Infantry: Competition And Proliferation In China


October 8, 2020: China has introduced a new, tripod or vehicle mounted belt-fed (30-round belts) 35mm AGS (automatic grenade launcher). This supplements the existing QLZ-04, which weighs 26 kg (57.2 pounds) and was introduced in 2004 with a rate-of-fire up to 13 grenades a second and max effective range of 1,750 meters. The new belt-fed weapon appears to be lighter and equipped with an electronic sight that provides more accurate aim. The only pictures of the new belt-fed grenade launcher show it being used in a testing situation. If those tests are successful, the new belt-fed 35mm weapon will be available for the troops in a year or so.

Since 2000 Chinese weapons manufacturers have been developing more and more 20mm-40mm grenade launchers for infantry and mechanized units. Many of these systems are offered for export, to military and police units as well as, unofficially, anyone with the money to pay for the weapons and extra for “special delivery.” There are multiple manufacturers of these weapons and for most weapons in China. Competition is pretty intense. Because most of these weapons are developed as private ventures, there is no government R&D money required and the result is a lot of different and less expensive weapons.

The AGS proliferation began by producing cheaper versions of existing grenade launchers. One example of this was the QLB06. Introduced in 2006, by 2012 the Chinese QLB06 35mm semi-automatic grenade launcher had apparently become a standard weapon for many Chinese infantry units. 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 is semi-automatic and effective up to 1,000 meters.

The QLB06 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 (in the 1960s) a 40mm grenade, launched from a single shot (resembling a shotgun) hand-held weapon and later a heavier vehicle-mounted machine-gun type AGS weapon, China developed something unique in its line of 35mm grenade launcher weapons. The earlier (1980s) QLZ87 has a magazine system that can hold 6, 9, or 12 35mm rounds. It weighs 12 kg (26.5 pounds). It looks, and is used like a light machine-gun. 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 units and for that the W87 makes a lot of sense. But apparently Chinese troops, and weapons developers, thought better of the QLB87 and came up with the lighter QLB06.

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.

The American M79 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 600-gram (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 QLB06 or LG5 can be very effective and the Chinese are determined to come up with more effective and cheaper weapons of this type.


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