higher pressure and almost threefold longer, fitted with a leaf sight, incorporated in the new firing mechanism. This new mechanism integrated a spring-loaded striker, contained in a separate smaller dimension tube, mounted parallel with the main launching tube. The firing pin ignited a special blank, which in turn ignited the main propelling charge of 56 grams of black powder – sending the projectile from one side of the tube and hot gases from the other, to compensate for recoil.

Before shooting, the operator had to arm the grenade. As the fuze was of an impact variation, it was feared that a pre-armed grenade might explode in transport; so they were delivered unarmed with detonators and igniters stowed separately in a special compartment inside the transport crate for 4 weapons. To arm the grenade, one had to screw the warhead off from the stabilizing stem (just like in a ‘potato masher’ hand grenade), insert the kl.Zdldg.34 detonator and FPZ 8001 (FPZ standing for Faustpatronenzünder) fuze. In the FP.1 variation with the smaller warhead, the detonator was inserted into the grenade and fuze inside the stem, while in the FP.2 both were inserted into the larger warhead. The arming delay was due to the passive safety – it took 5 meters in flight for the inertia of the safety sleeve to overcome safety spring resistance and fall behind, until held by ball detent. This action exposed the firing pin arming the fuze. When the warhead came to a sudden stop upon impact, the firing pin with sleeve and weight continued forward until it struck the primer. Hot gases from the primer penetrated the detonator’s touch hole paper screen and the kl.Zdldg.34 of pentrite exploded, initiating the detonation of the main charge, 800 grams of hexolite, a hexogen and TNT mixture in proportions hovering around 1:1 (46/54, 50/50, 40/60). The hexolite is quite safe in handling, going high-explosive only with a proper detonator.

To fire an armed Faustpatrone, one had to remove the cotter pin, holding the sighting leaf down. Only after the sighting leaf is erected can the striker be cocked. To cock it, one had to push it in with a thumb against the mainspring until the sear engaged, popping the trigger button out of the trigger mechanism housing tube’s upper front part. The trigger safety is still applied; one has to rotate the striker rod 90 degrees to the left, just like the K98k safety. The end of the striker rod has a protruding perpendicular short pin installed to indicate the angle of rotation and current safety status.

The longer launching tube was less transport-prone as the original FP, but easier to aim and fire, without having to worry about the hot gases burning holes in one’s back – unless one stood by the wall or too close to the exhaust. The manual warned that the back blast is ‘dangerous’ within 10 meters behind the tube, and that the shooter risked ‘grave danger’ if exhaust gases hit the wall closer than 2 meters from the exhaust. The long tube enabled more directional control to the shooter, which immediately improved the accuracy. The tube could be fired resting on the shoulder at close distance, or under the armpit if higher angle was needed for greater range.

This improvement in accuracy was also due to another factor than the shoulder-firing of the tube: the fin-stabilization of the grenade replaced the previous spin-stabilization. The projectile was now much longer, fitted with a stem, separating the warhead from the propelling charge. At the rear end of this stem four rectangular pieces of springing sheet-metal were riveted, folded around the stem while inside the tube. The stem was wooden, the rear end, facing the charge behind the fins, was protected by a heavy-duty metal cup, acting as a gas piston. After the stem cleared the launching tube, fins were free to deploy, no longer contained within the tube. The whole thing flew towards the target following a quite steep high angle flight path.

The grenade also underwent a thorough modification. The shaped charge was increased, enabling it to pierce through 140 mm of armor, or even 160 mm if impacted at right angle to the plate. The caliber was increased only slightly, to 95mm; most of that quantum leap in piercing capability came through simple change of the flight stabilization method. The grenade was now heavier (1.47 kg including 0.8 kg hexolite), which resulted in initial velocity virtually unchanged (25-28 mps), despite an almost doubled propelling charge. At the same time, better aerodynamics of the warhead increased the maximum range to 70 meters – though the recommended range of aimed shot was still 30 meters. The only sighting opening in the leaf corresponded with this distance, at any other distance the aiming was only by ‘Kentucky windage.’ The whole weapon weighed 3.3 kg, which at first was contested by the HWA, sticking to the unrealistic ‘half kilo’ launching tube limit. This was however dropped after the first field test of the new weapon – it was just too good to be tampered with to conform to the unrealistic requirement with no direct effect on efficiency.

