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Carl-Gustaf M4

What is the perfect weapon?

11 min read

Weapons technology has come a long way over the past 50 years. But are today’s weapons so advanced and so adapted to the soldier that they can be considered perfect? If not, when can we expect to see the world’s first perfect weapon? Saab experts have been trying to answer this question – with intriguing results.

If you’ve heard stories about the Norse god of thunder, Thor, then you probably also know about his famous hammer, Mjölnir. Forged by expert blacksmiths, Mjölnir was small enough to be carried inside Thor’s clothing, yet powerful enough to defeat any enemy. Once thrown at an opponent, it would quickly return to its owner’s side.

In short, Mjölnir was the perfect weapon for Thor, as he waged war on his enemies. The story is a charming piece of folklore, but it also raises an intriguing question: could such as a thing as a perfect weapon exist outside the realms of mythology?

It’s a concept that fascinates the product developers and other teams at Saab, whose work revolves around delivering the best possible weapon systems to modern armed forces. They sometimes wonder if a company like Saab could create an armament, such as a missile or a fighter plane, that so completely meets the needs of the user as to be considered ideal. Is there a perfect weapon already on the market?

Carl-Gustaf M4
Carl-Gustaf M3

Mats Fagerberg, who is head of marketing and sales at business unit Ground Combat, and his colleague Stefan Slycke, who is Head of customer services at Saab’s business unit Ground Combat, recently decided to try to answer the questions once and for all.

Rather than trying to compare apples with oranges or aircraft carriers with hand grenades, they decided to narrow the search and to determine if a perfect weapon existed in the infantry support category. Among all the machine guns, mortars, recoilless rifles, and anti-tank systems on the market, was there a solution that came close to delivering everything that a dismounted soldier could want?

“The international environment in which weapons must operate is evolving so fast, we were uncertain whether anything could be considered perfect,” says Fagerberg. “But we were curious whether some of today’s extremely sophisticated ground combat weapons might come close.”

Defining the needs of troops

Fagerberg and Slycke decided a smart place to start was by looking at the environment in which dismounted troops operate. They would then look at the weapon characteristics that gave troops the biggest tactical advantage and best chance of neutralising the enemy in such circumstances. A weapon system that ticked all the boxes would be well on the way to perfection.

“Ground combat can take place in any environment, but what we’re seeing more and more today is that it takes part in complex terrain,” Mats says. “Troops are often fighting in built-up areas where it’s complicated to move around, to find firing positions and to avoid non-combatants. There are likely to be ruins and wires running across the path of the soldiers and having good situational awareness is key to success.”

The objective of the forces in such situations is generally multi-faceted. “They need to be seeking out the enemy, maintaining contact, and they need to ultimately neutralise them,” Slycke says. “At the same time, they will be fighting to gain control of critical infrastructure or pieces of terrain. And they will be dealing threats as diverse as small arms fire, support weapon fire and main battle tanks.”

“They need to be seeking out the enemy, maintaining contact, and they need to ultimately neutralise them”
Stefan Slycke, Head of customer services

What weapon characteristics are beneficial in such a challenging environment?

Slycke says a key consideration is weight. Dismounted troops, by definition, must navigate the battle theatre on foot. Without a vehicle to carry them, every unneeded kilogram of weight that they carry is a liability with the potential to sap their energy. No weapon they carry can impede their movement, whether it be their personal weapons such as rifles and carbines, or the support weapons they use to achieve greater effect on the enemy. In short, the lighter the weapon system, the better.

In such challenging circumstances, robustness is also critical. Whether it is special forces parachuting into position, marines arriving by sea, or infantry arriving in armoured personnel carriers, armed forces need a weapon that will withstand the rough treatment endured during transport and remain reliable throughout the course of enemy engagement. As well as being well designed and constructed, the weapon needs to be small and agile enough to be hoisted on the shoulder and out of harm’s way while running or changing position.

Easy to use and train on

Next comes simplicity and ease of use. In noisy, stressful battlefield situations, soldiers may struggle with overly complex equipment operating drills. A weapon that isn’t ready to fire in a matter of seconds is next to useless. Increasing the need for ease of use, are limitations on the amount of training troops may receive prior to battle. “Today, you often have such limited training time that you simply can’t have a battlefield weapon with the potential to be misused,” Slycke says. “Weapons need to be easy to use and intuitive.”

“Weapons need to be easy to use and intuitive”
Stefan Slycke, Head of customer services

Stefan Slycke argues that fire power is another crucial consideration. “The key reason that you have a support weapon is to increase the effect you are able to produce on the enemy,” he says. “The perfect support weapon would be effective against hard targets, against soft targets, from short distances and over long distances, from different positions and in a range of environments. Anti-structure, anti-tank and anti-armour capabilities would all be crucial.”

"The key reason that you have a support weapon is to increase the effect you are able to produce on the enemy"
Stefan Slycke, Head of customer services

Flexible response

Slycke also argues that flexibility is important. Ground troops never know what awaits them when they turn a corner in a theatre of war. Will a main battle tank be waiting? Will they need to try to engage enemy forces who have located themselves inside the concrete shell of the building? Will an enemy armoured personnel carrier be turning into the same street? The weapon system the troops are carrying needs to be flexible enough to respond to each situation, providing anti-armour capabilities one minutes and the power to destroy a solid structure the next. It needs to be able to take out soft targets with accuracy and perhaps even deliver illumination and smoke rounds. And it should be able to be hit and destroy a tank both from extremely close range and from many hundreds of metres away.

