The incredible speed of tank development seen during World War II meant armies were developing more effective ways to kill them. On the battlefield, when a tank arrives against an infantry force without anti-tank weaponry, they are virtually invincible. Giving soldiers portable weapons capable of dealing with tanks became essential.
Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, which saw successes for either side come at the cost of heavy losses. The Eastern Front would become a war of attrition.
The manufacturing might of the Soviet Union combined with the intentional simplicity of their tanks and equipment meant they could produce and field far more than Germany could ever imagine. Additionally, almost all of the Soviet’s equipment and men were sent to fight the Germans alone, who themselves had to send recourses to fight the Allies on the Western Front and in Northern Africa too.
The Germans lost almost 1,000 tanks and assault guns at the battle of Kursk, severely diminishing their already small ranks of powerful tanks. In return, they claimed around 5,000 Soviet tanks and assault guns. Despite this, the Soviets were victorious as they were better able to absorb the damage they received.
Germany could not keep up with the manufacturing capabilities of the the Allies, and this was evident from much earlier on. Their heavily armed and complex designs took considerable time and materials to build, and production lines were being constantly disrupted by Allied bombing. They needed a way of combating the continuous supply of enemy tanks that didn’t involve expensive tanks of their own.
By 1942 Germany had developed the Faustpatrone (meaning fist-cartidge), an anti-tank weapon with a recoilless design. The projectile left from one end of a tube, while the exhaust gasses left out the other end, balancing the recoil forces. The Faustpatrone was the predecessor to the Panzerfaust, and looked similar, but smaller.
This led into the Faustpatrone 30, which had a 400 g shaped charge that could penetrate 140 mm of steel; not bad for a weapon that weighed 3.2 kgs. Its drawback was its range, which meant the user had to be within 30 m of their target.
An anti-armor shaped charge works by focusing an explosive’s energy to penetrate armor. Often, a metal cone is placed in front of the charge, deforming into an incredibly hot jet of molten metal on detonation of the charge, that can slice through thick armor.
Work started on a larger version with more penetrating power and a longer range. This resulted in the Panzerfaust 30 (meaning tank-fist), which was 2 kgs heavier and contained a larger warhead with a larger shaped charge. The range of this weapon was still only 30 meters, but incredibly could penetrate around 200 mm of steel.
Like its previous versions, the entire weapon consisted of just a low grade steel tube, the warhead, a paddle type trigger and a simple fold up sight to aim. The Panzerfaust 30 was fired from under the shoulder, and would be discarded after use.
This version entered service in late 1943, and when used correctly was very effective against enemy armor. The drawback was still the range, which exposed the soldier to the enemy and potentially the explosion from the destroyed vehicle.
The Panzerfaust 60 entered service in 1944, and increased doubled range from 30 m to 60 m. This 6.1 kg model would become the most common, with over 400,000 produced each month, and the final one produced in large numbers. This weapon was capable of dealing with any tank fielded during WWII, but the Germans continued to upgrade it.
In late 1944, the Panzerfaust 100 reached troops in limited quantities. It was similar to its earlier versions, but with improved range of 100 m and a faster warhead velocity (60 m/s versus 45 m/s on the Panzerfaust 60). Armor penetration was increased to 220 mm.
The last model that reached production was the Panzefaust 150. This was a dramatic redesign, that saw the tube reinforced and able to be reused ten times. Two stage propellant and a newer warhead shape meant this weapon was capable of penetrating between 280 – 320 mm of armor, simply incredible numbers. The weapon only started production merely months before the wars end.
A planned Panzerfaust 250 was in the pipeline, but the end of war put a stop to its development. It was another big redesign, incorporating a pistol grip. While it never saw production, it influenced the design of the Soviet RPG-2.
From 1943 until the capitulation of Nazi Germany in May 1945, around 7 million Panzerfausts of all variants were produced. Its simplicity of being literally just a tube and a warhead allowed it to be produced in massive numbers. This gave the Germans a little extra help in dealing with the hordes of Soviet tanks.
Its simplicity of use also became handy in late 1944 when Adolf Hitler ordered that every male between 16-60 years old should be armed, trained or not.
A short training session, or even just a simple display, was all that was required to teach the Volkssturm members how to utilize the weapon.
However, as history shows us, even putting 7 million Panzerfausts in the hands of German forces couldn’t stop their inevitable downfall.