Why Antitank Rifles Were Not Sniper Rifles

When talking about antitank rifles, I often hear people ask why such things were not fitted with telescopic sights and used as snipers’ rifles. So today, I figured I’d take a few minutes to explain the various reasons why…starting with why Carlos Hathcock’s scoped M2 Browning was not the same thing and does not apply to this question.

41 Comments

  1. The regimental history in a appendix on sniping of the Lovat Scouts of the British Army whilst serving in Italy and Greece 1944-46, discusses the use of the Boys AT Rifle as a marksmans weapon. Fitted with a No 32 sight they were used as a long range harassment weapon, not as a individual killing tool. And as a anti-material weapon shooting at such as mortar, artillery, pack animals such as donkeys, horses and the occasional mule. The history is quite supportive of the Boys in the role that they used it. The Boys was from 1944 transferred to the Royal Navy for use on minesweeper sweeping the enemy and Allied mine field for both cable mounted mines and sea bed mines, with the Boys again fitted with a No 32 sight used effectively to blow mines when they floating on the surface, and the Boys was used by the RN and other commonwealth navies up into the late 1950’s. There was a report during the Tamil Tigers conflict against the Sri Lankan Government, that their Navy used Boys for a similar role in the early stages of the conflict in the late 1980’s (it went from 1983 to 2009).

    • Interesting to hear about the Tamils possibly using a Boys.
      I thought their last use was by the I.R.A. to attack HMS Brave Borderer in Waterford in 1965.

    • It’s not just video games that give people this perception of anti-tank/material rifles being precision sniping weapons, even though they are the largest proponent (the scoped PTRS in Cal of Duty, World at War[used in a mission assaulting the Reichstag]). Fiction literature is also a culprit. Theres a wonderful alternate fiction author by the name of Harry Turtledove who has written an assortment of books covering some of the biggest “what ifs” in military history. In one particular series Neville Chamberlain rejects Hitler’s final demand that lands be given to Germany, and instead declares war. There is a Czech soldier who uses an anti-tank rifle for anti-personnel use sniping officers in second and third line trenches and actually becomes quite infamous, even having a price put on his head. Albeit it is stagnant trench warfare which would be more suited for a heavy rifle like Ian talked about. If you like history and find yourself wondering what could have happened definitely check him out.

      • “(…)There is a Czech soldier who uses an anti-tank rifle for anti-personnel use sniping officers in second and third line trenches and actually becomes quite infamous, even having a price put on his head. Albeit it is stagnant trench warfare which would be more suited for a heavy rifle(…)”
        Here it is worth noting that in late 1930s Czechoslovak worked on anti-tank rifle launching standard-diameter-high-velocity bullets, namely ZK 382 see photos:
        https://www.valka.cz/CZK-ZK-382-protitankova-puska-t25401
        which weighted 12,5 kg and used 7,92×145 mm cartridge see photos:
        https://naboje.org/node/9065
        note that at 12,5 kg it was lighter than most of WW2-era AT rifles.

  2. At a place I worked in Afghanistan we had a scoped PTRD available. Someone had cobbled together a scope mount and put a 3×9 on the gun, but the mount/scope combo couldn’t handle the recoil and the scope would shift with every shot.

    All sorts of stuff I wish I’d taken pictures of over there…

  3. And tactically, why would you build and haul one of these specialty tank/truck killers all the way to the line, emplace it, and waste the shot on a man?

    • If you must “waste” your shot on a single man, that shot better hit something that will explode near said man! A supply truck full of ammunition tends to be the primary victim, with a rather unfortunate hostile Fearless Leader talking to the truck driver falling victim to the subsequent fireworks. Just kidding!

    • “(…)haul one of these specialty tank/truck killers all the way to the line, emplace it, and waste the shot on a man(…)”
      I want to point that sniper after doing shot is supposed to be retreat quickly and/or possibly stealthy, so try to imagine doing that with extremely long and unwieldy AT rifle, not to mention muzzle blast and than muzzle brake are often use, so you might except dirt cloud (when used in dry environment).

