Smoke Grenades – Any Utility?, by T. in Virginia

I’ve participated in a few discussions recently about the utility, if any, of smoke grenades and similar devices to an average person, or even a reasonably trained and equipped prepper, in a SHTF situation. There are certainly some valid points to both sides of the arguments. So, this short article is intended to share a few thoughts to help SurvivalBlog readers make up their own minds.

Smoke grenade use generally falls into two areas— signaling or obscuration. Large scale smoke, such as from vehicle-mounted or stationary military-style generators, can also have other applications that are beyond the intended scope of this article.

Signaling

Signaling is fairly self-explanatory in that a specific smoke signal is used to visually transmit a pre-arranged message. This application most often uses the smaller volume, slightly lighter military M18 colored smoke grenades, or their commercial equivalent.

Pre-arranged Wording in Use/Message

That “pre-arranged” wording in the use explanation is critical; yellow smoke is meaningless, unless both the sender and observer know what that yellow smoke is intended to mean. Does that yellow smoke mean “Yes, I’m the one telling you to come over here and that it is safe”. Or does it mean “Emergency! Flee now!”? Only an agreed-upon SOP can answer that, which diminishes the real world, real time value to many people.

Must Be Seen

Further and even more obvious, smoke has to be seen to be effective for signaling. Smoke grenades can misfire or even sputter out after ignition. They are vulnerable to wind (high wind can make a smoke plume nearly nonexistent from a distance), and they require enough illumination to be discerned. Remember the ***Band of Brothers***amazon.com/Band-Brothers-Blu-ray-Scott-Grimes/dp/B00129H7VS episode “Crossroads”, where a red smoke grenade is used to initiate an assault? Though used in daylight in a wide open field, the grenade sputters and only belatedly puts out red smoke, resulting in a one-man assault until the rest of the unit caught up!

So while signaling is a valid use of smoke grenades, the situations where an individual might find that useful outside of the military are quite likely few and far between. For this purpose alone, they are not likely to be worth the expense of procurement or the weight of toting them.

Obscuration

Obscuration is the second primary use of smoke. The smoke cloud is used to conceal the contents (or lack thereof) of a location or area. It’s not my use of the word conceal. I cringe when I hear the phrase “…under cover of the smoke…” or something similar. Smoke is concealment and concealment only, and it will never be cover to projectiles. Bullets can and will penetrate it without problem! That is an important factor to keep in mind. (I have more on that shortly.)

Small-scale Smoke on Adversary Position

For small-scale smoke, such as that produced by a M8 or M83 military white smoke grenade (which are heavier and put out more volume than the colored M18s) or their commercial equivalents, employing it on the adversary position or gunner directly in order to blind their fire is often considered the most effective technique. Why? Because a smoke grenade or two will generally not put out enough smoke to screen a large enough area to do much at the “target” side of things. An adversary can continue to put rounds into that area blindly and still have a decent chance of hitting something you don’t want hit. Remember that smoke has zero effect on bullets, and a small smoke screen can be simply saying, “Shoot here! Something is going on!” to a savvy adversary.

Instead, I usually suggest folks try to get that smoke on the enemy shooter’s position, or at least between that position and you (or your desired movement point). The closer to the opposing shooter, the better. Blind fire gets arithmetically less effective, the closer that smoke is to them (unless they are using a tripod, T&E mechanism, and pre-sighted targets, which is not something most folks will ever face).

Example

As an example, let’s say there is an adversary shooter 200 meters away, and you are trying to move to a safer position nearby. If you throw that smoke grenade where you are and are trying to move, you might get a 15 meter or so wide cloud of imperfect smoke. A single sniper might indeed be thwarted by smoke on his target location, but a competent adversary, especially if he has a few friends with him and semi-automatic or automatic firearms, can put enough unaimed fire into that small sector to make that move a very risky endeavor!

Instead, let’s say you can safely throw that same smoke grenade about 50 meters out, between you and your adversary. That same 15 meter wide smoke cloud now screens a 20 meter wide area back at your location. It’s not great but still an improvement. If you can get that smoke 100 meters out, the improvement continues geometrically. However, if you can get it right in front of the shooters, you’ve masked their entire sector to their front, rendering their blind firing nearly worthless.

