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Initially I was surprised to learn that such a thing as an anti-tank rifle even exists. It seems a ludicrous idea to try to shoot a tank with a rifle.

But let's suppose that the bullet really hits a lucky velocity/angle combination and penetrates the armor of the tank. What next? Was the point of anti-tank rifles to wound or kill the crew? Hit the ammunition magazine? If the shot failed to do any of these objectives, could it cause any damage to the tank?

If you imagine a tank it is a huge armored box. The chance of hitting a vital point seems incredibly small. Are there some statistics saying e.g. if a tank was hit by anti-tank rifle, what are the odds of putting it out of action?

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    If wikipedia is anything to go by they were pretty effective back then, or at least during the early war: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-tank_rifle#World_War_II - a more surprising bit, imho, is that a "mere" 7.92 mm could penetrate 33mm of armor at 100m. – Denis de Bernardy Aug 30 '16 at 20:44
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    Point would be to disable the tank...in particular the driver but also the engine. Then you could capture the Tank virtually intact...now making it your tank! The American made bazooka and even worse the simple Jeep mounted recoilless rifle was absolutely devastating against German armor in Western Europe. Once you get into the Ostlands and North Africa that's a whole different story. – Doctor Zhivago Aug 30 '16 at 21:18
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    @user14394: I believe you are conflating the panzerfaust with the bazooka. The former was significantly more effective than the latter, partly due to a more robust design and partly due to the Sherman and ilk being softer targets than Panzer V's. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 30 '16 at 22:23
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    Spall (wikipedia) can kill/maim tank crews without penetrating the armour if there's no spall liner on the inside. – Chris H Aug 31 '16 at 8:09
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    @Denis de Bernardy "Mere" in quotes indeed because that was a cartridge twice as long as ordinary 7.92x57mm. – OON Aug 31 '16 at 15:13
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Anti-tank rifles were made as a stopgap measure during and after WWI. The infantry needed something to stop a tank smaller than an artillery piece, and from further away than you could throw a grenade. There were no rockets. To give you an idea how desperate the US army was for anti-tank weapons, they tried shoving rifles and even rocks into the running gear of tanks to hilarious lack of effect (except on the rifle or rock). These tests were conducted in November 1939, two months after the invasion of Poland.

Once WWII started, plenty of these anti-tank rifles were available and tank armor was thin enough that they were still effective. Even late in the war, tanks were designed with less armor in the sides and rear to save weight and so were still vulnerable to ambush. Better than nothing!

When we think of tanks in WWII we think of great big hulking Tigers and well angled T-34s. But in the early stages of WWII the situation was quite different. Tanks were thinly armored. Here's the armor thickness of some of the main armored vehicles used by the Germans during the Battle of France mid 1940.

Contemporary anti-tank weapons, too, were very small. The Panzer III's 37 mm was considered a good anti-tank gun in 1940. The Panzer II carried a 20 mm autocannon. It's only in the later war when the T-34 and KV-1 appear that guns and armor begin a rapid arms race. In this context, a 20 mm, 12.7 mm, or even 7.92 mm anti-tank rifle made sense.

Another thing to realize is the bulk of armored forces were light tanks. The Germans invaded France and the Soviet Union with mostly light Panzer I and IIs. While heavily armed and armored Allied tanks existed, particularly the French Char B1 and British Matilda II, they were very slow, and only available in small numbers.

If you imagine a tank it is a huge armored box. The chance of hitting a vital point seems incredibly small.

This is not true. With the exception of some odd experimental designs, WWII era tanks are incredibly cramped and incredibly complicated machines filled with all sorts of things that "don't react well to bullets". Every bit of available space is used to create as small a target as possible, and as light a tank as possible. Ammunition is crammed everywhere. You're very likely to hit a crew member, or a hydraulic line, or fuel line, or a fuel tank, or an oil line, or an oil tank, or a shell.

Below is a cutaway view of the US M4A4 Sherman tank. Look at all that stuff to mess up! And that's without crew.

M4A4 cutaway view

Source: The Sherman Tank by Roger Ford pages 28-29.

For reference, here's a tour inside a T-34-85. Mind you, Soviet tanks are notorious for being built for short people, and The Chieftain is hilariously tall, but it should give you some idea.

Your round might be armor piercing-incendiary like the 14.5 x 114 mm BS Soviet anti-tank round. Now your bullet is on fire and can ignite all those flammable things inside the tank.

If you get a penetration it's not just the bullet bouncing around doing damage, but fragments of armor add a shrapnel effect. This is referred to as "spall".

