The first recoilless gun was developed by Commander Cleland Davis of the US Navy, just prior to the First World War. His design, named the Davis gun, connected two guns back to back, with the backwards-facing gun loaded with lead balls and grease of the same weight as the shell in the other gun. His idea was used experimentally by the British as an anti-Zeppelin and anti-submarine weapon mounted on an Handley Page O/100 bomber and intended to be installed on other aircraft.
In the Soviet Union, development of recoilless weapons ("Dinamo-Reaktivnaya Pushka" (DRP), roughly "dynamic reaction cannon") began in 1923. In the 1930s many different types of weapons were built and tested with configurations ranging from 37 mm to 305 mm. Some of the smaller examples were tested in aircraft (Grigorovich I-Z and Tupolev I-12) and saw some limited production and service, but development was abandoned around 1938. The best-known of these early recoilless rifles was the Model 1935 76 mm DRP designed by Leonid Kurchevsky. A small number of these mounted on trucks saw combat in the Winter War. Two were captured by the Finns and tested; one example was given to the Germans in 1940.
The first recoilless rifle to enter service in Germany was the 7.5 cm Leichtgeschütz 40 ("light gun" '40), a simple 75 mm smoothbore recoilless gun developed to give German airborne troops artillery and anti-tank support that could be parachuted into battle. The 75 was found to be so useful during the invasion of Crete that a larger 105 mm version was developed on the same basic pattern. Interestingly both of these weapons were loosely copied by the US Army, reversing the flow of technology that had occurred when the Germans copied the Bazooka, as their own 88 mm calibre Panzerschreck infantry anti-tank rocket system. The US did have a development program and it is not clear to what extent the design was copied, as there were in fact differences. The Japanese had also developed a portable recoilless anti-tank rifle which they had reserved for the defense of the anticipated invasion of the mainland. As it was, however, these weapons remained fairly rare during the war though the US versions of the 75 started becoming increasingly common in 1945.
During the Second World War the Swedish company Bofors Carl Gustaf developed a small 20 mm device, the 20mm m/42; the British expressed their interest in it, but by that point anti-tank rifles were already out of date.
In 1947, the US 75 mm was acquired as war surplus by the French military and mounted on a Vespa scooter. It was used by French paratroops as a mobile anti-tank and anti-fortification platform and saw service in Algeria and Indochina.
By the time of the Korean War, recoilless rifles were found throughout the US forces. The "original" US recoilless rifles were the 57mm and 75mm, followed by a 105 mm (the unsuccessful M27). Newer models replacing these were the 90 mm M67 and 106 mm M40 (which was actually 105 mm caliber but designated otherwise to prevent confusion of ammunition with the earlier model). The Soviets likewise adopted recoilless technology in the 1950s, most commonly in calibers 73 mm, 82 mm, and 107 mm .
The British, whose efforts were led by Denis Burney, inventor of the Wallbuster HESH round, also developed recoilless designs. Burney demonstrated the technique with a recoilless 4-gauge shotgun. His "Burney Gun" was developed to fire the Wallbuster shell against the Atlantic Wall defences, but was not required in the D-Day landings of 1944. He went on to produce many designs including a man-portable 3.45" (88 mm) recoilless rifle, the Ordnance, RCL, 3.45 in, pushed into experimental service in late 1945.
Two Burney guns were designed primarily as anti-tank weapons. One was 3.45 inches in calibre and could be fired off a man's shoulder or from a light tripod. The other was 3.7 inches in calibre, and was carried on a light two-wheeled mounting. The "Ordnance RCL. 3.45in MK 1" weighed 75 lb (34 kg), was 68.5in (1.74m) long, and fired an 11 lb (5 kg) wallbuster shell to 1,000 yards. No penetration figures were ever made public. but it is fairly certain that it could knock a 10 lb slab off the back of 6 in (150 mm ) of armour plate at any range it could hit. The 3.7 was a larger weapon weighing 222 lb (100 kg); it was 112 in (2.84 m) long and fired a 22.2 lb (10 kg) wallbuster to 2,000 yards; it is estimated that this could have dealt successfully with armour up to 10 in (254 mm) thick. Post-war work developed and deployed the BAT series of recoilless rifles, culminating in the 120 mm L6 Wombat ("Weapon of Magnesium, Battalion Anti-tank"). This was too large to be transported by infantry, and was usually towed by jeep. The weapon was aimed via a spotting rifle, which fired .50 BMG rounds whose trajectory matched that of the main weapon. Tracer rounds were fired first until hits were observed before firing off the main gun.
Lightweight SPG-9 73 mm and B10 82 mm heavy recoilless rifles are still in service in the Russian army in airborne units, and are found quite commonly around the world in the inventories of former Soviet client states, where they are usually used as antitank guns.
The 1965 war between India and Pakistan witnessed the personal bravery of an Indian soldier, Abdul Hamid, who was honoured with the Param Vir Chakra, India's highest military award, for knocking out seven Pakistani Patton tanks with a recoilless gun.
During the 1960s and 1970s, wire-guided missiles began to supplant recoilless rifles in the anti-tank role. The recoilless rifle started to disappear from the military except in areas such as the Arctic where battery-powered Dragons and wire-guided TOWs would fail due to extreme low temperatures. The former 6th Light Infantry Division in Alaska used the M67 in its special weapons platoons. The last major use was the M50 Ontos, which mounted six of the US 106 mm on a light (9 ton) tracked chassis first developed for use by the US Army airborne troops in 1950. However the Army considered them useless, and the Marines adopted the vehicle in a limited role. They used them to great effect as an anti-personnel fire support vehicle during the Vietnam War. The crews continued to report that the Ontos was a very effective fighting vehicle in this role, but the military brass continued to argue for heavier designs, and in 1970 the Ontos was removed from service and most were broken up. However the recoilless rifle found other roles, most notably in the India-Pakistan confrontation in Kashmir, where it was used against bunkers and as artillery in otherwise inhospitable terrain.
The Viet Minh also developed their own recoilless rifle under the direction of Tran Dai Nghia. The Vietnamese version was named SKZ or Sung khong giat (a Vietnamese translation of "recoilless rifle") and was used intensively in assaulting the French bunkers and fortified positions. The larger version of SKZ was DKZ or Phao khong giat ("recoilless artillery").
Today one of several remaining front-line recoilless rifles in the armies of industrialized nations is the famous Carl Gustav recoilless rifle, an 84 mm man-portable anti-tank weapon. First introduced in 1946, it is still in widespread use throughout the world today, and has even been re-introduced into the US Marine Corps as an anti-bunker weapon. The US-made, M40 106 mm recoilless rifles, usually mounted on jeeps or similar small vehicles, are very common in the armies of many poorer countries, where they serve in the role of tank destroyers. The 84 mm (Carl Gustav recoilless rifle) can be used, along with 66 mm (AKA M72 LAW) and LAW 80 for mouse-holing whilst fighting in built-up areas (FIBUA). This is where impromptu "doors" are added to a building to gain entry, hopefully avoiding the prepared defences of the occupiers. Many nations also use a weapon related to the Carl Gustav, the one-shot AT-4 recoilless weapon.
Deployed by the United States in the 1960s, the Davy Crockett used a recoilless smooth bore gun to launch a tactical nuclear warhead.
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