  4. stupid video games are solely responsible for this. i love FPS’s but they do give people are horribly unreal expectation of warfare and weaponry. to think that there is ANY thing people haven’t tried in war to kill other people is a naive idea.

  5. The use of the .55 Boys by the SAS and LRDG in the Western Desert was AFAIK purely in the anti-materiel role.

    Originally, the Boys was issued to reconnaissance units just because it was issued to any mechanized unit that had a vehicle to stick it on, such as a Bren or Universal Carrier. Everybody quickly realized that the .55 round was pretty much useless against even the Panzer II.

    The Boys was retained by LRDG because it could be mounted on the Chevrolet (Canada) 20 cwt truck (India pattern) in place of a Lewis Gun. They found that it was effective for reactive fire against (for instance) Italian recon units because it could put a bullet pretty much clear through a vehicle’s engine at 400 yards or so. While they were sorting that out, the British would just drive away.

    The SAS “borrowed” Boys rifles from the LRDG, and used them for night attacks on things like airfields, ammo dumps, and especially fuel dumps. Large, immobile targets, that were very hard to miss, and having a great potential for actually exploding when properly hit. And the Boys’ ammunition types included an Armour-Piercing Incendiary round in addition to the standard steel-core AP “shot”.

    The SAS, not being stupid, considered a couple of .55 API rounds fired from 500 yards out on a moonlit night into things like parked, fueled fighters, fuel bowsers, and stacks of drums full of gasoline to be a more practical method of “materiel destruction” than sneaking in to stick incendiary time pencils into things.

    I might add that a parked Bf109 or Ju87 is a good bit bigger than any tank you ever saw…outside of a video game. So they qualified as fairly easy targets, even over open sights.

    The SOE airdropped 56 Boys rifles to the Resistance in France. The myth is that the barrels were sawn off to get them into the C type drop container; in fact all you really needed to do was unship that long, rectangular muzzle brake on the MK 1 and the rifle would fit the C
    canister perfectly well with a couple of inches to spare at each end.

    What isn’t myth is that the Resistance found no particular use for the Boys rifle. There really wasn’t much point in a guerilla group, which relied on fast movement to break contact after an ambush to survive, to lug 40 pounds of highly-specialized weapon around the French countryside. Needless to say, there was little application for the thing inside the city limits of Paris, either.

    Late in the Resistance campaign, in the run-up to D-Day, both British PIAT and U.S. 2.36in M1 RL “Bazooka” anti-tank projectors were delivered. They were a considerably more practical way of dealing with tanks, not to mention pillboxes, roadblocks and police stations.

    As far as “materiel destruction”, things like Gammon grenades, blocks of PE, “fog signals”, and home-made “Molotov cocktails” were really more effective “heavy artillery” for the FFI’s purposes.

    It’s worth noting that the one piece of actual “artillery” that might have been useful to them, the British 2-inch SBML mortar, was never supplied by SOE;

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-inch_mortar

    I suspect this was intended to dissuade the Resistance from getting too ambitious.

    cheers

    eon

    • Interestingly, Yugoslav partisans liked Boys for attacking trains (both armored and regular), with couple of rounds being able to disable engine boiler.

      • The favorite Resistance dirty trick was to stick a small PE charge behind the right-hand journal box. Always the right hand, because the two boxes were mirror-imaged. By only destroying right-hand ones, the Germans couldn’t take two undamaged opposite side boxes from two different locos to get one back in service.

        cheers

        eon

    • In 1941 Abyssinia / Ethiopia there is a “ripping yarn” that UK and South African and UK colonial African forces fighting the Italian occupiers would fire a Boys AT rifle at the rocky mountainous firing positions of said Italians and the spall from the heavy AT bullet would shatter the rocks and send them flying as shrapnel. An area effect from a single kinetic energy projectile in an AP role.

  6. When I was a boy in Eastern PA in the 50’s I would go Groundhog hunting with my father every weekend. We had a regular route we followed and the farmers were happy to see us. We started to hear of a guy going around with an AT rifle (you could buy them through the mail then) mounted on a trailer behind a jeep. We eventually ran into him and my father (a Mechanical Engineer and a gunsmith) had a long discussion with him. He told me the fellow was crazy and had a hard time keeping scopes working. But it was cool to hear him touch it off.

