Articles

The M79 isn't perfect, but we love it anyway

Every soldier wants maximum firepower.


Firepower is something that can make the difference between life and death in a battle. It's even better if the firepower is readily portable, so a single soldier can deliver death and destruction anywhere needed.

That's why soldiers love the M79 grenade launcher. First used in Vietnam, the weapon has a well-deserved reputation for putting the power of a mortar in the hands of the individual Joe.

An M79 grenade launcher with the leaf-type site unfolded. (Photo courtesy of Airman Magazine)

It isn't a perfect weapon. The 40-mm round the M79 fires sometimes has less-devastating results than a hand-lobbed grenade.

But it is a simple weapon to use.

First deployed in 1961, the M79 grenade launcher is a single-shot, break-open, shoulder-fired weapon. It is breech-loading and fires a 40 x 46-mm grenade that is easy to load and easy to fire.

"The M79 broke in the middle like a shotgun and loaded in the same way," wrote Dean Muehlberg, a Special Forces operator who fought in Vietnam during 1979, in his book War Stories. "They were an awesome and deadly weapon."

No wonder the M79 earned the nickname "The Thumper."

The M79 uses a "high-low" propulsion launching system that reduces recoil and increases its effective range to up to 400 yards.

It also extends the "reach" of an infantryman. Designed to bridge the effectiveness between the maximum range of a hand grenade and the minimum range of a mortar, the M79 quickly proved its effectiveness during the Vietnam War.

An M79 grenade launcher rests atop a Marine bunker beside an M249 squad automated weapon. (Department of Defense photo by Staff Sgt. Laird)

U.S. soldiers and Marines could usually shoot grenades best at targets from 150 yards to 300 yards away. Small infantry units benefited the most from the M79 because it increased the destruction they could inflict on enemy targets such as Viet Cong bunkers and redoubts.

The M79 was not only used throughout the Vietnam War but remains in the arsenal to this day.

During the early years of the Iraq War, there were Marine convoy units that carried the M79 to destroy IEDs at a comfortable distance. An explosive round from the grenade launcher often did the job of keeping a road clear more quickly and safely than calling in bomb disposal units.

U.S. special operators also reportedly keep the M79 on hand because it remains a simple and accurate means of destroying an entrenched adversary — even though the M203 rifle-mounted grenade launcher was first introduced into the arsenal in 1969.

The M79 also fired flechette rounds, known as Beehive Rounds because of the sound they made when traveling down range, that dispensed 45 small darts in a plastic casing that could shred flesh and bone when they hit the target point first. Unfortunately, many times the flechettes simply bounced off the target.

A coast guardsman loads a non-lethal round into an M79. (U.S. Marine photo by Sergeant Brannen Parrish)

It can also fire buckshot, smoke, and tear gas rounds. In Vietnam, the M576 buckshot round replaced flechettes, producing far more lethal results.

The grenade launcher also has the capability of firing less-than-lethal rounds for crowd control and riot suppression. Used by police forces around the world, the M79 is often used to fire sponge rounds or rubber-coated crowd dispersal rounds to break up mobs and restore order.

Time tested, the M79 is proof that newer isn't always better.

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