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 an Ecrasite (Ekrasit) explosive charge 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. The parachute comes into its own on descent, to ensure that the grenade lands head first – otherwise the thing wouldn’t explode – although I believe it was intended only for the hand grenade version and was not attached when the grenade was prepared for use from a rifle.
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 there from 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?
VERY interesting “story”!!!!!
I didn’t know rifle grenades were used that early in history.
Concerning the following:
“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.”
I was at first wondering how they were fired until I read that sentence. Nowadays, we are using rifle grenades designed to be fired with a normal bullet (I’m not going to bore you with the principle that makes sure the grenade actually gets propelled away and doesn’t explode once the rifle is fired). (it’s called a “bullet-thru” grenade)
(see an example here: http://www.angelfire.com/art/enchanter/telgren2.jpg )
Before this, we also had rifle grenades, but you had to use a special cartridge (sort of “blank”, meaning no bullet at the top of the cartridge, just a cartridge sealed with wax to prevent the powder from running out) to fire them. You needed to assume a special position to fire them, because the recoil was hard enough to ruin your shoulder!
(here’s an example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rifle_grenade#/media/File:M1_Garand_rifgren-shooting_line.jpg )
I shall look at the links, for which I thank you, later, Chris. But I can tell you that Hale refers to ‘charge’ or ‘on projection by the exploded cartridge’ in his patent application, which is as you say, and sounds like something other than a bullet, don’t you think?. But you’ve got me thinking. I assumed that all rifle granades were fired with the stock on the ground, mortar like, because that is what I’ve seen in Great War photos. You mention ruining one’s shoulder – I had never thought of that – I presume the links you sent will show me – but I wonder if they had shoulder fired rifle grenades in World War 1 – I really do not know, but I cannot recall ever seeing one.
Glad you found this one of interest – hoped you might.
“…to reveal a steel fragmentation tube, inside which the black powder explosive would have been placed.” – The fragmentation tube wasn’t filled with black powder but (I am 100%) with Ecrasite. Iside of the tube was the Ecrasite yelov pouder.
Okay Micky, I’ll go for that. I have referred to Ortner’s Storm Troops tome and he goes for Ecrasite. Thanks mate – text changed.
Very interesting and informative post on yet another WW1 grenade thanks MJS
Here’s yet another web link of many on Rifle Grenades
During my 1950s military service we were never allowed to fire from the shoulder our specially reinforced Lee Enfield .303s used for Mills Bomb launching. They were very basic like most of our stuff was – all WW2 and Korean War vintage – and reliable
Isn’t it the middle of the night where you are? Go to bed! Heh heh.
Cheers Sid. I learnt a lot meself on this one. Do I take it from your comment that you fired with the stock on the ground (you don’t actually say so)? And am I wrong to say they were not really used after WW1? I know the republicans used them in Spain in the 30s, and they weren’t really used in WW2? I mean a small portable mortar, Panzerfaust, Piat – surely they were all more accurate and, simply, better? But both you and Chris know the military much better than me – you tell me.
Definitely “stock firmly on ground” – the recoil would be like a kick from a mule. I have no idea how or where they may have been used after WW1 but they must have had some application for us to be trained in the 1950s by Korean War NCOs and Officers – our cup launchers could fire a 36M Mills Bomb about 200 yards versus hand thrown 20 yards if lucky (with a 100 yards lethal radius meaning hand throw from shelter). We never used anything “in anger” – actually what we did was quite fun! We also used 2 inch and 3 inch mortars – being Commonwealth, we used mainly British equipment – mostly WW2 vintage but also WW1 such as Lee Enfield .303s and Lewis guns and the good old Bren – plus the USA Thompson submachine gun and Browning Automatic Rifles. Bangalore torpedoes were awesome. Thems were the days. Chris is likely far more knowledgeable than I. I’ll email you some pictures
Bangalore torpedoes eh? You boys!!