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M203 40mm Grenade Launcher: What It Was Like to Fire

M203 Grenade Launcher
Image: Creative Commons.

“Say Hello to My Little Friend”! That iconic scene with Al Pacino as Tony Montana in the 1983 version of Scarface was more than likely the first introduction for most American moviegoers – those who didn’t serve in the U.S. Armed Forces anyway – to the venerable M203 40mm grenade launcher. After having written articles on both the Precision Grenadier System (PGS) and the XM25 grenade launchers that were intended to replace it in the U.S. military arsenal, I reckon it’s way past time to do a write-up on the ‘203 itself, as it certainly hasn’t gone away yet.

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M203 Origins and Specifications

The M203 first entered into service in 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War, intended as a replacement for the M79 grenade launcher AKA “The Blooper.” Unlike the M79, which was a standalone weapon, the ‘203 was designed to be attached underneath the barrel of an existing infantry rifle (first the M16 and later the M4; to my knowledge, it was never attached to an M14.)  My 19FortyFive colleague Brent M. Eastwood explains the motivations behind the changeover:

“One drawback [to the M79], though, was that grenadiers during that era carried a pistol instead of an M16, this took a rifle off the battlefield…With that said, the military held a competition for a new under-barrel grenade launcher. The XM203, the precursor to the M203, was cheaper and used the same round as the M79, hence soldiers and marines could still use their M16s in battle.”

The weapon has since gone on to serve reliably in every hostile-fire conflict that the U.S. has been involved in. Though the ‘203 doesn’t have the shotgun-lookalike appearance that the “Blooper” does, the operation of the weapon is not unlike a pump-action shotgun: Press the release button on the left side, which allows the chamber and barrel to slide forward in tandem so you can insert a round into the breech, then slam the barrel back into place just as you would rack a pump shotgun and you’re ready to rock.

The M203 typically has two sighting systems: (1) a flip-up leaf sight that works in conjunction with the standard iron sights on the M16A2 and utilizes graduations in 50-meter increments ranging from 50 to 250 meters; (2) a quadrant sight assembly which attaches to the left side of the rifle carrying handle and attaches to the left of the carrying handle, enables the grenadier to adjust elevation and windage.

The weapon uses eight different types of 40mm ammo, with the most popular choice being the M433 high-explosive dual purpose (HEDP) round, which has a minimum arming distance of 14 meters – that aforementioned scene in Scarface took a few Hollywood-embellished liberties with that one – an ability to penetrate up to two inches of armor within 150 meters, a 130-meter casualty radius, a 5-meter/50 percent kill radius, and at least a theoretical maximum range of 400 meters. There’s also the M781 practice round, which is composed of aluminum or blue zinc and bursts into a puff of orange or yellow smoke impact, but still has a danger radius of 20 meters.

M203: Personal Shooting Impressions

I had the honor and pleasure of firing the M203 on two different occasions, both thanks to my time as an active-duty U.S. Air Force Security Forces troop (HOOAH!); the first time was in November 1999 as a lowly humble E-3/Airman 1st Class in the enlisted Security Apprentice Course at the USAF Security Forces Academy at Lackland AFB and Camp Bullis, TX. The second time was in January 2004 during the Security Forces Officer Course at those same venues. The 1999 go-around was one of the most inauspicious of my then-fledgling USAF career.

‘Twas just my luck that the particular specimen I was provided for my ‘203 qual that day was missing the quadrant sight, so I had to wing it with the leaf sight alone. All firing was done from the prone position. Remember what I said about the leaf sight consisting of 50-meter increments? Well, I had no problem hitting my 100-meter and 300-meter targets with that thing, but the 175-meter target proved an unhappy middle; I was having a hell of a time trying to get a proper sight picture whilst maintaining proper grip and stance with the rifle/grenade launcher combo. So, in my frustration – and like the uninitiated dumbass FNG I was at the time – I placed the buttstock of the rifle up against my chin and squeezed the trigger of the grenade launcher.

Remember what I said about the shotgun-like loading procedure of the M203? Well, as you can imagine, a 40mm grenade – even the somewhat watered-down practice round – produces a similar level of recoil to a 12-gauge shotgun. Next thing I knew, there was a nice little bloody divot missing from the flesh midway between my jawline and lower lips…luckily none of my teeth got knocked loose! The Combat Arms Training & Maintenance (CATM) NCO who was acting as my range instructor noticed my ordeal and rendered me the proper first aid (antiseptic ointment and a cute little Band-Aid). From there, the NCO asked me, “Do you wish to continue, Airman?” Naturally, wanting to salvage at least a small shred of my pride. I answered “Yes sir!”

M203 Afghanistan

U.S. Army Sgt. Paul Weber, a security forces (SECFOR) team leader with the Farah Provincial Reconstruction Team, engages a target with his M4 carbine during a small-arms training session at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Farah in Farah province, Afghanistan, June 26, 2012. During the training, Soldiers learned techniques for reloads and close-quarters shooting. The SECFOR was made up of Alaska Army National Guard infantrymen who were responsible for ensuring safety at FOB Farah. (DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Lovelady, U.S. Air Force/Released)


A Paratrooper with 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, fires a training round from the new M320 grenade launcher while learning to use the weapon on a Fort Bragg, N.C., range July 1, 2009. The brigade was the first unit in the Army to receive the advanced grenade launcher that will replace the Vietnam-era M203. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Michael J. MacLeod) (Released)

Suffice to say that when I re-did the M203 course as a 1st Lieutenant 4.5 years later, the session went a lot more smoothly. Hey, even us young dumb Airmen and LTs learn from our own mistakes every once in a while!

M203 Pictures

M203 Grenade Launcher

Double Time.CAMP PENANJONG, Brunei (Nov. 13, 2014) – U.S. Marines, assigned to 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, Echo Company, and Royal Brunei Land Forces conduct Military Operations in Urban Terrain training during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Brunei 2014. In its 20th year, CARAT is an annual, bilateral exercise series with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the armed forces of nine partner nations including, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Timor-Leste. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Cedric R. Haller II/Released) .


M203. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Christian D. Orr has 33 years of shooting experience, starting at the tender age of 14. His marksmanship accomplishments include: the Air Force Small Arms Ribbon w/one device (for M16A2 rifle and M9 pistol); Pistol Expert Ratings from U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP); multiple medals and trophies via the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (GSSF) and the Nevada Police & Fires Games (NPAF). Chris has been an NRA Certified Basic Pistol Instructor since 2011.  In his spare time, he enjoys (besides shooting, obviously) dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports. 

Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).