Sherman Firefly Tank (1944-1945) (British Army)

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Sherman Firefly Tank (1944-1945) (British Army)

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The Sherman Firefly was a tank used by the United Kingdom and some Commonwealth and Allied armoured formations in the Second World War. It was based on the US M4 Sherman, but fitted with the powerful 3-inch (76.2 mm) calibre British 17-pounder anti-tank gun as its main weapon. Originally conceived as a stopgap until future British tank designs came into service, the Sherman Firefly became the most common vehicle mounting the 17-pounder in the war.

Though the British expected to have their own new tank models developed soon, the previously rejected idea of mounting the 17-pounder in the existing Sherman was eventually accepted, despite initial government resistance. This proved fortunate, as both the Cruiser Mk VIII Challenger and Cruiser Mk VIII Cromwell tank designs experienced difficulties and delays.

After the difficult problem of getting such a large gun to fit in the Sherman's turret was solved, the Firefly was put into production in early 1944, in time to equip Field Marshal Montgomery's 21st Army Group for the Normandy landings. It soon became highly valued, as its gun could almost always penetrate the armour of the Panther and Tiger tanks it faced in Normandy. In recognition of this, German tank and anti-tank gun crews were instructed to attack Fireflies first. Because the Firefly had a visibly longer barrel, crews tried to camouflage it so the tank would look like a normal 75 mm-gun Sherman from a distance. Between 2,100 and 2,200 were manufactured before production wound down in 1945.

The idea of fitting a 17-pounder gun into a Sherman tank had initially been rejected by the Ministry of Supply's Tank Decision Board. Although the British Army had made extensive use of the American-built Sherman tank, it was intended that a new generation of British tanks would replace it in the anti-tank role. First, there was the Cromwell tank, which was expected to use the Vickers high velocity 75 mm gun; this gun would have had superior anti-tank performance to the US 75 mm and 76 mm guns that were mounted in the Sherman. The second was the A30 Challenger, which was based on the Cromwell but with the even more powerful 17-pounder gun. These two tanks—and their successors, the Comet and the Centurion, which were already on the drawing board—were to replace the Sherman in British service, and so the prospect of diverting resources to mount the 17-pounder on the Sherman seemed undesirable.

Nonetheless, several unofficial attempts were made to improve the firepower of the Sherman. The earliest attempt can be credited to Major George Brighty of the Royal Tank Regiment while he was at Lulworth Armoured Fighting School in early 1943. Despite the A30 Challenger undergoing initial trials at Lulworth, Brighty was convinced that the Sherman was a better mount for the 17-pounder. However, the turret of the Sherman was too small to allow for the very long recoil of the gun. In a radical adjustment, Brighty removed the recoil system and locked the gun in place, thus forcing the entire tank to absorb the recoil, but this was a far from ideal situation and there was no telling how long the tank would have been able to handle such a set-up.

Around June 1943, a colleague of Brighty, Lieutenant Colonel George Witheridge of the Royal Tank Regiment, arrived at Lulworth. A veteran of the North Africa campaign, Witheridge had experienced first-hand the one-sided battles between British tanks armed with 2-pounder guns against Rommel's formidable tanks and anti-tank guns. During the Battle of Gazala in mid-1942, Witheridge had been blown out of his (US supplied) M3 Grant medium tank, and though he recovered from his wounds, he was declared unfit to return to combat duty. Instead, in January 1943, he was posted to Fort Knox in the United States for six months to advise on gunnery, where he was "sold" on American tanks. While at Lulworth, Witheridge inspected the A30 Challenger, and "joined in the chorus of complaints" about the tank. Upon looking up Brighty and learning of his attempts to use the Sherman, Witheridge lent his assistance. He advised Brighty on methods to solve the recoil issue.

Not long after, Witheridge and Brighty received a notice from the Department of Tank Design (DTD) to cease their efforts. Unwilling to abandon the project, Witheridge, using his connections with such influential people as Major General Raymond Briggs, former GOC of the 1st Armoured Division in North Africa and now director of the Royal Armoured Corps, and successfully lobbied Claude Gibb, director general of weapon and instrument production at the Ministry of Supply, to make it an official ministry project. In doing so, the endeavour was taken out of the hands of the highly enthusiastic and devoted amateurs at Lulworth who had initiated it and given to professional tank developers.


