Did Soldiers Fruitelssy Fire Machine Guns & Small Arms at Tanks?

While early tanks (WWI and even in the opening of WWII) were vulnerable to some kinds of machine-gun fire and specialty “anti-tank rifles,” by the time WWII was well underway, that was not typically the case. Tanks could endure a hail of bullets without significantly impaired function.

And yet in movies, whenever we see infantry poorly equipped with anti-tank weapons facing down tanks, we see everyone blazing away with machine guns and rifles while the rounds glance harmlessly off the tank. We see this in Fury, Saving Private Ryan, and countless other examples.

I had assumed this was Hollywood hyperbole, but recently saw a combat veteran quoted as saying that his unit “must have fired 30,000 rounds” of machine-gun ammunition at enemy tanks (Korean War, if memory serves) without effect until help arrived. So maybe it did happen.

My questions are:

How often did this sort of thing happen?

And if it did, why?

Ammunition is precious, and has to be transported and distributed. There are plenty of deadly threats that those bullets are perfectly effective against – why shoot them all at a tank to no effect when you’ll need them urgently for other targets?

Assuming a factual answer is even possible, would the reasoning be hoping to get a lucky round into an eyeslit? To suppress the tank commander from opening his hatch for a better view? To make the troops “feel better” because they are doing something (seems like that would backfire when it proved ineffective).

IANATD (I am not a tank driver) but as I understand it tanks in WW2 did not have slits but thick glass vision blocks. These could be smashed by bullets so as to be unusable, so shooting enough small-arms fire at them should eventually blind the tank.

IIRC in some cases spare vision blocks were carried and replacement could be done from inside the tank, so this tactic might take a while.

Tanks don’t operate alone. They operate in conjunction with infantry, and those are vulnerable to small arms.

Yeah, pretty much all they’re going to do is disable the optics, perhaps get a lucky shot inside the driver’s vision slot. Possibly, but not particularly likely, damage the treads.

This really needs Bear Nenno or a similar poster’s input. In the absence of him, I’ll just state that a tank used to lose a lot of situational awareness when it fought ‘buttoned-up’, with all of the hatches closed, and the crew relying on periscopes to see out. In a world with plentiful man-portable ATGMs and RPGs, a tank with poor situational awareness, and without screening infantry, is very soon a dead tank.

This may change in a world with 360 degree swivel-able turrets with magnified thermal cameras. I had thought that current US armor doctrine, in a non-NBC environment, still encourages at least the TC, and maybe the driver too, to fight with the hatches open. But, at least in this 2006 historical article from Armor published by Fort Benning, on, among other things, using tanks in MOUT in Sadr City, it stated,

Really curious to read what Bear has to say on it.

What would Bear know? He’s just another crunchy. :smiley:

The driver does not ever drive around unbuttoned. The only time that happens is when the gun is over the back deck and the turret is locked. On an M1 when you push the seat up so you can see out of the hatch that is the perfect height to get your head cut off by the swinging turret. The gun tube coming all the way down can crush your skull. It’s not recommended.

In urban environments like the scenario about it is doctrine to be buttoned up as the tank commander. A tank is expensive. A hand grenade dropped from a balcony is cheap. From the M1A2 and beyond the commander has his own independent sight so he can see thermal and normal light views without having to watch what the gunner is watching. He also has vision blocks. In a non-urban environment it’s more likeiy that the TC would trade some safety for better vision and travel unbuttoned or at least go halfway.

As other have said firing a machine gun at a tank would only be effective if the optics are hit. That’s not a bad tactic if you can do it before getting blown up.

Those other targets are hypothetical, and the usefulness of ammo against them is irrelevant if you don’t live to encounter them. When what’s facing you here and now is a tank, you throw everything you’ve got at the tank.

I dunno why I thought he was in Armor, and that while remembering he’d posted a picture of him or two with a 320, not something you usually see a tanker carry. LOL.
Now that I think of it, isn’t Dino an ex-armor guy too?

