The spectacular performance of the German 88mm Flak gun in the early part of World War II forced another round in the endless race between guns and armor. The result was that all late-war tank designs including the U.S. M26 Pershing, British Centurion and Soviet JS-II were much more heavily armored than their predecessors. To stay ahead of the evolving threat, Krupp engineers designed a new longer-barreled 88 with a higher muzzle velocity and a lower silhouette. The weapon was designated PaK 43 (Panzerabwehrkanone, or “anti-tank gun”).
German troops nicknamed it Scheunentor (“Barn Door“) – because of its bulky gun shield.
Since it was not intended for anti-aircraft fire, the new gun needed no mechanical fuse setter, or high-speed, high-elevation aiming gears. Although the PaK 43 was simpler than the Flak 36, it proved too sophisticated for wartime mass-production. The four-wheeled gun carriage of the Flak 36 with its 360° traverse and precision leveling mechanism was needlessly complex. To speed production, the gun was instead fitted to the rugged carriage of the existing German 105mm field howitzer (LeFH 18), with two solid rubber tires. Designated PaK 43, about 2,900 were produced. German troops nicknamed it Scheunentor (“Barn Door“) – because of its bulky gun shield.
The flat trajectory of the PaK 43 and its high muzzle velocity meant that first-round hits were almost certain out to a mile (1,600 meters) and kills were regularly scored at twice that range. Despite its performance, the gun was too heavy for its crew to manhandle, and was somewhat awkward to emplace. Despite this, the Wehrmacht was understandably eager to put it on a self-propelled mount. For this application it was designated KwK 43 L/71.
The first model, entering series production early in 1943, was named Hornisse (“Hornet”), and employed a hybrid chassis (26.5 tons) combining components of the Panzer III and Panzer IV. A lightly armored (10mm, 0.4 in.), open-topped compartment gave the gun crew some protection from small arms and shell fragments. After minor improvements in 1944, Hitler renamed it Nashorn (“Rhinoceros.”) A total of 473 (another source says 494) were built, equipping six heavy anti-tank battalions.
A more heavily armored (70 tons) self-propelled 88 was the Ferdinand (named for its designer, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche). This hastily improvised (March–May 1943) design used 91 chassis built as unsuccessful competitors for the Tiger tank contract. Mounted in an armored box, the gun had limited traverse (only 25°) and elevation. No machine gun was fitted, because it was expected that the long-range gun would only engage from positions behind the front. This proved to be a serious vulnerability. At Kursk (July-August 1943) one battalion claimed a kill total of 320 Soviet tanks, while losing 13 Ferdinands, mostly to mines and mechanical breakdown. Late in 1943 surviving vehicles were rebuilt with a bow-mounted MG34 machine gun, and given a new name: Elefant. They equipped several heavy antitank battalions (Schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilungen), serving in Italy and the Eastern Front.
The most famous mount for the KwK 43 was the Tiger II, or Königstiger (“King Tiger” – an unofficial nickname).
The most famous mount for the KwK 43 was the Tiger II, or Königstiger (“King Tiger” – an unofficial nickname). Engineers were challenged to fit the massive gun into a rotating turret and balance it. The result was a vehicle weighing 77 tons; underpowered, prone to steering and drivetrain failure, and too heavy for many bridges in Europe. By the end of the war, some 492 Tiger IIs had been delivered. Serving in 11 Wehrmacht and 3 Waffen-SS heavy Panzer battalions (45 tanks at full strength), the King Tiger first saw combat in Normandy in July 1944. Kurt Knispel, the top-scoring tank ace of the war with 168 confirmed kills, was mortally wounded in his Tiger II on April 28, 1945, at the age of 23.
Jagdpanther was the ultimate mount for KwK 43: fast, superbly armored, and if any war machine can be considered beautiful, a masterpiece of design. Built on the chassis of the Panther tank, it weighed 50 tons. Ordered late in 1942, it entered production in January 1944. The gun could traverse 11° to either side. Some 57 rounds were stowed on board. Only 415 Jagdpanthers were produced. At least ten examples survive in museums and private collections, with three still in running order.
88mm PaK 43 Anti-Tank Gun
Weight: 4,380 kg (9,700 lb)
Length: 6.4 m (21 ft 0 in)
Barrel length: 6.61 m (21 ft 8 in) L/71
Height: 1.8 m (5 ft 11 in)
Elevation: -5° to +38°
Rate of fire: 20-25 rpm (theoretical) – the practical rate was 6-10 rpm
Effective range: 4,000 m (4,400 yd)
Maximum range: 16,000 m (17,000 yd)
PzGr. 39/43 (Armor Piercing Capped )
Projectile weight: 10.4 kg (22.92 lbs)
Muzzle velocity: 1,000 m/s (3,281 ft/s)
PzGr. 40/43 APCR Armour-piercing, Composite Rigid)
Projectile weight: 7.3 kg (16 lbs)
Muzzle velocity: 1,130 m/s (3,707 ft/s)
Gr. 39/3 HL (High Explosive anti-tank)
Projectile weight: 7.65 kg (17 lbs)
Muzzle velocity: 600 m/s (1,968 ft/s)
Penetration: 90 mm
Spgr Patr 43 (High Explosive shell)
Projectile weight: 9.4 kg (20.7 lbs)
Muzzle velocity: 750 m/s (2461 ft/s)