Effects of spalling with and without a liner

Source: Think Defense: Vehicle Protection. Note: Spall liners were not used in WWII.

Because of the spall effect, you don't even need a penetration to do damage. The first field-expedient way to stop a tank with a rifle was the reversed bullet. This was a normal cartridge with more gunpowder and the bullet placed in backwards. Instead of breaking apart, the flat end would hit the armor and squash transferring all its energy into the armor. Even with no penetration, the shockwave travels through thin armor and causes spall fragments to peel off the inside armor and bounce around the tank. This was later refined to make High-Explosive Squash Head (HESH) ammunition.

Finally, for your viewing pleasure, 10 minutes of bullets impacting against armor in slow motion.

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    Is that firewood, there in the upper right of the cutway? ;) – GreenAsJade Aug 31 '16 at 3:55
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    many churchill tanks during the italy and north africa campaing wore a "suit" of logs and sandbags on the outside to reduce expolsive round power of the tiger's 88mm, that could mean a direct KO on clean impact on those "non round, non deflecting , edgy" sides. – CptEric Aug 31 '16 at 7:55
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    I suppose you might say that if there's something inside a tank that wouldn't be damaged by being hit by a bullet, then what's it doing taking up space inside your tank? Keep it outside the tank :-) – Steve Jessop Aug 31 '16 at 14:52
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    @SteveJessop. The champagne is best kept safe in empty 75mm racks, since the bottles fit snugly there, although they are typically a bit too big and can bend the retention clip. Source: Cooper, Benton: Death Traps: The Survival of an American Armored Division in World War II. – Smith Aug 31 '16 at 17:53
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    Add-on armor is going to be sourced from whatever can be easily found nearby. If your brigade has stopped for the night in a concrete plant, you'll be using bags of pre-mix and maybe some smaller concrete blocks. If in the forest, use logs. Sand nearby? Sand bags it is. In a bombed-out town? Then bricks and rubble. You grab whatever you can because it's your life that's on the line. – Smith Sep 1 '16 at 21:12
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Schwern's answer is very good and exhaustive from the technical standpoint. From my experience as sniper trained on Anti-Materiel Rifles (AMRs (Hecate II), I would like to add a few tactical aspects to that.

tl;dr: You aim to immobilize the tank so it's a good target for the AT weaponry. Your best bet is a good hit on the tracks.

First of all: The gunner does not aim to destroy the tank, he wants to immobilize it. In this situation the tank is a great target for others (e.g. the AT specialists or in WW2 the artillery/ship artillery, other tanks, air force, etc.) as it's a really big target and can't run away. So the gunner with the AMR just stops the tank, the big calibers finish it.

Your first target as an AMR gunner, like with the Hecate II, are the tracks. It's a huge and easy target constituting of many sensitive parts. If you miss one (e.g. the actual caterpillar track), chances are very high that you hit another vital part (e.g. from the suspensions, etc.) rendering the tank immobile anyway.

Tracks are furthermore a great target you can hit from almost any angle. No problem from the sides, still very good target from front and rear and still acceptable from top (however, in that case you opt for other parts). Even if you hit only the track shields, chances are still acceptable that A) the bullet penetrates anyway or B) parts of the shield break off and block/damage something behind (UPDATE: See here: https://youtu.be/9iL_6IyH9gs?t=358 )

Losing its tracks means that the tank has to be retrieved or at least repaired from the outside. So either the crew have to get out of their tank (anyway advisable in case of immobility) or more personnel from outside have to be brought into the danger zone - easy picks for snipers/artillery/machine guns either way!

Tracks are your best option when attacking a tank with an AMR.

Your next best choice is the engine. It's normally clearly visible where it is located (exhausts, cooling, etc.) and also works if the enemy's armored vehicle has wheels instead of tracks. The motor block is normally also a very sensitive target. Once the bullet or parts of the armor make it inside, it is very likely that they block something or cause serious damage.

Least preferable is any other option except if you are located high above the tank (e.g. on a building with a tank in the streets). Then it can be, depending on the situation (like angle to the tank), a good idea to go for the optics or even the crew itself.

In WW2 tanks (and nowadays still some older models) aiming for the ammunition stock was a good idea as well. Modern tanks are now mostly well protected against internal explosions (e.g. by predetermined breaking points, etc.).

