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About World War 1: German Bullets vs Allied Tanks

Updated on September 11, 2012
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. Why? Because we have to look to the past to prepare for the future.

World War I: Front view of a tank. For many Germans, this would have been the last thing they saw (though the viewing ports would have been battened down).
World War I: Front view of a tank. For many Germans, this would have been the last thing they saw (though the viewing ports would have been battened down). | Source

Tanks-- A Nasty Surprise For German Infantry

When the British prematurely unleashed their secret weapon, the Mark I tank, on September 15, 1916, during the Somme Offensive, they struck terror into the hearts of the German infantry. Despite the fact that many tanks broke down before even going into battle, nine of the 49 tanks managed to reach the German trenches. The Mark I's lumbered across the moonscape of No Man's Land, crushed paths through barbed wire entanglements, drove over the tops of trenches up to nine feet wide and laid waste to soldiers by the hundreds and thousands.

Tanks were vulnerable to artillery and mortar fire, but the poor, bloody German infantry were nearly helpless. Grenades were sometimes effective but could only be used when the tanks were nearly upon the thrower. Bullets from rifles and machine guns just bounced off the tanks' armor. Unless tanks were hit by indirect fire or suffered a mechanical breakdown or slid into an exceptionally deep crater, they wreaked havoc on the battlefield with their cannon and machine guns. From privates to generals, the Germans desperately sought ways to stop them. Fortunately for them, it wouldn't be until November 1917 before the British mastered the effective use of tanks en masse in a combined operation.

“Direct-Fire” Mortars

While the German generals pondered the appropriate response to this new battlefield phenomenon, the soldiers, with much more to lose, responded as best they could. Seeing how effective mortar shells were against the tanks, they clumsily positioned trench mortars on the firing line with the tubes depressed to low angles and aimed by eye site. This almost-direct-fire was sometimes effective, but dangerous to the crew for various reasons-- not the least being that they were completely exposed to enemy fire.

Splatter mask used by tank crews in World War I to protect from armor fragments bloen loose by shrapnel and armor-piercing bullets.
Splatter mask used by tank crews in World War I to protect from armor fragments bloen loose by shrapnel and armor-piercing bullets. | Source

Reversed Bullets

Remembering the hard lesson of how to penetrate the small steel shields sometimes used by snipers, the soldiers created reversed bullets. The slugs from normal rounds were twisted off, some additional propellant was added and the slugs were reversed and reinserted into the casing, giving the round a blunt-nosed appearance. In this configuration, the bullet could still be fired from a standard Mauser rifle but would not shatter. At very short ranges, reversed bullets could penetrate a tank's armor, if they hit head-on, about 30% of the time, killing or disabling unlucky tank crew members. Even if they didn't punch through, they might create spall, a spray of metal fragments, inside the tank. For this reason, tank crews took to wearing splatter masks, goggles with a chain mail face mask.

WW1: The standard 8×57mm IS armor-piercing 'K Bullet'. Note the tool-steel core protruding from the rear of the bullet to form a boat tail.
WW1: The standard 8×57mm IS armor-piercing 'K Bullet'. Note the tool-steel core protruding from the rear of the bullet to form a boat tail. | Source

K Bullets

Although the tanks were a horror to deal with, the German generals could see they had many weaknesses. The production of armor-piercing bullets, called K bullets, was stepped up. These bullets, with a hardened steel core, had been specifically designed for use used against sniper shields, and were as effective as reversed bullets over a greater distance-- up to about 100 yards. It was generally thought, by the powers-that-be at least, that anti-tank weapons were all that were needed to defeat or at least minimize the Allied tank threat.

The problem with both types of ammunition was that they put a strain on the rifles, due to the extra charge and the slug configuration the Mauser rifle was not designed for. As a result, the rifles sometimes jammed, or worse, burst, injuring or killing the firer or those around him. Still, when faced with either the threat of an approaching tank or a possible malfunction, chance favored the bullets. Otherwise, artillery, mortars and grenades remained the best defense against tanks.

Better Tanks, Better Use of Tanks

In 1917, the British introduced the Mark IV tank with thicker armor, which neither bullet could effectively penetrate. On top of this, the British launched the Battle of Cambrai on November 20, 1917 with 476 massed tanks-- the entire British Tank Corps. With six infantry divisions and 14 Royal Flying Corps squadrons in support, the tanks tore a hole seven miles wide through the German Hindenburg Line. Unfortunately, the British failed to follow through-- as if surprised by their stunning success-- and the Germans mounted counter-attack after counter-attack until all the ground was recovered. Nonetheless, all concerned finally saw the value of massed tanks.

