The French ‘Bunker Buster’ That Became a Hindrance on the Western Front

When World War I began in 1914, it quickly became clear that a new and more advanced weapon was needed. This was especially true at the front, where infantrymen had to contend not only with mazes of trenches, but with fortified bunkers and machine-gun nests. In response, the French Army developed the 37mm M1916. Although it was intended to excel on the Western Front, the opposite proved to be true, rendering it obsolete almost halfway through World War II.

Development of a strong infantry weapon

Three military personnel manning an M1916 aircraft with a diameter of 37 m
Army personnel man a 37mm M1916 equipped with a telescopic sight at the Army Specialist School, Langres, northeastern France, 1918. (Photo credit: US Official Photographer / Imperial War Museums / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The 37mm M1916, officially known as Canon d’Infanterie de 37 model 1916 TRP, was developed by the French Army in 1915, with the intention of providing the infantry with an effective weapon that could both disrupt enemy action and clear the way for the advancing line. In addition, the service wanted to provide a tool that could knock out enemy positions, such as wire fences and enemy machine gun nests.

Atelier de Construction de Puteaux (APX) was tasked with designing and manufacturing the weapon, producing 4,000. As well as front-line use, it was also tested aboard aircraft, including the British Beardmore WBV single-engine biplane fighter prototype and the French Salmson-Moineau SM1 A3 three-seat long-range biplane reconnaissance aircraft. It was quickly removed from the first one after it proved to be too dangerous an addition.

Spec 37mm M1916

37 m
37mm M1916 on display at the Military Museum in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo credit: Megapixie/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

The 37mm M1916 was a 104-pound gun and recoil mechanism mounted on an 84-pound carriage. With the addition of wheels, it could be disassembled and carried by four soldiers, two of whom served as its gunner’s crew, taking on the duties of aimer and loader.

The infantry weapon was designed to fire the smallest caliber permitted for explosive shells under the Hague Convention of 1899. It used the 37 x 94mm Obus explosif Mle1916 High Explosive (HE) round, which featured a 1.22-pound projectile and a 0.66-pound bursting charge. Using the rotating breech block and hydraulic recoil absorption system, the 37mm M1916 can produce a rate of fire of between 25 and 35 rpm, with a minimum range of 1,500 meters and a maximum of 2,400 meters.

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Also equipped by the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), the American version was assigned an ordnance organ. It fired the Mk II HE shell with a 1.5-pound projectile and a bursting charge of 0.59 pounds of TNT.

Used at the front during the First World War

Three soldiers man an M1916 37 m
A 37mm M1916 firing position along a second line trench in Dieffmatten, Germany, 1918. (Photo credit: Cpl. Allen H. Hanson / Defense Imagery / United States Armed Forces / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

During its service history, the 37mm M1916 was used by forces from the United States, Great Britain, the Philippines, Belgium, France, Poland, Italy, and North Vietnam, the latter of which equipped it during the First Indochina War. However, the weapon saw considerable action. His on the Western Front during the First World War.

In May 1918, the French deployed the Renault FT-17 to the front. The world’s first modern tank, it could travel at a speed of 5 MPH while providing much-needed mobile fire support to troops fighting the Germans during the final Allied offensive of the war. About half of the FT-17s that saw action were equipped with the 37mm M1916, while the other 50 percent saw their firepower come from the 8mm Hotchkiss M1914 machine guns.

It should also be noted that the famous French fighter ace René Funk’s SPAD S.XII was equipped with a 37mm M1916. The pilot, known as the “All-Time Allied Ace” and the top Entente fighter ace of World War To the first, 75 confirmed victories are attributed – 72 solo and three shared – with a total of 142 victories.

The 37mm M1916 saw extensive use among the AEF in Europe. Outside of the country’s infantry, it was also equipped with the nearly country-built license of the FT-17. However, the tanks were completed too late to enter service during the war , and as such, no one saw action.

Problems with the 37mm M1916 on the Western Front

Three French soldiers man an M1916 aircraft with a diameter of 37 m
French Army soldiers fire a 37mm M1916 at the firing range in Sains-en-Amiénois, northern France, 1916. (Photo credit: Amédée Eywinger / Imperial War Museums / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Although it was developed for use on the Western Front, the 37mm M1916 actually proved to be a hindrance. At 104 pounds, it was difficult to move through the muddy conditions of the No Man’s Land, and its large size meant that it was difficult to move through the front trenches. The weight of the weapon caused Also that its operators were often unable to keep up with the fast pace of the conflict.

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On top of that, the 37mm M1916 was not the best at the task it was designed for: destroying enemy machine gun emplacements. Mortars proved much more effective. This, along with their lighter weight, made them the preferred choice.

Superseded by more effective weapons during World War II

Two US military personnel
US Army personnel practice with a 37 mm M3 gun at Camp Carson, Colorado, 1943. (Photo credit: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library / US National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

During the interwar period, the U.S. Army created infantry battalions with howitzer companies, which were armed with a variety of support weapons, including the 37mm M1916. However, only the National Guard could afford to maintain them, as the Army had to to make do with the platoons, which trained using an economical device of sub-caliber .22. These units were disbanded in 1941 and replaced by anti-tank platoons, when most of the 37 mm M1916 planes were scrapped or put into storage.

When the US entered World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the 37mm M1916 was largely replaced by the more effective 37mm M3, the first anti-tank gun fielded by the country’s forces in numbers. The Americans who fought in the Philippine campaign of 1941-1942 occasionally manned the WWI-era weapon, but only because they lacked M3s available.

The French army was still equipped with the 37mm M1916 at the start of the conflict, but by 1940, it had been replaced by the 25mm Hotchkiss anti-tank gun. Like the American forces, they occasionally had to revert to the more cumbersome cannon when the latter was in short supply When the Germans occupied the country following the Battle of France, they captured a number of 37 mm M1916 aircraft, which they operated under the nickname IG 152(f) 3.7 cm.

Type 11 37 mm infantry support gun

Four soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army manning a life support gun
A Type 11 37mm infantry cannon operated by the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA), 1930s. (Photo credit: unknown – possibly a Japanese military photographer / A magnificent picture book of the army / Wikimedia Commons / public domain)

After World War I, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) acquired a manufacturing license to produce their own version of the 37mm M1916. Dubbed the Type 11, it provided infantry support to troops fighting in the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.

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Production of the Type 11 took place between 1922-37, with the weapon itself being fitted between 1922-45. It required a crew of 10 to operate – four gunners and six support men – and fired both the powerful Type 12 HE and a rather ineffective anti-tank shell. As well as being carried to the front by soldiers for use against enemy machine gun positions, the Type 11 was equipped In the Japanese Renault NC27 and Type 89 I-Go medium tanks.

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During the early years of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Type 11 was considered an effective infantry weapon against enemy pillboxes, light armored vehicles, and machine gun nests. However, it failed to hold the same prestige during World War II, due to its low muzzle velocity and rate of fire. his, and it was largely replaced by the Type 94 37mm anti-tank gun. Only reserve units found themselves equipped with the Type 11.


Claire Fitzgerald

Claire Fitzgerald is a writer and editor with eight years of experience in online content. A Bachelor of Arts graduate of King’s University Western, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments is being the founder of the True Crime Blog, The unsolved storieswhich garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views each year, and donates to John Lordan’s Seriously mysterious podcast. Prior to its termination, she also served as head of content for YouTube’s UK publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her free time, Claire likes to play Pokemon GO and rewatch Heartland over and over (and over). She will also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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