Osprey author Leigh Neville continues his series examining the small arms used by the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) during the Vietnam War. This week he discusses that most iconic of weapons, the venerable RPG.
Although most think the acronym stands for ‘rocket propelled grenade’, it actually relates to the Russian name of the weapon system which means "handheld anti-tank grenade launcher" (note the use of the RPG-43 grenade in the Second World War or ruchna...ya protivotankovaya granata-43). A myth has also developed that the Russians trialled an early variant of the RPG launcher in the closing days of the war. In fact it was a post-war development, incorporating the learnings from both the American Bazooka and the German Panzerschreck and Panzerfaust families.
The first RPG was the RPG-2 and, for much of the duration of war, this was the most common type encountered in the hands of the VC and NVA. Simple to operate, the RPG-2 lacked the booster of the RPG-7, curtailing its range to around 200 metres. The weapon proved popular however as few engagements were beyond this range and the RPG-2 could easily penetrate an M113 armoured personnel carrier with relative ease. Along with Chinese copies, the North Vietnamese even made their own domestic version, the B40.
By 1966, numbers of the improved RPG-7 were being delivered to North Vietnam by Russia and Warsaw Pact client states. The RPG-7 offered much greater range (thanks to the boosters used by the rockets) and armour penetration (an RPG-7 at close range is still a significant threat to lightly armoured armoured vehicles today) thanks to its 85mm PG-7 HEAT (high explosive anti-tank) warhead.
A number of Australian Centurions were disabled by RPG-7s during the latter part of the war, most famously during the Battle of Binh Ba in June 1969 where two Centurions were knocked out (compare to earlier encounters with the RPG-2 such as the May 1968 battles at Fire Base Coral where Centurions were repeatedly struck by RPG-2s, all of which failed to penetrate their armour).