25 November 2023
Introduction & Details
All recoilless rifles are recoilless guns, but not all recoilless guns are recoilless rifles. Recoilless weapons are direct-fire support weapons distinguished by a system of operation in which propellant gasses (or another counter mass such as a powder or liquid) are expelled from the rear of the launch tube or barrel. The forward momentum of the projectile is effectively balanced by the rearward momentum of the propellant gasses or counter mass, mitigating the otherwise-excessive recoil of the large, heavy projectiles that such weapons typically fire (1).
Ansar Al-Tawhid militant targeting Syrian Government forces.
Source: @Archer83Able Twitter
Past Uses & Renowned Cases
Various recoilless weapons are commonly documented in conflict zones, and in service with armed forces and insurgent and non-state actor groups. Many of these common systems offer substantial increases in firepower to typically under armed insurgent groups and require little specialized training to operate effectively. These weapons are also portable and versatile, moderately priced, and provide lethal firepower, making them a must-have weapon system for insurgent groups engaged in violent kinetic fighting.
This article aims to provide the reader with a better understanding of recoilless weapons utilized by insurgent and non-state actor groups, common tactics used to employ these weapon systems on the battlefield, and countermeasures being employed as a result of the effective use of these weapon systems. A better understanding of weapon systems will also benefit other researchers in their studies of groups and their capabilities. The list of currently made and surplus recoilless weapons is lengthy, and this article is not designed to cover all weapons in their entirety.
Purpose of Use & Details
Recoilless weapons have been used by insurgent and non-state actors for decades, having become common use in conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa. They are a feature of almost all current and recent conflict zones, including (but not limited to) Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen. Germany supplied Panzerfaust 3 rocket-assisted recoilless weapons to Kurdish forces in Iraq, while Iranian copies of the US M40 recoilless rifle have been delivered to Iraqi Shi’a militias (2). [n1] How groups come to possess these deadly weapons varies; from battlefield capture, purchasing on the black market, or supplied by government forces. The Islamic State and various groups fighting in the MENA region, such as HTS, and FSA have recorded many of their engagements using recoilless weapons. Two notable examples from the Islamic State come from their propaganda video “Flames of War” that was released in 2014.
The first video clip shows fighters targeting what appears to be a T-62 (due to placement of bore evacuator) with a potent tandem RPG round (3). While the fate of the tank is unknown, we can surmise a T-62 taking a tandem warhead to the rear would result in significant damage.
The second clip from the “Flames of War” shows multiple Abrams tanks come under attack by Islamic State “Tank Hunter” units. It is important to remember that these tanks were more than likely operated by Iraqi military personnel and these Abrams tanks would also be the exported versions that lack significant upgrades seen on U.S. military Abrams.
If you look closely at the 22 second mark of this clip, you can see a fighter that appears to be armed with an M72 LAW, a 66mm single shot anti-tank weapon most likely captured from government forces. While tanks are formidable vehicles on the battlefield, without infantry support, under equipped insurgent forces with anti-tank weapons can pose a serious threat. Recoilless weapons like the RPG-7 allow insurgent groups to take on armored fighting vehicles, while staying light and mobile.
While the attacks in the footage above featured shoulder fired recoilless weapons, the footage below will showcase the use of larger recoilless weapons. The 73mm SPG-9 recoilless weapon is even more versatile on the battlefield, with recorded battlefield footage showing militants using it to engage armored vehicles, enemy infantry and reinforced urban fighting positions.
The first video clip features the infamous group, Xhemati Alban, in the Latakia region of Syria engaging enemy forces (4). The initial setup of their SPG-9 recoilless weapon alludes to an indirect fire approach to their tactics, to mitigate being found, as recoilless weapons give off a large backblast that kicks up dust and debris.
Xhemati Alban is a well-trained and funded group that has been fighting against regimes forces in the Latakia region for some time. They use both PG-9V HEAT (High Explosive Anti-Tank) and OG-9V HE-Frag (High Explosive Fragmentation) munitions, the former against structures and personnel and the latter likely against personnel (5). The use of the SPG-9 scope allows them to fire indirectly with great accuracy.
