The RPG is a really, really outstanding weapon, Weapons Man says, and it fits in a sweet spot of direct-fire AT and AP support weaponry that’s really missing in the US infantry squad:
Instead, we have more riflemen, and additional-duty weapons like the AT-4. The RPG is cheaper and reusable, and it has a range advantage over most US disposable non-guided weapons. Its effective anti-tank range is about double that of the AT-4, and the disposable AT-4 costs $1,500 a round.
The evolutionary history of the RPG is fascinating. The Soviets began by copying a weapon they’d felt the sharp end of: the German Panzerfaust. There were many versions of this disposable AT weapon available, and by war’s end the Germans were evolving this weapon in the direction of a reusable tube. It was the Panzerfaust that originated the grenade-launch boost and rocket sustainer operating system, and the weapon evolved rapidly under the pressures of mechanized warfare. Early Panzerfäuste had a mere 30 meter range, demanding bravery, or recklessness, from a rifleman under the pressure of hordes of T-34s or Shermans. And the warheads were marginal, at least on the well-protected T-34. By 1945 most of the initial weaknesses had been allayed by the intense development taking place behind the lines, and the industrial and R&D plant fell into Russian hands.
Unlike the USA, where captured German scientists and engineers came to be trusted, with many staying on as employees and seeking American citizenship, the Soviets, who suffered terribly at German hands, never trusted the Germans and held them in rigid captivity. As quickly as possible, they transitioned German projects, including rockets, guided AA missiles, and turbine engines as well as AT weapons, to Soviet design bureaux and shut the Germans out, generally releasing them back in the USSR’s occupied zone of Germany.
The Soviet engineers proved to be quick and imaginative. They continued to improve the Panzerfaust operating system. It is generally believed that a Soviet-produced version of the late-war Panzerfaust 250 was given limited issue as the Ruchnoy Protitankovniy Granatomet or RPG-1. A Soviet-improved version was widely issued as the RPG-2 in the later 1940s, as part of the systematic re-equipment of the Soviet Army that also saw new rifles, machine guns, and soon, tanks in service.
The limits of the RPG-2 led to the larger, heavier, more solid, and tactically longer-ranged and more accurate RPG-7 in 1961, and the versatility of the RPG-7 has kept it on the world’s front lines to this day. While most of the world knows about the remarkable longevity of the Kalashnikov rifle, its AT counterpart is just as ubiquitous, and won’t be going away any time soon. (In fact, a US firm makes a modified version for Foreign Military Sales).