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The Weapons We Fought With

These were the principal infantry weapons used by both sides, with the exception of Commonwealth forces (which used British issue, with notable exceptions like the Australian Owen gun).

Enemy Weapons of 1951: Photos and Specifications

Tech Manuals: FM7-10: Rifle Company, Rifle Regiment

TM9-2200: Technical Manual for WWII Small Arms

Captured North Korean Weapons
Enemy weapons captured in the Pusan Perimeter fighting


Both Communist and UN forces fought the Korean War largely with surplus World War II weapons.

A sometimes unappreciated fact is that, at the start of the Korean War, the US actually had no new conventional weapons due to a complete cessation of procurement for ground warfare following WWII. Harry Truman's Cabinet, convinced that nuclear weapons meant the last major ground wars had been fought, virtually emasculated our own ground combat forces. Truman's Secretaries of Defense, James Forrestal and Louis Johnson, not only stopped development of new infantry arms and communications, but forced a change in Army training methods, shaping it to produce civilians wearing uniforms, rather than professional soldiers prepared to face combat and death, should that be necessary.

While weakening our own infantry, Johnson also decided to limit our Korean allies to "defensive" armament. At the start of the KW, the ROKs found themselves facing 170 of perhaps the best tanks developed in WWII, with only satchel charges (20 pounds of TNT, virtually useless against modern armor), the 2.36in. rocket launcher, 37mm and 57mm anti-tank guns, no medium artillery, and ... no tanks themselves at all.

Convinced by General Omar Bradley who was scathingly contemptuous of the Navy and Marine Corps that there would never again be a major amphibious assault, Johnson also reduced the Marine Corps to a poorly equipped skeleton of its supposed strength, about 6 fighting battalions, equipped with worn out WWII weapons. Incredibly, the 5th Marines, (LtCol Ray Murray), were the troops carrying the colors of the entire 1stMarDiv in July of '50. (That's right! Six rifle companies of about 7 officers and 255 men each, were the only available Marine fighting force that many believe actually saved South Korea and the Eighth Army in the Pusan Perimeter. They didn't get the third companies in their rifle battalions until after the 1st Battle of the Naktong, 17-18 August of '50!)

In another blunder, Truman's Secretary of State Dean Acheson even left South Korea out of our defined sphere of world interests. To Stalin and Mao, this was a virtual invitation to include it in their own. Whatever Acheson's definition, a free South Korea was vital to the safety of the entire Japanese theater, and a prime opportunity for Communist expansion.

Although newer series of infantry weapons, radios, and vehicles had either been developed or were in production on both sides, they were all largely withheld, along with nuclear weapons. The Communist bloc, fighting through its secondary powers, followed the same course in employing old or obsolescent weaponry, however many Communist arms were of more recent manufacture, or in better condition, than those in American and ROK hands in 1950. For example although the "burp gun" was very effective in the close infantry assaults of the Korean War it was not equal to the AK-47, a Soviet standard in 1949. From the infantry point of view, the KW was an anachronism.

No milestone military developments arose from the war. The US took innovative measures in logistical techniques, cold weather clothing, and battlefield medical assistance MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) units, but the only significantly new developments were the use of helicopters for reconnaissance, transport, and evacuation on a large scale, and the employment of jet aircraft in combat. The most modern jet, the F-86 Sabre, was deployed only when Communist forces first introduced their MiG-15.

It has long been forgotten by most that the Truman administration refused to indict Alger Hiss for treason and instead attempted to crucify Whitaker Chambers, Hiss' exposer. (When Soviet files were made public some 50 years later it was suggested that Hiss had led one of the most powerful groups of subversives in our history, even being the principal advisor to Roosevelt at Yalta where Poland and essentially Eastern Europe were given away to the USSR.) The reasons for this blindness were assumed to be the Truman cabinet beliefs that the Communists wanted peace, and that ground warfare was ended forever. The facts turned out otherwise. As Johnson found (to his horror, one hopes!) the Communists considered war a basic tool for expanding their ideology, and ground warfare became the primary choice for combat when the alternative was world nuclear destruction. Johnson discovered that arming the ROKs with satchel charges and grenades hadn't really given them much defense, against tanks. The ROKs died by the hundreds under the steel treads of T-34s, and the best of their 1950 army never got back south of the Han.

