Russian Anti-Tank Rifles: Suicidal or Unstoppable Weapon?

By Tom Laemlein
Posted in #History
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Russian Anti-Tank Rifles: Suicidal or Unstoppable Weapon?

August 29th, 2023

12 minute read

Students of the history of armored vehicles and armored warfare are usually aware of the armored skirts (Schürzen) so prevalent on German tanks of World War II. These additional armor plates have often been described in post-war Western literature as “anti-bazooka shields”.

ptrd-41 russian anti-tank rifle team
A Soviet infantry team with a PTRD-41 in action during 1943. Image: Author’s collection

The description of these plates as “anti-bazooka” shields did not make sense to me, but I didn’t question it until just a few years ago. I knew that the Soviets proved to be talented rocket designers, but I was also certain that the Soviets had no indigenous anti-tank rocket launchers in WWII (and the Bazooka and PIAT of the Western Allies were not included in lend-lease).

ptrd at rifle
Chambered for a 14.5mm cartridge, the PTRD-41 Soviet antitank rifle was very long at 6’, 6¾”. Image: Author’s collection

I couldn’t understand why the Germans would cover their vehicles with “anti-bazooka” shields in all theatres of combat if they only faced those types of weapons on the Western front. Eventually, I learned that during World War II the Soviets struggled with creating effective hollow charge explosives, and this inhibited their development of a bazooka-style weapon system. Postwar, the Soviets developed their highly effective rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and the RPG family is still going strong today. 

[Read the History of the Infamous RPG-7 here.]

ptrd-41 gunner kills italian l6/40 light tank
A Soviet PTRD-41 gunner poses with a kill: an Italian L6/40 light tank. With a maximum armor thickness of 40mm on the front plate, the L6/40 was an easy target for the Russians. Image: Author’s collection

I wondered, “Why would the Germans provide protection against weapons that their most pressing enemy didn’t even employ?” My answer came in an article titled “Drahtgeflectschurzen: Wire Mesh Skirts” by Tom Jentz and Hilary Doyle in AFV News (May-August 2002). Apparently, Jentz and Doyle grew tired of the restatement of the same incorrect information, and their article debunks the ongoing errors of historians using flawed military intelligence records about Schürzen. Some of the confusion probably stems from U.S. Army intelligence bulletins, much like the following example from late 1943: 

From both Allied and German sources, reports have come in of additional armored skirting applied to the sides of German tanks and self-moving guns to protect the tracks, bogies and turret. Photographs show such plating on the PzKw III and IV, where the plates are hung from a bar resembling a hand-rail running above the upper track guard and from rather light brackets extending outward about 18 inches from the turret. What appeared to be a 75 mm self-moving gun was partially protected by similar side plates over the bogies. This armor is reported to be light — 4 to 6 millimeters (.16 to .24 in) — and is said to give protection against hollow-charge shells, 7.92 mm tungsten carbide core AT ammunition, and 20 mm tungsten carbide core ammunition. This armor might cause a high-velocity AP shot or shell to deflect and strike the main armor sideways or at an angle, but covering the bogies or Christie wheels would make the identification of a tank more difficult, except at short ranges.

From: Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 40, December 16, 1943, US Army Publications

Schürzen: Armored Side Skirts

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to look through some of the files of the late Colonel G. B. Jarrett, the U.S. Army’s leading expert on captured ordnance during WWII. In every instance I found, Schürzen were described “anti-bazooka” shields, with no mention made of anti-tank rifles. I found an excellent photo of a captured German Mark IV with the late war “Thoma” wire-mesh shields, and I noticed that Colonel Jarrett had captioned it: “New Pattern Bazooka Shield of Heavy Wire Mesh”.

pz iv tank late model skirts
Panzer IV with the wire-mesh skirts (“Thoma Shields”). At first glance, the mistaken notion that these were “anti-bazooka shields” makes perfect sense. Image: U.S. Army Ordnance Museum

It is easy to see how this mistake was made. At first glance, the mesh screens don’t seem to be tight enough to stop an anti-tank rifle round, but that was what they were designed to do. The “Thoma” mesh-type shields had been an earlier competitive design option, but were not made in significant numbers until later in the war. 