At the same time Langweiler created another, still better model of the Fpatr., adapting the Panzerknackers’ beloved Hafthohlladung 3 kg as a warhead. This new Fpatr. warhead was much bigger than both earlier models, tipping the scales at 3.06 kg with 1.59 kg HE, and measuring 495 mm in length and 150 mm in caliber. To launch this behemoth even at the modest 30 meters, the new Fpatr. needed a larger powder charge (95 gram), which in turn called for a larger diameter (44 mm) and a thicker-walled tube. All of these changes increased the overall weight of the new weapon to whopping 5.1 kg – but it was able to defeat as much as 200 mm of armor. No Allied tank known or presumed in 1942 was able to withstand such a warhead.

The parallel development of the two new Faustpatronen (improvements devised for one were immediately introduced into the other) was led until March 1943. Then, at a Kummersdorf proving ground, both types were presented officially to the HWA, Wehrmacht and state leadership. Along with the new German recoilless AT launchers a captured U.S. M1 Bazooka was demonstrated, and the higher echelon was now facing a difficult choice. The Faustpatrone was German, simple in design and use, ready for manufacture and cheap. But they were a throw-away weapon, which was good for the soldiers, though not so much for the war economy. On the other hand, if they opted for the multiple use rocket launchers, what was already invested in the Faustpatrone would be wasted, and the front soldiers would again be left with no effective means of AT defense for another year or so, until a German Bazooka could be fielded. And so a win-win decision was made: to go both ways at the same time, give the front the Faustpatrone at least as an interim weapon – and then add the Bazooka copy when ready.

Panzerfaust 30

After the presentation, 3,000 each of the ‘small’ (klein, ‘kl.’ for short) and ‘large’ (gross, ‘gr.’) recoilless Faustpatronen were ordered for field trials. The effect of the testing was easy to guess even before it started: the front unanimously opted for a larger warhead, but wanted even longer range. As a result, orders for the Fpatr.(gr.) were increased, at the expense of the Fpatr.(kl.). In August 1943, the monthly manufacture structure was already showing the effect of the shifting emphasis: the HWA accepted from Leipzig’s Hasag only 500 Fpatr.(kl.), and as many as 6,800 Fpatr.(gr.).

These were sent to the front in September, accompanied by the very first manual, introducing with it the new nomenclature: the smaller launcher was now called the Faustrpatrone 1 while the larger was Faustpatrone 2. As of October 1943, the HWA ordered Hasag to strive towards a monthly delivery rate of 100,000 FP.1s and 200,000 FP.2s. It took nearly a year for the monthly deliveries to reach that level, but they were manufactured in tens of thousands nevertheless.

At the same time, as became a tradition in the late-war era, the new weapon was given a new, more aggressive sobriquet: the Panzerfaust (‘Pzf’ for short). This name literally means a Tank Fist but at the same time it is an Armored Fist, with a connection leading to the ‘eisernes Faust,’ the Iron Fist, an early hand prosthetic used by Goethe’s poem character Götz von Berlichingen, to hammer the Emperor’s enemies into smithereens when he lost his right hand in battle. The new name was accompanied by a suggestive drawing of a clenched fist in a knight’s armored glove crushing a T-34 tank, first printed in early 1944 with a new edition of the user manual. The new name was first accompanied by ‘klein’ and ‘gross’ as in the original Faustpatrone designations. Then, as of April 1, 1944, the Pzf(kl.) was dropped altogether in favor of the Pzf(gr.), and new extended range prototypes appeared, prompting another change in nomenclature. This time the Panzerfaust name was accompanied by the suggested battle range: the Pzf(kl.)/(gr.) now became ‘Panzerfaust 30 m (kl.)/(gr.)’ – but until the war’s end all models of Pzf were still frequently referred to as ‘Faustpatronen’, both in media and official correspondence. The Pzf 30(kl.) soon acquired its own affectionate sobriquet of ‘Gretschen’ (Little Greta), a popular comic strip character.

