It is often assumed in combat tanks are the primary counter to tanks, however during World War II it was in fact humble anti-tank guns that did most of the work knocking out German armor on the Eastern Front.
Anti-tank guns are pieces of equipment designed to destroy enemy tanks by direct fire.
In general, anti-tank guns are divided into two main categories; towed and self-propelled. Towed guns were the natural starting point as the earliest anti-tank guns were first used during World War I. At this point they were actually artillery guns aimed horizontally as an improvised way to attack the new unexpected tanks appearing on the battlefield.
As technology improved, these guns were given longer barrels and more powerful ammunition to fire rounds at much higher velocities.
Towed guns have the advantage of simplicity, as they can be pulled by horses, donkeys or motorized vehicles. They are usually small relative to a tank, and can be easily concealed. Once fired however, anti-tank guns are unable to relocate, giving up the element of surprise.
As WWII progressed tanks naturally gained thicker armor to protect against these guns, and the guns in turn got larger to compensate. This large size made them hard to move around, so some guns were mounted on tank chassis for added protection and mobility. These self-propelled guns would culminate in full tank destroyers like the Jagdtiger and Jagdpanther.
Anti-tank guns were one of the biggest threats faced by tank crews during the war, contrary to the belief tanks usually fought other tanks. In fact of all the German tanks destroyed on the Eastern Front, around 70% of these were by anti-tank guns. The Soviets made great use of them gun during the war, swinging the tide of many battles in their favour with a well placed gun.
The USSR first began designing anti-tank guns in the late 1920s, however with limited experience and manufacturing ability they struggled to make much progress. As a result a secret deal was made with German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall, despite the Treaty of Versailles forbidding it, to assist with the design and production of modern anti-tank weaponry.
Rheinmetall provided the USSR with a few 37 mm guns. These guns were essentially early versions of the German Pak 35/36, the main anti-tank gun of German forces at the start of WWII, and in fact the two guns could share ammunition. The USSR began producing this gun themselves as the M1930 1-K.
As the USSR’s first anti-tank gun, the 1-K suffered from poor production quality and ammunition. The gun was capable of penetrating around 40 mm of armor at 100 metres, a respectable amount for the early 1930s, but woefully obsolete by the the 1940s.
Soon after the 1-K began production, so did the 45 mm 19-K in 1932. This was a 45 mm barrel mounted on the basic frame of the 1-K. Like the 1-K, it suffered from poor quality, and was replaced in 1937 by the 53-K, a much improved version of the 19-K. This gun could penetrate around 60 mm of armour at 100 metres, which while poor for WW2 standards, could in ideal circumstances deal with the side and rear armor of the Panther tank.
It was also used a few tanks including the BT-7, and was nicknamed the Sorokopyatka, translating to ‘forty-fiver’. It was in production until 1943, after over 37,000 had been produced.