stug iii g skirts
Armored skirts were awkward as shown here on a StuG III. They easily warped or snagged, trapping dust, dirt and foliage alongside the running gear and chassis. Image: Patton Museum

Introduced in early 1943, skirt armor was a cheap and relatively effective defense against Soviet anti-tank rifles. These thin armored sheets were hung on a framework of rails specifically constructed to cover the turret of the Panzer III and IV, and the chassis and running gear of the Panzer III & IV, the Sturmgeshutze III & IV, and the Panzerjager IV. The plates were normally 10mm thick and were constructed in sections, then hung on the rails by hooks connecting with loops welded onto the armor sheets. For turret protection, a series of 5mm plates were mounted on brackets in a u-shape around the sides and rear of the turret.

sturmpanzer 43 destroyed by russian anti-tank rifle
A knocked-out Sturmpanzer 43 on the Eastern Front shows multiple hits to its side skirts from a Russian AT rifle. Image: Patton Museum

German testing showed that the skirt armor concept was valid. Schürzen was effective in either deflecting 14.5mm AP rounds or reducing their velocity to the point that they were impotent against the side armor of German tanks. Vehicles in service were retrofitted, and factories started rolling out vehicles featuring the new side skirts during 1943. 

Later vehicles like the Panther and the Hetzer tank destroyer had factory-designed side skirts that were much more trim and form-fitting — these specifically covered the thinly armored areas between the top of the road wheels and the bottom of the superstructure. It is interesting to note that a number of photos of captured Soviet T-34 tanks in German service show that skirt armor has been added, presumably to help make the captured vehicles appear more “German” in addition to providing protection against anti-tank rifles. 

ptrs-41 antitank rifle
The magazine-fed PTRS-41 was 84.5 inches long — frequently longer than the shooter was tall. Image: Author’s collection

Later variants of the Panzer IV (Ausf.J,) had the solid metal skirts replaced by a heavy wire mesh curtain (known as “Thoma Shields”). This variation of skirt armor was originally a competitive design to the solid plates, with the plates initially chosen due to ease of production.

As the Western Allies had abandoned the use of anti-tank rifles by 1943, the assumption was made that German skirt armor was designed to defeat new hollow charge ammunition. On the surface, this assumption makes sense. However, German documentation proves that “Schürzen” was applied to assault guns and tanks (including factory-installed side plates on the Panther) to protect against Soviet PTRD and PTRS 14.5mm anti-tank rifles. In light of postwar developments against hollow-charge weapons, it is an easy mistake to make when looking at German skirt armor (particularly the wire mesh variety). U.S. Army intelligence had guessed that the Germans created “anti-bazooka” shields and deployed them in any combat theatre regardless of the bazooka threat. Actually, the reverse was true. The Germans designed anti-tank rifle shields and deployed them on vehicles wherever they fought, regardless of their enemy’s use of anti-tank rifles.

soviet ptrd-41 training poster
A Soviet Union recognition and training poster featuring the PTRD-41 antitank rifle. Image: NARA

Late-war testing showed that Schürzen was completely ineffective against the Bazooka and PIAT. On top of this fact, Jentz and Doyle noted in their article that a General Guderian described the true purpose of Schürzen in an openly distributed wartime publication about German armored vehicles. Allied intelligence certainly didn’t lack for available information on skirt armor. The fact that they misinterpreted it (or chose to ignore it) has been the root of the confusion ever since. Later tests showed that the side skirts actually enhanced the penetrative ability of the American bazooka. When the hollow charge bazooka warhead struck the side skirt, it allowed sufficient time and space for the explosive to form its full “flame-jet” to better burn through the armor.

russian soldiers at inspection with ptrd-41 rifles
Soviet anti-tank rifles were produced in great numbers and remained in service through the end of WWII. These soldiers carry the PTRD-41. Image: Author’s collection.