Then, ready or not, Truman sent our civilians in uniform with their own obsolescent weapons into one of the most vicious infantry wars our country has ever fought.

United States

US Rifle Caliber .30 M-1 (Garand): The basic shoulder weapon of the US, ROK, and many other UN rifle regiments. A vintage of the mid-1930's, it was gas-operated, and semi-automatic, fired an 8-round clip, and weighed 9.5 pounds, 10.5 with bayonet. Its combat effective range was about 300 yards, and its rate of fire about 30 rounds per minute.

US Carbine Caliber .30: Produced both as a semi-automatic and full-automatic weapon, it fired a lighter bullet than the M-1 rifle, with correspondingly less range, accuracy, and killing power, though still deadlier than the Communist's PPSh41 burp gun. Fitted with a 15-round magazine, or 30-round or so-called "banana magazine"; gas-operated, it was carried principally by company-grade officers, NCOs, clerks and the like. Weight, 6 pounds. Developed in WWII from the Garand principle.

Pistol, Caliber .45 M-1911 A-1: The standard US side arm, a large semi-automatic pistol, with great stopping power and an effective range of some 25 yards. Developed and issued prior to WWI, it was carried by field-grade officers, signal linemen, gun crews, tankers, and men whose duties or other burdens precluded them from carrying of rifle or carbine.

Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR: Firing the same cartridge as the M-1 rifle, either semi- or full automatic, the BAR could be operated either as a shoulder weapon or from a bipod. With a rate of fire of almost 500 rounds per minute, it was the principal automatic weapon of the rifle companies, one or more being issued to each rifle squad (3 to each Marine rifle squad, in 4-man fire teams). Weighing 16 pounds, it was developed from Browning's principle during WWI.

US Machine Gun, Caliber .30, M-1919 A-4 (Light Machine Gun, or LMG): An air-cooled, 32 pound, fully automatic weapon, with bipod and shoulder rest; recoil operated on the Browning principle, capable of sustained fire of 450-500 rounds per minute. Firing the same cartridge as the M-1 and BAR, it was the infantry platoon machine gun. The basic A-3 version was developed in WWI.

US Machine Gun, Caliber .30, M-1917 A-1 (Heavy Machine Gun, or HMG): A heavier version of the LMG, water-cooled and tripod mounted, and thus capable of a greater, longer, and more accurate rate of fire. Issued to the Weapons Company of the Army infantry battalion. There were approximately 500 machine guns, of both types, in an Army infantry division.

50 Caliber Air Cooled MG M2HB: Weighing 82 pounds, this large-caliber machine gun was mounted on trucks, tanks, other vehicles, fixed positions, and not carried into fluid infantry combat. Air-cooled but with a heavy barrel, the .50-caliber machine gun fired approximately 575 rounds per minute, to a range of 2,000 yards. There were about 350 issued to an Army infantry division.

Hand grenades were used in a variety of forms, primarily the fragmentation type MarkIIA1, followed by the M15 White Phosphorous. Fragmentation grenades contain an explosive charge in a metal body, designed to break into fragments upon the charge exploding. They have a killing radius of 5 to 10 yards, and fragments are dangerous up to 50 yards. Weighing about 21 ounces, constructed of cast iron with serrations, Mark Deuce produced about 1000 potentially lethal fragments.