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    @user14394 I'd need to see a citation that a Soviet crew would face execution for abandoning a damaged vehicle. A Molotov Cocktail is great... in a built up urban environment against a tank with no infantry support. Not so great anywhere else that doesn't let you sneak within a few yards of a tank. And could you dial back the over-generalizations in your comments? – Schwern Sep 1 '16 at 0:32
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    And of course if you, especially in chokepoint encounters, even temporarilly disable the first and last tank in group coming up a road, you've created a major headache for the opponent and a turkey shoot for your friendly forces. – jwenting Sep 1 '16 at 12:22
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    @Schwern I've read a memoir of a Soviet Su-85 commander and while there were references to crews being shot for abandoning their vehicles it was always in combination with them fleeing an encounter rather than fighting it out. A crew abandoning a damaged vehicle in battle and trying to get to safety to fight another day was not punished (though of course they might take the heat for a politically connected officer blaming them for the battle being lost afterwards). – jwenting Sep 1 '16 at 12:24
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    Why is a molotov so effective against a battle tank? – JDT Sep 4 '16 at 13:56
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    @Smith : It is actually not your main aim to kill the crew but to disable the tank as a unit. Even if the crew runs away, the tank as such is rendered useless and that is what you aimed for. Plus you bind enemy forces trying to retrieve/repair the tank (and/or the crew) which he then lacks in other theatres of that war. General rule: Disabling enemy forces is always more effective than destroying them. Injured soldiers/damaged vehicles require immediate attention, binding specialists to their location, while dead soldiers/destroyed vehicles can be retrieved later and don't bind forces. – Patric Hartmann Oct 5 '16 at 8:07
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With all great answers I would like to demonstrate what weak spots were targeted. Here's picture from the 1942 Soviet field manual "Уничтожай фашистские танки из противотанкового ружья" ("Destroy fascist tanks with anti-tank rifle") enter image description here

Here we see weak spots of the German T-III tank. They include engine, fuel tanks, transmission, gun and serve to disable tank as a fighting vehicle. The infantry could also shoot the periscopes (to blind the crew) and viewing slits (to kill the members of the crew) even with ordinary rifles and machine guns.

It should be stressed that the fire from anti-tank rifles had any effectiveness only at the very close range (100m and less!) and mostly from the sides and the back. All in all it was never a main tank-destroying weapon and some countries prefered to disregard them to put more resources into anti-tank artillery.

Another point is that in addition to the popular imagination of WWII tank there were a lot of lighter armoured vehicles like light tanks, tankettes and armoured cars all of which were much more vulnerable to such light weaponry.

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    Translated the captions on the picture – OON Aug 31 '16 at 16:06
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    Easier said then done comrade! +1 for the translated pic! – Pete B. Aug 31 '16 at 16:23
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    @OON they were mainly meant to be more mobile than towed guns so as to more readily support infantry in rough terrain. The tank killer function of the tank wasn't really a vision until WW2 was already underway, as is shown in all the early tanks in the conflict mounting mostly weapons for use against infantry and fortifications, with dedicated tank killer troops typically flanking the main force with towed guns or dedicated vehicles (often derivatives of the tanks). . – jwenting Sep 1 '16 at 12:29
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    @jwenting While you're correct that a primary role of tanks is to support infantry assault, the "tanks aren't supposed to fight tanks" thing, while it was hotly debated in the US army, is a myth. You can fight fortifications and infantry better with a short-barrelled, low velocity, large caliber gun. It would save weight and cost. But with few exceptions, like the early Panzer IV, most tanks were equipped with a long-barrel, high-velocity, smaller caliber gun with a mix of HE and anti-tank rounds. You don't undergo the extra cost unless you intend to use it. – Schwern Sep 1 '16 at 17:36
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    @Schwern Early Shermans were mostly fitted with 105mm howitzers, precisely to support infantry, and there was a lot of resistance from crews when they were to switch to the new models with 75mm and 6 pounder guns, precisely because the smaller calibre projectiles would be less efficient in that role. The British always did have the "infantry tank" which was to support the infantry, was large and slow with low velocity guns, and the "cruiser tank" which was smaller, faster, with high velocity guns. – jwenting Sep 2 '16 at 6:30
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Schwern has a very complete answer in regards to tanks. I want to expand on that answer - not only were early tanks a lot more lightly-armored than many people think, but tanks were not really the prime target of these weapons. Even in the pre-war period armies around the world were developing small anti-tank cannons that could be used by a heavy weapons platoon or anti-tank squad that could be attached at the company level to deal with tanks. ATRs were primarily intended to deal with scout cars and the new half-tracks.

