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Rheinmetall 120mm tank gun
Rheinmetall 120 mm gun-Leoaprd 2E.jpg
Muzzle of a Rheinmetall 120-millimeter (4.7 in) L/55 tank gun on a Spanish Leopard 2E
Type Smoothbore tank gun
Place of origin  Germany
Service history
In service 1979–
Used by see the operators section
Production history
Manufacturer Rheinmetall
Weight 1,190 kilograms (2,600 lb) Gun barrel; 3,317 kilograms (7,310 lb) Gun mount
Length L/44: 5.28 meters (5.77 yd)

L/55: 6.6 meters (7.2 yd) L55

Barrel length 44–55 calibers

Caliber 120-millimeter (4.7 in)
Muzzle velocity 1,580 meters per second (5,200 ft/s) – 1,680 meters per second (5,500 ft/s)m/s+
Effective range 4,000 meters (4,400 yd) with DM63,[1]
8,000 meters (8,700 yd) with LAHAT[2]

The Rheinmetall 120-millimeter (4.7 in) gun is a smoothbore tank gun designed and produced by the German Rheinmetall-DeTec AG company. It was developed in response to Soviet advances in armor technology and development of new armored threats. With production beginning in 1974, the first version of the gun, known as the L/44, was used on the German Leopard 2, and was soon exported to be used on tanks such as the American M1 Abrams tanks. It has also been exported to South Korea and Japan, as well as nations which have procured the Leopard 2 and the M1 Abrams. Rheinmetall's 120-millimeter (4.7 in) L/44 tank gun has a length of 5.28 meters (5.77 yd), while the gun system weighs approximately 3,317 kilograms (7,310 lb). However, by 1990 the L/44 was not considered powerful enough to deal with modernized Soviet armor, such as the T-80B, which stimulated an effort by Rheinmetall to develop a better main armament. This first revolved around a 140-millimeter (5.5 in) tank gun, but later turned into a compromise which led to the development of an advanced 120-millimeter (4.7 in) gun.

This gun was the L/55, based on the same internal geometry as the L/44 and installed in the same breech and mount. The L/55 is 1.3 meters (1.4 yd) longer, allowing for an increase in muzzle velocity for ammunition being fired through it. The fact that it retains the same barrel geometry allows the L/55 to fire the same ammunition as the L/44. This gun was retrofitted into German and Dutch Leopard 2s, and chosen as the main gun of the Spanish Leopard 2E and Greek Leopard 2HEL. The L/55 was chosen as the armament of the new South Korean K2 main battle tank, and has been tested on the British Challenger 2, as a potential replacement to the existing 120-millimeter (4.7 in) rifled gun.

A variety of ammunition has been developed for use by tanks armed with Rheinmetall's tank gun. This includes a series of kinetic energy penetrators, such as the American M829 series, and chemical energy anti-tank warheads. Recent ammunition includes a wide range of new anti-personnel rounds and demolition munitions, giving tanks armed with Rheinmetall's tank gun greater versatility on the modern battlefield. The LAHAT, developed in Israel, is a gun-launched missile which has received interest from Germany and other Leopard 2 users, and is designed to defeat both enemy armor and enemy combat helicopters. The Israelis also introduced a new anti-personnel munition, which limits collateral damage by controlling the fragmentation of the projectile when fired.



Prototype of the Leopard 2

Worried about the inability of the existing NATO L7 105-millimeter (4.1 in) tank gun to penetrate new Soviet armor, Rheinmetall began development of a new tank gun in 1965.[3][4] The first instance of a larger Soviet tank gun was witnessed on the chassis of a modified T-55 in 1961.[5] In 1965, the Soviet Union's T-62 made its first public appearance, armed with a 115-millimeter (4.5 in) smoothbore tank gun.[6] The Soviet decision to increase the power of its tank's main armament had come when, in the early 1960s, an Iranian tank commander defected over the Soviet border in a brand-new M60 Patton tank, which was armed with the British Royal Ordnance L7.[7] Despite the introduction of the T-62, in 1969 their T-64 tank was rearmed with a new 125-millimeter (4.9 in) tank gun,[7] while in 1972 Nizhny Tagil began production of the T-72 tank, armed with the 125-millimeter (4.9 in) tank gun as well.[8] For example, at the fighting at Sultan Yakoub, during the 1982 Lebanon War, the Israeli government claimed to have destroyed 9 Syrian T-72s with the Merkava II main battle tank, armed with an Israeli production version of the American M68 105-millimeter (4.1 in) tank gun (which in turn was based on the British L7).[9] Whether or not true, the Soviets test fired a number of Israeli M111 Hetz armor piercing discarding sabots at Kubinka, finding the 105-millimeter (4.1 in) round was able to perforate the T-72's glacis plate, but not its turret armor.[10] In response, the Soviets developed the T-72M1.[11] This led Israel to opt for a 120-millimeter (4.7 in) tank gun during the development process of the Merkava III main battle tank.[12] This case is similar to the American decision to replace the M68 105-millimeter (4.1 in) tank gun with Rheinmetall's 120-millimeter (4.7 in) gun in 1976; the introduction of the T-64A had caused uncertainty within the armor community as to whether or not the new ammunition designed for the existing gun caliber could effectively deal with the new Soviet tank threat.[13]