  7. This Canadian Army training film is a good reference on the Boys anti-tank rifle:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lkc2yAaU3CY
    This 1942 training film was made in the Disney Studios and by that time the anti-tank rifle was ineffective against medium and heavy tanks. The film mentioned that it’s effective range was “300 yards” and there’s mention of waiting until the enemy tank gets closer. Notable is live-fire footage of an anti-tank rifleman shooting this beast.

    What does that have to do with sniping? Weighing in at almost 39 pounds when loaded with five cartridges, the Boys was long and heavy. Movement for “short distances” on foot was suggested. A sniper rifle weighing in at half the Boys firing weight would have been too heavy for mobile warfare. The sniper would have required a second weapon for self-defense. For a number of reasons the Boys wasn’t a long range weapon.

    • Ahem: Warner Brothers. Not Disney. I would urge anyone to see the Disney animated film “Victory through Air Power.”

      Also, back to the Warner Brothers cartoons: In addition to the wartime Bugs Bunny and Daffy the Commando Duck and various anti-Axis–even pro-Soviet! (Gremlins from the Kremlin, apparently a tribute to the partisans?!) cartoons, one should watch all the Private Snafu cartoons too.

      As for AT rifles to shoot people, there is a picture in a book about Palestine and Palestinian refugees of Shia militants in the Lebanese Civil War using a PTRS Simonov self-loading 14.5mm AT rifle in Beirut. I think you’ll find a whole bunch of more recent such images from Libya, Syria, Yemen, Kurdistan, Iraq, and perhaps one or another sub-Saharan African conflict.

      • “(…)Warner Brothers. Not Disney.(…)”
        Wait you want to say you detected hoax here and despite at 0:10 of linked movie is stated that:
        PRODUCED BY
        WALT DISNEY PRODUCTIONS
        IN CO-OPERATION
        WITH
        The DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE
        AND
        The NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA
        it was made Warner Brothers? Have you any sources to support this?

        • I stand corrected. Thank you.

          Cartoons from WWII confused me, clearly. You are right that that is a Disney co-production…

          • I don’t fault you. The animation does resemble Warner Brother’s Elmer Fudd. There’s a reason for that–Walt Disney trained most American animators during that period. I’m getting away from the Boys Anti-tank Rifle but Walt had some issues as boss. He went bankrupt and moved to California. There, Walt Disney achieved a minor degree of success but his animation staff was hired away from him. Later, Walt’s best friend, Ub Iwerks, was hired away by competitors by the promise of having Iwerks’ own animation studio. If that wasn’t enough, there was the 1941 Disney Studios Strike. During World War Two markets were inaccessible, many of Walt’s staff were drafted, economic times were hard–and post-war, Disney-trained animators had to find work elsewhere.
            There’s no need for shame. Disney made hundreds (if not thousands) of training and propaganda films for the US government and for other entities. Many of the animators involved in those projects went on to work for other people and their artistic style went with them.

        • To just add to Mr Cranford’s remarks. During his Army/Army Air Force service on Ronald Reagan for (on and off) service with 1st Motion Picture Unit between 1941-45 received the Legion of Merit in the Degree of Legionnaire. The main basis for the recommendation for the award was his direct contribution to the use of training cartoons. Post war he made quite a bit of his wealth in the developement in the 1950’s of audio-visual sequences as a cheaper form that ‘film’ cartoons using the newly developed portable (well sort of) deck in sequence with the also new portable slide projector. Which the US (and other) military used for the massive reintroduction of conscription in the USA, and also for such as the equally massive civil defence programme for the aftermath of a nuclear war. When I did in 1979 the Long NBC Warfare Course at Fort Sam Houston,San Antonio, Tx, when the Medical Corps has taken over this role with the (temporary) disbandment of the Chemical Corps, a substantial amount of the classroom training involved the use of such aids. Mainly because the MC personnel were totally inexperienced in the training or operation of NBC defence or actually operational use of such weapons. But, they still very effective then training tools, now taken over by the use of digital recording.