Anyway, I do remember reading that the Russians had a bad time trying to elevate either sights or tank armament (both the main gun and the coax) sufficiently to deal with insurgents firing out of windows or roofs in places like Grozny. I’m guessing that things like CROWS, and the equivalent on an Abrams, can elevate so that isn’t a problem? Neither the gunner nor loader normally fight with the hatch open in non-MOUT situations, right, just the TC?

Though, and more in line with Sailboat’s question: if an enemy was shooting small arms at you, and not using tracers, how likely is it that a tank would be able to see where the fire was coming from? Buttoned up or not?

I’m wondering when tanks are getting something like an automatic anti-ATGM system, as fast as modern ATGMs and RPGs are, and how little time a tank has to take either evasive action or fire down the bearing of the shot? Plus, as you wrote, how expensive to replace a tank and its four crewmen are, and how cheap weapons to destroy them are. I know the devil’s in the details, but even if something like the Afghanit or Trophy APS, only worked half the time or so, that seems like it’d still be worth strapping to the tank.

You seem to be talking mostly about urban fighting. Urban fights are infantry battles. Tanks should be used in support of the infantry. The grunts would spot the targets. All of the footage I’ve seen out of Syria with tanks getting taken out all had one thing in common. The tanks were out on their own.

ATGM countermeasures are being developed . Israel came up with the Throphy system and the US is testing it.

Yes, the small arms fire served two puposes- it made the tank drive “buttoned up” which was a big limitiation in WW2 days, and it distracted the crew. And, maybe you could get a lucky shot thru a slit or smash a periscope or prism.

A ww2 buttoned up tank could easily far victim to a molotov cokctail or sticky mine.

But that’s in a modern tank, not WW2.

Wouldn’t it also be possible to take out the antenna for communication? Especially in a WWII scenario?

And I think I read somewhere that a .50 cal machine gun could do enough damage to a track or it’s idler wheels to disable them? Cut enough ‘lug nuts’ off? Crack an idler wheel?


In some of the earlier WW2 tanks, or light tanks, yes. You could even penetrate in some areas.

The Type 95 Ha-Go had only 6mm of armor in some places, for instance. A .50 could penetrate maybe up to 25MM, but 12mm without trouble.

Here’s an analysis of the vulnerability of the 1950’s US M48 tank to rifle caliber small arms, heavy mg and light cannon. It wasn’t zero even for rifle caliber smaller arms. This was relatively comparable to well protected WWII tanks.

Such weapons would be extremely unlikely to destroy a well protected WWII tank outright, but could degrade its capabilities. Besides as mentioned some lighter/older WWII tanks were vulnerable to heavy machine guns. The US .50 cal machine gun M2HB was thought of mainly as an antiarmor weapon when adopted in the 30’s (earlier versions of the Browning .50 preceded that but contrary to some popular belief the [much] later dubbed ‘ma deuce’ dates back ‘only’ to the 1930’s). By late WWII only the flimsiest tanks (Japanese light tanks as mentioned) were were likely to actually be destroyed by such a weapon, but it happened in at least a few cases for example in second Philippines campaign.

But as other posts have mentioned, it was more of a problem for the situational awareness of commanders of WWII tanks if they had to operate buttoned up because of small arms and mg (or mortar, artillery etc) fire. Modern tanks are better adapted to that, though it’s still not ideal. Also as has been mentioned, at the same time tanks got bigger and better protected in WWII they also tended to stop operating by themselves much* so an infantry defense would usually also have enemy infantry to fire at in a tank attack, and/or be keeping antitank minefields or other obstructions under small arms/mg fire to prevent enemy engineers from clearing them.

*the concentration of tanks in armored divisions by the Germans was hailed as an innovation early in the war and the tanks often left the motorized infantry of the panzer divisions behind in the early campaigns. By later in the war that became less common, by the Germans or anyone else.

I’m going to mostly stay away from MOUT and technological improvements in the last ten years or so. As interesting a development as TUSK (Tank Urban Survival Kit) for the Abrams operating in MOUT there’s just way too many rabbit holes.