Meanwhile, Langweiler at Hasag still developed his weapon and new prototypes emerged, with Panzerfaust gradually becoming much more than just a specialized anti-tank weapon, developing into sort of one-man artillery piece. As of late 1943, alternative warheads were experimented with, including a HE-FRAG with time-fuze for air-bursting over the enemy trenches, an incendiary warhead tossing burning WP (white phosphorous) within 20 meters circle, a smoke warhead, a new launching tube to enable the Pzf 30(gr.) warhead to be launched at twice the distance, and a salvo-fire rig to shoot 16 Panzerfausts at once; a sort of man-portable Katyusha (Russian multiple rocket launcher).

Panzerfaust 60

After gaining front-line experience with early Faustpatrone/Panzerfausts, the HWA set forth a list of deficiencies to be eliminated. The top one was lack of range. Thirty meters was of course better than the range of most of the individual antitank defense weapons fielded so far, but throwing a Molotov cocktail or a bundle of grenades did not leave a tell-tale mark of a cloud of smoke, not to mention the thundering report. If the targeted tank was accompanied by another or had an infantry escort, the range reduced to 30 meters was seriously reducing the already not so high survivability of a tank-killer. And there was no chance to repeat the missed shot, if the first one was shot at that close a range.

Second, the firing mechanism with a special igniting blank set longitudinally in a trigger mechanism tube needed a perpendicular touch-hole connecting to the trigger mechanism casing with the main tube. The connection was leaking hot gases and inflicted burns on fingers and sometimes the face of the shooter. The third deficiency was the complicated manual of arms, and the need to cock the single action striker before the shot and take off the safety. Surprisingly many shooters had forgotten one or the other, losing a good opportunity to use the weapon. Fourth, there were problems with the thread connecting the warhead to the stem. Unscrewing it for arming took too much time. Slight misalignment led to difficulties in assembling the weapon back after arming and battlefield air was full of flying debris choking the thread. No one complained only about the ‘gross’ warhead itself, and this was the least modified part of the weapon virtually until the end of war.

The range was extended in the easiest possible way by increasing the propelling charge to 140 grams of black powder. The initial velocity had thus increased from 28 to 48 mps, enough to double the aimed shot range. But it had a price. The pressure increased as well resulting in another tube change. This time the new launching tube was 50 mm in diameter and the walls were 3 mm thick – raising the overall weight by another kilogram, to 6.1 kg. The increased propelling charge meant also that the safety distance to the wall behind the shooter’s back was extended to 3 meters. The thread was replaced by cup-like sheet-metal collar closed with a stud, protruding from the side of the warhead. After the collar was undone, the warhead could be simply pulled out from the tube, armed, pushed back, and the collar was then closed.

The flight path remained more or less the same, very steep, so another set of aiming notches were cut into the sight leaf: one each of 30, 60 and 80 m, which represented the maximum range, at which the accuracy alarmingly fell. The October 1944 report gives accuracy figures as follows: 30 m – 90% hits on the tank broadside-sized target, 60 m – 75% hits, but at 80 m – only 25% hits. Special status of 60 meters as the recommended range is signaled by using twice a large font for ‘60’ designation on the sight leaf. The shape of the sighting window was changed radically. In the Pzf 30 m it was an hourglass-shaped opening, and the shooter had to align the brim of the widest part of the warhead with side projections in the sighting window. Such an unorthodox method of sighting was necessary for the screwed-in warhead – nobody knew which part of the circumference would be uppermost after the warhead is screwed back after arming. Now, that the warhead was held by the collar and positively positioned by the collar closing stud, a conical front sight was fitted on the warhead’s brim. The sighting windows were correspondingly rectangular with a V-shaped sighting notch in the bottom’s center.

The trigger mechanism was completely redesigned, now being of the DAO type. In the new Pzf 60, the tubular trigger mechanism casing disappeared, replaced by a long trigger lever, doubling as trigger mechanism cover. Inside it there was a long flat leaf spring with a firing pin in the loose end. Pressure applied to the front part of the lever (with index and middle fingers when fired from over the shoulder or thumb if fired from under the shoulder) raised the rear end of the spring, cocking the loose end of the spring resting against a cross-pin in the lever, acting as sear. When cocked sufficiently, the spring slipped from the sear-pin, and the firing pin hit the rimfire blank set vertically in the main tube touch hole – no gases were allowed to escape. To prevent unintentional firing, there were two independent safeties. One was a sheet-metal slide, holding the lever. The other was the sight leaf itself, which folded for transport fitted under the trigger lever and immobilized both the lever and the sliding safety.

