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The SAAB Carl-Gustaf 84mm recoilless rifle is generally referred to as the “Gus” (pronounced ‘goose’) or just the “Gustaf” by most soldiers and Marines, who have employed the powerful weapon during countless military operations over the past two decades. To this day, it remains the prime anti-tank weapon for special operations units. 

“In a standard war with an enemy that’s actually using light armor to heavy armored vehicles, that’s where the Gustaf will shine,” said Wayne Capacillo, a former Army Ranger with four combat deployments while assigned to 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. 

He’s spent countless hours training on the Gustaf and training others how to use it. “It is very, very capable, and for the size of it and the number of rounds that you can get downrange and the type of missions that you can complete with it — it’s very, very versatile.”

But when did the American military start using this Swedish-made heavy-hitter, and why? 

A brief history of the Garl Gustaf

Bazookas had the nickname of “stovepipe” during World War II. They were so deadly effective against enemy armor that the Germans quickly made one of their own, called the Panzerschreck.

Following the bazooka’s success in an anti-armor role, Swedish inventor Carl Gustafs Stads Gevärsfaktori created the Carl Gustaf 20mm recoilless rifle, which was quickly outmatched by armor upgrades and plagued with defects. 

Boom! A brief history of the 84mm Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle

In 1946, Gevärsfaktori announced the new and improved Carl Gustaf 8.4 cm recoilless rifle. A few versions were released over the years, dubbed the M1 and M2 by the U.S. military. The M3 variant was introduced in 1991, and the British Special Air Service, U.S. Army Special Forces, and U.S. Army Rangers adopted it for bunker-busting and anti-vehicle purposes.

The U.S. military started ordering the Gustaf for conventional units deploying to Afghanistan in November 2014. Conventional units were having difficulty reaching enemy forces, whereas the enemy could hit them with their RPG-7 rocket launchers. 

The Gustaf’s light, compact build and extended range with a variety of munitions made it a formidable infantry weapon and leveled the playing field for conventional forces in Afghanistan. 

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“You want violence of action, shoot a Gustaf at some [bad guys] […],” Capacillo said. “It’s a light infantry equalizer. They come in with a light armored tank, or they come in with freakin’ vehicles like Hiluxes equipped with fucking machine guns on them — whatever it may be — you can equalize the battlefield with a Gustaf.”

Compared to the M72 and its 200-meter range, the Gustaf’s 700 to 1500-meter range was an easy choice. SAAB is the current manufacturer of the Gustaf, and they revealed the latest M4 variant at the annual Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) conference in 2014. Compared to the M3, it was almost 8 pounds lighter and shorter, with a 37-inch overall length — ideal for urban warfare. 

Both the M3 and M4 variants are currently carried by American forces, and some NATO forces still implement the M2 for illumination purposes. It has a carbon fiber tube with a titanium liner and an upgraded venturi design. The latest model has several upgrades compared to the M3: 

  • Red-dot sight
  • Travel safety catch that allows the Gustaf to be carried while loaded 
  • An adjustable shoulder rest and forward grip 
  • A shot counter to keep track of how many rounds have been fired to manage the weapon’s 1,000-round barrel life 
  • Picatinny rails for grips and sight mounts
  • a remote round management function so intelligent sights can communicate with programmable rockets

Shooting the Gus for the first time

The Gustaf is designed to focus the overpressure from the munition straight behind the gunner via the venturi valve, making the back blast a safety concern for nearby troops. If anyone is standing behind the Gustaf when it’s fired, the back blast can potentially be lethal. 

“The percussion would probably scramble your fucking brainstem. […],” Capacillo said. “It’s like taking a push charge and wrapping it to your face and then seeing what happens.”

Firing the Gustaf is a simple procedure, though. The assistant gunner (AG) and gunner use a series of verbal commands that confirm what round to load and what distance the target is at. The venturi is opened, and the round is slid into place, with the AG locking the venturi valve. 

The small team uses verbal and physical confirmation to let the gunner know the round is locked and loaded. Before firing, the team loudly announces, ‘Backblast area clear’ as a warning that they are about to fire. Once fired, the venturi valve is flipped open, the empty shell pulled out, and a new round loaded. 

The Gustaf has a nasty reputation for causing headaches, nose bleeds, and all manner of other symptoms if fired too many times within a day. Though it’s called a recoilless rifle, it still packs a punch. 

The Gustaf has a diverse selection of munitions to pick from. Capacillo talked about the HEAT round, which melts the outer layer of armor and penetrates the vehicle before exploding inside. High-explosive rounds can be set to airburst or impact explosions, great for hitting open canopy vehicles or enemy forces in a trench. 

Then, there is the mother of all anti-personnel rounds: the flechette round. 

“If you have a bunch of people — like freaking Chosin Reservoir happens — and a fucking bunch of people start running at you, it’s pretty much a giant shotgun where it shoots inch-long, little needles at a huge spread,” Capacillo said. “So you can deter really, really big crowds. You have all these different rounds that you can shift around to fit what your actual mission set is.”

The Carl Gustaf in the War on Terror

Capacillo started as an assistant gunner (AG) but became the anti-tank section gun team leader by his second deployment. The gunner is typically the team leader, while the AG is less experienced and is commonly a private. 

The gunner carries the Gustaf and a couple of rounds, while the AG carries the bulk of available rounds. Capacillo’s team mastered the loading and firing sequence and could load and fire a round every five seconds — a devastating capability to have on the battlefield. 

“You can have a whole fire team, and it’s two guys, and you have six to eight rounds on you,” Capacillo said. “It’s heavy as fuck, but you can still move, you can still take over buildings with it. You can still do a lot of shit with the maneuverability and not lugging around like a whole frickin’ Javelin.”

During Capacillo’s deployments, they would often insert at night with as much stealth as possible. The Gustaf is loud, so the minute it’s fired, anyone in the area will know where you are. Capacillo said there are easier ways to address enemy personnel, like snipers, dog teams, or a variety of other, more quiet options. 

“That’s why nobody wanted to be in AT because you know you weren’t gonna shoot it,” Capacillo said. “I think the entire time I was in the military, they shot it like once or twice [during a deployment] during the whole four years.”

That wasn’t the case for the 75th Ranger Regiment’s “Team Merrill” in Afghanistan, where they’d fly into enemy territory, literally hoist the American flag, and wait for enemy fighters in the area to attack. 

Boom! A brief history of the 84mm Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle

Justin Kurtzhalts was one of the Rangers assigned to Team Merrill in 2011. It turned into a 33-hour-long firefight inside an ISIS stronghold. They lost the element of surprise after the initial assault force landed outside of a cave system, immediately taking fire. 

Kurtzhalts was on the quick reaction force (QRF) when the call for them to respond came in. The landing zone was still hot when they landed. 

“We look to the left, and there’s two motherfuckers looking up at us with RPGs. They’re getting ready to hit us, and the 160th (SOAR) crew chief just fucking ripped them in half with the mini-gun,” Kurtzhalts said. 

The battle was a slug-out with hundreds of ISIS fighters. They called in gun run after gun run while still advancing on the enemy. Kurtzhalts, at one point, saw the Gustaf in action when an AT team fired a high explosive round at a bunker, “vaporizing it.” 

It was the kind of firefight where a Gustaf was a needed asset — and it likely won’t be the last time the lethal recoilless rifle will be needed.

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