The second clip shows a Syrian Arab Army BMP-2 being hit by SPG-9 round to the direct front. This is a great example of a recoilless weapon used for anti-armor purposes. The BMP-2 was damaged, and the crew was forced to abandon the vehicle.
Insurgent groups have also used recoilless weapons for the destruction of various other types of valuable vehicles, such as heavy construction equipment like loaders and dozers. The pictures below document ISIS fighters destroying a regime operated dozer.
Heavy equipment can be an easy target of opportunity and of great importance. Dozers and loaders are used by combatants for the construction of defensive berms and obstacles, and thus taking this heavy equipment out can allow for successful insurgent offensive operations in the future by reducing the counterinsurgents capability to emplace obstacles and construct defensive positions. Additionally, it can be surmised that this was a well thought out and planned attack due to the SPG-9 being placed in a separate location and fired by what could be a lanyard.
Engaging enemy personnel in structures is another heavily documented tactic from the recent conflicts in Syria and Iraq. The video below is filmed by Free Syrian Army fighters as they engage a Syrian Arab Army shooter behind a firing port in a wall. The PG-9V and TATR-9VMZ are ideal for the destruction of urban fighting positions.
Again, note the FSA are firing the SPG-9 via a lanyard. They are most likely doing this to reduce the chances of the operator being killed by retaliatory fire due to the large dust signature given off by the weapon. This tactic of using the SPG-9 to pummel known bunkers and fortifications is well documented. Recoilless weapons excel at this task due to the high explosive nature of their rounds and the extended ranges in which they can fire from.
→ Common Recoilless Weapon Systems
Al-Shabab militant with what appears to be a Chinese Type 69 RPG variant. We do not claim rights to this image.
The RPG-7 is one of the most recognizable recoilless weapons and is frequently documented in conflicts around the world. The RPG-7 is a highly versatile handheld, reusable, unguided, shoulder-launched, anti-tank, rocket-propelled grenade launcher. The RPG-7 is undisputedly the most widespread anti-tank weapon, with variants and knock offs made from countries all around the world, to include the United States, with the AirTronic PSRL-1.
*AirTronic PSRL-1 with optional scope. This weapon is touted as a safer and more effective version of the original RPG-7.
Outlined below will be commonly used RPG warheads and their intended use on the battlefield.
→ PG-7VN Anti-Tank Grenade.
The PG-7 warheads are designed for use against armored vehicles, mechanized troops and enemy troops in fortified field positions and urban fighting positions. PG-7 warheads can be seen ranging in size, from 50mm to 90mm.
The PG-7VT is a tandem warhead designed for use against armored vehicles, including Explosive Reactive Armor equipped vehicles, mechanized troops and manpower in field fortifications and urban fighting positions. Most variants of tandem RPG warheads will feature two separate warheads arranged in a linear configuration, with the first or “precursor” warhead designed to neutralize or trigger reactive armor.
The OG-7V is a fragmentation RPG warhead designed for engaging personnel in the open, light skinned vehicles, unarmored vehicles, or other types of targets where the primary goal is casualties and damage through fragmentation instead of armor penetration.
The TB-7VS is a variant of thermobaric warheads used for RPG-7’s. This warhead is designed for use against personnel in enclosed areas. Thermobaric warheads utilize a combination of fuel-air mixture to produce a more powerful blast effect, sometimes causing a massive fireball. Different variants can be identified by the distinctive short and round warhead that is a common feature.
The most common types of recoilless weapons are the Soviet SPG-9 (shown below) and RPG-7 (as shown above), and the US M40 series weapons, including copies and derivatives.
The SPG-9 is a tripod-mounted or vehicle-mounted, man-portable, 73mm recoilless gun developed by the Soviet Union. It fires fin-stabilized, rocket-assisted projectiles. The SPG-9 was adopted into service to replace the older B-10 82mm recoilless gun. Similar to the RPG-7, the SPG-9 fires a various assortment of purpose-built warheads. It is not uncommon to see these weapons carried and fired from the shoulder of an individual.
Outlined below will be commonly used SPG-9 warheads and their intended use on the battlefield.