It was W.G.K. Kilbourn, a Vickers engineer working for the DTD at the time, who transformed their idea into the reality of the prototype of the tank that would serve the British forces from the Invasion of Normandy in June 1944 onwards. The first thing Kilbourn had to fix was the lack of a workable recoil system for the 17-pounder. The 17-pounder travelled 40 in (1.0 m) back as it absorbed the recoil of the blast. This was too long for the Sherman's turret. Kilbourn solved this problem by redesigning the recoil system completely rather than modifying it. The recoil cylinders were shortened and placed on both sides of the gun to take advantage of the width of the turret.

The gun breech itself was also rotated 90 degrees to allow loading from the left rather than from on top. The radio, normally mounted in the back of the turret in British tanks, had to be moved; an armoured box (a "bustle") was attached to the back of the turret to house it, with access through a large hole cut through the turret.

The next problem encountered by Kilbourn was that the gun cradle, the metal block on which the gun sat, had to be shortened to allow the gun to fit into the Firefly, and thus the gun itself was not very stable. Kilbourn had a new barrel designed for the 17-pounder that had a longer untapered section at the base, which helped solve the stability problem. A new mantlet was designed to house this gun and accept the modified cradle. The modifications were extensive enough that 17-pounders intended for the Firefly had to be factory-built specifically for it.

Kilbourn had to deal with other problems. On the standard Sherman tank, there was a single hatch in the turret through which the commander, gunner and loader entered and left the tank. However, the 17-pounder's larger breech and recoil system made it significantly more difficult for the loader to exit quickly if the tank was hit; a new hatch was cut into the top of the turret over the gunner's position to resolve this. The final major change was the elimination of the hull gunner in favour of space for more 17-pounder ammunition, which was significantly longer than the original 75 mm shell and took up more room.

The Firefly had no armour or mobility advantages over the normal Sherman tank, although the gun mantlet was some 13 mm thicker.

By October and November 1943, enthusiasm began to grow for the project. The 21st Army Group was informed of the new tank in October 1943. Even before final testing had taken place in February 1944, an order for 2,100 Sherman tanks armed with 17-pounder guns was placed, as the Challenger programme was suffering constant delays and it was realised that few would be ready for Normandy. Even worse, it was discovered that the Cromwell did not have a turret ring wide enough to take the new High Velocity 75mm gun (50 calibres long), so it would have to be armed with the general purpose Ordnance QF 75 mm, leaving the Sherman Firefly as the only tank available with firepower superior to the QF 75 mm gun in the British Army's arsenal. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it was given the "highest priority" by Winston Churchill himself.

The nickname "Firefly" is not found in wartime official documents, but was adopted due to the bright muzzle flash of the main gun. It was sometimes used at unit level (brigade/regiment) war diaries from March 1944, with another nickname being 'Mayfly'. During the war, Shermans with 17-pounder guns were usually known as "1C", "1C Hybrid", or "VC", depending on the basic mark of the vehicle. In British nomenclature, a "C" at the end of the Roman numeral indicated a tank equipped with the 17-pounder. The name "Firefly" in period sources often refers to any vehicle with a 17-pounder gun, often the M10C variant of the M10 tank destroyer.


The main armament of the Sherman Firefly was the Ordnance Quick-Firing 17-pounder. Designed as the successor to the British QF 6-pounder, the 17-pounder was the most powerful British tank gun of the war, and one of the most powerful of any nationality, being able to penetrate more armour than the 8.8 cm KwK 36 fitted to the German Tiger I or the Panther tank's 7.5 cm KwK 42[citation needed]. The Firefly 17-pounder was able to penetrate some 163 mm of armour at 500 m (550 yd) and 150 mm at 1,000 m (1,100 yd) using standard armour piercing, capped, ballistic capped (APCBC) ammunition. Armour piercing, discarding sabot (APDS) ammunition could penetrate some 256 mm of armour at 500 m and 233 mm at 1,000 m, which on paper could defeat the armour of almost every German armoured fighting vehicle at any likely range. However, war production APDS rounds lacked accuracy, and the 50 mm penetrator was less destructive after it had penetrated enemy tank armour than the 76.2 mm APCBC shell. In any case, APDS ammunition was rare until the post-war period. While the Sherman Firefly was capable of carrying 77 rounds of ammunition, design features of the tank meant only 23 rounds were easily and readily available when the tank was in action.

