Phil Patton | Essays

On the Shoulders of Rebels

Iraqi Security Force member armed with RPG-7, 2005. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It is one of the most successful designs on the planet, a rugged, adaptable device that has been in service for 50 years and outperforms far more expensive models.

It is the product of continuous refinement, simplification and customer feedback. It rebuts the myth that military developers never turn out anything but expensive over-engineered design — or that communist countries never produced designs that worked.

Unfortunately, what it does is spread murder and mayhem.

The rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, is used by armies and insurgents all over the world. Created in the Soviet Union, the RPG-7 has been employed in Yemen and Uganda, Chechnya and Vietnam. Most recently, it has shown up in the hands of Libyan rebels, its metal warhead silhouetted against the sky like a missile or minaret. According to a senior military official speaking to NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten, the weapons are coveted by Libyan rebels “‘because with those they could stop Gadhafi's tanks.’"

Ironically, after attempting to duck them for decades, the U.S. has begun making its own RPG-7s — built by the firm Airtronic — and may distribute them to rebel movements. Despite its grim function, the RPG-7 stands as one of the supreme examples of design for global success, built on ideals of simplicity, functionalism, durability and ease of use and maintenance.

"RPG-7s are in the militaries of over 40 countries,” notes Col. Leslie Grau, a recognized expert on the weapon. “They are simple and cheap and everywhere. They don't take much training."

Such ease is a function of the RPG-7’s rudimentary design, says Richard Jones, editor of the military journal Jane's Infantry Weapons. “There are no electronics to break, no mechanism to jam."

And yet this $10 weapon can destroy a $50 million helicopter or $5 million tank, making the RPG the mascot of asymmetrical warfare. The launcher weighs just 16 pounds, but the warhead can penetrate 4 feet of reinforced concrete, 6 feet of bricks and 2 feet of metal.

A crude mix of wood and metal, with a blast end trumpet resembling a diabolical musical instrument, the RPG is terrifying: No one forgets the sight and sound of it — the whoosh, the blue-gray smoke and the slightly wobbly rotation of the projectile’s flight. Fear lies on both sides: The RPG’s shooter has to have the courage to get within 200 or 300 meters of the target, according to Russian journalist Artyom Borovik in The Hidden War, his classic account of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

RPGs brought down the helicopter in Black Hawk Down. “Basically, the RPG singlehandedly lost the Russians their first Chechen War,” writes Gary Brecher, author of a newspaper column on military strategy. Half of all U.S. deaths in the first months of the current Iraq War were caused by RPGs, according to a study by the Center for Army Lessons Learned. Osama Bin Laden posed with RPGs, and John Kerry is seen holding a captured Viet Cong RPG in his war snapshots. In 2000 the Real Irish Republican Army launched RPGs at the headquarters of MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service. War rugs woven by refugees in Pakistan and Iran show RPGs in their patterns, along with helicopters and jets.

Today’s models are descendents of the U.S. bazooka and of Hitler’s Panzerfaust, which was used in the last days of World War II. Beginning in the 1940s, the Russians improved the Panzerfaust by stages. The weapon took its present form in 1961. The initials composing its name translate to both English (Rocket-Propelled Grenade) and Russian (Raketniy Protivotankoviy Granatomet — literally, “rocket anti-tank grenade launcher”). The Soviet Union licensed the weapon for manufacture in factories in such hot spots as China, Libya and Iran, and at the state arsenal of Iraq. By the end of the Cold War, the world was full of cheap RPGs, and their utility was well established.

The RPG-7 carries cultural and social overtones, like another sturdy Russian weapon: the AK-47, whose biography is the subject of C. J. Chivers’s recent book, The Gun. It figures in photos and films as an icon of rebellion. Just as one man’s insurgent is another’s freedom fighter, the RPG can be seen as either the sling of David against totalitarian Goliaths or the terrorist’s Saturday night special. The RPG threatened the Stryker vehicles that were the centerpiece of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s new military strategy. "The RPG-7 will be around for a good while yet," says Col. Grau. "It is a proven, cheap killer of technology which will continue to play a significant role — particularly when conventional forces are pitted against irregular forces.”

The Pentagon seems to agree in ordering up a somewhat easier-to-use version for its arsenal that is made in the USA.

What if someone invented a device that did good as efficiently as the RPG does harm? Imagine a benign twin of the RPG that gave life and healed wounds? That would be a design worth celebrating.

Posted in: History, Product Design

Comments [10]

RKG-11: Rapid Kiss Giver, 2011. Would shower 200-1000 people with in less than 45 seconds with 5x6cm kisses from 2-100 meters. Wow!

Don't let them see the "big board."


A well rounded education.


>What if someone invented a device that did good as efficiently as the RPG does harm? Imagine a benign twin of the RPG that gave life and healed wounds? That would be a design worth celebrating.

I'd say a digital camera is about the closest thing we have to that. People can smuggle them anywhere, take pictures of atrocities. The fear of digital images of atrocities has problem saved over 10,000 lives.

The thing is that the RPG is only really good at destroying tanks. The RPG is an anti-war weapon in that it destroys the machines that war possible (taking a city without tanks is near impossible). It turns city raping tanks into flowers and smoke. RPGs have probably saved more lives than they have killed (for the most part they disable tanks, not kill the operators).

You want a true killing weapon, look at machetes. RPGs andAK47 got nothing on the death toll of machetes.

Respectfully, e4, the true "killing weapons" are thoughts and ideas. Unfortunately.

Joe Moran

@e4 - sharp thinking on all accounts. Just curious, what makes machetes more dangerous than small firearms? I've spent some time in places where folks had machete scars - but never considered them more dangerous than a shotgun in the wrong hands.
el Camino


@el Camino "what makes machetes more dangerous than small firearms?" Well for one think firearms use ammo which costs money and you can run out of. The cost-benefit analysis is such that generally firearms are only used for genocide by rich countries with good supply lines and trained soldiers.

Machetes require almost no training to use, they don't jam, they don't run out of a ammo and you don't have to worry about stray bullets or ricochet. Machetes aren't controlled so you can import massive quantities, in bulk machetes cost about 25 cents each. They are far harder to track and to prove that killings were planned.
1000 dollars can arm 4000 untrained militia men who can go on killing for months with no supplies, and no OFFICIAL SUPPORT (that is a big one now days).

It you ever live in a country and people keep discovering stockpiles of machetes (like they did in Rwanda), head to your nearest airport and flee the country.

“What if someone invented a device that did good as efficiently as the RPG does harm? Imagine a benign twin of the RPG that gave life and healed wounds?”

I don't have to imagine them; they exist. Penicillin. The polio and smallpox vaccines. Birth-control pills. AZT. Such medical achievements are hardly a small category of human invention.

And has anyone else noticed that this essay is a rehash 006 of Good magazine that replaced the AK-47 with the RPG-7?
James Puckett

maybe $10 to make in russia but I'm sure that Airtronic will charge the pentagon $10,000 apiece for their version...

Thanks for the essay, Phil.
Although I’m unsure of what your specific “dictates” or tenants of good design are, effective weapons design is certainly worthy of attention and occasional praise. However, in answer your question regarding a “benign twin”, you might insert penicillin though I’m surprised you didn’t consider the pen.
Michael Henley

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