The PG-9V type warhead is designed for destroying tanks and other armored vehicles. This round is also suitable for destroying urban fighting positions and field shelters. Armor penetration is stated to be 300mm, with the PG-9VN warhead being capable of 400mm of armor penetration.
The OG-9VM warhead is designed for engaging personnel in the open, in trenches or light field structures. This is a fragmentation type warhead, that is deadly when engaging clumped up individuals from long range distances, up to 4.5km.
Intended for destroying armored vehicles and tanks, including those with Explosive Reactive Armor – ERA - the TATR-9VMZ operates on the same principle as the PG-7VT warhead. Tandem SPG-9 warheads also excel at suppressing and defeating personnel in reinforced buildings and fighting positions.
The TBFR-9 is a thermobaric fragmentation warhead for the SPG-9. This warhead is designed for destroying light armored vehicles, personnel in open terrain, and fortified buildings and fighting positions. The 73mm thermobaric SPG-9 rounds are exceptionally deadly due to their mixture of thermobaric composition and fragmentation effects. While it varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, one can expect up to 400 pieces of deadly fragmentation per round.
Syrian fighters seen armed with an uncommon thermobaric RPG-7 warhead . Group affiliation is unknown.
Countermeasures for recoilless weapons and high explosive weapons have been in production for decades. Conventional militaries have tried a myriad of options to negate the deadly effects of recoilless rifles on military vehicles. The traditional method was to add additional hard armor to vehicles or create improved armor with better materials. This section will explore some of the common add-ons that militaries use to counter anti-tank weapons, such as the RPG-7 and SPG-9.
→ RPG Nets
Source:  RPG Defeat Net / Q-Net® | EPE (epequip.com)
A common and battle tested counter measure, RPG Defeat Net / Q-Net, has been used by the United States military since 2010. The RPG Defeat Net/Q-Net is a protective net that offers vehicle and soldier protection against rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). QinetiQ North America’s enhanced Q-Net II provides RPG protection on a wide range of tactical and lightly armored vehicles. The system has the highest RPG defeat performance in the world for lightweight passive systems (12).
The nets are designed to cause incoming warheads to detonate before coming in contact with the vehicles body. It is important to note that tandem warhead projectiles like PG-7VT have a increased chance of defeating this passive countermeasure due to the design of the warhead. These nets are crucial for protection of soldiers operating in vehicles that cannot make use of thicker armor due to operational considerations or vehicle limitations. For this reason, you will most likely observe this countermeasure on lightly armored vehicles.
→ RPG Nets
Active protection systems have become more popular on the modern battlefield and are currently produced by multiple countries. Active protections systems come in two types of configurations: Hard-Kill and Soft-Kill.
Hard-kill is designed to physically strike an incoming projectile to damage or destroy it, much like the image above. These types of systems excel at defeating recoilless rifle rounds and ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles) regardless of their guidance system. It is important to note that many details concerning the operation of Active Protection Systems is not published.
Soft-kill is designed to disrupt or conceal the vehicle from incoming threats. Common types of soft-kill measures are smoke screens, laser dazzlers, and infrared emitters. All these countermeasures are purely preemptive, offering little defense against unguided weapons systems such as the RPG-7 or SPG-9.
→ Reactive Armor
Image Source:  US Army Unit Bolsters Abrams Tanks With 'Reactive' Armor | DefenceTalk
Reactive armor is a countermeasure almost exclusively reserved for main battle tanks and other large fighting vehicles, such as the M2/M3 Bradley and M113 vehicle family, and their equivalents fielded by other nations. A RAND study found that, Reactive Armor Tiles substantially improve vehicle survivability against a range of 2005 threats, including 30mm cannons, hand-held infantry weapons (HHIWs), and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) (14).
The most common type of reactive armor is Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) that is designed to defeat standard kinetic projectiles and single stage warheads. While ERA is common, there is an inherent risk to individuals in close proximity in the event a projectile activates the ERA. Other variants of reactive armor include: Self-Limiting Explosive Reactive Armor, Non-Energetic Reactive Armor, Non-Explosive Reactive Armor, and Electric Armor. The easiest way to defeat reactive armor is to hit in the same place twice, which is the sole design purpose of tandem warheads, making them an especially dangerous weapon in the hands of insurgents or non-states actors.
