Assault gun

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Decommissioned Syrian Army StuG III assault gun with 75mm main armament. StuG-III-latrun-2.jpg
Decommissioned Syrian Army StuG III assault gun with 75mm main armament.

An assault gun is a form of self-propelled artillery [1] which uses an infantry support gun mounted on a motorized chassis, normally an armored fighting vehicle. [2] Assault guns are designed to provide direct fire support for infantry attacks, especially against other infantry or fortified positions. [3] The term is a literal translation of the German word Sturmgeschütz, which was applied to the first purpose-built assault gun, the StuG III, in 1940. [3]

Self-propelled artillery Artillery mounted on a vehicle for mobility and protection

Self-propelled artillery is artillery equipped with its own propulsion system to move towards its target. Within the terminology are the self-propelled gun, self-propelled howitzer, self-propelled mortar, and rocket artillery. They are high mobility vehicles, usually based on continuous tracks carrying either a large field gun, howitzer, mortar, or some form of rocket/missile launcher. They are usually used for long-range indirect bombardment support on the battlefield.

Infantry support guns or battalion guns are artillery weapons designed and used to increase firepower of infantry units they are intrinsic to; offering immediate tactical response to the needs of the unit's commanding officer. The designs are typically with short low velocity barrels, and light construction carriages allowing them to be more easily manoeuvred on the battlefield. They are generally used for direct fire missions, as opposed to indirect fire like other artillery units. Their role has generally been replaced by tanks, other support vehicles or autocannons, mortars, recoilless rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and shoulder-launched missiles.

Direct fire trajectory of a projectile

Direct fire refers to the launching of a projectile directly at a target within the line-of-sight of the firer. The firing weapon must have a sighting device and an unobstructed view to the target, which means no objects or friendly units can be between it and the target. A weapon engaged in direct fire exposes itself to return fire from the target.

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Historically, the concept of assault guns was very similar to that of the infantry tank, as both were combat vehicles intended to accompany infantry formations into battle. [4] However, during World War II assault guns were more mobile than tanks and could be utilized as both direct and indirect fire artillery. [4] Although they could approximate the firepower of a tank, assault guns mostly fired high explosive shells at relatively low velocities, which were well suited for their role of knocking out hard points such as fortified positions and buildings. [4] They were not intended to be deployed as tank substitutes or dedicated tank destroyers. [4] Nevertheless, as the conflict progressed, the increasing proliferation of tanks on the battlefield forced many assault gun units to engage armor in defense of the infantry, and led to armies becoming more dependent on multipurpose designs which combined the traditionally separate roles of an assault gun and a tank destroyer. [5]

Infantry tank type of tank designed to support infantry-soldiers in an attack

The infantry tank was a concept developed by the United Kingdom and France in the years leading up to World War II. Infantry tanks were designed to support infantrymen in an attack. To achieve this, the vehicles were generally heavily armoured to allow them to operate in close concert with infantry even under heavy fire. The extra armour came at the expense of speed, which was not an issue when supporting relatively slow-moving foot soldiers.

Tank destroyer type of armored fighting vehicle

A tank destroyer, tank hunter, or tank killer is a type of armoured fighting vehicle, armed with a direct-fire artillery gun or missile launcher, with limited operational capacities and designed specifically to engage enemy tanks.

German and Soviet assault guns introduced during World War II usually carried their main armament in a fully enclosed casemate rather than a gun turret. [6] Although this limited the field of fire and traverse of the armament, it also had the advantage of a reduced silhouette and simplified the manufacturing process. [6] The United States never developed a purpose-built assault gun during the war, although it did modify preexisting armored fighting vehicles for that role, including the M4 Sherman and M5 Stuart tanks and the M3 Half-track. [7]

Casemate

A casemate is a fortified gun emplacement or armored structure from which guns are fired. Originally, the term referred to a vaulted chamber in a fortress. In armoured fighting vehicles that do not have a turret for the main gun, the structure that accommodates the gun is termed the casemate.

Gun turret protective weapon mount or firing position

A gun turret is a location from which weapons can be fired that affords protection, visibility, and some cone of fire. A modern gun turret is generally a weapon mount that houses the crew or mechanism of a projectile-firing weapon and at the same time lets the weapon be aimed and fired in some degree of azimuth and elevation.

The field of fire of a weapon is the area around it that can easily and effectively be reached by gunfire. The term field of fire is mostly used in reference to machine guns. Their fields of fire incorporate the beaten zone.