In 1963, Germany and the United States had already embarked on a joint–tank program, known as the MBT-70. The new tank featured a three-man crew, with the driver in the turret, an automatic loader for the main gun, a 20-millimeter (0.79 in) coaxial autocannon, an active hydropneumatic suspension and spaced armor on the glacis plate and the front turret.[14] The new tank concept also showcased an improved tank armament; this was a 152-millimeter (6.0 in) missile-launching main gun, designed to fire the MGM-51 Shillelagh anti-tank missile.[15] However, the German Army was interested in a tank gun which could fire conventional ammunition. Although there were attempts to modify the 152-millimeter (6.0 in) tank gun to do so, the process proved extremely difficult, and the Germans began development of the future Rheinmetall 120-millimeter (4.7 in) tank gun instead.[16]

An M1A1 Abrams, firing its Rheinmetall 120-millimeter (4.7 in) tank gun

In 1967, the German Ministry of Defense decided to re-open a Leopard 1 improvement program, known as the Vergoldeter Leopard (Gilded Leopard), later renamed the Keiler (Wild Boar). Krauss-Maffei was chosen as the contractor, and two prototypes were developed in 1969 and 1970.[17] This program grew into the Leopard 2, and the first prototype of the new tank was delivered in 1972, equipped with a 105-millimeter (4.1 in) smoothbore main gun. Between 1972 and 1975 a total of 17 prototypes were developed.[18] Simultaneously, the new 120-millimeter (4.7 in) tank gun's ten year development effort, which had begun in 1964, ended in 1974.[4] Ten of the 17 turrets built were equipped with the 105-millimeter (4.1 in) smoothbore gun, while the other seven were equipped with the larger 120-millimeter (4.7 in) tank gun.[19] Another program aimed to mount the 152-millimeter (6.0 in) missile-gun was also developed, in an attempt to save components from the MBT-70, but in 1971 the program was ended for economic reasons.[20] Instead, the Germans opted for Rheinmetall's 120-millimeter (4.7 in) L/44 smoothbore tank gun.[21]

Design features

With a caliber of 120 millimeters (4.7 in), and a caliber length of 44, Rheinmetall's L44 tank gun has a length of 5.28 meters (5.77 yd).[22] The gun's barrel weighs 1,190 kilograms (2,600 lb),[23] and on the M1 Abrams the gun mount weighs 3,317 kilograms (7,310 lb).[24], while the new barrel (L55) is 55 calibers long, increasing the length by 1.30 meters (1.42 yd). The bore evacuator and the gun's thermal sleeve, designed to regulate the temperature of the barrel, are fabricated out of glass-reinforced plastic, while the barrel has a chrome lining to increase barrel life.[4] Originally, the tank gun had a barrel life of anywhere between 400–500 rounds, but with recent advances in propellant technology the average barrel life has decreased to 260 rounds. In some cases, barrels have had to be replaced after only 50 fired projectiles.[25] The gun's recoil mechanism is composed of two hydraulic retarders and a hydropneumatic assembly.[4]


