When tanks first appeared on the battlefield in WWI, they were meant to advance in front of the infantry, run over and stop astride the enemy trenches and then clear them with cannons and machine guns firing from either side. They were lightly armored and able to stop most small arms fire. At first, they were terrifying to German troops, but they quickly realized that a couple of field pieces up by the trenches were enough to wreck almost any tank in existence at the time.
Today in modern warfare, there are plenty of options for dealing with a tank as an infantryman under attack, anti-tank mines, artillery, rocket-propelled shape charges, anti-tank missiles, and with the advent of radio communications gear, you can bring down artillery or an air strike on tanks attacking your position.
In the years between WWI and WWII, instant radio communications and close air support were just beginning to come into existence and various countries all worked on how to provide infantry with a portable weapon that could disable the existing tanks without requiring artillery so close to the front that it would be knocked out by shelling in advance of an attack by tanks.
From this came the idea of creating large-caliber anti-tank rifles that could punch through the thin armor of early tanks, cheaply and effectively. They were concealable, did not require a crew to operate and unlike cannons or aircraft, are much cheaper and could be mass-produced.
These anti-tank rifles, of course, had their tradeoffs. For instance, most could only shoot at an effective distance of about 500 meters – which is awful close to be fighting a tank. The armor-penetrating bullets did not really guarantee success in neutralizing the tanks unless they successfully hit the crew inside or some other vital area like the engine or maybe the fuel tank. Even so, they bolstered the morale of troops in the field until larger anti-tank, crew-served guns were built to kill tanks of ever-increasing size and armor protection in WWII.
By war’s end, all of these anti-tank rifles were obsolete.
Wz. 35 Anti-Tank Rifle
The Wz. 35 anti-tank rifle was initially a top-secret project of the Polish army, so it was known by various codenames. They were also held in sealed crates labeled with “Do not open! Surveillance equipment!” until Poland mobilized in 1939, just a few weeks before the beginning of the war. It was nicknamed Ur-38, from “Uruguay,” where the rifle was supposedly being exported from.
The Wz was one of the first of its kind and was also one of the most effective against the early tanks of the German army. When it was used in 1939, it was able to penetrate the armor of most tanks that existed at that time, including the German Panzer IV, penetrating 37-40 mm or armor at a 100-meter distance. Still, that is very close.
Ur-38 had a 7.92mm caliber with a long 107mm bullet. It had a high velocity of 1,275 m/s (4,180 ft/s) that was generated using its long barrel and powder nitro. The felt recoil must have been tremendous. Its bullet also used a soft lead core to prevent it from ricocheting at high angles. About 3,500 were deployed before the war, and the troops didn’t even have much time to practice with this rifle. By the 1940s, the Wz. 35 captured by the Germans were sent to their Italian allies, who used them on all fronts. However, due to the lack of spare parts and ammunition for the Ur-38, its usage slowly decayed until they faded away from use.
The Panzerbuchse 38 anti-tank rifles were based on the Mauser 1918 T-Gewehr, the first anti-tank rifle ever made. It was created in response to the first British tanks that began appearing on the Western Front. Panzerbuchse was a single shot and manually operated rifle. Around 15,800 of these were built.
In the early 1930s, the Germans resumed their development of anti-tank armaments which resulted in the production lines starting in 1940, which made about 40,000 PzB 39, called tank hunting rifles. Only about 1,500 were ready when World War II began, but around 25,000 were built before the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. The only difference between the 39 and 38 was it has a longer barrel and lighter weight.
Panzerbuchse 39 could penetrate armor as thick as 25mm while its rate of fire was about ten rounds per minute. By the end of 1941, the design became outdated, although some still used them until 1944. It was 161.5 cm long and weighed 35 pounds. It also had a specifically designed cartridge with a standard caliber of 7.9 mm and a very large 94 mm long case.
The PTRD-41 was the Soviet’s anti-tank rifle from 1941 to 1945 and would happen to be the most produced of the war. In fact, 70% to 80% of the anti-tank rifles made by the USSR during the war were PTRD-41s, and at the end of 1941, about 17,000 were in service.
Some of its features were from the Panzerbuchse 39, although the lock was from the Polish Ur-38. It was one of the few anti-tank weapons that the Red Army had when the Germans invaded Russia in June of 1941. This semi-automatic rifle had penetration capabilities of 35-40mm at a distance of 100 meters.
Initially, PTRD-41 was a major threat to the German tanks’ thin rear and side armor, but the PTDR when fired would give off a huge muzzle flash that would pinpoint its location for return fire by its target and infantry accompanying it into the assault. As German tanks designs became bigger and better protected, PTDR gunners would aim lower at the tank’s running gear and tracks in hopes of a disabling mobility hit. After the war, the Russians unloaded the PTRD on its Chinese and North Korean allies during the Korean War where it was effective against unarmored vehicles and was used as a heavy sniper rifle.