The RPG-7 is an extremely effective launcher of rocket-propelled, armor-piercing shaped charges. The Soviets supplied this shoulder-fired weapon by the thousands to communists and terrorists worldwide. It is expertly machined and expensive, as are its rockets. Yet the Soviet Union gave so many thousands to both the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong that they frequently could afford to use RPG-7s even to strike American and allied infantrymen in the open and in foxholes. I have heard of no reports giving the total numbers of Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) destroyed and of Americans killed by RPG-7s — probably scores and hundreds. Fig. 8-1 pictures this famous Soviet weapon, which weighs 13.9 pounds unloaded. The weight of its larger grenade, an accurate missile, is 4.95 pounds. Because an RPG-7 is fired while resting on the gunner’s shoulder, with most of its tube extending behind him, it is much easier to fire from the shoulder than is a rifle of equal weight. A description of the contact detonators on the tips of RPG-7 missiles used by Chechens to destroy Russian tanks is given on pages 345 and 346.

Fig. 8-1. RPG-7, the standard Soviet antitank rocket-propelled grenade launcher, shown unloaded. The RPG-7 has a 40 mm diameter barrel. Its most widely used grenade/warhead is an armor-piercing shaped charge with a diameter of 85 mm.

An RPG-7’s rocket/warhead has four spring-loaded fins which open up after the initial booster charge has propelled the whole warhead and booster out of the barrel. Rocket ignition takes place after it has been propelled 11 meters. Then the propellant continues to burn, accelerating the finned, remarkably stable rocket on its established trajectory. The RPG-7’s maximum effective range is 500 meters, according to FM 30-40, Handbook on Soviet Ground Forces. Its shaped charge penetrates deeper (up to 14 inches of armor) and explodes with much more force than the warhead of our Light Antitank Weapon (LAW), which reportedly is effective up to 200 meters. The RPG-7’s warhead will not penetrate the armor on the front of a typical modern heavy tank, but neither will the warhead of any other shoulder-fired weapon.

In 1995 I received a copy of Operator’s Manual, Launcher, 40 mm, RPG-7, Light Antitank Grenade (Soviet). That manual is an uncopyrighted publication of the 203rd Military Intelligence Battalion. The most impressive new fact I learned was that only 1.3 seconds elapse from launch until an RPG-7’s rocket has travelled 300 meters. This is an average speed of 1,385 kilometers per hour, 860 mph. A trained gunner and his assistant can fire 4 to 6 rounds per minute.

The captured RPG-7s which Captain James M. Leatherwood, an outspoken young Ordnance officer, showed me in Vietnam were beautifully machined Czechoslovakian copies of the Russian weapon. Their projectiles were carried in moistureproof containers, and the weapons themselves were seldom damaged by water or high humidity. Captain Leatherwood, inventor of the Leatherwood adjustable ranging telescope sight used by snipers, had test fired RPG-7s more often than any other American in Vietnam. He had concluded that the RPG-7 was much better than our LAW, and boldly advocated Ordnance giving highest priority to copying that combat-proven Russian weapon.

Dr. William G. McMillan, Science Advisor to General Westmoreland, was among the well informed Americans in Vietnam who gave his General the facts on the RPG-7. Those facts led Westmoreland to advocate the expedited production of copies of it. Ordnance remained unmoved, neither copying the RPG-7 nor developing an equally effective or superior shoulder-fired rocket launcher.

In 1989 Dr. McMillan, still much concerned with what can be done to improve the Army’s combat capabilities, informed me that after General Westmoreland became Army Chief of Staff he continued to advocate copying the RPG-7. To no avail! “The powerlessness of the powerful” — strategist Herman Kahn’s apt description of the ineffectiveness of generals and appointed high officials who attempt to change established policies of entrenched bureaucracies. No one has succeeded in persuading Army Ordnance to “reverse engineer” the RPG-7, or the more recently produced RPG-16.

After World War II Army Ordnance did not develop and produce a bazooka-like, reloadable rocket launcher firing an improved armor-piercing shaped-charge warhead. Ground-to-ground, wire-guided missiles such as TOW and Dragon are not accurate when fired at ranges shorter than about 100 meters. Their guidance mechanisms need longer flight times to take over effectively than result when ranges are short. Short ranges are especially common in wooded areas and in night fighting. Besides, TOW and Dragon are much heavier than either the RPG-7 or the LAW. The Dragon issued in 1990 and in the Gulf War weighs 73 pounds. For footmobile jungle soldiers, such weights are very disadvantageous.

As proved in combat from Europe to China, our bazooka was one of the best weapons of its time for delivering a shaped charge large enough to penetrate the armor of early World War II tanks, or for breaching the reinforced concrete of most bunkers. Design weaknesses, such as those I noted when trying without success to teach Chinese soldiers to shoot bazookas accurately, could have been overcome — as was done by the Russians who invented and perfected the family of RPG rocket launchers. The bazooka’s rocket went off with a roar, blowing hot gasses and grains of unburned propellant into the firer’s face and hands. Wearing goggles prevented eye injuries, but to shoot a bazooka accurately a man had to discipline himself to keep holding his aim for what seemed seconds after he squeezed the trigger, sending the rocket on its noisy way. Because of having shot rifles since I was a small boy and having practiced shooting bazookas, I was able to impress my inept Chinese students, once by breaking into pieces a sandstone boulder approximately four feet in diameter and about a hundred yards away.

One of my unattained ambitions when serving with OSS in China was to ambush a Japanese train by first blowing up its engine with a bazooka. From all accounts I heard, when a bazooka’s shaped charge hit an engine’s boiler having a full head of steam, the resulting explosion was a most satisfying sight to an American such as I had become. Walking and living in the midst of thousands of suffering and dying victims of the Japanese war machine made me relish ways to destroy its soldiers and other assets, as seeing movies of its atrocities never had motivated me.

In future conflicts, will American and friendly footmobile fighters have lightweight shoulder-fired rocket weapons at least as accurate and effective as RPG-7s for immobilizing modern heavy tanks? Apparently today only Army Materiel Command (AMC) has the power to answer that question in the affirmative. For effective short-range antitank weapons, perhaps our men will have to rely on improvised Molotov cocktails and expedient antitank grenades, as described in the last three sections of this chapter.


Chechen resistance fighters used RPG-7s to knock out whole columns of Russian tanks which were spearheading the attack on Chechnya without infantrymen out front and to the flanks, to keep them from being ambushed. An illustrated description of those RPGs and an illustrated account of our war-winning antiaircraft Stingers are given in the last chapter of this book. That placement emphasizes the increasing role of modern shoulder-fired weapons in determining the outcomes of wars pitting mechanized forces against well armed, well trained, brave foot soldiers.