While the 17-pounder had superior anti-tank capabilities, due to its lack of an effective HE round, it was inferior to the regular Sherman 75mm gun against soft targets, such as enemy infantry, buildings and lightly armoured vehicles. As the war in Europe neared its close, the Allies found themselves encountering these more often than heavy German tanks. Allied tank units therefore typically refused to completely switch to Fireflies. A good HE shell for the gun only became available in late 1944, and even then was not as potent as the standard Sherman 75 mm HE shell. Another problem was that the powerful blast from the 17-pounder gun kicked up large amounts of dirt as well as smoke, making it difficult for the gunner to observe the fall of shot and forcing him to rely on the commander to observe it and to order corrections. Dirt and dust revealed the position of the tank, so Sherman Fireflies would have to move every few shots. The recoil and muzzle blast could be severely jarring to Firefly crews and the muzzle blast frequently caused night blindness as well. This was a common problem of any tank armed with a high velocity gun, including the Panther and Tiger I tanks. The cramped nature of the turret meant that loading the large 17-pounder shell was difficult, so Fireflies had a lower rate of fire than regular M4 Shermans. Since the Firefly was a stopgap, these problems were never eliminated, as the Firefly was to be retired with the introduction of the new British tank designs.

The Firefly's secondary armament was the standard .30 inch (7.62 mm) coaxial machine gun in the turret; the hull-mounted machine gun was removed to increase ammunition storage for the main gun. A top-mounted .50-inch (12.7 mm) machine gun was also attached, though many crews removed it due to its awkward mounting and position near the commander, which limited a full 360-degree view when unbuttoned in battle.

^ Sherman Fireflies with "60 lb" air-to-ground rockets on rails attached to the turret

In 1945, some British Shermans were fitted with a rail on either side of the turret for two "60 lb" high-explosive 3-inch rockets. These were used at the Rhine Crossing by the tanks of the 1st Coldstream Guards. These tanks, called "Sherman Tulips", were conventional Shermans and Fireflies. The rockets, accurate when fired from aircraft, were less accurate when fired from a stationary platform, such as a tank, as they had little initial slipstream over the fins. The RP-3 was effective when its 60-pound warhead hit the target.

Production and distrubution
Three different variants of Sherman Firefly served during the Second World War, each based on different variants of the M4 Sherman. The Firefly conversion was carried out on Sherman I (M4), Sherman I Hybrid (M4 Composite) and Sherman V (M4A4) tanks. Some sources state that several Sherman IIs (M4A1) were converted and used in action, but photos allegedly showing these conversions are in fact views of the front half of Sherman I Hybrid Fireflies. To complicate matters, a very small number of Canadian licence-built Sherman IIs (M4A1), the Grizzly, were converted to Fireflies in Canada and used for training, but none saw action. The majority of Shermans converted were the Sherman V/M4A4 model, of which the British received about 7,200. The Sherman VC and IC variants are easily distinguished by their lower hulls; the VC having a riveted lower hull with a curved shape while the IC has a welded and angled lower hull. The Hybrid can be distinguished by its upper hull, which is cast and which gives it a distinctive curved look in comparison to the more boxy hull of a typical Sherman.

Production of the Firefly started in January 1944, and by 31 May, some 342 Sherman Fireflies had been delivered to Montgomery's 21st Army Group for the D-Day landings. As a result, British tank troops were composed of three regular Shermans and one Firefly. The same distribution occurred in Cromwell units, but this caused logistical problems, as each Cromwell troop now needed to be supplied with parts for two different tanks. The Firefly was also slower than the Cromwell. Churchill units received no Fireflies, and as a result often had to rely on any attached M10 or M10 Achilles units to provide increased firepower to deal with tanks their own guns could not eliminate.

Production was limited by the availability of suitable tanks, with the phasing out of 75 mm Sherman production. To make up numbers, Sherman I and Sherman I Hybrids were also converted. From D-Day in June to the end of the Battle of Normandy in late August, almost 400 Sherman Fireflies were converted, more than sufficient to replace any permanent tank losses during the battle. In late 1944, with the creation of an effective high-explosive shell for the 17-pounder gun, British units started to receive two Fireflies per troop. By February 1945, some 2,000 Sherman Fireflies had been built and British, Commonwealth and Polish armoured units were equipped with a 50/50 mix of 75 mm and 17-pounder-armed Shermans.