To fire the new Panzerfaust (after arming it) one had to remove the cotter pin securing the sight leaf, raise it, slide the safety all the way forward, and then squeeze the trigger lever the firing pin snaps. The warhead fuze was originally the FPZ 8001 carried on from the Pzf 30, then replaced by modified FPZ 8002. It was still not deemed safe enough to transport armed launchers, so the fuzes and detonators were again packed separately.

Panzerfaust 100

The improved Panzerfaust was greeted enthusiastically, but of course some deemed even the 60 meters distance not big enough for safe and successful use against advancing tanks. Also, HWA wanted to develop a fuze that would finally enable safe transfer of the armed, ready to use warheads. As early as September 1944, just three months after Pzf 60, another new model was introduced, the Pzf 100, mass-manufactured as of November, in lieu of the altogether discontinued Pzf 30(gr.). On the outside the Pzf 100 is almost indistinguishable from the Pzf 60, and only the most detailed vintage photos enable to tell the differences if the lettering on the warhead instruction decal is not legible. Other than the decal, the only external difference is a different sheet-metal warhead holder, sometimes different legend of the sight leaf and replaced propellant charge positioning screw on the bottom of the tube.

The new sight leaf was of identical shape and measurements, save for the legend numbers: the bottom opening allows shooting at 50 meters, middle one for 80 m, and top notch is labeled 150. A surprising amount of the surviving Pzf 100s are fitted with the old Pzf 60 sight leaf though, complete with old ‘30-60-80’ legend It seems that both sights were used in parallel. The sheet-metal warhead connecting clip of the Pzf 100 is totally different: instead of a collar, perpendicular to the longitudinal axis and closed with a stud on the warhead, the new warhead has a strip of sheet-metal riveted to the outside and closed with a stud attached to the stem.

The launching tube remained unchanged externally, but inside the propelling charge was doubled – literally: two 95 gram Pzf 30(gr.) charges were now employed, set in tandem and separated with a cardboard spacer to prevent en masse detonation and achieve firing in sequence. The two tandem charges thus burned longer, but there was no corresponding pressure jump – the warhead gained additional 12 mps initial velocity but the integrity of the firing tube was not endangered. The price was another extension of the safety distance between the back of the shooter and wall – this time to full 4 meters.

The new weapon was rushed to the front, even though during testing problems were noted with deployment of the rectangular fins with the increased velocity. Change of their shape, from rectangular to triangular, helped to overcome the problems. At the same time the method of fitting was simplified – the new fins were now simply nailed to the stem, instead of riveting.

Soon after the Pzf 100 was introduced, a new impact fuze followed, the FPZ 8003, at long last enabling safe handling of the factory-armed launcher via combination of stiffer safety sleeve spring and cardboard spacer between firing pin weight and a primer. However, soon after the first launchers with it were delivered to the front, the HWA itself requested it be withdrawn effective immediately. The soldiers, advised that the new Panzerfaust is ready to shoot right from the box, ceased to arm any launchers they were issued, new or old, resulting in multiple duds, when unarmed warheads of older models were launched, making no harm to the attacking tanks. To avoid that, the new transport-proof fuzes were again packed separately, the old way, to avoid mistakes. At the end of the Panzerfaust production another fuze was introduced, called the FPZ 8003 umg. (umgeändert, or modified), fitted with a self-destructing function, to detonate the fired warhead which missed the target.

As the Pzf was an expendable weapon, spent launching tubes were collected only in training centers at first. The tube itself was able to withstand as many as 10 firings, but the reloading procedure was difficult and thus only possible at factory-level. Seamless tubing was a strategic commodity, and so their availability proved to be a significant bottleneck in Hasag’s operation. To relieve the situation, the OKH’s supply administration instituted in March 1945 a special bonus – three cigarettes – for any useable launching tube recovered.