M20 3.5in Super Bazooka : Rocket launchers, developed in WWII, fire a hollow shaped charge capable of penetrating thick armor plate. The 3.5, which replaced the obsolete 2.36 in 1950, weighed 15 pounds and fired an 8.5 pound charge. There were about 600 bazookas in an Army infantry divison. Characterized by a large and distinct backblast, the aluminum tube generally was not effective beyond 75 yards against medium armor.

Recoilless Rifles: The 57mm, 75mm and 105mm recoilless rifles were essentially infantry artillery. They developed high blast from escaping gases on discharge, but no recoil, as with howitzers or cannon. The obsolescent 57mm could be shoulder fired, while the newer and heavier guns were crew-served, mounted on tripods. Effective against infantry and fortifications such as bunkers, they fire regular shells with a flat trajectory over long ranges. The 105mm was developed during the KW.

Infantry mortars: The 60mm, 81mm and 4.2in. mortars were essentially anti-personnel weapons. They consisted of simple, sealed-breach tubes and base-plates, which threw high explosive shells at high angles, capable of reaching into valleys, trenches and into defilade, while impervious to direct fire themselves. The 60mm mortars were carried into position by the rifle companies; the 81 mm mortars were handled by the weapons companies, and the 4.2in were fired by a special mortar company within the regiment. The 81 mm, with a maximum effective range of 4,000 yards, to 1800 for the 60 mm, weighed more than 100 pounds and was not easily transportable over rough terrain by foot troops. The 4.2 in, essentially an artillery weapon, was normally vehicle mounted.

Quad .50: A half-track mounting four .50s capable of being fired as a unit. Developed as an anti-aircraft weapon, as an antipersonnel weapon it was capable of hurling an immense amount of fire into hillsides and valleys against advancing infantry, or long-range harassing fire against enemy movement routes at night. Firing as many as 100,000 rounds a day, the Quad .50 could go over hills like a vacuum cleaner, sucking them devoid of life.

Artillery During Korean operations, the standard the standard US artillery of WWII, the 105mm, the 155mm, the 8-in howitzers and rifles were employed, usually in almost 20:1 numbers (cannon and mortars) over our enemy. Developments were made in direction, spotting, and radar-sensing. Toward the end, Korea was usually an artillery war, with both sides dug in and cannonading one another rather than employing maneuver.

Armor. At the outset of the KW, to its tremendous disadvantage, the US had no tank in the Far East capable of engaging the obsolescent T34/85. The light M-24, primarily a reconnaissance vehicle with thin armor plate and a light 75mm cannon, was augmented during August and September, 1950, with various medium tanks such as the M-26 Pershing, mounting a 90mm gun. Gradually the old M4A3 "Sherman IV", the WWII workhorse fitted with a new high-velocity 76.2mm gun, became the principle US battle tank. It had a high silhouette, light armor, and an inadequate gun, but it was more maneuverable in Korean terrain than more modern tanks, such as the British Centurion III. Failure to produce a good main battle tank, concentrating instead on anti-tank weapons, was one of the Army's principal weaknesses during the KW.

Communist Forces

Throughout the fighting, the enemy was adept at capturing and employing US weapons and equipment. During the first 90 days, the North Korean People's Army (NK) secured enough equipment from ROK and US divisions to equip several of their own. The Chinese Communist Forces (CCF), during the first year of the war, were in many cases equipped with US arms supplied to the Nationalist government both during and after WWII, all of which had fallen into Communist hands. The Chinese also had a considerable quantity of surrendered Japanese weapons, from rifles to field artillery. The principal source of armament for the NK and, after the first year also for the CCF, was Soviet Russia. Just as the US provided 90% of all munitions used by UN forces, Russia designed, mass-produced and delivered the bulk of all Communist weapons.

As with the US, the majority of Russian equipment was WWII vintage.

Russian weaponry, as Russian equipment generally, had one marked characteristic: it was extremely rugged, of the simplest design consistent with efficiency, and very easy to maintain, making it suitable for the equipping of peasant armies. Despite its simplicity and lack of refinement, it was good.