In the spring of 1945, production of the Firefly was scaled down, with the last tank being delivered in May 1945. This was the result of several factors, from superior home-grown designs like the Comet and Centurion coming into service to replace the Firefly, to the impending defeat of Nazi Germany, and the inferior design of Japan's tanks, which it seemed would be the next opponents the British would have to face after the fall of Germany.

Overall production of the Sherman Firefly reached some 2,100 – 2,200 tanks; exact numbers are hard to determine as documents give contradictory totals. Jane's World War II Tanks and Fighting Vehicles gives a production of 1783 vehicles in 1944 and 563 in 1945, for a total of 2346. Sherman Firefly gives a number of 2002 conversions made between January 1944 and February 1945 or a total of 2139 conversions.

^ A Sherman Firefly crosses 'Euston Bridge' over the Orne as it moves up to the start line for Operation Goodwood, 18 July 1944.

Fireflies were introduced to armoured brigades and divisions in the 21st Army Group in 1944, just in time for the Normandy landings. The timing was fortunate as Allied intelligence had begun to realise in early 1944 through statistical analysis that the Germans were fielding a much larger number of more formidable tanks (such as the Panther) than had been anticipated. This information was slow to reach Allied military planners, who had mistakenly assumed the Panther, like the Tiger, would be a rare heavy tank with a limited production run, so the number of Panthers deployed came as a surprise to Allied formation commanders and tank crews forced to engage them with guns that could not penetrate the frontal armour except at short range.

Ken Tout, who served as a tank gunner and tank commander in the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry in Normandy in 1944, described the effect of mounting a 17-pounder in the Sherman:

"The Firefly tank is an ordinary Sherman but, in order to accommodate the immense breech of the 17-pounder and to store its massive shells, the co-driver has been eliminated and his little den has been used as storage space. ... The flash is so brilliant that both gunner and commander need to blink at the moment of firing. Otherwise they will be blinded for so long that they will not see the shot hit the target. The muzzle flash spurts out so much flame that, after a shot or two, the hedge or undergrowth in front of the tank is likely to start burning. When moving, the gun's overlap in front or, if traversed, to the side is so long that driver, gunner and commander have to be constantly alert to avoid wrapping the barrel around some apparently distant tree, defenceless lamp-post or inoffensive house."

Panthers and Tigers accounted for only 30% of the 2,300 German tanks deployed in Normandy; the rest being Panzer IVs, Sturmgeschütz IIIs and other tanks that the 75 mm gun Shermans were able to effectively handle. However, the importance of Caen and Montgomery's operations, which pinned German armoured forces in front of the British positions so the American units could break out to the west, meant that British and Commonwealth units had to face over 70% of all German armour deployed during the Battle of Normandy, as well as over half of the elite, well-equipped Waffen-SS Panzer units. As a result, the Sherman Firefly was perhaps the most valued tank by British and Commonwealth commanders, as it was the only tank in the British Army able to reliably penetrate the frontal armor of Panthers and Tigers at the standard combat ranges in Normandy.

This fact did not go unnoticed by the Germans, who realised that these long-barrel Shermans posed a much greater threat to their heavy tanks than the normal Shermans, and German tank crews and anti-tank gun crews were instructed to eliminate Fireflies first. Similarly, the Firefly crews realised that the distinctive long barrel of their 17-pounder gun made the Firefly stand out from standard Shermans, so crews attempted to disguise their tanks to reduce the likelihood of being targeted. Some crews had the front half of the gun barrel painted white on the bottom and dark green or the original olive drab on the top to give the illusion of a shorter gun barrel. Another suggestion was for a shorter wooden dummy gun to be mounted on the rear of the turret and point forward; however, this tactic does not appear to have been used in combat.