The Germans and the Soviets produced thousands of these light wheeled vehicles; the British and the Americans less so. Armor was in the range of 5 to 15 mm, in most cases. While possible to penetrate with an armor-piercing rifle round, that ammo was rare. An ATR could punch through and ignite fuel or ammo, crack an engine block, or kill a crewman. These vehicles were used extensively in reconnaissance and screening roles, and scout patrols or pickets on both sides might frequently encounter one or two of these vehicles miles from their own supporting parent units. So some sort of man-portable "heavy" weapon was needed to deal with them. In fact, some of these scout cars were equipped with the same ATRs as the infantry carried early in the war.

Examples would be the Sd. Kfz. 221, 231 and 234 families (German), BA-64 (Soviet), Humber (British), and M-8 Greyhound (American).

These rifles could also come in handy for penetrating splinter shields on anti-tank-guns or metal shields to protect snipers (more of a WWI issue).

  • and they're also great for taking on troops barricaded in wood or brick buildings where a regular combat rifle wouldn't go through and waiting or a grenade launcher or AT gun would take too long. This was before the time that every infantry platoon had its embedded grenadiers. – jwenting Sep 1 '16 at 12:26
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Schwern's answer is brilliant, so let me just add a few more points:

  • You don't necessarily need to destroy the tank outright. Disable its tracks (a significant weak point), and it becomes easy prey to anti-tank grenades. Introduce spalling, and you can kill or wound the crew. Destroy the periscope, and the crew can't see. Hit the sight ports, and you most likely kill the driver. Every tank has a lot of weak points, and it's a lot easier to hit those from short distance and with a steady hand from good cover.
  • Penetration varies wildly with distance. A projectile that can't penetrate a tank at 1000 meters can be deadly at 100 meters. Angle is also very important once sloped armour began to be used extensively - and infantry with anti-tank rifles have lots of opportunities to optimize the incident angle, unlike artillery and tanks.
  • High-explosive ammunition wasn't used much against armoured objects - so your assumption that an armour-piercing bullet can do no substantial damage is obviously false. Tanks usually shot each other with armour-piercing rounds. HE was more useful against infantry, artillery and buildings, and other little-protected targets.
  • Don't think those rifles were low-powered. With few exceptions, those are recoil-less rifles, so they are not in the same power range as typical hand guns. Actually, recoil-less rifles were always the exception; most anti-tank rifles in WWI and WWII were "just" rifles. They were still powerful enough against early tanks (the first two or three "series" of German Panzers had very little armour - in fact, they could be penetrated by a (heavy) machine gun, at least from the sides).
  • They weren't used against top-of-the-line tanks later in the war, but they were still very useful against many kinds of enemy vehicles that didn't have too much armour.

Also, just for completeness, the later Panzerfaust and similar weapons still have the same basic approach to penetrating armour - they are HE-powered, but the brunt of their effectivness comes from pretty much creating an armour-piercing projectile during the explosion; a shaped charge basically hurls a long bolt of dense, high-speed projectile against the armour at point-blank range. The rocket is simply used to deliver this to the tank at range (though it took a long time for these to get reliable, and most of the time they were used at even lower range than the anti-tank rifles); the anti-tank charge itself was pretty similar to the one used in anti-tank grenades long before.

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    One nit, anti-tank rifles of WWII were not recoilless rifles. A recoilless rifle sends a propelling charge out the back of the gun to negate its recoil. Because the rear of the tube is open they generally have a low muzzle velocity and rely on a shaped charge warhead (ie. HEAT), not kinetic energy. – Schwern Aug 31 '16 at 17:30
  • @Schwern You're right, recoilless rifles were the exception, not the rule. – Luaan Aug 31 '16 at 19:06
  • That's a very important point. A recoilless rifle will in fact destroy the tank and incredibly the US variant is showing up on the modern day battlefield of Syria. That's not true of a bullet...the Russians building a dedicated anti tank rifle actually. The problem with sniping a tank is of course you are way overmatched firepower wise plus you're not covered under any Rules of War so the Tank can now take out you and that stupid thing you called your Town with it...and be perfectly legal insodoing. – Doctor Zhivago Aug 31 '16 at 22:22
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    @user14394 Anti-tank rifles and recoilless rifles are from different eras, comparing them is not very fair. Anti-tank rifles are a WWI and early WWII thing. Recoilless rifles start appearing at the end of WWII and are still in use today (for example, the Carl Gustov). And what's that about anti-tank riflemen (and the town they're in?!) not being covered under which "rules of war"? You'll need a citation on that. – Schwern Sep 1 '16 at 0:19
  • @Schwern He means there's nothing stopping the tank from shooting them with its main gun while they're shooting at it - i.e. simply that rules of war don't arise from a sense of fair play. – Random832 Sep 2 '16 at 3:24
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Later in the war when tanks were uparmored, they still relied on vision blocks for drivers, gunners, and commanders for battlefield awareness.

