Michael's Dispatches

Helicopter versus RPG


The enemy weapons causing the most deaths in Afghanistan are simple.  There are the machine guns, and the AK-47s, and many thousands of improvised bombs planted in the earth, and suicide bombs, and the RPG: Rocket Propelled Grenade.

There are a few other kinds of weapons, but in a nutshell, that is about it.   Meanwhile, it is probably not risking much overstatement to say that ISAF employs a thousand sort of weapons.

In the image above, the shooter has already pulled the trigger.  There was a very quick delay, with a quiet pop.  Some smoke puffed out from the front and from the rear of the RPG launcher.


I made the images in this dispatch in Urozgan Province.   A few American civilians along with a bunch of Afghans were out working.  On the way back, they stopped to fire their AKs and the RPG for fun.


We stood far back due to the back blast, which can be lethal.  The back blast is the hot air that is expelled from the rear of the tube when launching a grenade.  The gunner seemed to aim at the top of the hill.


The RPG is so simple that a kid—or an illiterate tribesman—can learn how to use it in just a few minutes.  The Mujahidin shot down Soviet helicopters with these things, and of course the same has happened to us in Afghanistan, Somalia, Vietnam, and elsewhere.


If the shooter fires straight up at a helicopter, the back blast can kill the shooter.  Afghans made special tubes that allow them to shoot straight up, but he is not using that tube in these photographs.

In combat, I stay away from the RPG gunners.  They get excited and it is easy for them to turn quickly and blast your face off.   At night it can be worse when you cannot see where they are, and Afghans have a way of not looking back and checking their back blast area.  They often just shoot the rocket.  They do the same with cars.  They will shift into reverse and hit the gas without checking the mirror.  (I got hit like this in Afghanistan.)

A US Soldier told me that he got knocked down by an RPG back blast last year.


Tourists in Cambodia can fire an RPG at a commercial shooting range, and for a price, the proprietors will let you shoot a water buffalo.  No thanks.


This phase of the launch will be visible for miles at nighttime if you are wearing night vision gear.


Movie scenes featuring RPGs often make them appear to fly slowly with a plume of trailing flame and smoke.  The reality is faster: squeeze trigger and BOOM!  The grenade goes fast, and it is very loud.  There is no Whoooshh…just BOOM!  And usually it is BOOM and BOOM as it hits the target, but I have seen rounds that just bounced off:  BOOM!  Klank!

There are different sorts of ammunition.  All are subsonic with the fastest at about 900 feet per second.  If the shooter is close, there is not going to be time for a Rambo jump.  If the shooter is on target, the victim on the receiving end will not have time to move.

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