This information made me take a close look at the Soviet anti-tank rifles of World War II. Obviously, there was a great deal more to the story of these weapons than had been previously described. The Soviets fought a much different kind of war than the Western Allies, and their willingness to accept heavy losses in personnel was a significant factor in their continued use of anti-tank rifles, long after the British and Americans had abandoned them. Necessity was also a significant factor in why the 14.5mm weapons stayed in active service in the Red Army for so long. But the Russians weren’t stupid, nor were they suicidal, and in the end it was their anti-tank rifles’ performance that kept them as active participants on the battlefield through 1945.

russian ptrd-41 in bunker 14.5mm catridges
The Soviet PTRD-41 anti-tank rifle allowed Russian troops to fire it safely in enclosed areas, unlike the bazooka. Note the whopping size of the 14.5x114mm cartridges. Image: Author’s collection

During World War II, and ever since, we have become increasingly used to seeing the total destruction of an armored vehicle. Normally, this happens when the AFV is struck by a large caliber armor-piercing slug (or sabot), or the dramatic effect of massive hollow charge detonation that incinerates the interior of the vehicle. Images from the current war in Ukraine show the dramatic destruction of Russian AFVs, often called a “catastrophic internal explosion”. It is a very satisfying sight for the defender, and a demoralizing one for tankers everywhere.

Anti-tank rifles do not cause that kind of destruction to tanks, but that makes them no less deadly when used properly. As German tank armor increased steadily, Soviet AT riflemen focused their fire on the specific areas where they could do the most damage. For Soviet AT rifle teams, attacks against the frontal armor of German tanks, even light tanks, was never a viable option. However, depending on the type of German vehicle they targeted, there was a surprising number of vulnerable areas — and the 14.5mm rifles were more than accurate enough (and plentiful enough) to hit them. Though the AT rifles could not penetrate their thickly armored front or sides, even the massive Tiger tanks had to be careful.

soviet anti tank rifle team with ptrd-41
Soviet anti-tank rifle teams typically consisted of two men, as shown here. Image: Author’s collection

In Tigers in the Mud (1992 Fedorowicz Publishing Inc.), Tiger commander Otto Carius offers his description of the Soviet AT rifles:

The Russian Model 1942 antitank rifle obtained penetrations of up to 17mm, as measured on the front slope in front of the driver’s position. This rifle was encountered quite frequently and can be recognized by its prominent muzzle flash. In one case, an oblique hit was made against the forward vision slit of the commander’s cupola. Its corner broke off and ricocheted, rendering the Kinon vision block unusable. The result of a direct hit (on the vision block): probable penetration. The rounds of the antitank rifle usually impact in the vicinity of the vision slot.

ptrs-41 in combat snow
Soviet anti-tank defenses were multi-layered and featured a wide range of weapons including the anti-tank grenade (foreground) and a PTRS-41 AT rifle (background). Image: Author’s collection

Even against the mighty Tiger, Soviet AT rifle gunners knew how to hurt their armored opponents. Carius also commented: “Every tank commander had to be careful while peering out during positional warfare. Especially since the turret hatches of tanks in the front lines were continuously watched by enemy sharpshooters. Even a short exposure could be fatal for the tank commander.”

The Anti-Tank Rifles: PTRD-41 & PTRS-41

Simple yet effective, the Soviet anti-tank rifles proved themselves on the battlefield. There were two primary types: the PTRD 1941 (Degtyarev), and the PTRS 1941 (Simonov). These weapons were also known as the PTRD-41 and PTRS-41 respectively. The 14.5x114mm ammunition had a velocity of 3320 feet per second (fps).

ptrs-41 captured in germany
The PTRS-41 was one of two main anti-tank rifles fielded by Soviet infantry on the Eastern Front. Image: NARA

The PTRD 1941 Degtyarev was a bolt-action, single-shot 14.5mm rifle with the barrel and receiver built into a spring-loaded tubular frame. Sights were offset to the left of the gun. The PTRD’s weight was 38.5 lbs., and its length was 78 ¾”. The PTRS 1941 Simonov was a massive, semi-automatic 14.5mm rifle, magazine fed by a five-round clip. The gun could be easily disassembled into two loads for transport. The PTRS weighed 46 lbs. and was 84¼” long.

As the Russian front arms race drove tank and anti-tank design to new heights, it is hard to imagine that something as “obsolescent” as an anti-tank rifle would have so much impact on German tank designs. As tank armor grew thicker and anti-tank guns grew larger, with higher muzzle velocity, how could an anti-tank weapon smaller than 20mm be of any concern to battle tanks circa 1943 or later?

