We’ve seen some pretty basic hand grenades (in particular the Lakos grenades) in the past few months, so let’s take a look at something more complex, whilst bearing in mind that the more complicated the device, the more to go wrong, particularly in the type of conditions likely to be encountered in many theatres of the Great War.
It’s a neat looking grenade, first used relatively early in the war on the Serbian front, although this example comes from the Italian front. It was not only the first Austro-Hungarian grenade specifically designed to be used both as a hand grenade and as a rod grenade fired from a rifle, but the first that could accept either an impact or a delay fuse.
Hence its moniker of the Universal grenade.
The body of this grenade, about ten inches in length, consists of a brass nose cone which detaches from the brass base…
…to reveal a steel fragmentation tube, inside which the black powder explosive would have been placed.
But it’s actually all a bit more complicated than that.
Luckily we have this diagram from an Italian identification manual to help us ascertain how the thing worked. Or create more confusion, perhaps. It all depends on how well I explain it, because I think it does need some explaining. So, on the left we have the outside of the grenade, and on the right the inner workings. At the top of the diagram on the left the word ‘cappuccio’ literally means ‘cap’, which was a brass or alloy cap that fitted over the head of the grenade during transportation, and remained in place if the grenade was subsequently used as a hand thrown version – the cap featured a ‘spillo d’arresto’ (safety or stop pin) either soldered inside or simply pushed through the thin alloy cap – which prevented the inner workings of the in-built impact fuse from moving during transportation. When used as a hand grenade the impact fuse became redundant as a friction fuse was added to the body of the grenade, the string at the bottom of the ‘accenditore a frizione’ (friction igniter) would be pulled, setting off the seven second delay in the ‘miccia’ (fuse), allowing a skilled thrower to aim and throw in plenty of time. The ‘gancio di sospensione’ – literally suspension hook – at the bottom allowed the grenade to be hooked on to a soldier’s belt, and aided hand throwing.
When fired from a rifle, however, the friction fuse would not be attached in the first place,…
…and the brass cap would be removed,…
…allowing the intricate workings of the impact fuze to be revealed. Not only that, but a ‘paracadute’ would be attached . Yes, you guessed it right, a parachute.
The handle at the bottom would be unscrewed…
…and replaced by a rod which would be inserted into the barrel of the rifle.
The most unusual feature, among a few, is the internal ‘elica’, or propeller. Now unfortunately it is very rare to find an example with the propeller still intact, but you can see, if you compare this shot with the diagram, where the propeller blades were once fitted.
What was the purpose of the propeller, I hear you ask? Indeed. Okay, here we go. Once the rod had been placed down the barrel of a rifle and the cap removed, the rifle could be fired.
And once fired, air would pass at speed through the oval holes in the nose of the grenade and pass out through the lower round holes.
…turning the propeller in the meantime, the motion of which would extend the firing pin into the ‘ogiva’ (see diagram) – an ogive is actually a Gothic arch – until it touched the very top of the nose of the grenade. On impact with the ground the thin metal at the tip of the grenade would shatter, the firing pin would be forced back down the ‘ogiva’ to strike the ‘percussore’ (striker), and the grenade would explode. I presume the parachute comes into its own on descent, to ensure that the grenade lands head first – otherwise the thing wouldn’t explode. I have read elsewhere that the parachute was intended for the hand grenade version – to me, that makes no sense whatsoever.
All of which, let’s be fair, is an awful lot of hoo-ha for something that delivers a charge that had to be small enough to fit into this inner steel tube.
So, here’s the Universal rod grenade in all its glory. Rod grenades were curious creatures. Their heyday covered less than a decade, from their invention in 1909 to the end of the Great War, and thereafter they would be consigned to the dustbin of obsolete military inventions. And yet they were widely used by all combatants in the Great War, and very occasionally in conflicts thereafter.
It was an Englishman named Frederick Martin Hale, who worked for the Cotton Powder Company at Faversham in Kent, who, in November 1909, patented the rod grenade, and yes, these are indeed diagrams from his original patent application.
I will spare you the whole text that accompanies them, but this extract explains the basics; ‘The object of this invention is to construct an explosive grenade which is provided with a rod which fits the barrel of a service rifle, carbine or other type of small arm, and is propelled therefrom in any desired direction by the firing of a cartridge.’
The problem with rod grenades was stress on the rifle barrel, and indeed the whole rifle, which necessitated special rifles dedicated to the role, which in itself was hardly going to prove cost-effective for a weapon of dubious accuracy. The rifle grenade was frankly an impractical weapon, and it is quite surprising that all the contending powers chose to run with them – perhaps, as my missus suggested as I bored her with Frederick Hale’s story, once they were first used – I am not actually certain by whom, as the British Army did not take up Hale’s invention until 1915 – everybody thought they’d better get on the bandwagon.
There really isn’t very much information available on Frederick Hale, and what there is, at least on the web, is hardly accurate (try Googling Hales Rifle Grenade and check out the first line under ‘History’ on the Wiki page). Good job I don’t just recycle stuff here, eh?