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RPG-7: the most iconic anti-tank weapon

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

By far, the RPG-7 is the most recognizable anti-tank weapon there is. It has participated in literally every war since its invention. In fact, it can be called a generation-defining weapon - just because the sheer amount of the RPG-7 out there has shaped tank designs and military tactics in almost every modern Army.

This article is the continuation of our work on the list of all Soviet weapons used by the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. We will explore the history of the development of the RPG-7 and its limited use during the Soviet-Afghan conflict.

If you are really into RPG-7 and other Soviet grenade launchers, do not hesitate to check out publication on the Soviet Infantry Weapons of the Afghan War.


A brief history of RPG-7

During the final period of the Second World War, the Red Army was unpleasantly impressed by the German Wunderwaffe - Panzerfaust anti-tank disposable launchers. The command desired to have a similar weapon to arm the Red infantry. Such a weapon was designed at the end of 1944 and was named RPG-1. It did have a good amount of problems, including insufficient accuracy at a distance of just 50 meters.

RPG-1 trials

While the engineering team was working on improving RPG-1, a different construction buro, located in Kovrov, was working on a similar weapon with the projectiles working on slightly different principles. By 1947, this second grenade launcher, named RPG-2 was officially adopted by the Army and went into mass production in 1949, leaving the RPG-1 behind.

During the 1950s, new tank designs really asked for better anti-tank weapons. One of those was the first Soviet ATGM - AT-1А Snapper. While it was quite an accurate and powerful weapon, it had one significant downside, just like all ATGMs at the time. There was a minimal distance to the target requirement, which was quite significant - 600 meters.

RPG-2 team

So, during the hypothetical scenario of an open-field firefight, Soviet infantry was able to engage enemy tanks by RPG-2 at any distance up to 150-200 meters and by ATGMs at distances between 600 and 2000 meters. But this distance in between really bothered the Soviet command. To close the gap, a new competition was started between design bureaus.

The team which has brought RPG-2 into the game has presented the Army with a new RPG-4 grenade launcher but eventually failed the competitors. The head of the competing team was none other than the son of the famous Soviet small arms designer Vasiliy Dyagterev. His son, Vladimir, has been a successful engineer himself at this point - he worked on PTRD-41 anti-tank rifle, as well as finished RP-46 and RPD-44 machine guns when his dad was too old to work on them.

Grenadiers on a training exercise. Note how all of them have RPG-7 while the guy on the left still has RPG-2

Ever since the RPG-7 was one of the main anti-tank capabilities of hundreds of Armies and militias across the works. It is produced by dozens of companies across the globe and to this day it holds the reputation of a powerful weapon, which can successfully damage even the most modern armored vehicles.

How RPG-7 was used in the Soviet Army

The reception of the RPG-7 in the Soviet Armed Forces was a big success. While it was almost two and a half times heavier than RPG-2, the effective firing range tripled. To improve the accuracy of the grenade launchers for such a distance, a specially developed optical sight, PGO-7 was issued with every RPG-7 launcher.

The scale of production, and therefore the scale of the issue, was truly gigantic. By the late 1970s Soviet Union managed to arm every section, often including even rear-echelon units with at least one RPG-7. On top of that, a lot of RPG-7 grenade launchers were exported to friendly countries (or simply to the now who could afford them)

Soviet soldier with RPG-7

One of the main advantages of RPG-7 in comparison to almost any other hand-held grenade launching system is that the projectile does not have to be placed inside the tube. So, every time the tanks of the potential enemy were upgraded with thicker armor, the Soviet engineers would develop a new projectile of a higher caliber and hence a higher armor penetration capability. This was one of the main reasons why RPG-16, the unique grenade launcher designed specifically for Airborne, was later replaced by RPG-7D, which was just a collapsible version of a regular RPG-7.

RPG-7 in Afghanistan

As most of the readers would know, the Afghan Mujahadiens did not have any tanks or even armored vehicles. This made RPG-7 launchers pretty much redundant and unsuitable for the conditions of the Soviet-Afghan War. However, they can still be seen in historical photos from time to time.

Typical look for an infantry grenadier in Afghanistan in winter-spring 1980

According to memoirs, the RPG-7 tubes were actually carried on the dismounted operations during the initial phase of the conflict, as this was required by the book - every infantry section had a designated grenadier. This practice was soon discouraged as there were almost no practical targets. However, RPG-7 tubes were still brought on other operations - they were just left behind in the BTRs when infantry would dismount.

RPG-7 with a full pack of grenades for it

The RPG-7 was used widely by the other side, of course. Mujahadeans had plenty of armored targets for their grenade launcher - anything from T-62 to Mi-8 helicopter could be easily damaged or even destroyed by this powerful weapon. But this is story for another time.

Captured Chinese Type 69. Note the guy on the right - for some reason he is wearing a gymnasterka

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