Despite being a high priority target, Fireflies appear to have had a statistically lower chance of being knocked out than standard Shermans; this was probably due more to how they were employed than to the actual effectiveness of the attempted camouflaging of the long barrel. Given the high value placed on Fireflies, a common tactic was for commanders to reconnoitre the battlefield before a battle to look for good overwatch positions. During the battle, Firefly tanks would stay behind in those positions and cover the ordinary Shermans as they pushed forward, eliminating any enemy tanks that revealed themselves when they opened fire on the advancing Shermans, and moving forward only when the standard Shermans had secured the area, or when they could no longer cover them from their current position. Similarly, when on the move, troop commanders tended to position Fireflies in the rear to reduce the chance of their being knocked out. However, given the relatively unpredictable nature of battle, this setup was not always practical or possible, and many times, Fireflies were forced to engage enemies in the open where they could be identified.

Despite this, the Firefly's increased firepower was much valued, and during many engagements, the Firefly proved its worth, knocking out Tigers and Panthers at long range, as well as less formidable tanks like the Panzer IVs and StuGs.

One example of this increased firepower was displayed by Lt. G. K. Henry's Firefly during the defence of Norrey-en-Bessin on 9 June against an attack by the 3rd Company of the 12th SS Panzer Regiment of the 12th SS Panzer Division. Determined to capture the town in preparation for a larger offensive to drive the British and Canadians back into the sea, Kurt Meyer ordered 12 Panthers of the 3rd Company and infantry to attack Norrey and drive the Canadians out of the town. The attack got under way at 1300 hours with the Panthers racing to the town at full speed, stopping only to fire their guns; they quickly outran their infantry support, which was forced to the ground by Allied artillery fire. Within 1,000 m (1,100 yd) of the town, nine Shermans of the Canadian 1st Hussars opened fire into the advancing Panthers' flanks. Lt. Henry's gunner, Trooper A. Chapman, waited until the Panthers "lined up like ducks in a row" and quickly knocked out five with just six rounds. The attack was repulsed with the loss of seven of the 12 Panthers.

A similar example occurred on 14 June, during Operation Perch. Sgt. Harris of the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards, along with three standard Shermans, set up defensive positions along with the infantry after successfully driving out the Germans in the village of Lingèvres, near Tilly-sur-Seulles. Looking through his binoculars, Sgt. Harris spotted two Panthers advancing from the east. He opened fire at a range of 800 metres (870 yd), knocking out the lead Panther with his first shot, and the second Panther with his second. Relocating to a new position on the other side of the town, he spotted another three Panthers approaching from the west. From his well-concealed flanking position, he and his gunner, Trooper Mackillop, eliminated all three with just three rounds. Harris and his gunner had knocked out five Panthers with as many rounds, demonstrating the potency of the Firefly, especially when firing from a defensive position on advancing enemy tanks.

In perhaps their most famous action, Fireflies from A Squadron, 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, 33rd Armoured Brigade, A Squadron, the Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment, 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, and B Squadron, The 144th Regiment Royal Armoured Corps, 33rd Armoured Brigade, ambushed a group of four Tiger tanks from the 3rd Company and HQ Company, 101st SS Heavy Tank Battalion supported by several Panzer IV tanks and StuG IV assault guns. Tanks of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry and elements of the 51st (Highland) Division reached the French village of Saint-Aignan-de-Cramesnil on the morning of 8 August 1944 during Operation Totalize. While B Squadron stayed around the village, A and C Squadrons moved further south into a wood called Delle de la Roque. C Squadron positioned themselves on the east side of the woods and the understrength A Squadron in the southern portion with No. 3 Troop on the western edge of the wood. From this position, they overlooked a large open section of ground and were able to watch as German tanks advanced up Route nationale 158 from the town of Cintheaux. Under strict orders from the troop commander, they held their fire until the German tanks were well within range. Ekins, the gunner of Sergeant Gordon's Sherman Firefly (Velikye Luki – A Squadron's tanks were named after towns in the Soviet Union) had yet to fire his gun in action. With the Tiger tanks in range, the order was given to fire. What followed was an almost 12-minute battle that saw Ekins destroying all three Tigers that No. 3 Troop could see; there were actually seven Tiger tanks in the area heading north along with some other tanks and self-propelled guns. A short time later, the main German counterattack was made in the direction of C Squadron. A Squadron (less Sgt Gordon who had been wounded and had already bailed out of the Firefly) moved over to support them and in the resulting combat, Ekins destroyed a Panzer IV before his tank was hit and the crew were forced to bail out.

