U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Eric Martinez, a military policeman with Bravo Company, 2nd Law Enforcement Battalion, II Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group, fires an M203 grenade launcher during weapons familiarization training at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Sep 30, 2019. US Marine Corps photo by Pfc. Zane Ortega.
On my 20th birthday, I was given an M203 grenade launcher. And with it, the previous owner’s grenade pouches, still stained with blood.
He had stepped on an improvised explosive device just two weeks into our deployment to Afghanistan and was on his way home with one less leg. While our squad would have to make do without him, his M203 grenade launcher was indispensable. It was the only indirect fire weapon organic to our squad. Fighting in the defilade-rich Afghan landscape regularly called for such a weapon. I scrubbed the stains off the pouches, attached them to my gear, and mounted the launcher to my own rifle.
U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. David Zaragoza, squad leader with 1st Squad, 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 6, loads a 40mm grenade in his M203 grenade launcher before a patrol in Sangin, Helmand province, Afghanistan Sept. 9, 2012. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jason Morrison.
An iconic weapon, the M203 grenade launcher saw extensive use in Afghanistan and Iraq. Before that, it served in every major American conflict since the Vietnam War. Today, the beloved launcher is going the way of the dodo bird — in fact, it will soon be entirely replaced by new indirect fire weapons. So before it completely vanishes from the US military arsenal, let’s revisit the reliable rifle attachment and explore why and how it became the infantry’s best “little friend.”
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The M203 has been a widely recognizable weapon ever since Al Pacino uttered, “Say hello to my little friend.” Four years after Pacino hip-fired the grenade launcher in Scarface, Arnold Schwarzenegger wielded it against Predator. But by the time movie stars were using it, the M203 already had more than a decade of real-world experience.
The M203 grenade launcher is a breech-loading, single-shot, indirect fire weapon. It shoots 40 mm grenades up to 400 meters and can attach underneath standard military rifles such as the M16 and M4. Loaded, it weighs 3 1/2 pounds. It can fire a variety of rounds, including high-explosive, smoke, and even buckshot grenades.
Lance Cpl. Devon T. Voorhees loads an M203 grenade launcher during weapons systems familiarization and fire-and-maneuver exercises at Range 2 on Camp Hansen April 29, 2013. US Marine Corps photo by Pfc. Kasey Peacock.
Cracking open the breech and loading the launcher feels reminiscent of stuffing shells into your grandfather’s old double-barrel shotgun. When it’s fired, the unmistakable “bloop” sound tickles the soul. And the thunderous explosion that follows has a magical way of swiftly changing the tide of a gunfight.
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Early versions of grenade launchers were fielded in the 18th century, when flintlock muskets used blank charges to launch small grenades. Though effective, the weapons were not widely used back then. During World War I, however, armies realized they needed more ways to strike enemy targets concealed in trenches. Thus, rifle grenades became commonplace.
Improved grenade launchers like the American M7, designed to attach to the end of the M1 Garand, were used during World War II and the Korean War. The M7 could fire hand grenades up to 200 meters, a significant upgrade from the launchers of WWI. However, the M7 temporarily rendered a rifle incapable of firing bullets when it was attached to the weapon.
A US Marine with Company A, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines aims his M79 during Operation Prairie II. March 3, 1967. US Marine Corps photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In 1961, the US Army began fielding the M79 grenade launcher. Rather than an attachment fixed to the muzzle of a rifle, the M79 was a stand-alone weapon. It quickly won over US troops for its simplicity and devastating firepower. The M79 could hurl grenades farther than the M7 and handle a wider variety of munitions.
By 1969, the first M203s were fielded in Vietnam and used to great effect. Troops took to calling the break-action launcher the “platoon leader’s artillery.” Both the M203 and the M79 were used by US troops for the remainder of the war. The last M79s managed to survive into the 21st century, seeing use as recently as Operation Iraqi Freedom, but the M203 usurped them as America’s grenade launcher of choice.
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Despite a universal love for the “thumper,” as the M203 is sometimes called for the distinct sound of its 40 mm explosions, there’s room for improvement.
For example, the M203 makes whichever weapon it’s attached to 3 1/2 pounds heavier. Furthermore, if it misfires, the operator has to open the breech and manually spin the grenade before attempting to fire again. For these reasons, in 2008, the US Army began producing a safer, less cumbersome, and more accurate replacement: the M320.
US Army Staff Sgt. Ramon Ramos, from Hollister, Calif.,with Bravo Company, 445th Civil Affairs Battalion, fires an M203 grenade launcher down the range during tactical range training at Normandy Range Complex, Basra, Iraq, July 15, 2009. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Chrissy Powers.
The M320 is a stand-alone weapon rather than an attachment. It has better sights and is double-action. In case of a misfire, the operator simply pulls the trigger a second time without having to handle the grenade.
The first M320s were given to soldiers of the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Eight years later, the Marine Corps followed the Army’s lead and also began fielding the M320. Consequently, the M203 has become more or less obsolete in the US armed forces.
Just like the warfighters of yore who begrudgingly traded their M14s for black plastic rifles, or their M249s for magazine-fed automatic weapons, I hate to see the legendary M203 become a relic. But of course, weapon innovations are inevitable, and necessary. And surely the next generation of grenadiers will find a “little friend” in whatever launcher they end up carrying into combat.
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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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