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A grenade launcher is a weapon that fires a specially-designed large-caliber projectile, often with an explosive, smoke or gas warhead. Today, the term generally refers to a class of dedicated firearms firing unitary grenade cartridges. The most common type are man-portable, shoulder-fired weapons issued to individuals, although larger crew-served launchers are issued at higher levels of organisation by military forces.

Grenade launchers can either come in the form of standalone weapons (either single-shot or repeating) or attachments mounted to a parent firearm, usually a rifle. Larger crew-served automatic grenade launchers such as the Mk 19 are mounted on tripods or vehicles.

Some armored fighting vehicles also mount fixed arrays of short range, single-shot grenade launchers as a means of defense.

The earliest examples of standalone grenade launchers in the modern sense were breech-loading riot guns designed to launch tear gas grenades and baton rounds, such as the Federal Riot Gun developed in the 1930s. One of the first examples of a dedicated breech-loading launcher for unitary explosive grenade rounds was the M79 grenade launcher, a result of the American Special Purpose Individual Weapon program (specifically the 40×46mm grenade round developed during Project NIBLICK, applying the German-developed high–low system to produce manageable recoil). The goal for the M79 was the production of a device with greater range than a rifle grenade but more portable than a mortar. Such single-shot devices were largely replaced in military service with underbarrel grenade launchers, removing the need for a dedicated grenadier with a special weapon. Many modern underbarrel grenade launchers can, however, also be used in standalone configurations with suitable accessories fitted; this is of particular preference for groups using submachine guns as their primary armament, since it is rarely practical to mount an underbarrel launcher on such a weapon. Single shot launchers are also still commonly used in riot control operations.

Heavier multi-shot grenade launchers like the ARWEN 37 are used as tear gas and smoke projectors in riot control, while military launchers like the Milkor MGL are used to provide heavy sustained firepower to infantry; most such devices, dating back to the Manville machine-projector, use a revolver-style cylinder, though a handful of pump-action weapons built like oversized shotguns, such as the China Lake grenade launcher and GM-94, also exist. Magazine-fed semi-automatic designs such as the Neopup PAW-20 and XM25 CDTE have also been created for military use, using smaller rounds (respectively 20 and 25mm) for purposes of practicality in terms of the size of the magazine, and reduced collateral damage compared to 40mm rounds.

Since grenade launchers require relatively low internal pressure and only a short barrel, a lightweight launcher can be mounted under the barrel of a traditional rifle; this type of device is referred to as an under-barrel grenade launcher (UBGL). This reduces the weight the soldier must carry by eliminating the grenade launcher's buttstock and makes the grenade launcher available for use at a moment's notice. Underbarrel 40mm grenade launchers generally have their own trigger group; to fire, one simply changes grips, disengages the safety, and pulls the trigger. In Western systems, the barrel slides forward or pivots to the side to allow reloading; most fire a 40×46mm grenade cartridge. Soviet/Russian launchers are instead loaded from the muzzle, with the cartridge casing affixed to the projectile in the style of a mortar shell. For aiming, underbarrel grenade launchers typically use a separate ladder, leaf, tangent or quadrant sight attached to the launcher or the rifle, either to one side of the handguard or on top of the handguard in between the iron sights. Modern launchers often have the option of mounting more sophisticated aiming systems, such as ballistic rangefinders and day / night sights.

As with the M79, the concept of mounting a dedicated grenade launcher to a service rifle has its roots in the Special Purpose Individual Weapon program; though the experimental Colt XM148 grenade launcher had been produced earlier, it had proved too problematic to adopt. One AAI submission for SPIW mounted a "simple" single-action, single-shot breech-loading underbarrel grenade launcher in lieu of the required semi-automatic multi-shot device. With refinement, this was adopted as the M203 grenade launcher in 1968. A variety of lengths of M203 are available along with numerous parts kits to fit it to various rifles aside from the AR15 pattern weapons it was designed for.

More modern Western grenade launchers address some of the shortcomings of the M203, such as the sliding breech limiting the weapon's ability to load outsize projectiles and the lack of factory-fitted sight mounts, with designs like FN Herstal's ELGM and Heckler & Koch's AG36 featuring a swing-out breech to provide better access, integral sight mounts, and built-in support for standalone conversion. A variant of the latter weapon, the M320 Grenade Launcher Module, was salvaged from the failed XM8 program and adopted in 2008 as the US military's replacement for the M203.

Soviet development of an underbarrel launcher for the AK rifle series began in 1966 and in 1978 produced the GP-25, a muzzle-loading device for the AK-74 rifle using a mortar-like grenade round which functions by venting its propellant through holes in the base; this is a variation of the high-low system used by Western rounds, with the base of the projectile acting as the high-pressure chamber and the launcher's barrel acting as the low-pressure chamber. Further developments led to the GP series of grenade launchers.

A number of experimental weapon systems have attempted to produce combination weapons which consist of a permanently attached grenade launcher and a carbine assault rifle, often with the rifle mounted underneath the launcher, most notably the XM29 OICW,[15] but so far the only such weapon to reach full production is the S&T Daewoo K11, adopted in limited numbers by the South Korean military.

An automatic grenade launcher or grenade machine gun[17] is a crew-served support weapon which fires explosive rounds in quick succession from an ammunition belt or large-capacity magazine. As most are heavy weapons, they are normally attached to a tripod or vehicle mounting, and as well as being used to provide heavy suppressing fire in the manner of a heavy machine gun, also have sufficient firepower to destroy vehicles and buildings. Examples include the Mk 19, AGS-17, and the HK GMG.

Automatic grenade launchers generally use a higher-velocity round than infantry weapons; NATO launchers use a 40×53mm grenade round rather than the 40×46mm round used by infantry. There are exceptions to this rule: the crank-operated Mk 18 Mod 0 grenade launcher, a unique example of an AGL which was not fully automatic,[17] and the Mk 20 Mod 0 grenade launcher both used the 40×46mm round, and the Chinese Type 87 grenade launcher, a device intended to be employed like a general-purpose machine gun, uses the same 35×32mm low-velocity grenade round as the QLG91B underbarrel launcher for the QBZ-95 assault rifle.

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