The British in 1902 clearly saw the grenade as a relic of the past. They were right about one thing: The concept was old. The earliest known examples of grenades appeared as early as the 700s, in the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire). A century before, Greek fire had been invented, and the Byzantines soon experimented with filling stone or ceramic jars with the incendiary liquid. The resulting weapon would become the first grenade.
To this day, no one really knows what Greek fire was or what ingredients were used. But various historical sources portray it as a liquid that could burn on water. Hence, one of its main uses was in naval warfare. Some accounts even mention a so-called cheirosiphōn, a portable flamethrower. The weapon’s impact turned out to be monumental: At two crucial turning points in history, the arab sieges of Constantinople (674-678 and 717-718), Greek fire destroyed the Arab fleets and helped lift the sieges. As a consequence, The Eastern Roman Empire lived on for another 700 years or so.
Historians have pointed out how these experiences spurred the Arabs themselves to experiment with explosive devices. These practices in time spread to China, and likely influenced Chinese early gunpowder development. In 1044, the military book Wujing Zongyao described a weapon known as Zhen Tian Lei («Sky-shaking Thunder»). This is known as the prototype of the modern hand grenade and was made by packing gunpowder into a ceramic or metal container.
Ironically, the Chinese and Arab inventions that sprang out of Byzantine weapons were instrumental when Constantinople finally fell to the Turks: Their cannons might not have been possible without the original Greek idea.
The first cast iron bombshells and grenades appeared in Europe in the 15th century. A hoard of several hundred such early grenades – many complete with black powder and igniters – were found in the German city Ingolstadt. The same weapon was used in the English civil war and also in the fighting part of the “Glorious revolution”, where cricket-ball sized iron balls were used against the Jacobites.
Grenades were even used in the age of piracy: Pirate captain Joseph Thompson used “vast numbers of powder flasks, grenade shells, and stinkpots” to defeat pirate-hunters sent after him.
For a time – in the 1600s – the grenade was considered an important weapon, and specialized units, grenadiers, were set up to utilize them. But as soon as in the 1700s countermeasures had already been found. The original role of the grenadiers – to throw grenades – changed, and these units evolved into assault units.
The hand grenade in this period was increasingly considered unreliable, dangerous to the user, and ineffective. Still, the weapon played a part both in the American civil war and in the Crimean war. However, in the period leading up to the modern age, grenades fell out of favor in most armies. In addition to the safety and effectiveness concerns, a lack of standardization meant that many were made more or less in an ad hoc fashion. When the British decided to abandon the concept in 1902, it was a rational decision. Still, it was a mistake. The British would be proven wrong just two years later.
The big comeback
In 1904, the Russo-Japanese war started. Trenches were not new, but for the first time, they became a prominent and defining element of warfare. This also marked the resurgence of grenades: In many situations, guns could not be fired into an enemy position. Grenades, however could be thrown into an enemy trench. A few years after that war, a Russian article describes well how the grenade suddenly became an important weapon again:
“A long forgotten weapon, which for years had rusted in our arsenals was re-introduced in the recent war. This was the hand grenade. As a result of the peculiar character of the operations grenades were much used (…) Scarcely any other weapon was thought of when the enemy was met deep in ditches or had to be driven out of strongly casemated building; and generally speaking, they were of the greatest value in all hand-to-hand fighting.”
The lessons learned here would deeply influence World War One. The first modern hand grenade – the Hales rifle grenade – was patented in England in 1906, and was used by the British. A Norwegian competitor – Nils Waltersen Aasen – had an alternative design that became widely used by the French. At one time, Aasen led 13 grenade-producing factories with a total of 13.000 employees.
The first “safe grenade” – the Mills bomb – came into production from 1915. These were explosive-filled steel canisters with a triggering pin and a distinctive deeply notched exterior surface. Later developments – notably during World War 2 – would not fundamentally alter the hand grenade concept, only improve fragmentation. One exception was an offshoot of the grenade: the development of anti-tank grenades (such as the German Panzerfaust). But it was not until the 1960s that the entire ecosystem around the grenades started to change with the introduction of grenade launchers and new projectiles that could penetrate walls, significant amounts of armor, have airburst abilities, and eventually could be programmed for specific uses.
One such design is Nammo’s Scalable Offensive Hand Grenade. Relying on creating a powerful pressure wave rather than fragments, its modular design allows the user to modify the power of the blast based on their needs, whether it is to punch through a door, clear a room, or to destroy a room or a small structure outright.
See video below for a more in-depth presentation of the Scalable Offensive Hand Grenade.