  8. “(…)various reasons why…(…)”
    In case of PTRD it is worth noting that:
    PTRD is tested in following circumstances:
    – using B-32 cartridge
    – firing prone, rested on bi-pod
    – target: white 1 m x 1 m square with black rectangle of height 30 cm and width 20 cm
    – distance 100 m
    – make 4 shots
    PTRD is considered fit if 3 or more from 4 shots result in hits inside circle with diameter 22 cm
    https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%9F%D0%A2%D0%A0%D0%94

  9. Interestingly the rise of the anti material rifle has caused the PTRD to come full circle as various groups in the Middle East have built heavy single shot rifles from 14.5mm KPV machine gun barrels fitted with whatever optics were available. Since they use second hand barrels and surplus ammunition I doubt their accuracy is much greater than “minute of technical” but they seem to fill a need. This does not contradict Ian because these are essentially resurrected AT rifles used against light vehicles and equipment. It’s generally agreed that very long range sniping is best done with special magnum rifles that are only slightly larger and heavier than standard like .338 Lapua or .408 Cheytac.

      • Friends,
        Our ROTC firearms instructor at The University of Minnesota, Minneapolis in 1956 had a letter from a General, as I recall, Matthew Ridgeway, reporting that he observed our instructor make a one shot kill of an artillery observer at 1600 yards. The weapon was a repurposed Browning Machine Gun, Aircraft, Cal. .50, AN/M2″ (Fixed) with an electrically operated remote-mount solenoid trigger on the back of a jeep.

        • What was the aiming system for that, if you recall? An optical scope and hand adjustments for aim? Also, was that in the Korean War?

          • palmetto95,
            I apologize for neglecting the sighting system.
            The Major said he mounted a spotting scope, not a rifle scope.
            He did not explain the modification of the scope to be used with the system.
            I do not know how the gun was mounted to the jeep.
            This was the Korean War.
            I understood that the shot was from ridge to ridge.
            Q

          • I remember a piece in some gun mag (maybe American Rifleman) during the Korean War. It was about a 50 cal anti vehicle rifle the Govt was considering. The first page was a large picture of Elmer Keith in full recoil after firing it resting on a car. It looked like a regular rifle with a wooden stock only much
            bigger.

  10. I did not make it clear that in Sri Lanka the Nation’s Navy used the Boy’s to destroy improvised sea mines free floated into the sea by the Tamil Tigers.

    The tale of the SAS in North Africa using the Boy’s on their airfield raids is a false story put up on WIKIPEDIA. I purchased some years ago a massive tome contained in replica wooden ammunition of the SAS War Diary, which was put together by an SAS original who remained nameless. But it has everything that opens and closes on the wartime SAS, the war diaries from L Detachment, to those (English version) of the French Regiments and the Belgium SAS Squadron. Operational orders and after action reports of every single wartime operations, nominal rolls, recommendations for awards and lots of photos, and the price reflected this. But there is zero record of any use of the Boy’s and using it in either of the two types of airfield raids, the Jeep borne smash and grab, other demolition by small team stealth. Not one of any of the numerous wartime memoirs make any mention of it.