The assault gun concept was largely abandoned during the postwar era in favor of tanks or multipurpose tank destroyers attached to infantry formations which were also capable of providing direct fire support as needed. In the United States and most Western countries, the assault gun ceased to be recognized as a unique niche, with individual examples being classified either as a self-propelled howitzer or a tank. [8] The Soviet Union continued funding development of new assault guns as late as 1967, although few of its postwar designs were adopted in large numbers. [9] In Soviet and other Eastern European armies, the traditional assault gun was primarily superseded by tank destroyers such as the SU-100 capable of supporting either infantry or armor. [8]

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million sq mi (9.8 million km2), the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.93 million sq mi (10.2 million km2). With a population of more than 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. Most of the country is located contiguously in North America between Canada and Mexico. The extremely diverse geography, climate, and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.

SU-100 tank destroyer

The SU-100 was a Soviet tank destroyer armed with a 100 mm anti-tank gun in a casemate superstructure. It was used extensively during the last year of World War II and saw service for many years afterwards with the armies of Soviet allies around the world.

History

World War II

The Soviet SU-76 was easily constructed in small factories incapable of producing proper tanks. Su76 nn.jpg
The Soviet SU-76 was easily constructed in small factories incapable of producing proper tanks.

Assault guns were primarily used during World War II by the forces of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Early in the war, the Germans began to create makeshift assault guns by mounting their infantry support weapons on the bed of a truck or on obsolete tanks with the turret removed. Later in the war, both the Germans and the Soviets introduced fully armoured purpose-built assault guns into their arsenals.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 70 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Nazi Germany The German state from 1933 to 1945, under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler

Nazi Germany is the common English name for Germany between 1933 and 1945, when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party (NSDAP) controlled the country through a dictatorship. Under Hitler's rule, Germany was transformed into a totalitarian state where nearly all aspects of life were controlled by the government. The official name of the state was Deutsches Reich until 1943 and Großdeutsches Reich from 1943 to 1945. Nazi Germany is also known as the Third Reich, meaning "Third Realm" or "Third Empire", the first two being the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) and the German Empire (1871–1918). The Nazi regime ended after the Allies defeated Germany in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe.

Soviet Union 1922–1991 country in Europe and Asia

The Soviet Union, officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was a Marxist-Leninist sovereign state in Eurasia that existed from 1922 to 1991. Nominally a union of multiple national Soviet republics, its government and economy were highly centralized. The country was a one-party state, governed by the Communist Party with Moscow as its capital in its largest republic, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Other major urban centres were Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk, Tashkent, Alma-Ata, and Novosibirsk. It spanned over 10,000 kilometres (6,200 mi) east to west across 11 time zones, and over 7,200 kilometres (4,500 mi) north to south. It had five climate zones: tundra, taiga, steppes, desert and mountains.

Early on, the Soviets built the KV-2, a variant of the KV-1 heavy tank with a short-barrelled 152 mm howitzer mounted in an oversized turret. This was not a success in battle, and was replaced with a very successful series of turretless assault guns: the SU-76, SU-122, and the heavy SU-152, which were followed by the ISU-122 and ISU-152 on the new IS heavy tank chassis.

152 mm howitzer-gun M1937 (ML-20) Soviet gun-howitzer

The 152 mm howitzer-gun M1937 (ML-20), is a Soviet heavy gun-howitzer. The gun was developed by the design bureau of the plant no 172, headed by F. F. Petrov, as a deep upgrade of the 152-mm gun M1910/34, in turn based on the 152-mm siege gun M1910, a pre-World War I design by Schneider. It was in production from 1937 to 1946. The ML-20 saw action in World War II, mainly as a corps / army level artillery piece of the Soviet Army. Captured guns were employed by Wehrmacht and the Finnish Army. Post World War II, the ML-20 saw combat in numerous conflicts during the mid to late twentieth century.

SU-76 Soviet self-propelled gun

The SU-76 was a Soviet self-propelled gun used during and after World War II. The SU-76 was based on a lengthened and widened version of the T-70 light tank chassis. Its simple construction made it the second most produced Soviet armoured vehicle of World War II, after the T-34 tank.

SU-122 self-propelled gun

The SU-122 was a Soviet self-propelled howitzer or assault gun used during World War II. The number "122" in the designation represents the caliber of the main armament—a 122 mm M-30S howitzer. The chassis was that of the T-34.

