A Marine with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment shoots an M32 grenade launcher on the flight deck of the USS San Antonio, May 31, 2015. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alexander Mitchell.
There’s something deeply satisfying about firing a grenade launcher — how it quietly kicks like a 12-gauge, the long silence between thump and boom, the way it can quickly turn the tide of a gunfight.
It’s the grunt’s favorite indirect fire weapon and the small unit leader’s ace in the hole. Whether you need to mark targets, reach the enemy in defilade, or just bring a little more heat to the fight — grab a grenade launcher.
During World War I, US armed forces began using devices like catapults and crossbows to sling hand grenades and achieve similar results. In World War II, rifle grenades replaced those rudimentary launchers. This gave mobile infantry the ability to launch hand grenades without using a dedicated weapon.
US Marine Corps Cpl. John Cinnante, a machine gunner with 3d Battalion, 2d Marines, fires a Mark 19 grenade machine gun at Combined Arms Training Center, Camp Fuji, Japan, June 23, 2022. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Michael Taggart.
The first dedicated grenade launcher, and the ammo to go with it, was introduced during the Vietnam War, when the M79 and its various 40mm projectiles became standard issue for grenadiers, who typically carried the launcher as their primary weapon along with a sidearm.
But soon after, the power of the grenade launcher and the rifleman were again combined by the M203.
When most people think of a grenade launcher, they probably picture an M203 mounted under the handguard of an M16, thanks in part to movies like Scarface and Predator. It’s also due to the weapon’s reputation as one of the most reliable grenade launchers ever made.
The single-shot, breech-loading, rifle-mounted launcher has been around since 1969, and the military began issuing it in the early 1970s. It’s still carried by service members today, though it is currently being phased out for a newer weapon.
Like the M79 grenade launcher before it, the M203 uses a high-low pressure system to launch 40mm grenades up to 400 meters with manageable recoil. The high-low pressure system — originally designed for cannons and other large anti-armor weapons — uses a small chamber to store propellant.
Lance Cpl. Devon T. Voorhees loads an M203 grenade launcher during weapons systems familiarization and fire-and-maneuver exercises on Camp Hansen, April 29, 2013. US Marine Corps photo by Pfc. Kasey Peacock.
When fired, high-pressure gasses escape through ports until breaking through a copper barrier into the low-pressure chamber. This innovative system allows for handheld weapons to fire larger projectiles, such as 40mm grenades, without experiencing horrific recoil.
Unlike the M79, the M203 was originally designed to be attached under the barrel of the M16 rifle and M4 carbine. While similar to the experimental Colt XM148 grenade launcher, the M203 is a simpler, more compact, and more refined design.
To load the M203, the operator simply slides the breech forward, inserts a grenade, and closes the breech. This design makes it easier to operate the weapon in the prone position than the break-action design of its predecessor.
The M203 weighs 3.5 pounds loaded and can fire various 40mm munitions, including high-explosive rounds, smoke grenades, and even buckshot grenades. Each grenade is armed after traveling 14 to 28 meters (the arming mechanism is based on the rotation of the grenade as it flies downrange). If the grenade strikes a target any closer, it will not detonate — a safety feature that makes blowing yourself up with one a lot harder.
A Trinidad and Tobago service member loads the M79 with non-lethal ammunition during Exercise Tradewinds 2016, at Twickenham Park Gallery Range, Jamaica, June 24, 2016. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Justin T. Updegraff.
The M203 grenade launcher has seen action in every American conflict since Vietnam. Because it can be attached to a rifle, the M203 allows grenadiers to also remain riflemen. Previously, grenadiers relinquished their rifles in order to carry stand-alone launchers, limiting them to one role that wasn’t useful in close-combat engagements. The reliable weapon greatly enhances the lethality of small units and it remained the only indirect-fire weapon organic to rifle squads for decades.
While it has served valiantly for years, the M203’s days are numbered and it’s slowly being phased out. In 2009, the first batch of Heckler & Koch M320s went to paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne. The M320 quickly began to challenge the M203 as the preferred man-portable grenade launcher for ground forces.
Unlike the M203, the M320 can readily be used as a stand-alone grenade launcher as well as a rifle attachment without significant modification. Stand-alone versions of the M203 have been produced, but they aren’t common and require some tweaks that aren’t easily made in the field.
A US soldier with 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, Delta Company, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, fires an M320 Grenade Launcher during Balikatan 23 in Fort Magsaysay, Philippines, April 20, 2023. US Army photo by Pfc. Mariah Aquilar.
The M320 is also double-action with second strike capability. In case of a misfire, the operator only needs to squeeze the trigger a second time rather than open the breech and rotate the grenade by hand, as was the case with the M203.
Despite its perks, the M320 is still a single-shot weapon. When you need a little more gun in the fight, it’s time to turn to the M32.
The M32, officially known as the Milkor MGL, is a six-shot, stand-alone grenade launcher — essentially a giant grenade-launching revolver. Weighing in at 12 pounds (unloaded), the M32 is a hefty weapon that was first introduced in the early 1980s and is still in use today.
Lance Cpl. Austin Steifer, a rifleman with 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, fires the M32 grenade launcher during a live-fire range aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., April 9, 2015. US Marine Corps by Cpl. Michael Dye.
One of the benefits of carrying the heavy weapon is that the user can simultaneously load different types of grenades in each chamber. The gigantic cylinder can be rotated manually without firing a round, enabling the operator to select which type of munition to use. The M32 also auto-rotates when fired, allowing six grenades to be fired in quick succession — an extremely high rate of fire for a handheld grenade launcher, though it is a bit slow to fully reload.
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Even though the M32’s six-shot capability makes for a formidable launcher, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Mk 19.
The Mk 19 is a belt-fed automatic grenade launcher that is typically mounted on a tripod or a vehicle. It is capable of firing 400 grenades per minute at a far greater range than handheld launchers: up to 2,419 yards compared to 437.
US Marine Corps Cpl. John Cinnante, left, and Cpl. Tyler Somers, both machine gunners with 3d Battalion, 2d Marines, fire a Mark 19 40mm grenade machine gun during Exercise Shinka at Combined Arms Training Center, Camp Fuji, Japan, June 23, 2022. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Michael Taggart.
The automatic grenade launcher was first developed during the Vietnam War, but saw extensive use during the Global War on Terror. It remains one of the most feared weapon systems on the battlefield.
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There’s no denying it: Grenade launchers are awesome. But can you own one outside of the military? The short answer is, yes.
The easiest route is a not-quite-40mm launcher. Several models of flare guns closely resemble grenade launchers and many are made specifically to emulate the slightly larger 40mm M203. Gun collectors frequently attach 37mm launchers to firearms to achieve the grenade launcher aesthetic so they can play Tony Montana at the range.
A paratrooper from Company C, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade shoots during M320 grenade launcher qualification at Foce Reno Training Area, Ravenna, Italy, Dec. 2, 2015. Photo by Elena Baladelli.
Owning a real grenade launcher requires jumping through a few more hoops and is a bit more complicated than walking into your local gun shop and choosing one off the rack.
State laws aside, for a civilian to own what the National Firearms Act and Gun Control Act deem “destructive devices,” they must pass a federal background check, pay for the appropriate tax stamp, and wait for approval from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, after which said destructive device will be registered to them with the federal government. Finding ammo aside from smoke grenades is another story.
But with enough money and patience, you can own a grenade launcher in many states.
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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