While rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) gave the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese an “equalizer” against American tanks, American troops acquired an even lighter, handier weapon for that purpose with the deployment in 1963 of the M72 light antitank weapon, or LAW, an inexpensive, one-man disposable rocket launcher.
Weighing only 5.5 pounds and measuring 24.8 inches long folded, the M72 LAW consists of two tubes, the outmost of which is watertight and holds the trigger arming handle, front-rear sights and rear cover. For firing, the inner tube is pulled back, activating its firing pin assembly and detent lever, deploying the sights and extending the overall length to 34.67 inches. Depressing the firing mechanism shoots a 66mm fin-stabilized rocket projectile whose high-explosive antitank (HEAT) warhead can penetrate up to a foot of steel armor, two feet of steel reinforced concrete or six feet of soil. The rocket’s solid-fuel motor burns out completely within the barrel. Recoil is nil, but the weapon produces a backblast of 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit extending 132 feet.
Until February 1968, when the NVA began committing tanks to South Vietnam, American and ARVN troops could only use LAWs against fortified Communist positions in the field. During fighting in the city of An Loc in April 1972, ARVN troops put their LAWs to good use by ambushing the front and rearmost tanks in a T-54 tank column, trapping the rest on the street to be picked off at leisure.
Although eventually superseded by the Israeli-developed shoulder-launched multipurpose assault weapon (SMAW) and Swedish-made AT4 antitank weapon, the LAW remains in U.S. Army use, where its compactness and light weight make it well suited for the confined street fighting in Iraq.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.