    In regard to the use of the 2inch mortar by the French resistance, it was supplied in limited quantities by SOE and SIS the two UK agencies supporting the French Resistance. The biggest problem with supplying it was the short supply of HE bombs, it must be remembered that the Smoke bomb fired by the 2inch was the basis of UK infantry minor tactics, followed by illuminating bombs, but the Sicily campaign showed the major need for HE, so supplied to Resistance units with specialised roles. And in lieu, the UK stressed the deployment of the PIAT in its dual short range mortar role for their use, TURNER Des. SOE’S Secret Weapons Centre – Station 12. The History Press, Stroud, 2011 and LORAIN Pierre translated from French by David Kahn. Secret Warfare. The Arms and Techniques of the Resistance. Orbis Publishing, London, 1984 print of 1983 French original. Hard cover, dustjacket, 185p., drawings. They tell that SOE supplied 61 Canadian Pattern, while the SIS some three times that number. The PIAT saw 1,205 supplied by SOE with 20 projectiles each, and only a small number by SIS. The French The Bureau Central de Renseignements et d’Action (Central Bureau of Intelligence and Operations), BCRA, dropped small quantities of all three.
    The Boys when used in the first months of the war did have some success, but only with the AFVs of its design generation, Pz MkI and Mk II and such like. Successful in the Western Desert in the early days against Italian AFVs, but basically it saw more use in sniping as a harassement weapon. Firing into the rock constructed walls of sangars in the field, or against enemy soft skin transport. The Lovat Scouts History describes its use in 1944 against German animal pack transport doing resupplies in the Italian mountains, using compass bearings and Trigonometry, to accurately fire the ,55in rounds onto pack animal convoys on the mountain tracks, and it very effective

    It used for long distance shooting by the Yugoslav Partizans, and in its original role against obsolete armour manned by the Germans and Italians. The French also used it for harassment work with the mountain divisions raised from the Maquis on Frances Eastern Borders, in a similar way to the Lovat Scouts. It used by the Egyptian Army, the Arab Legion and the Israeli Army in the 1948 war, the latter having success against Syrian operated pre-1939 French tanks.
    The RAF Balloon Command used the Boys very successfully in a marksman role against broken away barrage balloons, whilst Spitfires pouring lots of 20mm and .303 into such made a superb burn up, it extremely dangerous to those on the ground. So Boys were mounted initially in the back of 15cwt truck, with the rifle on a ring mount, accuratelly shooting from a good distance and height away, with the round punching two holes into the balloon fabric, taking 15-25 rounds to bring them down in slow release, and then the balloon carcass could be salvaged and repaired for further use. By 1942 they were mounted inside Avro Anson’s or Dragon Rapides both very stable fliers due to their wing construction, The Boys was fired from within the aircraft.
    The 26th Cavalry (Philippine Scouts) used the Boys effectively in Bataan in 1942, while the USMC 2nd Raider Battalion had similar results on Guadalcanal. whilst the Japanese use is told of captured weapons in NESS Leland, Bin Shih. Illustrated card cover placed into hard cover : Rikugun. Guide to Japanese Ground Forces 1937-45. Volume 2: Weapons of the Imperial Japanese Army & Navy Ground Forces. Helion, Stroud, 2016. with success in China, Burma and the Islands.

    • I forgot that in FOOT M.R.D. History of the Second World War – SOE in France. HMSO, London, 1966. I forgot the main reason why the UK 2in Mortar was delivered in quantity to the Forces of the Interior (the Resistance), this because following the fall of the Vichy Government, much was liberated by the fighters from its various supply depot. Much of the ordnance equipment had been previously but there were liberated quite large stocks of :
      Lance Grenades de 50 mm modèle 37 a sort of glorified grenade launcher;
      and the
      Brandt Mle 1935 60mm Mortier (equivalent of the US M2 60mm).
      These were considered to be ample to the needs of the Resistance, their HE ammunition was quite plentiful as of their bombs were manufactured for the Germans for use as booby traps.

  11. Not related to using the Boys as a marksmans weapon, a uncle in 1942 used it as a starring piece in a UK propaganda film. Nine Men, only 68 minutes, but, a quite good doco drama. He an elder brother of our father’s, and a long service regular from the Great war which he started off as a Army Apprentice. In France in 1940 he had been the WOI Artificer Sergeant Major of a searchlight regiment, destroying all their heavy equipment, but he took all the very valuable workshop lorries out and took them to Cherbourg getting them evacuated to the UK by sea. During the retreat he personally used the Boys (firing from a vehicle) on occassion with effect. Commissioned into the Royal Army Ordnance Corps later in 1940, he ended up in the Western Desert, but was brought back to the UK to Command the technical wing workshop of what became 79th Armoured Division. Whilst awaiting the initial equipment and men, he was sent to Glamorgan in Wales to be the technical adviser of the film. He designed and built a pretty fair clone of a FIAT Terni Tripoli, 1920’s armoured car, using Italian PoW as his workforce. To get the distinct clunk of the .55in round hitting armour he fired a Boys into the closed boiler of a steam traction engine. His main claim to fame in the 1939-45 was that during the London Blitz in 1940 he organised the diversion of a stream of burning rum and brandy running from the bombed Royal Navy Spirit Store, that was directly threatening The Tower Bridge, by the use of sand from the bed of The Thames River as its tidal outflow started. His non-stop work in 1943-45 in getting all the specialised variants of the Churchill Tank serving with the 79th Division to work and keep on working.

