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Weapons of the Panzer


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German Tank Armament

As a general rule, German tank armament was always well in advance of Allied developments. At a time when British tanks were armed with the 2 pr gun, German tanks were being armed with 5 cm and 7.5 cm guns firing 4.56-and 14-pound projectiles respectively. But tank guns are not rated on the weight of shot that they fire alone.

Shell Speed & Performance
Another very important factor is the speed at which the shot or shell (shot is solid metal, and shell contains a high explosive charge) leaves the muzzle of the gun. This is usually referred to as the muzzle velocity or V0. Here again, the Germans were usually well in advance of Allied gun designers, and in the two 8.8 cm guns that were produced for tanks, they were able to combine a high muzzle velocity and shot weight that could outrange and destroy almost any Allied counterpart.

The most usual way to increase the muzzle velocity of a gun is to increase the charge in the propelling cartridge, but this places severe strain on the breech mechanism and recoil system. Another method, often employed by German designers, was to increase the length of the barrel. The 7.5 cm gun used on the PzKpfw IV was increased from L/24 to L/43 and eventually to L/48, and each increase in length brought about an increase in the hitting power of the gun. But an increase in barrel length also brought about severe strain on the recoil mechanism, which was usually minimised by the use of a muzzle brake that could reduce recoil forces by directing a proportion of the muzzle blast to the rear at the time the shell left the barrel.

Tank Machine Guns
Starting at the bottom of the scale, all German tanks mounted at least one machine-gun. The standard German calibre for machine-guns was 7.92 mm (0.312 in). The most widely used machine-gun fitted to tanks was the MG34, a Rheinmetall weapon which was at one time the standard German infantry machine-gun. On tanks the MG34 was mounted co-axially with the main armament and was often carried in a complex ball-mounting on the front glacis plate. By the time the war ended most German tanks had an extra machine-gun fitted on the commander's cupola for anti-aircraft use.

After about 1943, a new gun known as the MG42 began to be issued. This gun was cheaper and simpler to produce than the MG34, and was designed to replace the earlier gun, but events were such that production could not keep pace with demand and the MG34 was still in use in 1945 as the war ended.

Main Tank Gun
Going up the calibre scale, the next tank gun was the 20 mm KwK 30. This was a shortened version of the 20 mm Flak 30 anti-aircraft gun. This weapon was originally a Swiss Solothurn design known as the T5-150 or ST 9, and was developed under Rheinmetall guidance. It was used only on the PzKpfw II and on some armoured cars. It was later supplemented by the Mauser 20 mm KwK 38, which was again a shortened version of an antiaircraft gun, in this case the 20 mm Flak 38. This gun used magazines holding either ten or 20 rounds.

The 3.7 cm gun used on the early PzKpfw III was an L/45 weapon developed from the 3.7 cm Pak 35/36 anti-tank gun. It was not produced in large numbers after 1940.

Next in size came the 5 cm KwK L/42 which was fitted to the early PzKpfw III Ausf E to H. This gun was well in advance of similar tank armament at the time of its introduction to service, but was soon outclassed when it encountered the thick hide of the Russian T-34 and KV-I. This had already been anticipated by Hitler, who had ordered an increase in barrel length to L/60, but production difficulties had prevented this order being carried out.

Eventually the L/60 gun was placed in production as the 5 cm KwK 39, and in performance was equal to the 5 cm Pak 38 anti-tank gun in use with Wehrmacht anti-tank units.

The 7.5 cm KwK as originally fitted to the early models of the PzKpfw IV was a low velocity gun firing HE shells. In its original form it was a most effective gun when fired against contemporary tanks, but by the end of 1940 it was realised that it had become ineffective against the heavy armour of some Allied vehicles. It was replaced in service by the interim 7.5 cm KwK 40 with an L/43 barrel. The old L/24 guns that were replaced were not scrapped but were placed in store, only to be withdrawn for use in the late models of the PzKpfw III, and some were also placed on half-tracks for close support duties.

The L/43 guns were soon replaced by the 7.5 cm KwK 40 with an L/48 barrel. This gun was a development of the famous Rheinmetall 7.5 cm Pak 40 anti-tank gun and it was to prove itself one of the most potent and effective of all the German tank guns. It was certainly the most widely used for it was placed on a wide variety of tank destroyer chassis, and one version ended up as an anti-tank gun mounted on aircraft (the 5 cm gun also went airborne).

A further development of the 7.5 cm KwK 40 was the KwK 42 which had an L/70 barrel. This gun was used on the Panther and was a considerable advance as a tank gun on the KwK 40. Plans were in hand to increase this weapon to an L/100 version but this project was dropped before the war ended.

The first 8.8 cm tank gun was the KwK 36 which was fitted to the Tiger. It was a powerful weapon with a considerable range but by 1944 it was considered obsolescent and was replaced in production by the even more powerful 8.8 cm KwK 43. The two guns were not related as the KwK 43 had a larger and more powerful propelling charge, and the KwK 36 was an L/56 gun while the KwK 43 had a barrel length of 71 calibres. In its latter form, the KwK 43 can be considered to have been the best all-round tank gun in use by any of the combatants involved in World War 2.

As the war ended, plans were well advanced on even heavier tank armament. The 12.8 cm gun was intended for use in tank turrets, but under development were smooth-bore guns firing finned projectiles, a High-Low pressure gun, and various rocket-propelled projectiles which were intended to have the tank-killing capacity of current anti-tank guns without the weight or cost penalties involved. As the war ended, none of them were sufficiently advanced for service use.

Tank Gun Data

Calibre & Size Length Shot/Shell Weight (Kg's) Muzzle Velocity (mt/sec)
20 mm KwK 30 L/55
20 mm KwK 38 L/55
3.7 cm KwK L/45
5 cm KwK L/42
5 cm KwK 39 L/60
7.5 cm KwK L/24
7.5 cm KwK 40 L/43
7.5 cm KwK 40 L/48
7.5 cm KwK 42 L/70
8.8 cm KwK 36 L/56
8.8 cm KwK 43 L/71