Manufactured explosive weapons explainedAn Anatomy of a Grenade AttackAOAV: all our reportsManufactured explosive weaponsAOAV's Key Research PapersAn Anatomy of an Explosive Weapon Attack

What is a hand grenade?

Sometimes bought as cheaply as a can of Coca-Cola. So small they can fit in your pocket. And packing the potential to cause double and even triple figure casualties, hand grenades are unique among explosive weapons. Grenades are found in every weapons arsenal around the world, from the United States to Al-Shabaab, and, more recently, have become a weapon of choice for Swedish gangs operating in the suburbs of Stockholm and Malmo, these devices have a long and disturbing history. 

Technically, a hand grenade is a small missile filled with a high explosive filling or a chemical agent, intended for hand delivery against enemy personnel or material at short ranges. Hand-held, under-barrel and mounted grenade launchers are all classified by the UN as light weapons.  

In practise, they have taken the lives of countless soldiers and civilians and are one of the more widespread explosive weapons in the world.

Credit: AP Photo/Kevin Frayer

What is the history of the grenade?

Early development

The word grenade is thought to have derived from the French word for pomegranate, ‘Grenade’, because the bulbous shapes of early grenades resembled the sarcotesta fruit. The first hand-thrown explosive or incendiary bombs appeared during the Byzantine Empire around the eighth century CE, when jars filled with the infamous “Greek Fire,” similar to modern napalm, were lobbed at enemy soldiers. By the 16th century, the grenade had evolved to a cast iron sphere with a time-fitted fuse made from a flaxen cord rolled in dampened gunpowder and dried. 

First modern use

Whilst there were whole regiments of “grenadiers” in the British Army in the mid 18th Century, perhaps the hand grenade really came into its own with the invention of the so-called “safe to use’ grenade by British engineer William Mills in 1915. He named it the ‘Mills Bomb’ – the first modern fragmentation grenades and widely used in both Great Wars by the British military. It helped give birth to the modern grenade that consists of a filler, detonator mechanism and a safety lever secured by a linchpin. 

Such hand grenades were and are used in both direct and indirect fire (i.e. when the target is either within or outside the line of sight). In the theatre of combat, grenades are often used against enemy soldiers caught in the open or entrenched within fortified positions.  They are also used to mark positions, surprise the enemy, or destroy and disable enemy equipment, as well as being used as booby traps or early warning signals devices.

Recent developments/modifications

In 2016 the U.S. announced it was developing a new “dual-use”hand grenade that can operate as both a fragmentation weapon and a blast pressure device. The Enhanced Tactical Multi-Purpose (ET-MP) hand grenade is the first new grenade to be made by the U.S. in the last 40 years. It is designed for use in offensive and defensive missions, with a new electronic fuzing system, allowing the user to choose a precise detonation time down to the nearest millisecond.  

Data from Action on Armed Violence’s Explosive Monitor shows a sharp reduction in grenade attack casualties over time without a huge reduction in attacks.  This possibly reflects a withdrawal of many troops from ground offensives (such as in Iraq and Afghanistan) and the fact that such troops might have been involved in larger scale assaults, where more casualties would be likely.  It also follows a reduction on IED usage over the last decade, showing that many non-state actors – like ISIS – have been decimated by drone strikes (etc.) and as such their targeting of civilians and state actors was impacted.  

What are the different types of grenades?

The US military divides hand grenades into six categories: fragmentation, chemical, offensive, nonlethal, smoke, and practice and training. 

Fragmentation grenades, often referred to simply as “frags”, produce a high-velocity projection of fragments. They have been the most historically significant grenade and are the most commonly used today. One of the most prolific fragmentation grenades is the US-made M67, the specifications of which are below.  

Source: ‘Grenades and Pyrotechnic Signals’, US Army, November 2013

Another way of categorising grenades is defensive and offensive. Defensive grenades are intended to be thrown from behind cover while an offensive grenade can be thrown with minimal cover. Fragmentation grenades, for instance, would be classified as defensive. 

While most hand grenades fall into the US military’s six categories, some with multiple characteristics are less easy to classify and fall between categories. For example, the US made M34 white phosphorus grenade has smoke, incendiary and offensive effects which reflect the versatility of its uses which include: “signalling, screening, or incendiary missions, or for producing casualties”. 

The varieties of grenades are innumerable, so much so that one expert concluded that “there are no unifying similarities between all grenades unless it is the fact that they are hand thrown” (and even this pithy summary doesn’t apply to grenade launchers.) 

Credit: US Army

What are, broadly, the dimensions and weight of a grenade?

The weight of a grenade can range from 210g to 910g. The diameter of most grenades lies between 55mm and 65mm. Broadly, grenades fall into the following shape categories: ball, oval and can. 

What quantity of explosives can a grenade deliver?

High explosive fillers are designed to shatter the grenade and produce blast effects, they include ammonium nitrate, alumatol, comp B, TNT and amatol. Grenades can deliver a range of explosives, depending on the type. For example, the M67 contains around 184g of explosive filler (Composition B). 