Rheinmetall L44 120mm

Production of the German Leopard 2 and the new 120-millimeter (4.7 in) tank gun began in 1979, fulfilling an order for the German Army.[26] Although the American M1 Abrams was originally armed with a 105-millimeter (4.1 in) main gun,[27] the United States Army had planned to outfit the tank with a larger main gun at a later date;[28] therefore, the tank's turret had been designed to accept a larger 120-millimeter (4.7 in) gun.[27] The larger gun was integrated into the M1A1 Abrams, with the first vehicle coming off the production line in 1985[29] The gun, known as the M256, was based on the L/44 tank gun, although manufactured at Watervliet Arsenal and modified to increase the resistance of the barrels to fracture and fatigue.[30] Tanks armed with licensed produced versions of Rheinmetall's gun include Japan's Type 90[31] and South Korea's K1A1.[32]

Rheinmetall L55 120mm

The appearance of new Soviet tanks during the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as the T-80B, demanded the development of new technologies and weapons to counter the threat posed to Western armor.[33] Apart from increased firepower,[34] the T-80B was protected by a new composite ceramic armor.[35] The T-72 also went through a modernization program, in an attempt to bring it up to the standards of the T-80B. In 1985, a new version entered production, known as the T-72B, showcasing a new laminate armor protection system. The turret armor of the T-72B surpassed the T-80B's in protection, and was designed primarily to defeat anti-tank missiles.[36]

Two Leopard 2A6 of the German Army with L55

The German government began the development of the Leopard 3, although this was canceled after the fall of the Soviet Union.[37] On 29 October 1991, the governments of Switzerland, Netherlands and Germany agreed to cooperate in the development of a modernization program for the Leopard 2. Part of this program included the introduction of a longer 120-millimeter (4.7 in) tank gun,[38] a cheaper alternative to a brand new tank gun,[39] increasing the maximum range of the gun by an estimated 1,500 meters (1,600 yd). Although the gun is longer, allowing for a higher peak pressure from the propellant, the geometry remains the same, allowing the gun to fire the same ammunition as that fired from the shorter caliber version of the cannon.[40] The longer barrel allows ammunition to attain higher velocities; for example, with new kinetic energy penetrators ammunition can reach velocities of around 1,750 meters per second (5,700 ft/s).[41] The new barrel weighs 1,347 kilograms (2,970 lb).[23]

The longer tank gun has been retrofitted into the Leopard 2, into a model known as the Leopard 2A6.[39] Both the Spanish Leopard 2E and the Greek Leopard 2HEL, as derivatives of the Leopard 2A6, use the 55 caliber long tank gun.[42]

Other tanks that use the gun include the South Korean K2 Black Panther and, as part of an upgrade program currently being carried out, the British Challenger 2.


The American M829 armor piercing sabot

A variety of rounds have been developed for Rheinmetall's tank gun. For example, a long line of armor piercing discarding sabots was developed by Rheinmetall. Originally, the Leopard 2 was outfitted with the DM-23 kinetic energy penetrator,[43] based on the Israeli M111 Hetz.[44] The DM23 was eventually replaced by the DM33, which was also adopted by Japan, Italy, Netherlands and Switzerland. The DM43 is a further development of this round, co-developed between Germany and France. The United States adopted the round and manufactured it as the M829. The DM33 has a three-part aluminum sabot and a two-part tungsten penetrator, and is said to be able to penetrate 560 millimeters (22 in) of steel armor at a range of 2,000 meters (2,200 yd).[45] The introduction of the longer barrel came hand in hand with the introduction of a new kinetic energy penetrator, the DM53. With a muzzle velocity of between 1,650 meters per second (5,400 ft/s)[46] and 1,750 meters per second (5,700 ft/s), the projectile has an engagement range of up to 4,000 meters (4,400 yd).[1] A further development, called the DM63, improved upon the round by introducing a new temperature independent propellant, which allows the propellant to have a constant pattern of expansion between ambient temperatures (inside the gun barrel) of anywhere between −47 °C (−52.6 °F) and +71 °C (160 °F). The new propellant powders, known as surface coated double base (SCDB) propellants, allow the DM63 to be used in a wide variety of climates without a negative impact on the projectile's performance.[47] Apart from Germany, the new ammunition has been accepted into service with the Dutch and Swiss armies.[48]

The United States developed a number of kinetic energy penetrators, based on the M829.[49] An immediate improvement, known as the M829A1, was dubbed the "Silver Bullet" after its combat performance, during the Gulf War, against Iraqi T-55s, T-62s and T-72s.[50] The M829 series centers around the depleted uranium penetrator, designed to penetrate enemy armor through kinetic energy and to shatter inside the turret, thereby damaging as much as possible within the confinement of the tank.[51] In 1998, the United States military introduced the M829A2, which has an improved depleted uranium penetrator.[52] In 2002, production of the M829A3 began, which is said to be able to defeat the latest versions of Russian explosive reactive armor.[53]