Ekins is credited by some with knocking out Michael Wittmann's Tiger, though there is still much controversy over whether Ekins really killed Wittmann, as Sherman Fireflies of the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment also fired at the Tigers from a closer range of only 143 m (156 yd) at Gaumesnil, and the killing shot came from the left side of the Tiger, as photographs prove. In fact, the shot that killed Wittmann likely came from a Canadian non-Firefly Sherman, as the photos prove it penetrated the left engine cooling vent of his tank, directly behind the turret, which is much thinner and susceptible to 75mm armour piercing rounds. The British tanks of Ekins' unit were a kilometer away and facing the opposite (right) side of Wittmann's Tiger, thus it was clearly impossible for Ekins to have hit on the left side.

Although the Normandy campaign had priority, Fireflies also served with distinction in Italy in British, Commonwealth and Polish units. British units in Italy also used the Sherman with the US 76 mm gun.

^ A preserved Sherman Firefly Mk Ic with its gun barrel painted with the countershading pattern used to disguise its length

Sherman Firefly Specifications
Designed: 1943
No. built: 2,100-2,200
Weight: 34.75 long tons (35.3 tonnes)
Length: 19 ft 4 in (5.89 m); 25 ft 6 in (7.77 m) overall
Width: 8 ft 8 in (2.64 m)
Height: 9 ft (2.7 m)
Crew: 4 (Commander, gunner, loader / radio-operator, driver)
Armour: 89 mm (turret front)
Main armament: QF 17-pounder (76.2 mm) gun, 77 rounds
Secondary armament: turret top mounted .50 in (12.7 mm) Browning M2 machine gun (generally not mounted); coaxial .30 in (7.62 mm) Browning M1919 machine gun, 5,000 rounds.
Engine: Multibank or radial engine petrol engine depending on chassis usef, 425 hp
Power/weight: 12 hp (9 kW) / tonne
Suspension: Vertical volute coil spring
Operational range: 120 miles (193 km)
Speed: 20 mph (32 km/h) sustained, 25 mph (40 km/h) at bursts

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Re: Sherman Firefly Tank (1944-1945) (British Army)

Post by SKB »

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Re: Sherman Firefly Tank (1944-1945) (British Army)

Post by RetroSicotte »

"war production APDS rounds lacked accuracy, and the 50 mm penetrator was less destructive after it had penetrated enemy tank armour than the 76.2 mm APCBC shell."
There's actually a lot of debate circling regarding the Firefly's APDS round. It's a source of some interest into how one historical source can affect something's reputation. Think like how the M4's reputation was in dire straights due to the book "Death Traps" by Cooper, until recovered by many other sources over a decade.

A few years ago, one "Nicholas Moran", a very good man with regards to historical data and doing fantastic videos on getting inside tanks (despite his World of Tanks sponsoring) posted a US report on the M1 76mm vs the 17-Pounder. The results noted the above, and he mentioned as so, to counter the "Firefly was the best Sherman" myth. (The later US ones like the well known M4A3E8 or the M4A2E4 were notably better than it.) The report noted poor APDS accuracy, likely unable to hit anything beyond 500 yards. So immediately people went on a "Wow Firefly must be crap, 17-Pounder was an awful tank gun". And that's sort of become a thing on several otherwise historically focused Discords and Forums.

Generally its an indication they didn't read the very report Moran posted. It stated explicitly that the APDS used in the US for testing was of poor manufacture and had several issues. It was of early British manufacture. Early British APDS had accuracy issues, however at the same time, they fixed this before the war's end (albeit not too long before it), but even so the Canadian APDS used in Firefly's certainly had no issues.

The latter bit about the penetrator doing less damage is actually something still being talked about these days. We know that 2nd generation APDS (such as on the Centurion's 20-Pounder) actually did more damage than the equivalent calibre of the firing gun; due to velocity of impact retaining energy for post-penetration spalling. However, the ball is still out on 1st generation APDS.

Quite interesting that some stuff is still to be found on stuff like that, but thus far the indication is it won't be much different, or not that much less anyway.

Doesn't help that some "historical" video games insist on eastern perpetuated myths about ammunition these days either...

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