What is the range of a grenade?

On average a grenade can be thrown between 20 and 40 meters. The casualty radius of a grenade is between 5 and 20 meters; with a minimum of 50% of exposed personnel becoming casualties within a radius of around 15 metres from the blast. A single grenade can kill an individual up to 10 metres away and can cause serious injuries up to 20 metres away. However, grenade fragments can travel beyond 230 meters from the point of detonation.

How accurate is a grenade?

More than any other conventional explosive weapon, the accuracy of the hand grenade is dependent on the accuracy of the individual who launches it. A 2006 study of hand grenades found that the weight of the grenade had the greatest effect on a number of criteria related to accuracy including error distance and handling rating. The 300g grenade was found to have the greatest throwing distance. 

How precise is a grenade?

The precision of a grenade is difficult to assess given how they are used in combat operations, i.e., they are rarely deployed in a continuous ‘salvo’ to form a tight grouping. Frequently grenades are deployed from a moving assailant or vehicle, compromising their precision. Unlike some other explosive weapons, grenades are not deployed for their precision.

Who are the biggest manufacturers of grenades?

Hand grenades are widely manufactured and produced in vast quantities. The map below shows the main countries which have produced grenades in red.  

Top countries manufacturing hand grenades (red)

Where are grenades used?

Pakistan has experienced the most grenade attacks in the last decade (402- see Figure 2), accounting for 22% of global grenade incidents.

Data from AOAV’s Explosive Violence Monitor (EVM) reveals that while the largest number of grenade attacks occur in urban residential or commercial locations, the greatest number of casualties occur when they are detonated in entertainment venues with many people confined to a small, often enclosed space.

Who typically uses grenades?

AOAV’s EVM shows that grenades are often used by non-state actors who have perpetrated 27.6% of attacks between 2011 and 2020 (see Figure 3). In contrast, state actors have perpetrated 4.2% of attacks. For 68.2% of grenade attacks recorded by AOAV, the identity of the perpetrators remains unknown. 

A highly concealable weapon that can be detonated in confined spaces without a launch mechanism, the grenade is a weapon of choice for terrorist groups and individual ‘lone-wolf’ assailants. While the vast majority of grenade incidents in AOAV’s data show that the perpetrator group’s name is unknown, the largest known group is ‘unaffiliated individuals’, followed by the state of India and the terrorist group Al-Shabaab. 

The RGD, F-1, RGO, RGN, M-67 and L2A2 grenades are known to have been used by terrorist groups

Grenades are also often used by criminal gangs, most notably in Sweden, Mexico and Guatemala

Modern militaries use grenades in close-combat operations, and they are also deployed by security forces during riot control operations. In August 2020, two civilians were injured when security forces fired a flash grenade on protestors in the 2020-2021 Belarusian election protests.

What types of injury do grenades cause?

According to AOAV’s EVM data, between 2011-2020, 8,951 civilians were killed and injured by grenades, 413 were women and 546 were children. During the same period 1,908 armed actors were casualties of grenades. 

For every grenade attack an average of 5.5 civilians are killed or injured.

The dominant injury mechanisms of grenades are shrapnel wounds caused by the high-velocity projection of fragments, particularly in the case of fragmentation grenades. Depending on the design of the grenade and the materials used there can be hundreds or even thousands of fragments. The Bulgarian RGO-78, for instance, contains 850 steel balls embedded in a plastic liner. Fragments weighing at least 0.15g and measuring at least 3mm in diameter are considered the minimum to inflict incapacitating wounds”

Grenades also cause flash burns, lacerations, dismemberment, internal injuries, damage to sensory organs, and injuries from fluctuations in pressure from the blast such as concussion and shock.

A 2009 study of an accidental M26 grenade detonation in South Africa’s Transkei region, in which six children were instantly killed and two injured, found that fragmentation had caused haemorrhages in the lungs and intestines. This haemorrhaging was caused by the sudden increase of environmental air pressure from the grenade blast, known as primary blast injury.  

What patterns of harm do grenades cause to surrounding environments and infrastructure?

Grenades are anti-personnel weapons. They are not designed to cause structural damage to buildings and infrastructure, rather they are used to ‘clear’ buildings of enemy personnel and can be particularly lethal when detonated in confined spaces. This is reflected in AOAV’s EVM data in which only 3% of incidents of grenade use (61 incidents) resulted in notable damage to the location of detonation. 

Grenades still have the capacity to cause damage to properties and infrastructure. A grenade attack in 2016 in Ibb governorate, Yemen, destroyed market stalls and damaged several civilian buildings, as well as killing two people and injuring 18 others. 

The US army warns that fragmentation or concussion grenades should not be used in buildings that have walls of thin veneer material as they can weaken the structure of the building or cause portions of the building to collapse inward. 

Research support provided by Martha Greenhough.