Rocket (weapon)

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Katyusha rocket launcher, one of the earliest modern rocket artillery weapons

A rocket is a self-propelled, unguided weapon system powered by a rocket motor.


In military parlance, powered munitions are broadly categorised as follows:

  • A powered munition that expends all fuel upon launch is known as a rocket.[1]
  • A powered munition that holds two rocket motors (one for launch, and one to maintain trajectory) is known as a missile (or guided missile.)
  • Powered munitions that travel through water are called torpedoes.

However, the distinction can become somewhat blurred, especially where a weapon begins as an unguided rocket and is then fitted with a guidance system - e.g. the GMLRS system is still referred to as rocket artillery,[2] despite employing guided munitions.

Early development[edit]

The use of rockets as some form of artillery dates back to medieval China where devices such as fire arrows were used (albeit mostly as a psychological weapon), and gradually spread to Europe and the Middle East. Rockets became a significant weapon during the 20th Century, when precise manufacturing processes made relatively accurate rockets possible.

Basic roles[edit]


Rockets have been used as an artillery weapon for centuries, and continue to be used in the modern age after being extensively modernized in World War II. Rockets in the artillery role compliment traditional field guns, at which they are superior in some ways and inferior in others. Rocket artillery tends to be simpler, lighter and more mobile than guns or howitzers, most of which must be emplaced. Guns tend to have better accuracy, consistency and range, while rocket artillery is light enough to be employed closer to the front lines and excels at saturation fire, expending its entire ammunition load in a single barrage on a target. The saturation fire produced by rocket artillery is only somewhat approximated in effectiveness with gun artillery via the time on target barrage method.

Time-sensitive soft target interdiction (such as personnel or unarmored vehicles moving in large groups) is where rocket artillery is particularly useful. This allows for the shoot-and-scoot method, avoiding the enemy counter-battery fire that is the greatest risk to emplaced artillery pieces, while maximizing damage to the target before it can find better cover. (see Rocket artillery vs gun artillery)


With the invention of the tank, the infantry required a weapon to counter the threat. Tank armour soon developed beyond the point at which an anti-tank rifle could practically be carried by an infantryman, and by the Second World War rocket weapons such as the US bazooka and German Panzerschreck were in service. Development continued after the war, with weapons such as the RPG-7, although a need to increase range lead to the development of guided weapons to fulfill the anti-tank role. Most modern armies now use guided missiles for long-range engagements and rockets for close-range or emergency use; disposable weapons such as the RPG-26 are popular for this.

The use of anti-tank weapons to attack buildings and other targets has led to the development of weapons and ammunition designed specifically to attack non-tank targets, such as the one-shot LASM and the larger SMAW.


AH-64 carrying rocket pods

Unguided rockets have been launched from aircraft since the early 20th century, to attack land, sea and air targets. Even after the development of guided missiles, rockets remain useful for short-range attacks – typically for close air support missions.


  1. ^ Definition in wiktionary
  2. ^ . British Army Retrieved 2010-12-13.  Missing or empty |title= (help)