Panzerfaust 150 and 250

Traditionally, with the introduction of the Pzf 100, work intensified on its successor. This time the new Panzerfaust was to retain the launching tube of the Pzf 100 almost intact, and focus the modifications on the projectile, which escaped extensive changes since the introduction of the Pzf 30(gr.). The rectangular fins were back, and now the stem was made of steel, which made it sturdier – and heavier. But the most extensive modifications concerned the warhead itself. It was smaller in diameter, lighter, had a long conical ballistic cap, and was again delivered battle-ready. The recent scientific research into shaped-charges resulted in the warhead making a quantum-leap increase in piercing capability – which almost doubled, to 360 mm – despite actual decreasing the amount of HE main charge. The elongated ballistic cone improved the aerodynamics greatly. With the Pzf 100’s tandem propelling charge intact, the recommended range extended almost twice, from 80 to 150 meters. These new weapons were fitted with the new fuze, designed along the lines of the FPZ 8003 umg. – i.e. could be delivered ready for use and had a self-destruct feature. The shape of the warhead was so radically different that the fear of another ‘dud epidemic’ disappeared. Soldiers would surely be able to tell the conical-shaped ‘ready-out-of-the-box’ grenades from the older that had to be armed before use. The Pzf 150 was probably the most advanced infantry antitank weapon ever used in WW2, but it was unable to divert the fate of the war at any rate. Mass production started in March 1945, and although 100,000 were made before the war ended, little, if any, made it to the front.

In the last months of the war, Hasag designers were working on several other Panzerfaust modifications. One of these was the Pzf 250, coupling the Pzf 150 projectile with its own integral propelling charge, loaded into a totally new multiple use, muzzle-loading launcher fitted with a pistol grip containing an electric trigger mechanism. This was an attempt to create a weapon merging two separate concepts: a single-use expendable launcher (Panzerfaust) with a user-reloadable one (a la Bazooka/Panzerschreck), but with recoilless-fired, not rocket-propelled warheads. This new contraption was able to shoot projectiles at the initial velocity reaching 150 mps, and with a range up to 250 meters. It was scheduled to be mass-manufactured as of August, 1945 but never did as that is when the war ended.

Leipzig was captured by the Americans on Hitler’s birthday, April 20, 1945, but after the Potsdam conference it became obvious that it was destined to be taken over by the Soviets. The Americans withdrew after several months of dragging feet, evacuating with them the entire Hasag Panzerfaust design team, with Langweiler, Eng. Dellori, Dr. Renneberg and Dr. Jahn, who continued their work on the Pzf 250 in America. The Americans were unimpressed with the result, sticking with the Bazooka, but this research data was later to form foundation of the West German Pzf 44 Lanze, introduced in 1960.

RPG-2: A Copy of the Pzf 250?

The Soviets were already working on the launcher similar to Pzf 250 since mid-1944. Georgiy P. Lominsky had created a multiple-use recoilless launcher, called the LPG-44, firing a PG-70 warhead of 70 mm caliber, from a 1 meter long 30 mm inner diameter muzzle-loading launching tube with hammer firing mechanism. This weapon was in early 1945 accepted for mass-production as RPG-1 launcher with PG-1V round, but none were manufactured before the end of the war. Although never officially introduced into the inventory of the Soviet Army, the RPG-1 continued development until 1948. Captured Pzf 250 prototypes suggested a trick or two to overcome the problems abounding in the RPG-1, but contrary to many sources it was definitely not a copy of any German design. Nevertheless, it took a new model, built from scratch, to overcome the deficiencies of the RPG-1. This task was given to the GSKB-30, the design bureau of the Ministry of Agriculture (of all places). In 1947 Arkady V. Smolyakov came up with a new weapon, initially designated the DRG-40, firing the PG-80 round – introduced into the Soviet Army’s inventory in 1948 as respectively RPG-2 and PG-2V. The resulting weapon, although clearly inspired by the German designs, was not a copy, but a highly improved original model, simpler in manufacture and use, lighter (2.85 kg launcher plus 1.85 kg round vs. 7.5 kg of the Pzf 250) but of shorter aimed fire range (just 100 m), smaller caliber (80 mm warhead) and capable of piercing just 200 mm of armor. A decade later the pure recoilless RPG-2 was phased out by the now world-famous RPG-7 – the first in the RPG series to actually use the rocket assisted grenades.