Throwing 100 Meters or Farther With Can Cannon

Most readers are thinking that 100 meters or farther is an impossible distance to hand throw a smoke grenade, and they’re right. However, you can do it with a Can Cannon (from F5 or X-Products or one of several other manufacturers). M18s, M8s, and similar all fit in there and will launch just fine. Many commercial smoke grenades do as well, and since most of those are lighter I’ve even used something like a wrist rocket to deliver them on targets in training.

Actual Training Uses

To illustrate some other points from an individual prepper perspective, I’ll use some actual training uses of obscuration smoke as relevant examples.  I’m fortunate enough to work with cadets on this sort of thing at my job. I’ve tried to be creative in the situations and missions they’ve had to deal with, just to plant a seed about potential problems and potential solutions. The obvious ones are the typical military-style missions, like conducting an attack on an enemy position and putting smoke on the objective, opposing manned checkpoint, or primary defensive weapon position (like a belt-fed) before the assault. Deliberate attacks into the teeth of a defense are (hopefully!) of little relevance to most preppers though!

Break Contact Use

The next conventional use, and one that might be of more interest, is the typical “break contact” use of obscuring smoke. In this case, let’s imagine things get rough and you (either alone or with your buddies) decide that going toe to toe with an adversary is not going well, and you wish to break off the contact and escape. Once again, remember that the smoke cannot keep you safe from bullets, but it can degrade your enemy’s aim or mislead him regarding your movement. A fairly standard technique is to use a smoke grenade to reduce the effectiveness of incoming fire while you maneuver to a position of better cover and concealment, and then maneuver out of the area.

If you can incorporate that smoke into your movement plan in a manner that prevents observation of which route or direction you took out of the area, all the better! Just remember that smoke can conceal the contents of an area, but it often attracts attention to that very location at the same time. Smoke to mask a movement to a wood line or other useful terrain feature, then smoke in the wood line but not in the subsequent direction you are actually moving is an oft-effective deception technique.

Rescue

I’ve also written a few missions for the cadets to run where they had to go “rescue” someone who was surrounded by a hostile force (think an enemy cordon and search, or even a standoff of some kind). They’ve used smoke to either blind a critical security position, screen an access or egress route, or attract attention away from where they were actually doing something. A big white cloud of smoke will generally make people think something is going on there, even if it is not. In some instances, a support element will initially engage the hostile force, and then a smoke grenade (or several) would start screening a possible approach route. Typically, the hostile force will “orient” on that cloud, believing the assault is about to come from that screened location, only to shortly discover the real assault is coming from somewhere else.

Indoor Close Quarter Battle/MOUT Training

One interesting use of smoke has been during indoor close quarter battle (CQB) / MOUT training. During some missions where the cadets had to either escape or assault the interior of a building or other structure, they’ve used smoke to totally blind the occupants. In one mission they ripped open a floor HVAC duct, dropped a commercial black smoke grenade down to the lower floor, and completely froze the OPFOR in place there. Nobody could see even 12 inches in that dense, black smoke inside. The assaulting force was able to move where they wanted around the now-static defending OPFOR.

I’ve made one other observation regarding small-scale personal use of smoke grenades. CS and OC tend to be more effective and persistent when mixed with smoke. This is especially true with the military M8 HC white smoke grenades. And even if you’re out of CS or OC, if you’ve used them previously mixed with smoke, many folks will tend to shy away from the smoke cloud if they’ve been “burned” in it before!

Valid Applications

In my opinion smoke grenades can indeed have valid applications for the non-military person in a SHTF emergency and can be something a reasonably trained and equipped prepper gains utility from having and knowing how to use. I would not prioritize them above any of the basics we talk about here on SurvivalBlog by any means, but adding them to your kit at a reasonable time could provide options not available to “non smokers”.

There are, of course, a lot of other potential topics of discussion with smoke grenades, including the effectiveness of some thermal sights with some smokes, or fusing and making your own smoke grenades, for example. However, those are other topics for another time, perhaps.

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13 Comments

  1. I view smoke as just another force multiplier. There was at one time plenty of smoke for the surplus 26.5mm flare guns as well. As my old Platoon Sgt. Used to say “I would rather have and not need than to need and not have.”

  2. Combat veterans all tell me that smoke is life… Especially when stumbling into the kill zone of an optically guided weapon, like a sniper with a precision rifle.

    Smoke grenades used to be widely available in the military and are great things to have. However, they are just too expensive for civilians.