Carl-Gustaf M4

Also crucial is accessibility. A powerful weapon that isn’t at hand when you need it most is effectively useless. The perfect weapon needs to be available to any team member who needs it at a moment’s notice.

Finally, maintenance is a consideration. The ideal weapon would have zero maintenance requirements and could simply be removed from its packaging and fired when required. Even better if it could simply be discarded after use, allowing the soldier to shed weight and move from his or her firing position before the enemy could return fire.

The quest for perfection

Looking at the long list of requirements they had created, Fagerberg and Slycke slowly came to the realisation that no ground combat weapon on the market today from any manufacturer could fulfill all the criteria. No single weapon offered the combination of interchangeable rounds, long and short range MBT-destroying capabilities and zero maintenance.

But at the same time, they were also pleased to see just how close Saab’s individual ground combat weapons came to meeting the ideal. When used in combination, they deliver the precise capability needed by ground troops.

Carl-Gustaf M4
Saab’s 84mm recoilless rifle Carl-Gustaf, widely used by armed forces across the planet ticks many of the perfect-weapon boxes.

The most recent version of Carl-Gustaf weighs less than seven kilograms, making it truly man portable. A Carl-Gustaf anti-personnel round weighs less than three kilograms, while an anti-structure round weighs just 3.3 kilograms. The system can be slung over the soldier’s shoulder as he or she navigates terrain and then be ready to fire within seconds.

The Carl-Gustaf system also has a well-deserved reputation for robustness. First developed in 1948, it remains a trusted choice of weapon for armed forces across the planet. It is sturdy enough to be regularly used by special forces troops parachuting into combat.

Carl-Gustaf M2

And the system delivers both significant fire power and flexibility. A range of more than 10 combat rounds are available, including anti-structure, anti-armour, and anti-personnel rounds. Gunners can choose the round appropriate to the mission and particular situation, delivering a devastating effect on enemy forces. Support rounds allow for the deployment of illumination and smoke, and four training rounds ensure soldiers can experience handling each munition type before heading into battle.

The perfect combination

The attributes of Saab’s recoilless weapons for ground combat combine to create something close to the perfect combat weapon.

The power to kill tanks

Saab’s Next Generation Anti-Tank Weapon (NLAW) has a similarly impressive list of attributes. It delivers an overfly-top-attack capability to take out a modern battle tank at up to 800 metres, and yet it weighs just 12.5 kilograms – meaning a single operator can both carry it and fire it. Like all weapons in the Saab ground-combat range, NLAW is robust and agile. It takes just five to six seconds for a soldier to shift NLAW from hand to shoulder and to be ready to fire on the enemy.


NLAW’s lethal combination of overfly-top-attack (OTA) and direct-attack (DA) modes makes it suitable for taking out not only modern main battle tanks, but troop carriers and other vehicles. It has a combat range of 20 to 800 metres.

No lock on signature is required is required when using OTA mode to take out a tank. If a tank is largely hidden behind a wall or another structure, the gunner can aim any protruding structure – such as an antenna – and fire. The NLAW missile then travels one metre above the gunner’s line of site before taking out the tank from above. An NLAW missile can penetrate armour thicker than 500 mm and OTA mode is effective at 20 metres, making it ideal for short range combat. Meanwhile, direct attack mode allows the operator to easily take out other enemy assets, such as trucks, buses and helicopters.

Because NLAW is a disposable weapon, it has no maintenance requirements. The user simply opens the packaging and removes the weapon, and the system is ready to use.

A weapon for every soldier

Like the Carl-Gustaf, the AT4 is a recoilless weapon that delivers an 84 mm round. However, the AT4 is designed for a single use, with each unit coming complete with an in-built round. Options include anti-armour, anti-structure, anti-personnel and high-explosive rounds.

Made from quality, light-weight materials, members of the AT4 family are robust and reliable, and yet can be discarded immediately after use, allowing the user to more rapidly take cover and avoid enemy return fire. As a disposable system, the AT4 has no maintenance requirements.


The AT4 also provides a major advantage in the form of confined space capability. While the majority of Carl-Gustaf rounds should not be fired in a confined space due to the back blast, the use of a sea water counter-mass in the AT4 allows it to be used in closed rooms and close to walls without harm to the operator or those around him. Because it is lightweight and affordable, the AT4 can be distributed to a large proportion of troops on the ground. When the enemy is encountered multiple weapons can be fired simultaneously, unleashing devastating fire power.

More than one million AT4 systems have been produced and delivered to 15 countries worldwide – proof of the weapon’s effectiveness and the trust nations place in the system.

Mats Fagerberg concludes: “For now the goal of creating a completely perfect ground combat weapon remains out of the reach of the world’s weapon developers. However, a combination of weapons, like those in Saab’s ground combat range, can come very close. Saab’s team will continue working to develop and optimise systems that meet the needs of modern soldiers.”