Both Germany and the United States have developed a number of other rounds. These include the German DM12 multipurpose anti-tank projectile (MPAT), based on the technology in a high explosive anti-tank warhead.[43] However, it's been found that the DM12's armor killing abilities are limited by the lack of blast and fragmentation effects, and that the round is less valuable against lightly armored targets.[54] The United States also has a MPAT type projectile, known as the M830.[55] This was later developed into the M830A1 which allows the M1 Abrams to use the round against helicopters.[56] The M1 Abrams can make use of the M1028 canister round, which is an antipersonnel munition, packed with over 1,000 tungsten balls.[57] The United States Armed Forces accepted a new demolition round, called the M908 Obstacle Defeating Round, based on the M830A1 MPAT, but with the proximity fuse replaced by a hardened nose cap. The cap allows the round to impact and embed itself in concrete, and therefore explodes inside the target and causes more damage.[58]

The Israeli Army introduced a new round, known as the Laser Homing Anti-Tank (LAHAT) projectile.[2] Using a semi-active laser homing guidance method, the LAHAT can be guided by the tank's crew or by teams on the ground, while the missile's trajectory can be chosen between top attack (to defeat enemy armor) and direct attack (to engage enemy helicopters). Furthermore, the missile can be fired by both 105-millimeter (4.1 in) and 120-millimeter (4.7 in) tank guns.[59] The LAHAT has been offered as an option for the Leopard 2, and has been marketed by both Israel Military Industries and Rheinmetall to Leopard 2 users.[60] Israeli Merkavas make use of a round known as the APAM, which is an anti-personnel munition designed to release fragmentation at controlled intervals to limit the extent of damage. Fragments are shaped to have enough kinetic energy to penetrate enemy body armor.[61]

Poland has also introduced a series of projectiles for Rheinmetall's tank gun, including an armor piercing penetrator target practice round (APFSDS-T-TP), a high explosive round and a high explosive target practice (HE-TP) projectile. The ammunition is manufactured by Zaklady Produkcji Specjalnej Sp..[62]


Due to tank sales, Rheinmetall's L/44 tank gun has been manufactured for other nations. For example, the Leopard 2, armed with the 44 caliber long gun, has been sold to the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, Austria, Denmark, amongst others[63]. Egypt manufactured 700–800 M1A1 Abrams by 2005,[64] while in 2008 Egypt requested permission to build another 125 tanks; the M256 main guns, arming the tanks, were manufactured by General Dynamics.[65] The M1A1 has also been exported to Australia,[66] while the M1A2 Abrams has been exported to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.[67]

Use of Rheinmetall's L/44 Tank Gun
Tank Designer Country Gun Proliferation
Leopard 2 Krauss-Maffei Germany Rheinmetall 120-millimeter (4.7 in) L/44 Austria, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey
M1 Abrams Chrysler Defense (General Dynamics Land Systems) United States M256 Australia, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia
K1A1 Hyundai Rotem South Korea KM256
Type 90 Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Japan Rheinmetall 120-millimeter (4.7 in) L/44

Through export, the Leopard 2A6 and its longer L/55 main gun is employed by the Canadian Army, and the Netherlands upgraded part of its original fleet of Leopard 2s with the more powerful armament.[68] The British Army has tested Rheinmetall's longer gun, possibly looking to replace the current L30A1 120-millimeter (4.7 in) rifled main gun on the Challenger 2.[69] Two Challenger 2s were modified to undergo firing trials.[70] World Industries Ace Corporation is also license producing the L55 for the K2 Black Panther.