    So, during holidays involving fireworks, I buy the largest volume smoke devices that I can find and rotate them out during the holiday. So far, this has worked out well, with no duds. You will need to carry a lighter, but should have one in your kit anyway.

    I always carry several devices with me in my mag carrier…

    On the Internet, there are several DIY videos for smoke devices, but I have yet to try one. I would recommend that readers download them before they disappear. Has anyone had success with one of these videos?

    Great article, thanks for sending…

    1. I have used a Black Flag bug sprayer that holds a 1 pound propane tank the type for camp stoves. Just for curiosity sake instead of the bug spray in the tank I mixed some diesel and trans fluid. After the tip heated up it put out a ton of smoke every time I squeezed the trigger. Very cheap and easy to get at the hardware store and makes a lot of smoke even just for practice movements.

  3. There is a company enola gaye that makes cheap good smoke grenades. $7iah for small $16 for something close to military grade. Targeted towards the pain all market. Check ebay

  4. If an adversary has night vision, and I do not, would smoke used at night have any more or less effect on the night vision effectiveness vs smoke obscuring normal eyesight during the day?

  5. If the opposition has heat / infrared scopes then no matter how much smoke you have they see you as if you are unobscured. That works in daylight and in the darkest of nights.

    That being said, I think smoke does have valid use for simple messaging or to help pin down a location if you are expecting to meet someone somewhere unfamiliar.

    Just don’t bet your life on conditions being conducive to it catching attention all of the time. Even a flare gun works for signaling, but only if it is used when people will see it.

  6. Bear in mind please, I was born in 1980, so my experience came in the early 2000’s during almost exclusively close quarter/urban contact. That said, I recall reading that Warsaw Pact doctrine for land warfare, specifically in West Germany, called for a massive use of smoke machines after initial artillery bombardment to mask the initial movement of tank and infantry units advances. Now, this was when laser-guided weaponry was in its infancy, so I’m skeptical as to its efficacy now. That said, I can imagine it being useful for guerillas making hit and run harassment tactics on larger formations to obscure precisely where an attack is coming from. May be more trouble than it is worth though. Just my thoughts.

  7. Only training we had with smoke grenades was as a diversion tactic when transporting prisoners. Was surprised how effective one smoke grenade could stop a 3 car cravan .

    Having no military experience ( unsure with the other five in my group ) it quickly disorientated us as we entered a walled compound. The driveway leading into the entrance had a short brick wall on either side.

    Just before going through the gate the instructor dropped a smoke grenade that produced copious amounts of smoke. We dismounted quickly but the sting of air soft pellets told us we were all dead :-b

    There was a light breeze and as the smoke cleared the instructor came out through the diminishing cloud smiling. It was a good lesson and after reading this article smoke is indeed a good tactic against your adversary.

  8. Another thing to bear in mind about HC smoke (military white smoke). It burns hotter than the colored smokes and will start grass fires quite easily. If your objective was just to obscure, that grass fire will add to your smoke. But bear in mind, the fire may end up going where you would rather it did not. BTDT.

    The fire hazard is good to keep in mind if you plan to chuck one into a building with carpets, drapes, furniture and other flammable stuff. If you don’t plan to enter, but plan to shoot whoever runs out, go for it.

  9. I believe there is something in the smoke used on the vehicle mounted smoke launchers. Only personally viewed these being fired once and it was Definately different than the smoke from an HC grenade. Darker and had what seemed like sparks to maybe confuse thermal sights and/or guidance systems?? Just a guess on my end. Wondering if smoke with some type of sparking fire work might do the job?

  10. 3ADscout, That smoke was white phosphorus! Not something you want to be around!

    I run with 37mm flare launchers (M203) on two of the bunkers AR’s. With flare launcher status, you can run smoke, flares, wildlife control, line throwing, and OC rounds. Anything else requires a DD form. Any use of the above in a anti-personnel mode can put you in an DD status.

    That said, I wouldn’t hesitate to pop a flare behind you, followed by a few bird bangers, or OC nearby to make your position hot enough to make you want to leave.

    For smoke, I have a number of theatrical fog machines. My large machines, depending on the wind, can make enough to obscure the entire front of the house in 15 seconds, with a hang time of 4 – 20 minutes. Some of the pencil foggers are battery operated, and can put out a surprising amount of fog for a tiny unit. They could work well for stopping a home invasion by blinding raiders inside the building. If you can, hide in places where the enemy silhouettes himself against windows or lights. You can see him, but he can’t see you.

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