World War I: British officers with a captured German anti-tank rifle.
World War I: British officers with a captured German anti-tank rifle. | Source

Anti-Tank Rifle

To counter the thicker armor, the Germans created the Mauser 1918 T-Gewehr, history's first anti-tank rifle. Introduced in 1918, this monster single-shot bolt-action rifle fired a 13.2-mm (.525-in) armor-piercing bullet with an effective range of 500 meters. It weighed 41 lbs loaded and could easily penetrate the armor of any tanks made during World War One. Although its two-man crew was identified as a firer and a loader, both were trained to fire it and probably switched off due to the strain of firing it; the recoil was known to break collar bones and dislocate shoulders. Almost 16,000 were made during the war.

WWI: British rifle bullet compared to bullet for T-Gewehr anti-tank rifle.
WWI: British rifle bullet compared to bullet for T-Gewehr anti-tank rifle. | Source
WWI 1917: British tanks captured by the Germans being transported by rail.
WWI 1917: British tanks captured by the Germans being transported by rail. | Source

Wait Till Next Time

Although the Germans had been making use of captured Allied tanks, they got more serious about creating their own tanks after the Battle of Cambrai. They fielded the A7V in 1918, an ungainly monster that, regardless of its faults or virtues, was insignificant based simply on numbers: the Germans had 20 of them in total compared with more than 7,000 French and British tanks produced during the war. It was a lesson the Germans would rectify over the next 20 years.

Testing the Reversed Bullet

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    • gmarquardt profile image

      gmarquardt 4 years ago from Hill Country, Texas

      Just awesome!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hey, thanks for reading and commenting, gmarquardt. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      This summer I visited museum of armory in Brussels. I saw these clumsy tanks there and was deeply impressed by their size. It was interesting to read about them!

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 4 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi UH. Another first class hub. Again your painstaking research is evident. Well presented, with excellent photos and video.

      Voted up and all.

      Graham.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Pavlo and old albion, thanks both for your comments. It is surprising how big some of those original tanks were. I was lucky to find some of these images that are now in the public domain. I didn't realize how big the anti-tank rifle was until I saw the picture of the two soldiers holding it.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest

      Reversing the bullets is an interesting solution. Seeing what they do in slow motion was impressive.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks, aethelthryth. The video is awesome-- especially since the guys doing the test were so skeptical (I mean, it doesn't seem like reversing the slug would be that effective). I admit, when I first read about it, my first reaction was "Oh, come on!".

    • peternehemia profile image

      Peter Nehemia 4 years ago from Jimbaran, Bali, Indonesia

      The reversed bullet itself actually never penetrates the metal. It is the energy of the impact that causes the hole. Singular knowledge, UnnamedHarald. I follow you :)

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi peter. Yes, that's true and the damage done is by the metal shards blown loose inside the tank-- hence the tanker's chainmail and goggles (spatter mask). Thanks much for commenting.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 11 months ago from Queensland Australia

      This was a very interesting read David. The introduction of the tank into the battle was certainly a major event and damaging to the German offensive. Congrats on HOTD.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 11 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks, Jodah. Although the tanks themselves weren't as effective as the Allies hoped, it was the development of their combined use with infantry, artillery and air power that gradually ended the stalemate of the trenches. The Germans learned their lesson and a little over 20 years later implemented their own version of combined arms called the "Blitzkrieg" with tanks that bullets couldn't stop.

    • Discordzrocks profile image

      Gavin Heinz 11 months ago from Austin TX

      HOTD, still great

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 11 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Discordzrocks.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 11 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      David, congrats on another HOTD! Your WWI history hubs are always interesting to read and learn new details about the war at the same time. Thanks for sharing.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 11 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks a lot Kristen. I like to write about things that interest me and it's rewarding when others enjoy my articles. I learn a lot during my research and try to pass that enthusiasm on. I was fascinated to learn how the German PBI (poor bloody infantry) adapted to the terrifying appearance of the first tanks by reversing their slugs and that lead to this article.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 11 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      You're very welcome David. It sounds like it to me.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 11 months ago from the short journey

      Congrats on this Hub of the Day award for an interesting read. The straightforward look at the struggle to fight back then is thought provoking on so many levels.

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 11 months ago from Southern Georgia

      An excellent choice for HOTD, David! It seems that desperation, rather than necessity, is often the mother of invention during wartime. My father fought under Patton in WWII with one of the guys in his company creating the first hedge cutter to enable his tank to cut a swath through the ancient hedgerows in France. Soon others copied his design and the hedges gave way to the tanks. I wonder who first came up with the reversed bullet as it sounds rather dangerous to the shooter.

      I thoroughly enjoyed the article as well as the videos you provided. :)

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 11 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      RTalloni and Randy, glad you enjoyed my article and, of course, it's always an honor to be chosen for HOTD. I continue to wonder whether any German soldiers' rifles exploded, what with changing the configuration and adding extra propellant, but have found no information regarding this, let alone why someone decided to try it. All I found was that this trick was tried before the tanks appeared when trying to penetrate sniper's armored shields. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 11 months ago from Germany

      Congratulations on the Hub of the Day. A well deserve award. Thanks for the informations I have gathered in this article.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 11 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you, Thelma. It's always nice to read comments like yours.

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