Infantry rifles: Communist forces were equipped with a miscellany of shoulder weapons, from the Russian 7.62mm carbine, a bolt-action rifle of 1944 vintage, to Japanese 7.7mm Imperial Army rifles, taken by the Soviets from the Kwantung Army in 1945, and turned over to the CCF. The tendency of Communist armies became to discard the rifle in favor of the submachine gun, less accurate and less killing power, but capable of throwing a much higher volume of fire in the hands of unskilled personnel.

Shpagin PPSh41 submachine gun (burp gun): Designed during WWII, the PPSh41 submachine gun indicated the Soviet belief that highly accurate small arms were wasted in the hands of ground troops, while a large volume of fire was a requisite. Cheap to make, simple to operate, and thoroughly reliable under any battlefield conditions, the Soviet submachine gun was the best of its class made during WWII. Fired either full or semiautomatic, it held a magazine of 72 rounds with a cyclic rate of 700-900 rounds per minute. Inaccurate except at close range. Toward the end of the war, the CCF operated either in submachine gun or grenade platoons almost exclusively, while on the offensive.

Tokarev Semiautomatic 7.62mm: This weapon, fitted with flash hider and bipod, served a purpose similar to the US BAR, although less effectively.

Chinese hand grenades were of similar classes as the US, but different in physical appearance. Their stick fragmentation grenade was less powerful, and their stick concussion grenade more powerful. On offense, the CCF ordinarily employed one platoon armed only with grenades, preparing the way for an assault platoon armed with burp guns. Since they were adept at moving close to our positions at night, and striking suddenly, their attacks were of great violence.

Russian 14.5 mm antitank rifle PTRD-1941: This extremely long, ungainly weapon was designed to face armor of early WWII vintage. In the KW, it became an anti-vehicular weapon, and was used for long-range sniping against personnel. Each NK division carried 36 of them, called by Americans the "elephant" or "buffalo" gun.

Machine Guns: Several varieties of light machine guns were used by the NK and the CCF, together with the Goryunov heavy machine gun, which was wheel mounted. Russian machine guns were generally 7.62mm, an excellent military cartridge.

Mortars: As with other weapons the Communists used a miscellany of mortars, but the standard Russian makes predominated. Because of its ease of transport by hand, and its cheapness of manufacture, the mortar was a favorite of both the NK and the CCF. An NK regiment had six 120mm mortars, each of its 3 battalions had nine 82mms, and the 61mms were deployed at company level. Their 82mm and 61mm guns could use US 81mm and 60mm ammunition, which the Communists captured in large quantities. Rocket launchers and recoilless rifles were not standard enemy issue, being used only when captured.

Artillery. The artillery support of the NK and CCF closely followed that of WWII Soviet divisions, although initially the CCF left most of its artillery behind when crossing the Yalu, for mobility and concealment. A division contained twelve 122mm howitzers, twenty-four 76mm field guns, twelve 76mm SU-76 self propelled guns, and twelve 45mm anti-tank guns. In addition, each of a division's three regiments was issued four 76mm howitzers, and the 122mm rifle was also furnished by the Soviets. During the latter phase of the war, Soviet artillery appeared in massed formations similar to those employed against Berlin in 1945. Larger, long-range artillery was used sparingly by Communist forces, in contrast to the US deployment of the medium 155mm in great quantities. The CCF had a marked reluctance to fire on targets they could not observe.

Armor. The Russian T-34/85, the Russian main battle tank which was finalized in '44 and obsolescent by 1950, remained the Communist battle tank throughout. The T-34, weighing 35 tons and capable of 34 mph, had excellent traction and was well suited to Korean terrain, where heavier American tanks such as the Patton had rough going. As the war developed, a great preponderance of American armor and air power reduced Communist armor to a minor role.

Causes of the Korean Tragedy ... Failure of Leadership, Intelligence and Preparation

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