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M72 LAW Rocket: I Fired This Old-School Tank-Killer Weapon

M72 LAW. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Lately, antitank weapons, or perhaps more accurately, antiarmor weapons have been getting a lot of press, thanks to their skillful usage by the Ukrainian armed forces in destroying Russian tanks, thus putting a severe damper on Vladimir Putin’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine. Among the specific antiarmor weapons systems proving their efficacy in that conflict are the FGM-148 Javelin and the 84mm AT4.  

Now we’re going to step back a bit farther in time and discuss an antiarmor weapon that wasn’t nearly as powerful as the Javelin or AT4 but nonetheless made its own impact (bad pun intended) on modern weapons history: the M72 LAW 66mm rocket launcher.

M72 LAW Rocket Early History and Specifications

The M72 LAW (Light Anti-armor Weapon AKA Light Anti-tank Weapon) initially went into development in 1959 and into production in 1963, officially entering into service with the U.S. Army and Marine Corps during that latter year, with the U.S. Air Force adopting it sometime thereafter. It was a replacement for the M20 Super Bazooka, proving itself to be significantly more capable despite being considerably smaller and lighter than the WWII-era weapon. Between 1963 and 1983 it was produced by the American firm Hesse-Eastern, and since then has been manufactured by NAMMO of Norway and its American subsidiary, NAMMO Defense Systems

Specifications included a weight of either 5.5 pounds (M72A1-3 edition) or 7.9 lbs. (M72A4-7), an unarmed length of 24.8 inches, and an armed & fully extended length of 34.67 inches. The original munition had a maximum effective range of about 170 meters (557 feet) and would penetrate about 300mm (11.81 inches) of mild steel; the improved model has an effective range of about 220 meters (720 feet) and will penetrate 355mm (13.9 inches) of rolled homogenous armor (RHA).  

The LAW functioned as a single-shot disposable rocket launcher, consisting of an aluminum launch tube within a plastic tube on which the sight and controls are fitted. Prior to firing, the inner tube is retracted to create a longer launch tube (hence my “fully extended” reference in the preceding paragraph). A flip up sight is attached which also aids in range estimation. The trigger is situated in the middle of the retracted launcher, just in front of the rear sight. 

The LAW was first “blooded” by the U.S. in combat during the Vietnam War – some of you may recall its brief appearance in the classic Stanley Kubrick film “Full Metal Jacket” – and has soldiered on in every subsequent conflict since then. The weapon remains in use in roughly 40 different countries, including Argentina, Australia, Iraq, and Ukraine.

Personal Shooting Impressions

Yours Truly had the honor and pleasure of firing a LAW on two separate occasions during my U.S. Air Force career.  

The first time was in the autumn of 1999 as a lowly humble Airman 1st Class (A1C; pay grade E-3) during tech school at the Security Forces Apprentice Course, more specifically during weapons familiarization training at Camp Bullis, Texas. My fellow tech school students and I each got to fire two rounds – using the M190 35mm subcaliber training round – through the M72, with the freedom to choose from amongst various targets of opportunity spread out throughout the firing range, I decided to train my sights on one of the juicier available targets, an old M35 2.5-ton (“deuce-and-a-half”) truck roughly 100 yards out. My first round landed just short. My second round? Well…it sailed through the truck cab’s open driver’s side window, then out the passenger’s side window…and set off a UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) on the other side…and set the range on fire! That prompted an orderly evacuation of the range. Yay me.  

Fast-forward to early 2004, and I’m back at Bullis, this time as a 1st Lieutenant attending the Security Forces Officer Course version of tech school. (Yes, I’d earned a rather nice little promotion and pay bump during the intervening years). Once again, my classmates and I were allotted two practice rounds apiece to fire through the M72. That ol’ deuce-and-a-half was still there, but not wanting history to repeat itself, I assiduously avoided targeting it. Quite frankly, I don’t remember what target I fired upon for Round #1, but I do remember directing Round #2 toward a column of metallic silhouette enemy soldiers…and my rocket exploded against that target with a satisfying “clank” and puff of smoke, with no fire started up this time. That earned me a high-five from a couple of my classmates, including a Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) exchange officer. 

Good times, good times…HOOAH!

A Shooting Buddy’s/Fellow Veteran’s Impressions

My friend Lou Chiodo, former U.S. Marine Corps officer, retired California Highway Patrol (CHP), and current President of Gunfighters Ltd combat shooting school, was kind enough to share with me his own perspectives and experiences with the M72 LAW during his time spent in the service of “Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children”:  

“Well, I liked it. It was, for our time, and even today, when travelling light, it’s easy for a small team to have one. It fits a nice void to use on light armor vehicles if they are close enough. I thought it would have been nice to have more practice time with it but I was able to pick it up and do well with it the first time I used it. There’s something nice., especially for certain patrol operations or anything where a small unit might need more to use on a structure or bunker. They have better systems now for the mainline units but it’s a cost effective way to have more firepower.” 

Thanks for that, Lou, OORAH and Semper Fidelis.

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).

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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).