Sturmtiger in the Deutsches Panzermuseum at Munster, Lower Saxony. Germany06 086.jpg
Sturmtiger in the Deutsches Panzermuseum at Munster, Lower Saxony.

The primary German assault gun was the Sturmgeschütz III (StuG III). At about the same time (March 1942) as the howitzer-like KwK 37 gun was dropped from the Panzer IV's use, its Sturmkanone equivalent in the StuG III up to that time, was likewise replaced with a longer-barreled, high-velocity dual-purpose 75mm gun that had also been derived from the successful PaK 40 anti-tank towed artillery piece. The Germans also built a number of other fully armoured turretless assault guns, including the StuG IV, StuIG 33B, Brummbär and Sturmtiger . The latter two were very heavy vehicles, and were built only in small quantities.

Battalions of assault guns, usually StuG IIIs, commonly replaced the intended panzer battalion in the German panzergrenadier divisions due to the chronic shortage of tanks, and were sometimes used as makeshifts even in the panzer divisions. [10] Independent battalions were also deployed as "stiffeners" for infantry divisions, and the StuG III's anti-tank capabilities bolstered dwindling tank numbers on the Eastern and Western fronts.

A preserved Sherman M4 (105). Sherman Tank WW2.jpg
A preserved Sherman M4 (105).

US and UK forces also deployed vehicles designed for a close support role, but these were conventional tanks whose only significant modification was the replacement of the main gun with a howitzer. Two versions of the American Sherman tank were armed with the M4 105 mm howitzer, the M4(105) and the M4A3(105); these were designated assault guns in US usage of the term. The M8 Scott, based on the chassis of the M5 Stuart light tank, was also an assault cannon and carried a 75 mm short howitzer. The Churchill, Centaur and Cromwell tanks were all produced in versions armed with 95 mm howitzers: the Churchill Mark V and Mark VIII, the Centaur Mark IV and the Cromwell Mark VI. Earlier British tanks, such as the Crusader cruiser tank and the Matilda II Infantry tank were produced in versions armed with the 3-inch howitzer; the first versions of the Churchill tank also had this gun in a hull mounting. American tank destroyer units were often used in the assault gun role for infantry support.

The AVRE version of the Churchill Tank was armed with a Spigot mortar that fired a 40 lb (18 kg) HE-filled projectile (nicknamed the Flying Dustbin) 150 yards (140 m). Its task was to attack fortified positions such as bunkers at close range (see Hobart's Funnies).

Post-war use

In the post-WWII era, vehicles fitting into an "assault gun" category were developed as a light-weight, air-deployable, direct fire weapon for use with airborne troops. Current weapons were either based on jeeps or small tracked vehicles and the airborne troops thus always fought at a distinct disadvantage in terms of heavy weapons. The Soviet Union and the United States were the most attracted to the idea of providing this capability to traditionally light airborne forces. Their answers to the problem were similar, with the United States developing the M56 Scorpion and the Soviet Union developing the ASU-57, both essentially air-droppable light anti-tank guns.

The Soviets went on to develop an improved air-droppable assault gun, the ASU-85, which served through the 1980s, while their SU-100 remained in service with Communist countries, including Vietnam and Cuba, years after World War II. The US M56 and another armoured vehicle, the M50 Ontos, were to be the last of the more traditional assault guns in US service. Improvised arrangements such as M113 personnel carriers with recoilless rifles were quickly replaced by missile carrier vehicles in the anti-tank role.

The only vehicle with the qualities of an assault gun to be fielded after the removal of the M50 and M56 from service within the US military was the M551 Sheridan. The Sheridan's gun was a low-velocity weapon suitable in the assault role, but with the addition of the Shillelagh missile could double in the anti-tank role as well. The Sheridan, however, was not developed as an assault gun but as a light reconnaissance vehicle.

Currently there appears to be a move toward wheeled vehicles fitting a "tank destroyer" or "assault gun" role, such as the M1128 Mobile Gun System of the US Army, the Centauro Wheeled Tank Destroyer of the Italian and Spanish Armies, the Chinese anti-tank gun PTL-02 and ZBL08 assault gun, and the French AMX-10 RC heavy armoured car. While these vehicles might be useful in a direct fire role, none were developed with this specifically in mind, reminiscent of the use of tank destroyers by the US military in the assault gun role during World War II.

See also

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