The anti-tank rifle was, for many years, the only device capable of disabling a tank. In the Great War, British tanks were faced with the German T-Gewehr, a huge single-shot, large calibre Mauser rifle, which was moderately effective at short ranges but resultantly terrifying to use. Combine this with the shoulder-destroying recoil and this was a less than satisfactory solution.
The T-Gewehr itself was supposed to be a stop-gap until Germany could bring its anti-tank machine-gun into production and deploy it. However the end of the war came before this could happen and as a result the only infantry anti-tank technology anyone had seen in action was the T-Gewehr.
In the inter-war period, some development was carried out by all major nations into infantry tank-destroying technologies, all based around the anti-tank rifle. The only other option was the small artillery piece carried by infantry regiments. By the opening of WWII, the most prominent anti-tank rifles were the British Boys rifle, Finnish Lahti, Polish Model 35 and the German PZB 38 and PZB 39.
The PZB-38 was intended to be Germany’s main anti-tank weapon when introduced, but it proved expensive and complex to manufacture. It was replaced by the PZB-39 as a consequence.
The first thing to note about this rifle is that it is huge. Absolutely massive. 1605mm long. This is one of the downsides of anti-tank rifle technology, they have to have a powerful cartridge, which needs a strong chamber and receiver, plus a long barrel to build the necessary velocity to penetrate armour.
As a result of this size, steps were taken to make it as portable as possible. The buttstock folds under the gun, such as it helps.
The second thing to note about this rifle is that it is single shot. Every time to fire, you must open the breech and load a new cartridge, all manually. The action is a falling block, not dissimilar to that used by the Martini-Henry. It is opened by pushing the pistol grip forward, which pivots down at the front of its mounting. This ejects the spent cartridge and allows you to replace it.
The two large boxes on the sides hold the ammunition, which is held in spring clips within.
While anti-tank rifles were the only option available in the early war, they were really defunct even before it started. Only hits on a few critical areas of a tank could disable it, and these were quite unlikely under the stress of combat. The Finns had some success with Boys rifles against Soviet tanks during the Winter War, but by 1941 During Operation Crusader (the relief of Tobruk), there was not a single incident of a tank being disabled by the rifles.
The Germans took their anti-tank rifles into Russia, expecting Russian armour to fail readily, though they were disappointed in this not being the case. As a result, many of the surviving PZB-39s were sent back and re-purposed into grenade launchers in the form of the Granatbuchse (GrB) 39.
In service, these were both effectively replaced by the Panzerschreck and the Panzerfaust which were far superior, and in the case of the former was widely copied.
For those interested in learning more about the PZB-39, you should check out Forgotten Weapons’ video on one of these rifles.
You can also see the video about the GRB-39 grenade launcher.