Here’s a neat, but deadly, little thing.
Introduced in 1916, and made of pig iron, it doesn’t look much, but it would change the concept of the rifle grenade for the remainder of the war.
The French VB (Viven-Bessière) grenade was designed to slot into a discharger or cup which slid onto the muzzle of a Lebel rifle, as demonstrated by the French gentleman with the extra hand above, but, even more significantly, a live round was used to fire it, and the need to have blanks available in order to use a rifle grenade became a thing of the past. So how, exactly, could discharging a live round from a rifle work? At least, if you think about it, without exploding the grenade, rifle, and yourself along with it. And possibly your mates too.
The secret was the hole in the middle of the grenade, which allowed the bullet to pass right the way through,…
…as shown here in an American diagram of a VB grenade in position, the discharger attached to a U.S. rifle Model 1917, and with the bullet in flight.
The bullet would strike the striker (top left diagram – note also the fragmentation grooves shown on the inside of the body) on its way, which would smack into the percussion cap of the fuse setting off the delay, at the same time as the bullet’s combustion gasses sent the grenade on its way. Incidentally, this grenade could be supplied – it wasn’t always – with a safety cover (bottom right), with a very sensible hole in it – actually another safety device – so that should you forget to remove it before use, the grenade would still work, and you wouldn’t die.
Close-up of the striker and – check the diagram – the percussion cap, both on the left. The screw plug on the right allowed the grenade to be filled with just over two ounces of cheddite (an explosive invented in 1897 and so-called, by the way, as it was first manufactured in the town of Chedde in south east France).
Removing the screw, on the left, would expose a hole, seen on the right, into which the detonator would be inserted. It’s worth noting that this screw did not interfere with the launching of the grenade – see diagram again – although it surprises me that it wasn’t recessed.
French troops training with VB grenades in 1917 (left) & 1918 (right),…
…and in action in the trenches,…
…while French instructors explain the workings of the grenade to Brodie-helmeted (above left) & campaign-hatted (above right) U.S. troops; note the variety of French grenades displayed on the table, as well as a leather holder for the VB discharger. The Americans used the VB during much of their time in France in 1917 & 1918, and it was still being used by the French Army during the debacle of the summer of 1940.
And the VB was used by other armies too, as demonstrated by these Serbian soldiers.
By far the most successful French grenade of the Great War, the VB would actually change French infantry tactics; its small size meant that it was easier to transport in quantity than other rifle grenades, and as you could fire any number of these things without harming the rifle’s barrel, a handful of men firing M17s – by the war’s end, sixteen designated VB launchmen were attached to every French infantry company – could saturate an area with dozens of grenades per minute, as demonstrated by the French soldiers above.
Belgian troops with a VB discharger on the left, and what looks to me, from the angle of the shot, like a pretty authentic photo, on the right, of a wary French soldier about to discharge a VB grenade from his mounted rifle in double quick time, and, by the looks of his demeanour, likely under fire.
Tooled-up French troops, one with a VB discharger and grenade, second from right. No sooner had the French introduced this weapon than, unsurprisingly, the German boffins began to develop their own version, which worked on the same principle, if not in exactly the same way, and we shall be looking at that next post.