Fragmentation (weaponry)

Grooved body of a Second World War-era U.S. Mk 2 grenade. The grooves covering the exterior of the grenade are used to aid in the gripping of the grenade when throwing. A common misconception is that the grenade fragments along these grooves, which it does not.
Diagram of S-mine in the delivery of steel ball fragments

Fragmentation is the process by which the casing of an artillery shell, bomb, grenade, etc. is shattered by the detonation of the explosive filler.

The correct technical terminology of these pieces is "fragmentation" (sometimes shortened to frag) – although "shards" or "splinters" can be used for non-preformed fragments. Preformed fragments can be of various shapes (spheres, cubes, rods, etc.) and size and are normally held rigidly within some form of matrix or body until the high explosive (HE) filling is detonated. The resulting high velocity fragments produced by either method are the main lethal mechanisms of these weapons, rather than the heat or overpressure caused by detonation, although offensive grenades are often constructed without a frag matrix.

These casing pieces are often incorrectly referred to as "shrapnel" (particularly by non-military media sources), though this is the result of the original term being culturally genericized due to its uniquely memorable phonology (similar to how bazooka is sometimes still used to refer to any shoulder-fired rocket launcher).[1][2][3]


An illustration of a fragmentation bomb from the 14th century Ming Dynasty text Huolongjing. The black dots represent iron pellets.

The use of fragmentation in bombs dates to the 14th century, and appears in the Ming Dynasty text Huolongjing. The fragmentation bombs were filled with iron pellets and pieces of broken porcelain. Once the bomb explodes, the resulting shrapnel is capable of piercing the skin and blinding enemy soldiers.[4]

For this bomb you take tung oil, yin hsiu, salammoniac, chin chih, scallion juice, and heat them so as to coat a lot of iron pellets and bits of broken porcelain. Then fill in (with a gunpowder core) to a case of cast iron making a fragmentation bomb. When it bursts, it breaks into pieces that wound the skin and break the bones (of enemy soldiers) and blinds their eyes.
Huolongjing, Part 1 Chapter 2[4]

The modern fragmentation grenade was developed during the 20th century. The Mills bomb, first adopted in 1915 by the British army, is an early fragmentation grenade used in World War I. The Mk 2 grenade was a fragmentation grenade adopted by the American military based on the Mills bomb, and was in use during World War II.[5]

Difference between fragmentation and shrapnel

Animation of a bursting
shrapnel shell

The term shrapnel is often incorrectly used to refer to fragments produced by any explosive weapon. However, the shrapnel shell (named for Major General Henry Shrapnel of the British Royal Artillery) predates the modern high-explosive shell and operates via an entirely different process.

A shrapnel shell consists of a shell casing filled with steel or lead balls suspended in a resin matrix, with a small explosive charge at the base of the shell. When the projectile is fired, it travels a pre-set distance along a ballistic trajectory before the fuse ignites a relatively weak secondary charge (often black powder or cordite) in the base of the shell. This charge fractures the matrix holding the balls in place and expels the nose of the shell to open a path for the balls, which are then propelled out of the front of the shell without rupturing the casing (which falls to earth harmlessly and can be retrieved and reused).[6] These balls continue onward to the target, spreading out in a cone-shaped pattern to strike the earth, with most of their energy coming from the original velocity of the shell itself, rather than the lesser force of the secondary charge that freed them from the shell. Since the cone of impact is relatively small (no more than 10 to 15 times the diameter of the shell itself), shrapnel shells needed to be carefully sighted and judiciously used in order to maximize their impact on the enemy.

In contrast, a high-explosive shell contains a relatively large and energetic secondary charge of high explosive (known as a burster charge) which, when ignited by the fuse, produces a powerful supersonic shock wave that shatters the entire shell casing into many fragments that fly in all directions. The use of high explosives with a fragmenting case improves efficiency as well as propelling a larger number of fragments at a higher velocity over a much wider area (40-60 times the diameter of the shell), giving high-explosive shells a vastly superior battlefield lethality that was largely impossible before the Industrial Era. World War I was the first major conflict in which HE shells were the dominant form of artillery; the failure to adapt infantry tactics to the massive increase in lethality they produced was a major element in producing the ghastly subterranean stalemate conditions of trench warfare, in which neither side could risk movement above ground without the guarantee of instant casualties from the constant, indiscriminate hail of HE shell fragments.

One easy comparison between fragmenting HE and shrapnel shells would be to imagine a shell of each type standing stationary and base-first on the ground; a high-explosive shell would be equally lethal if detonated in this state vs. detonating on impact after being fired, whereas a shrapnel shell would ineffectually fire its contents only a few feet into the air in a cone-shaped pattern (while the casing itself remained intact).[7] However, the reduced area of effect of shrapnel shells can be exploited, such as in the creeping barrage tactics of World War I, where shrapnel shells were able to be used much closer to friendly infantry than HE shells could be.

Another artillery round very similar to (and directly predating) shrapnel is canister shot, sometimes called case shot. Canister shot is a simple sheet metal casing filled with steel or lead balls. Upon firing, the casing fractures as it exits the muzzle of the gun and dispenses the balls from the gun’s muzzle much like a large shotgun.[6] The practical differences between canister and shrapnel is that canister produces projectile separation immediately on detonation, and thus is only effective at short range (less than 180 metres (200 yd)),[8] whereas a shrapnel shell can travel hundreds of meters downrange before the fuse activates the explosive charge and separates the projectiles from the case, thus making it effective at much longer ranges.

Gallery of images


  1. "..shrapnel doctors removed from his knee after the humvee he was riding in hit a land mine..", US DOD
  2. "...An anti-shrapnel netting could reduce the damage done by explosive blasts...", US Air force
  3. "...The shrapnel had penetrated his chest and lung ...", UK Ministry of Defence
  4. 1 2 Joseph Needham (1986). Military Technology: The Gunpowder Epic. Cambridge University Press. pp. 180–181. ISBN 978-0-521-30358-3.
  5. The New Weapons of the World Encyclopedia: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 B.C. to the 21st Century. St. Martin's Press. 21 August 2007. p. 88. ISBN 978-0-312-36832-6.
  6. 1 2 U.S. War Department Technical Manual 9-1900 ‘'Ammunition, General'’. 18 June 1945. p. 106. Available:
  7.|What is the difference between artillery shrapnel and shell fragments Aemy History
  8. U.S. War Department Armored Force Field Manual 7-12, ‘'Tank Gunnery'’. 22 April 1943. Available:
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