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) - Ferguson, Jonathan, et al. 2015. Definitions of Small Arms and Light Weapons Types as Out- lined in the International Tracing Instrument. Unpublished background paper. Perth: Armament Research Services. Goad, K. J. W. and D. H. J. Halsey. 1982. Ammunition (Including Grenades & Mines). Battlefield Weapons Systems & Technology Series, Vol. 3. Oxford: Brassey’s.
(2) - Ferguson, Jonathan and N. R. Jenzen-Jones. 2014. Raising Red Flags: An Examination of Arms & Munitions in the Ongoing Conflict in Ukraine. Research Report No. 3. Armament Research Services.
Harper, Alex. 2015. ‘Iranian Al-Safir Light Tac- tical Vehicles in Iraq.’ The Hoplite (Armament Research Services company blog). 9 August.
HSBA (Human Security Baseline Assessment for Sudan and South Sudan). 2013. SPLA-N Weapons and Equipment: South Kordofan, December 2012. Arms and Ammunition Tracing Desk Report. Geneva: Small Arms Survey
Jenzen-Jones, N. R. 2014. ‘DM32 Bunkerfaust Supplied by Germany to Kurdish Forces.’ The Hoplite (Armament Research Services company blog). 2 December.
—. 2015. ‘French APILAS Anti-tank Weapon in Syria.’ The Hoplite (Armament Research Services company blog). 8 September.
(3) - 2014.09.19 Flames Of War : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive. (2022, March 14). Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/2014.09.19-flames-of-war_202203
(4) - Infamoustajomaru. (n.d.). Reddit - Dive into anything. https://www.reddit.com/r/CombatFootage/comments/do4059/indirect_fire_from_spg9_and_ags30_latakia/
(5) - Mick. (2021, May 10). Albanians fighting in Syria: Xhemati Alban in 2020 – Part 4. Silah Report. https://silahreport.com/2021/05/10/albanians-fighting-in-syria-xhemati-alban-in-2020-part-four/
(6) - FUNKER530 - Veteran Community & Combat Footage. (2021, December 2). Recoilless rifle destroys Russian BMP in Syria (Full Video) - FNN 12 [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWJ9c-4cFE0
(7) - @MrKyruer. (2018, April 6). Destroyed Bulldozzer. Twitter. https://twitter.com/mrkyruer/status/982344816162983936?s=61&t=PFqUWFvsQvYJ09obJdb4Ug
(8) - Gwfighter_Official. (n.d.). Reddit - Dive into anything. https://www.reddit.com/user/Gwfighter_official/comments/ew3v2m/fsa_fighters_observe_an_saa_observationfiring/
(9) - Maruf, H. (n.d.). Al-Shabab Official Threatens Pro-Islamic State Fighters. Voice of America. Retrieved November 24, 2015, from https://www.voanews.com/a/al-shabab-official-threatens-pro-islamic-state-fighters/3071926.html
(10) - AirTronic USA | AirTronic PSRL-1 USA. (n.d.). AirTronic USA. https://airtronic-usa.com/products/airtronic-rpg-7-usa/
(11) - Jenzen-Jones, N. (2013, September 6). RPG-7 projectiles in Syria. The Rogue Adventurer. https://rogueadventurer.com/2012/09/19/rpg-7-projectiles-in-syria/
(12) - Explosive Protective Equipment (EPE). (2017, August 30). RPG Defeat Net / Q-Net® | EPE. EPE. https://www.epequip.com/catalogue/crew-survivability/rpg-defeat-net-q-net/
(13) - Rogoway, T. (2017). Images Emerge Of M1A2 Abrams Tank Equipped With Trophy Active Protection System. The Drive. https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/14966/images-emerge-of-m1a2-abrams-tank-equipped-with-trophy-active-protection-system
(14) - Pinder, J. (1999). Reactive Armor Tiles for Army and Marine Corps Armored Vehicles. RAND. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/white_papers/WP119/WP119.pdf