Loss of situational awareness due to buttoning up is a real issue. Visibility, especially in close, goes way down. Before the Abrams, and it’s tendency to crush drivers heads like grapes if they drove unbuttoned, drivers typically drove head out before contact in the US. Tank Commanders and Loaders (operating as air guard) would also operate head out before contact. TC’s would continue to keep their head out when they could after that and loaders were obviously more focused on actually loading. In the 37th Tank Battalion, there was a saying about their hatches “rusting open.” It was based on the expectation of their Battalion Commander who operated unbuttoned. The commander in question was pretty influential in setting US practice going forward - Creighton Abrams. That also was more in keeping with German practice in WWII. The Soviets skewed heavily towards closing their hatches and accepting the loss of situational awareness. keeping TCs down inside is a plus for the defense. If you can shoot crew before they realize and button up that’s an even bigger plus.

Losing an antenna is a problem for most of the WWII forces. It’s a small target but if you shoot enough there’s hope. The Soviet Union didn’t field radios on all of their tanks during WWII though. The relied on command tanks with radios and signal flags to pass simple guidance to the rest of the force. Keeping them under armor is a communication issue not just a visibility issue.

With the Sherman strong suppressive fire took one weapon out of the mix. The M2 mount was not designed for firing it from under armor. It’s also relatively big compared to the other “soft” parts and not protected from damage.

It’s also useful to look at this in terms of the total defense. Battle is a team sport. Getting a crew to button up and maybe lose some of it’s vision blocks/sights while giving them something to focus on (“Motherf*!&@^ is shooting up our cooler! Get the bastard!!!”) is good for the team. It’s easy to get tunnel vision on the minimal threat you see and miss the bigger threat like a bazooka/panzerfaust/panzershrek team moving into position.

There’s also the psychological perspective. I’ve seen one of those German compound words from WWII that loosely translated as Panzer Terror. Individuals and units tend to freeze on first contact with a tank suddenly attacking towards them. I’ve seen the reaction just in training where I wasn’t coming to actually kill anyone. The good and veteran units recover more quickly. The really bad ones could just shatter and flee. It’s great if recovery lets them pick how to respond. Sometimes fighting smart looks like freeze on the fight, flight, or freeze continuum or moving to another position to fight better. If they aren’t yet past that more primal reaction, fight isn’t a bad default setting. Even if fighting at first is nothing more than squeezing the trigger to punch small arms rounds into a tank glacis. There’s time to respond more effectively as the situation develops and you can think straight. The psychology is also a team sport. Whether the first person able to take action has a machine gun, or just rocks to throw,a first action can get a unit functioning again.

And thirdly, according to things various relatives from WW II have said, sometimes you are just frightened enough or pissed enough to want to pop rounds at SOMETHING. Airplane, tank - it doesn’t matter; its the enemy and its trying to hurt you and all you have is a rifle so you pull the trigger first and think about the effectiveness afterwards. And once one guy starts shooting ---- domino effect.

I have read an account of P-47s strafing German tanks, they claimed to have set them on fire. They came in low and attempted to ricochet off the road into the less armored underside.
That would be with eight .50 machine guns per plane, don’t remember how many planes.

May or may not be true, a reporter asked an American tanker if it was true that machine gun bullets went clear through the Sherman’s armor. His answer, no, they just go through one side then bounce around inside for awhile. Think they worked that into the movie Patton. Patton was a bad movie, but Fury was about the worst war movie ever made. Sherman’s attacking defiladed anti tank guns? Deflowered virgins blown up? A baby with a butter knife in one hand?

And the quote I was responding to was about “current US armor doctrine.”

That remark was supposedly made to Gen. Omar Bradley by a armored infantryman in Tunisia but referred to US armored half tracks rather than tanks. The armor on those vehicles was only 1/4" thick on the sides and rear, straight up and down, so it’s plausible. But those vehicles provided reasonable protection against rifle caliber mg’s when properly used to bring infantry only into range for dismounted assaults on strong positions, or to quickly overcome or bypass weak ones. They didn’t work well for mounted attacks on strong positions, especially later in Europe when German infantry would have plenty of man portable AT rockets, not only machine guns.