By Seth Nadel
The threads that weave the modern world sometimes make interesting connections. Here is one unlikely set of connections in our history that touches on fascinating, but unlikely spots.
First, the bazooka – it’s official name was the M6 rocket launcher, but a popular comedian of the 1940’s had a homemade ‘musical instrument’ he called a “bazooka”, that looked vaguely like the rocket launcher, so the name stuck.
At the start of World War II, the United States did not have any portable anti-tank device. Tanks were opposed by other tanks or anti-tank guns, first of 37mm and later of 57mm. These were large, cumbersome, required a vehicle to tow them, and a crew to employ them. The 57mm gun and carriage weighed 2,810 pounds, and the gun without carriage was 117 inches long. Obviously, something smaller and lighter, that troops could carry, was needed.
With the advent of the German “Panzerfaust” ( tank fist) using a hollow or shaped charge, the Germans led the way. We developed an anti-tank hand grenade, which was too large and heavy to throw any distance. The danger zone was greater than the distance the ordinary troop could throw the device – obviously a negative outcome. A young 2nd Lieutenant in the Ordnance Corps at Aberdeen Proving Grounds was assigned the task of developing a way to launch the grenade to a useful distance.
That Lieutenant, Edward Uhl, is said to have found a piece of pipe in a scrap pile that fit the 2.36” diameter of the grenade. Uhl ’acquired’ a simple solid fuel rocket motor, which he attached to the grenade, along with some tail fins. Bent wires welded to the pipe served as sights, and he was ready to test his invention.
The legend is that Uhl was headed toward the ranges, and found a range where testing of other anti-tank devices was about to begin. The stands were filled with high ranking officers, all with high expectations that the Ordnance folks had something to show them. Uhl and his assistant joined the end of the line of test units with his pipe. One by one the other devices were tried – and they all failed either to hit the target, or to penetrate it. Finally, Uhl took his position, fired his first rocket, and hit the target – with complete penetration! He then fired his second (and last) rocket, with the same result! As the other test teams sulked off the range, Uhl was surrounded by the Brass, and the 2.36 inch rocket launcher was adopted with little delay.
Proof that a single, inventive mind could skip all the protocol and still be a hero.
The Bazooka stopped many German tanks, and blew up countless German, Japanese, and Italian bunkers. It was produced in a ‘takedown’ two part version for paratroops, and in Korea was scaled up to 3.5”, a size that would stop the Communist T-34 tanks. Incalculable numbers of American troops survived because of Uhl’s invention.
After World War II, Uhl left the military, and joined Fairchild Aircraft. He rose to be the President of Fairchild, which created a small division to apply “space age” technology to the manufacture of firearms. Their special interest was very light weight weapons, utilizing aluminum and plastics rather than steel and wood for low or no stress components. At a time when a standard infantry rifle weighed 9 to 12 pounds, they eventually dropped the weight to 6 to 7 pounds – a big difference when you have to carry the rifle long distances day after day.
The branch was called ArmaLite, and the principal designer was, of course, Eugene Stoner. They developed the AR-7 .22 survival rifle, the AR-10 (7.62 NATO), AR-15 (5.56) and AR-18 (5.56) rifles which reached mass production. The AR-7 has waxed and waned through several manufacturers; the AR-10 is in limited production, the AR-18/180 has faded from the scene but reappeared as the British SA80 series; but the AR-15 lives on as the M16 series, which has morphed into the M-4 and its clones. Today it seems everyone is making a semi-auto AR rifle, and it has been our service rifle, in various configurations, for 50 years!
So what does this have to do with the Man on the Moon? As President of Fairchild, Uhl lead the company into space related products, including design and manufacture of early satellites. In the process he became friends with a scientist, a naturalized American of German descent, a former Nazi (when you are “invited” to join the party by the head of the SS, you better sign up!). They went hunting in exotic locals together, and became close. When the scientist decided to leave Government service with NASA, Uhl convinced him to go to work for Fairchild.
The scientist was, of course, Wernher von Braun, the face of the American space program, and part of the team that put America on the moon!
So Edward Uhl became the link between the Bazooka, the M-16, and the man on the moon!
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V20N4 (May 2016)|