The History of the Hand Grenade

Close up of hand grenade

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A grenade is a small explosive, chemical, or gas bomb. It is used at short range, thrown by hand or launched with a grenade launcher. The resulting powerful explosion causes shockwaves and disperses high-speed fragments of the metal, which provoke shrapnel wounds. The word grenade comes from the French word for pomegranate. because the early grenades looked like pomegranates.

Origins

The earliest recorded grenades were from the 8th century CE, Byzantine period incendiary weapons known as the "Greek Fire." Enhancements over the next few centuries spread the technology through the Islamic world and into the Far East. Early Chinese grenades featured a metal casing and a gunpowder filling. Fusese were waxed candle sticks.

Grenades first came into widespread military use in Europe in the 16th century. The first grenades were hollow iron balls filled with gunpowder and ignited by a slow burning fuse rolled in dampened gunpowder and dried. This standard design weighed between 2.5 and six pounds each. During the 17th century, armies began to form specialized divisions of soldiers trained to throw grenades. These specialists were called grenadiers, and for a time were regarded as elite fighters; by the Napoleonic Wars (1796–1815), elite grenadiers left the grenade throwing to fighting direct sieges.

By the 19th century, with the increased improvement of firearms, grenades popularity decreased and largely fell out of use. They were first used extensively again during the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). The hand grenades of World War I can be described as empty cans filled with gunpowder and stones, with a primitive fuse. The Australians used the tin cans from jam and their early grenades were nicknamed "Jam Bombs."

Mills Bomb

The first safe (for the person throwing it) grenade was the Mills bomb, invented by English engineer and designer William Mills in 1915. Mills bomb incorporated some design elements of a Belgian self-igniting grenade, however, he added safety enhancements and upgraded its deadly efficiency. These changes revolutionized trench-war combat. Britain manufactured millions of Mills bombs pins during the course of World War I, popularizing the explosive device that remains one of the most iconic weapons of the 20th century.

Other Types

Two other important grenade designs that emerged from the first war are the German stick grenade, a narrow explosive with sometimes troublesome pull chord that was prone to accidental detonation, and the Mk II “pineapple” grenade, designed for the U.S. military in 1918.

Sources and Further Information

  • Carman, W.Y. "A History of Firearms: From Earliest Times to 1914." London: Routledge, 2016.
  • Chase, Kenneth Warren. "Firearms: A Global History to 1700." Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • O'Leary, Thomas A. "Hand Grenade." Patent US2080896A. U.S. Patent Office, May 18, 1937. 
  • Rottman, Gordon L. "The Hand Grenade." New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.