The Swan Songs

With the most advanced Pzf 250 project, enabling to load the launcher with separate grenades, the question of diversity returned. At the same time when these separate ‘shots’ were experimented with, specialized loadings for the classic expendable Panzerfaust were also tried. These included a Splitterfaust (featuring a new warhead fitted with a pre-fragmented cast-iron sleeve and time-fuze to air-burst the thing 200-400 meters from the firing position), and a Brandfaust, with incendiary warhead. As much as 100 Splitterfausts are reported to be manufactured in April 1945 and delivered for front-line testing around Eberswalde. An interesting study from spring 1945 describes what can be deemed as an early attempt at creating the thermobaric warhead, using a HE charge generously laced with aluminum powder and barium peroxide to enhance its effect in urban warfare.

Early 1945 intelligence reports announced the new Soviet super-heavy tank with enhanced armor (later to materialize as the JS-3) and a corresponding project of the Super-Panzerfaust called ‘grosser Panzerfaust’ was prepared. This Pzf 250-launched warhead was able to pierce as much as 400 mm of armor plate, but this ambitious program remained on paper, as well as other planned Pzf 250 warheads: incendiary, incendiary-HEAT, and a lachrymatory warhead to smoke out defenders in street fighting.

The last flash of German ingenuity in Panzerfaust was the Befehlspanzerjäger Bü-181 project – or the flying tank-buster armed with four Pzf 100s mounted in pairs over and under wings of the small two-seater training aircraft, the Bücker Bü-181C-2 Bestmann. In March 1945, with Russians preparing to cross the Oder River within 60 miles from Berlin, all stops were removed and even the most fantastic solutions to stop the Soviet steamroller were given a try. One of these was a plan to utilize a dozen brand-new Bestmanns, awaiting collection at the factory airfield of the Bücker Flugzeugbau GmbH in Johannistahl, outside Berlin, as tank-killers. These were taken over by the Volkssturm HQ, and given to one Feldwebel Buchsteiner, who organized a tank-buster squadron consisting of three flights at the Trebbin flying school aerodrome. Rudimentary wire ‘sights’ were jury-rigged in front of the wide side-by-side enclosed cockpit, and wire pulleys were connecting the weapon operator’s left seat with trigger levers of the 4 Pzf 100s mounted two over and two under the wing. Of these only the 3. Tank Buster Flight (Panzerjägerstaffel 3.), seconded to the Kaufbeuren airfield ever achieved operational readiness and even flew several sorties against the Americans. It bagged no trophies, but instead lost three crews with their craft. The only surviving aircraft decided caution a better part of valor on April 18, 1945 and defected to Switzerland, where after the war their machine became the Swiss Air Force’s training plane. Today a mock-up of the Tank Buster Bestmann with four Panzerfausts in place can be seen suspended from the ceiling of the Berlin’s Technisches Museum.

Panzerfaust at War

Within 21 months of the Panzerfaust’s mass-production vast amounts of these cheap but effective weapons were made. The 300,000 projected monthly delivery figure, ordered by HWA in 1943 was not merely a figure of speech. Although it took nine months to achieve, the production figures did not stop at that. For the whole of 1943 a total of 335,300 Faustpatronen were delivered to the HWA, but a year later there were 5.5 million launchers in the hands of the troops. Starting in November 1944 the monthly delivery figure exceeded one million. In the last two months for which the central records are known, January and February, 1945, as many as 2,056,000 brand-new Panzerfaust 100s reached the troops. The overall recoilless antitank launcher production figure between March 1943 and February 1945 reached as many as 8,000,000 units, making the Panzerfaust a Wehrmacht’s second most popular weapon, close at the heels of the ubiquitous Mauser K98k rifle. Quite an achievement, as the complete Panzerfaust launchers were supplied by just three manufacturers: two Hugo Schneider AG (Hasag) filials in Lepizig (manufacturer’s code: “wa”) and Schlieben (“wk”), as well as Warz & Co. of Zella-Mehlis (“cq”).

Technical data of the Panzerfaust variants


FP 42

FP.1/Pzf 30(kl.)

FP.2/ Pzf 30(gr.)

Pzf 60

Pzf 100

Pzf 150

recommended aimed shot range [meters]






initial velocity [mps]







armor piercing capability [mm]





propelling charge [g]





2x95 (190)

overall length [mm]





launching tube external diameter [mm]





combat weight [kg]







warhead caliber [mm]





projectile length [mm]






projectile weight [g]





HE charge [g]





This article first appeared in Small Arms Review SAW (June 2013)
and was posted online on May 3, 2013


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