  12. Well, if the xperts have already spoken out and started discussing films…
    I will try and I will do the same

    If we talk about “accuracy” in a practical sense, then can this be understood as “confident defeat of the target”?
    And “sniper tasks” is “a defeat of targets that, due to their properties or location, cannot be hit by other means”?
    As was rightly noted (by comparing the dimensions of the tank and aircraft), the probability of a hit depends not only on the technical accuracy of the weapon, but also on the size of the target.
    But still, the boys are of little use.
    And also the area affected by the projectile.
    Therefore, the Finns (according to the tales of the finnish forest 😉 ), using their 20mm AT rifles with optics (or without), quite successfully solved sniper tasks, hitting such characteristic targets starting from firing and observation points, and ending up with new Soviet tanks (well, and planes, if you were very lucky).
    Firing fragmentation shells at open manholes, or trying to jam a tower or chassis with armor-piercing shells…
    …and then through the manholes.

  13. Having over the last couple of weeks looked through my library in regard to the use of anti-tank rifles (ZALOGA Steven J.The Anti-Tank Rifle. Osprey Weapons No 60, London, 2018. is a very good primer). I find in FISHER Richard. History of the Small Arms School Corps 1853-2017. Helion Press, Warwick, 2019. a very good description of how the Corps experts trialled the weapon for use as a battalion weapon at the Ranges at Hythe. Its accuracy without doubt upon static and moving targets (at speeds of up to 25mph, from tankettes to armoured lorries), and at static targets of up to 1,200 yards away. This in early 1935 and its effectiveness against the then armoured plate in use was superb. NESS Leland, Bin Shih. Kangzhan. Guide to Chinese Ground Forces 1937-45. Helion, Stroud, 2016. tells of the use of the Boys in 1945 very effectively by Nationalist Regular and guerrilla forces. Effective against the Japanese armour, very effective for stopping steam engines, and very useful at sniping at large targets such as airfield dispersal areas for disrupting such as aircraft maintenance. While DIMITRIJECVIC Bojan, with SVACI Dragan. German Panzers and Allied Armour in Yugoslavia in World War Two. German Wehrmacht, Waffen-SS, Polizei and Italian Army, Soviet Army, British Army, Local Fighting Groups. Tankograd Publishing, Am Weichselgarten, Germany, 2012. tells of the Boys effectiveness in 1944-45 against such as the Great War French Renault FT-17, German 1930’s armour, similar Italian AFVs, and armoured trains in general. Not exactly a war winner but one capable of reducing the effectiveness of the enemy.

  14. To bad they didn’t have one of the new muzzle brakes WICH reduces a 50cal recoil to nothing to be worried about and could save those punks scopes.

  15. To bad they didn’t have one of these awesome muzzle brakes available today which turns the recoil of a 50cal browning MACHINEGUN into a quite manageable push.

  16. “they didn’t have one of the new muzzle brakes”(C)

    From what?
    They were quite themselves. And the BOYS jet muzzle device remains one of the most effective to this day.

    https://www.rifleman.org.uk/Enfield_Boys_Anti-Tank_Rifle.html

    But this did not give the ability to work on pinpointing at least a kilometer.
    And a 20mm shell allows.
    Just at that time it never occurred to anyone that an armor-piercing rifle would need to be fired with FRAG ammunition instead of AP.
    And no one thought about cartridges with reduced power.

    By the way, the Germans, if I not mistaken, also loved the Soloturns.
    And not at all in the role of AT.

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