March 12, 2012: Six years after it was introduced, the Chinese QLB-06 35mm semi-automatic grenade launcher is being seen more frequently in the hands of the troops. It weighs 9.1 kg (20 pounds) empty and is 1046mm (41 inches) long. A drum magazine can hold 4-6 rounds, giving the weapon a maximum weight of 9.6 kg (27 pounds). It's semi-automatic and effective up to 1,000 meters.
The QLB-06 is but the latest of a growing number of similar weapons. All these portable grenade launchers have an interesting past. While the U.S. developed a 40mm grenade, launched from a single shot (resembling a shotgun) hand held weapon, as well as a heavier vehicle mounted machine-gun type weapon, China developed something unique in its line of 35mm grenade launcher weapons. The earlier QLB-87 has a magazine system could hold 6, 9, or 12 35mm rounds. It weighs 12 kg (26.5 pounds). It looks, and is used like, a light machine-gun. This weapon has not been used in combat yet and Western armies have stayed away from this design because it's easier to mount automatic 40mm machine-guns (weighing over a 50 kg/110 pounds) on armored vehicles or light trucks. The Chinese, however, have more light (few vehicles) infantry. So for them the W87 makes a lot of sense. But apparently Chinese troops, and weapons developers, thought better of the QLB-87 and came up with the lighter QLB-06.
Automatic grenade launchers, firing low speed 30-40mm shells, became popular in the 1960s when the usefulness of the American single shot M79 40mm grenade launcher was noted. Many troops today want the M79 back. But back then, Russia and the United States proceeded to develop automatic grenade launchers. This was actually the second generation, as the Russians originally developed such weapons in the 1930s. By 1939 the Russian Navy was testing a 40.8mm weapon and the army followed a year later. The 21 ounce shells were based on the Djakonow rifle grenade and were fired at 129 meters (400 feet) per second (about 40 percent the speed of a pistol bullet) for a maximum range of 1,200 meters. The weapon weighed 24 kg (53 pounds) and was used in the 1940 Winter War with Finland. For political reasons (the weapons designer fell out of favor) the weapon was withdrawn from service before the Germans invaded in 1941 and was forgotten. This sort of thing happens a lot in military history.
In 1965, the U.S. developed and put into service the M18 40mm automatic grenade launcher. This weapon used the same 40mm round as the M79. The 8.6 kg (19 pound) M18 used a hand crank to load rounds (from a belt). Work on this weapon actually began in 1962, but it took the popularity of the M79 in Vietnam to spur production. Some 1,200 M18s were built through 1968, and it was a popular weapon on U.S. Navy river patrol boats, where ambushes were frequently encountered. Starting in 1966, the M18 was replaced by the heavier M19 that was truly automatic but weighed 34 kg (75 pounds). This was also developed by the U.S. Navy. Russia followed in 1974 with the AGS17, a 30mm grenade launcher weighing the same as the M19 but firing a 285 gram (ten ounce) shell instead of the 458 gm (16 ounce) 40mm shell used in American weapons.
The U.S. and other nations have since come out with lightweight grenade launchers that fit under the assault rifle barrel. But the appeal of a dedicated grenade launcher for a "grenadier" has always been popular. One skilled grenadier with a weapon like the QLB-06 can be very effective.