The term ‘Grenade’ refers to a small, often handheld (thrown) explosive bomb. It is generally used in fairly close combat (although not too close as you don’t want to be hit by shrapnel from your own grenade). At the point of the explosion, the grenade will shatter into pieces, firing high speed fragments of metal in all directions. The grenade was named by the French due to the resemblance of the earlier varieties to a pomegranate (‘grenade’ is French for ‘pomegranate’).
Hand grenades (as opposed to grenades – which are similar but aren’t necessarily thrown by hand) have been around in various forms from the 8th century. These first incarnations were often referred to as ‘Greek Fire’ as it was the Byzantines that invented them. Not a lot is known about their exact form but given the improvements that happened as they spread throughout Asia we can only imagine that they were similar yet less effective than the Chinese ‘upgraded’ version described in the following paragraph.
The Chinese armies improved on the earlier ‘Greek Fire’ incendiary devices. Their version of the grenade was generally a hollow metal tubes filled with gunpowder (and anything else that would go bang) and a wax candle inserted into the end to create a wick or fuse. Whether these early forms of grenade were launched with catapults or thrown by hand remains unknown – looking at their form, it was probably both.
From the 16th century onwards, hand grenades became widely used by the military The first ones used in this way were simply hollow iron balls, filled with gunpowder and ignited by a slow burning fuse -usually rag or some form of twine that had been dampened, rolled in gunpowder and allowed to dry. The whole item would weigh 1kg – 3kg! Quite a heavy handful to launch!
During the 17th century armies began to train units of soldiers to become specialist throwers of hand grenades. These units were known as ‘Grenadiers’…the name is still in use today. During the Napoleonic wars, only those trained as Grenadiers were allowed to thrown hand grenades, they were treated as an elite unit.
By the 1800’s, firearms and weaponry was improved to the point that hand grenades were no longer thought of as effective weaponry and they were very infrequently used. They became popular again in the war between the Russian Empire and the Japanese Empire in 1904 – 1905.
The renewed popularity of the hand grenade continued throughout WW1 where the grenades used were literally metal containers filled with gunpowder and stones/bits of metal etc. These had a very primitive (and sadly unstable) fuse that would often burn out and cause the grenade to explode ahead of time. The Australian form of the hand grenade during WW1 was known as a ‘Jam Bomb’ due to their practice of using empty jam tins to create grenades – possibly not the best form of recycling we’ve ever heard of!
In 1915 the first safe grenade was invented by English engineer William Mills. This had a pin that would be pulled, activating a fairly reliable timed fuse, prior to throwing the device. This was known as the Mills bomb. Not only did Mills make the grenade safer for the person throwing it, he also added various enhancements (such as metal splinters in the filling) to make it even more deadly to the unlucky recipient – as if the pieces of the grenade body weren’t enough alone!. When we visualise a grenade today, it is the Mills Bomb that we think of – the deadly ‘pineapple shaped’ version. Millions of these were used during the two world wars.
The Mills Bomb shape is responsible for the current, ‘comfy to fit in the hand and a good weight to be thrown’ grenade. If you fancy a grenade of your own, and my goodness these feel wonderful to hold, we currently have a stock of deactivated specimens available to purchase.
There are many types of hand grenade that have been in use (and are still in use) over the last century, you can click the links below to find out more:
Other (and current) Grenades: https://www.militaryfactory.com/smallarms/hand-grenades.asp
Types of Mk2 Grenades WW2: http://www.inert-ord.net/usa03a/usa2/