Shown above is a PTRD-41 rifle captured by Finnish forces during the Continuation War to recapture territory lost during the Winter War. Image: SA-Kuva/CC BY 4.0

The answer comes in the capabilities of the Russian 14.5mm anti-tank rifle and the study of Soviet anti-tank tactics. The Russians, devoid of sufficient hollow-charge technology, used what they had, and apparently used it well. Their “anti-tank defense in depth” tactics did an excellent job of combining available firepower. Significant numbers of heavy AT guns fired at the front of German armor, blunting their attacks, while light AT guns and AT rifles fired at the vulnerable sides and rear of German vehicles. The Germans lost tremendous numbers of vehicles on the Russian front, and many of these losses are directly attributable to the effectiveness of Soviet anti-tank weapons.

ptrd and svt-40
An anti-tank rifle team goes to work. An experienced crew could fire up to ten rounds per minute with the single-shot PTRD-41. Image: Author’s collection

At close ranges, the AT rifles were quite effective against the side and rear armor of German vehicles. The 14.5mm rounds (normally with a tungsten core) were surprisingly effective in penetrating the 30mm armor protection on the side of the Panzer III and Panzer IV. Later tests showed that Russian anti-tank rifles could also penetrate the lower hull sides of the Mark V “Panther”.

ptrs gunner
A five-round magazine fed the semi-automatic PTRS-41 anti-tank rifle. Image: Author’s collection

German half-tracks, assault guns, and self-propelled artillery were also vulnerable to Soviet anti-tank rifles. PTRD and PTRS rifles could snipe at tracks and road wheels, gun barrels, vision ports, hatches, engine compartments and exposed crewmen. A disabled German vehicle, without infantry support, was ripe for attack by Soviet tank hunter teams. Anti-tank rifles would also snipe at recovery vehicles and their specialized repair personnel, and the cycle of destruction continued on.

finnish soldier uses soviet ptrd-41 against russian troops
A Finnish soldier uses a captured PTRD-41 against Russian troops during the Continuation War. Image: SA-Kuva/CC BY 4.0

While the PTRS and PTRD rifles are quite long and cumbersome, they could be safely fired from inside bunkers and buildings (unlike bazooka-style rocket launchers). Their firing signature was also significantly less than an AT rocket launcher or heavy anti-tank cannon. When used in coordinated attacks, Soviet AT rifles could disable most German AFVs, leaving them vulnerable to larger anti-tank weapons or close assault with satchel charges or magnetic mines. On the downside, the PTRD and PTRS were not comfortable rifles to shoot — in any way. Their recoil was terrible, and the muzzle blast had a sledgehammer impact on the face of the shooter. Even so, the Soviet 14.5mm rifles would have to be considered the most underrated anti-tank weapons of the Second World War. Their effectiveness on the battlefield forced the Germans to institute significant design changes in armor protection, forever altering the appearance of armored fighting vehicles.

ptrd training
Soviet soldiers learn how to use the single-shot PTRD-41 anti-tank rifle. Image: Author’s collection

During the Korean War, U.S. forces captured a number of Soviet AT rifles from Communist forces. Originally dubbed “Buffalo rifles”, these captured rifles were used as the test bed for what has become several generations of American .50-caliber sniper rifles.

I have fired some of the modern .50-caliber rifles and even with their advanced recoil absorbing systems and muzzle brakes, I did not find them pleasant firearms to shoot. I can only imagine how much recoil and muzzle blast came from WWII vintage anti-tank rifles, which had no comforts for the shooter. Nevertheless, as for the PTRD and PTRS, a few still soldier on. Examples have been seen in action with Ukrainian forces since the Russian invasion of the Donbas began in 2014.

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Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein is a historian. While that might sound mind-numbingly awful to some, he enjoys it. His deep dives into historical research keep him (mostly) out of trouble and, yet, too often away from the rifle range. Tom is the author of more than 30 books on military history and weapons systems. He regularly contributes articles to national magazines and websites on military history and firearms topics, and historical photos from his collection are used by publishers around the world. In those times that he is cornered in a corporate environment, he will talk about marketing until he is released. Tom is married to a very patient woman, and they live on America’s North Coast, near Lake Ontario. His regular misadventures with Wally, his young Tibetan Mastiff, remind him that life must be enjoyed full-bore, at least until you are ready for a nap.

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