By Joseph Trevithick, War Is Boring
This story originally appeared on Dec. 29, 2014.
Most people would probably agree that playing catch with a hand grenade is a bad idea. On one occasion in 2005, three young people died in Bosnia while horsing around with one of these small bombs, according to Reuters.
But throwing is throwing. And over the years, U.S. Army weaponeers have designed grenades shaped just like balls in order to capitalize on soldiers’ existing experience with sports such as football and baseball.
When the United States entered World War I, the Army was both inexperienced and ill-equipped compared to its European counterparts. Washington rushed to purchase weapons from its better-prepared allies.
The deliveries included French F-1 hand grenades, which the Army quickly copied. The ground combat branch’s iconic Mark II grenade—which troops nicknamed “pineapple” owing to its checkered body—shares its basic structure with the French weapon.
While the Mark II was the default grenade for U.S. troops throughout World War II, Army officials were never entirely satisfied with the European-style design.
“Responsible individuals” often said “a grenade based on the size and shape of a baseball would be better adapted to use by the average American soldier,” according to one post-war report.
Above—U.S. Army soldiers train to throw grenades. Army photo. At top—a U.S. Marine practices throwing a grenade. Marine Corps photo
These unspecified personnel included members of the Office of Strategic Services—the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency. By 1944, the Army Ordnance Department was working with the OSS on various prototypes.
OSS specifically proposed a weapon that would be no more than nine and a half inches in circumference and weigh five or so ounces—the same as a regulation baseball. The Mark II was four times as heavy as this proposed design.
The new grenade—which the Army designated T-13 and soldiers nicknamed “beano”—also had a special fuze that would explode when the grenade hit the ground. This feature should have prevented a quick-thinking enemy troop from tossing a bomb back at the thrower.
A cutaway of a late model T-13 beano grenade. Army art
Unfortunately, the mechanism was extremely sensitive. Too sensitive.
To arm the grenade, a soldier pulled a traditional pin and chucked the sphere. In the original design, a plate on top of the fuze flew off and another spring-loaded pin popped out, allowing other parts to move around as intended.
A strong throw at the wrong angle might cause the beano to detonate too close to the thrower. The T-13 also gave soldiers no time to run for cover after a weak toss.
A redesigned fuze, where the plate acted like a parachute and pulled out the second pin as the grenade flew toward its target, didn’t make the weapon any safer.
More than a year after testing started, T-13s had suffered “five premature detonations that had mortally wounded two men and injured 44 others,” Anthony Dee wrote in the October 2013 edition of Small Arms Review.
When World War II ended, the Army finally canned the project as Washington slashed military spending and sent troops home. By that time, Eastman Kodak had produced more than 10,000 grenades with the above fuze types, Dee writes.
Over the course of the program, the ground combat branch had also created versions filled with incendiary white phosphorus and fitted with traditional, timed fuzes.
The White House’s National Defense Research Committee—created by executive order in 1940—hoped the beano project might “stimulate future developers to successful production of a weapon of this type,” according to a post-war review.
Ultimately, the Army did develop and adopt smaller, spherical grenades. The M-67—standard for all American troops since the late 1960s—is heavier than a baseball, but smaller in diameter.
Today soldiers typically refer to the small bomb as a “baseball grenade.” “In 1988, I don’t believe there was a soldier in training who had not thrown a baseball,” says Sgt. 1st Class Brent Sauer, a member of the Missouri Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 138th Infantry Regiment.
During training, “the drill sergeant emphasized that if you could throw a baseball, you could throw these grenades,” Sauer adds. “That first live grenade throw seemed as important as the winning pitch in the World Series.”
A U.S. Air Force security forces member practices with a grenade. Air Force photo
Though the baseball shape has become popular, Army experiments also included grenades based on the American football.
In 1973, the Army’s Land Warfare Laboratory started testing possible designs for an anti-tank grenade. At the time, the ground combat branch lacked a weapon like this.
Commanders in Europe had asked for some sort of ordnance for destroying tanks in close quarters. If Warsaw Pact troops had invaded, NATO soldiers could have found themselves taking on armored vehicles in cities and towns.
American commanders noticed that the Soviets had special anti-tank grenades for such a scenario. Army technicians offered five different prototypes of their own.
“Since a regulation size football weighs 14 ounces, it was considered feasible to make a shaped charge grenade within this weight limitation,” according to the official test report. “In addition, most U.S. troops are familiar with throwing footballs.”
The U.S. Army’s experimental football grenade. Army photo
The prototype inserted the tank-busting charge inside a hollowed-out Nerf football. Parker Brothers—which introduced the lightweight, foam balls in 1969—doesn’t appear to have been actively involved in the project.
The Army testers found that the “ball”—with its weigh in the center—was unstable in flight and “did not work as envisioned,” according to the documentation. Actual footballs are hollow on the inside.
In contrast to the baseball-style weapons, the ground combat branch never fielded any football-shaped grenades. The anti-tank grenade itself never caught on in the U.S. military.
Current Army manuals make no mention of sports or balls when it comes to grenades. “Since few soldiers throw in the same manner, it is difficult to establish firm rules or techniques for throwing hand grenades,” one handbook points out.
“If a soldier can achieve more distance and accuracy using his own personal style, he should be allowed to do so as long as his body is facing sideways, towards the enemy’s position, and he throws basically overhand,” the document adds.
But at least a decade ago, the sports references still came up regularly during training, Sauer says. “I guess it was just an easy, convenient reference young men can relate too.”