Targeted anti-tank rifle fire shattering the vision blocks would render the tank ineffective, and could cause a tank to retire from the field.

  • Damage to vision blocks or primary sites is difficult to achieve and of limited value. In the case of tanks v. infantry, a hip shot is only needed for a beehive round. Also the machine guns are BOT weapons anyway. – Pete B. Aug 31 '16 at 15:03
  • @PeteB. Damaged vision blocks limit the already very limited visibility in a WWII tank. This means the crew either has to pop their heads out to see, and risk getting shot, or they remain buttoned up and risk infantry sneaking up on them. As for the tank retaliating, they have to see the infantry first. And Beehive rounds didn't exist in WWII; closest thing was canister & shrapnel which, AFAIK, were not standard issue for tanks and fell out of use in favor HE. What is a "BOT weapon"? – Schwern Sep 1 '16 at 0:26
  • afaik shooting commanders vision slits has been a popular tactic by the soviet infantry forces in the combat against Panzer IV type and lower vehicles, where it was not only the objective to deny visibility, but also to wound or kill the commander of that vehicle. The latter has also negative psychological effects on the crew. I don't know the frequency of this happening though. – Doomed Mind Sep 1 '16 at 14:43
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As others have said early WWII tanks were lightly armored and subject to armor penetration from rifles. These kinetic energy rounds have a single purpose of punching a small hole in the armor, and not much has changed today.

Consider that the round must travel at high speeds and only punches a small hole in the armor. Once inside, the velocity is slowed but energy is conserved. Some will be converted to heat, but presumably there will be two projectiles that are hot traveling at slower speeds. The second would come from the armor. These would bounce around on the inside of the armor causing wounds or death to crewmen, cutting lines, igniting fuel or ammunition, or damaging equipment.

Also the main benefit of armor vehicles is their mobility. The rifle could be used to get a mobility kill by doing any number of things. Damaging the engine cooling system, the engine block itself, the drive wheels, or damaging a track. Each have varying degrees of effectiveness. Repairing a track on a lightly armored vehicle would take a few minutes for a well trained crew. I am sure you have seen photos of WWII tanks carrying track sections. They are pretty easy to repair. However, a hole in the engine block, not so much.

  • By disabling a Tank rather than destroying it you now have a wonderful turret in your possession...hence "all Tankers who abandoned their Tanks in the field were shot per Russian Standard Operating Procedure." The Germans also had Stug III's... dedicated infantry assault armor that was also an equally devastating anti tank gun as it had a fixed turret. So let's say you had some puny Russkie or Frenchy in their "super deluxe concrete pill box"...well, since that thing wasn't anchored to the ground you literally the dopes right off their foundation. "End of Story...move along... – Doctor Zhivago Aug 31 '16 at 22:29
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    @user14394 An immobile tank is easy pickings. It can be destroyed by artillery or well-aimed anti-tank fire. If not, it's isolated as the battle moves on and the crew is captured or killed. The Stug III had an excellent gun and good ambush capability due to its low silhouette, but it's lack of turret is a disadvantage. As for lifting a pillbox off its foundation with a 75mm gun, I've never heard such a claim and I doubt a 75mm shell has the energy. – Schwern Sep 1 '16 at 0:17
  • Not a Stug 3. That's mobile casemate Armor. Very low silohuete, made in huge numbers and absolutely devastsating even if you survived the blast. Party on Garth! – Doctor Zhivago Sep 1 '16 at 10:47
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This training video gives good advice on where to hit the tank

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9iL_6IyH9gs

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    This would be improved by including some the important points in your answer, as videos can be removed from youtube. – Steve Bird Sep 2 '16 at 13:14
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    Early war US anti-tank training videos should be taken as... highly optimistic. Fortunately the question is about what they hoped to achieve, not what they actually achieved, so this is perfect! :) This film in particular is almost criminally optimistic, by 1942 the Boys Anti-Tank Rifle was known to be obsolete against all but light tanks and light bunkers. It was rapidly replaced by the .50 M2 Browning MG and the PIAT. – Schwern Sep 2 '16 at 17:21
  • What advice does the video give? – CGCampbell Sep 3 '16 at 3:19

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