Use of Rheinmetall's L/55 Tank Gun
Tank Designer Country Gun Proliferation
Leopard 2A6 Krauss-Maffei Germany Rheinmetall 120-millimeter (4.7 in) L/55 Canada, Greece, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain
K2 Black Panther Hyundai Rotem South Korea World Industries Ace L/55 Turkey


  1. ^ a b Eshel (2005), p. 96
  2. ^ a b Jane's Armour & Artillery Upgrades (subscription), Israel Aerospace Industries LAser Homing Anti-Tank (LAHAT) projectile (Israel), Gun-launched guided projectiles, accessed 13 November 2008
  3. ^ Rheinmetall, Leopard 2: the world's most advanced main battle tank, accessed 9 January 2009
  4. ^ a b c d Jane's Armour & Artillery (subscription), Rheinmetall 120 mm L44 smoothbore gun (Germany), accessed 6 November 2008, claims development began in 1964.
  5. ^ Norman, p. 14
  6. ^ Zaloga (1979), p. 20
  7. ^ a b Zaloga (2004), p. 5
  8. ^ Zaloga (2004), p. 7
  9. ^ Warford (2006), pp. 23–24
  10. ^ Warford (2006), p. 24
  11. ^ Warford (2006), p. 25
  12. ^ Katz (1997), 38
  13. ^ Green (2005), 32–33
  14. ^ Hilmes (2001), p. 17
  15. ^ Zaloga (1982), p. 19
  16. ^ McNaugher (1981), p. vi
  17. ^ Jerchel (1998), p. 5
  18. ^ Hilmes (2001), p. 18
  19. ^ Jerchel (1998), p. 6
  20. ^ Jerchel (1998), pp. 6–7
  21. ^ Jerchel (1998), p. 7
  22. ^ Rheinmetall Defense, 120 mm L44 Tank Gun, accessed 9 November 2008; barrel length can be found by multiplying the caliber length by the caliber diameter.
  23. ^ a b Maxwell (2002), p. 82
  24. ^ Green (2005), p. 61
  25. ^ Burton (2004), pp. 51–52
  26. ^ Jerchel (1998), p. 11
  27. ^ a b Green (1992), p. 56
  28. ^ Chait (2005), p. 12
  29. ^ Green (2005), pp. 24–29
  30. ^ Chait (2005), pp. 12–13
  31. ^ Bolté (1997), p. 25
  32. ^ Clemens (1999), p. 15; based on the United States' M256 gun.
  33. ^ Jerchel (1998), p. 24
  34. ^ Baryatinskiy (2006), pp. 23–25
  35. ^ Baryatinskiy (2006), p. 14
  36. ^ Zaloga (1993), p. 10
  37. ^ Jerchel (1998), p. 33–34
  38. ^ Jerchel (1998), p. 34
  39. ^ a b Hilmes (2004), p. 76
  40. ^ Jane's Armour & Artillery Upgrades (subscription), Rheinmetall 120 mm L55 smoothbore gun (Germany), accessed 10 November 2008
  41. ^ Rheinmetall Defence, 120 mm L55 Tank Gun, accessed 10 November 2008
  42. ^ Candil (2007), p. 66
  43. ^ a b Jerchel (1998), p. 22
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  46. ^ Eshel (2005), pp. 96–98
  47. ^ Hilmes (2007), p. 93
  48. ^ Jane's Ammunition Handbook (subscription), 120 mm DM53 and DM63 LKE II APFSDS-T round (Germany), accessed 11 November 2008
  49. ^ Green (2005), p. 68
  50. ^ Green (1992), p. 74
  51. ^ Green (1992), pp. 76–77
  52. ^ Green (2005), p. 69
  53. ^ Green (2005), p. 70
  54. ^ Eshel (2005), p. 98
  55. ^ Green (2005), p. 71
  56. ^ Fogg (1994), p. 12
  57. ^ Green (2005), p. 72
  58. ^ Hilmes (2007), pp. 92–93
  59. ^ Gelbart (2004), pp. 40–41
  60. ^ Eshel (2005), p. 100
  61. ^ Eshel (2003), p. 46
  62. ^ Brumar, 120 mm Rounds for Rh 120 L 44 Tank Gun
  63. ^ Jerchel (1998), pp. 36–42
  64. ^ Green (2005), p. 25
  65. ^ Defense Industry Daily, Egypt: $889M Request for 125 M1A1 Tanks, accessed 9 November 2008
  66. ^ Jane's Defense Weekly (subscription), Australia prepares for M1A1s, accessed 9 November 2008
  67. ^ Green (2005), p. 34
  68. ^ Defense Industry Daily, Tanks for the Lesson: Leopards, too, for Canada, accessed 10 November 2008
  69. ^ Rheinmetall Defence, Rheinmetall 120 mm smoothbore technology for Britain's Challenger, accessed 10 November 2008
  70. ^ Hilmes (2007), p. 88


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