In March 1943, Col. Gen. Heinz Guderian demanded a light tank destroyer to replace all existing „interim solutions” (e.g. Marders) and towed anti-tank artillery (e.g. 75mm PaK 40 guns). The result of this was the Panzerjägerprogram. The new vehicle resulting from it was to equip tank destroyer units of infantry divisions. The Panzerkampfwagen 38(t) chassis was chosen as a base for this new Panzerjäger.
It was first known as “Leichtes Sturmgeschutz 38(t)”, then “Jagdpanzer 38(t) für 7.5cm Pak 39 L/48”, and finally “Jagdpanzer 38 Hetzer”. It appears that the name Hetzer was not an official name but used by troops and then used in post-war publications. On December 17, 1943, designs were ready and, on January 24, 1944, a wooden mock-up was finished. In March 1944, the first three prototypes were produced by BMM (Boehmish-Mährische Maschinenfabrik) and it was decided to start production. From March to April of 1944, prototypes were extensively tested, while preparations for production were made at BMM (Praga/CKD—Ceskomoravska Kolben Danek) in Prague and then at Skoda Works at Pilsen.
On April 20, 1944, the Hetzer was shown to Hitler and other leaders of the Third Reich at Arys (Orzysz) in East Prussia. At this time, the new Panzerjäger was designated Jagdpanzer 38(t) Hetzer (Baiter or Troublemaker), Sd.Kfz.138/2, but it was also known simply as Panzerjäger 38(t). Production started, in April 1944, at BMM and, in September, at Skoda. 2,584 were produced by May 1945 in three series (chassis numbers 321001-323000 by BMM, 323001-unknown by Skoda, and 325001-unknown). In April 1944, BMM produced the first 20 Hetzers and monthly production increased greatly thereafter. Eventually, plants in Prague, Pilsen, Königgrätz, Boehm, and Breslau made the Hetzer. Late-war production plans called for 1,000 Hetzers per month, starting in mid-1945.
The Hetzer was built on the Panzerkampfwagen 38(t)’s widened chassis with modified suspension (larger road-wheels from the Praga TNH n.A prototype reconnaissance tank) and an upgraded engine. The new engine was the 160hp Praga AC/2 6-cylinder engine controlled by a Praga-Wilson gearbox (5 forward and 1 reverse gears). The chassis was modified to accommodate a larger gun and thicker armor than was used with the regular PzKpfw 38(t). The Hetzer carried 320 liters (84 US gallons) of fuel in two tanks, which gave it maximum range of 177 km (110 miles). Its combat weight was 16 metric tons (17.6 short tons) and it could travel at a maximum speed of some 42km/h (26 mph). The Hetzer’s tracks had 96 links per side, were 350mm wide and had a surface contact of 2.72m (8.8 feet).
The Hetzer had a low, well-sloped hull of welded construction. The hull had a 60mm-thick frontal plate, 8mm roof armor and 20mm side and rear armor. All armored plates sloped inward. In addition, the Hetzer was fitted with small 5mm-thick side skirts (Schürzen) to protect the hull and upper track run from shaped charges, as were used in the American bazooka, for instance. It was armed with a 75mm PaK 39 L/48 gun with limited traverse (5 degrees to the left and 11 degrees to the right) and elevation (-6 degrees to +10 degrees). It was equipped with a Sfl.Z.F.1a gun sight. The main armament was protected by a 60mm cast gun mantlet, which was dubbed “Saukopf”, or “pig’s head” because of its shape. The heavy gun and thick frontal plate overloaded the vehicle at the front, but this problem was later corrected by strengthening the suspension.
The main gun had an effective range of over 1,000 meters (1,083 yards). For example, the Hetzer could knock out a Soviet T-34/85 at a distance of 700 m (760 yards) with a hit on the frontal armor, while the T-34/85 could kill a Hetzer at a distance of 400 m (433 yards) with a frontal hit. In comparison with a JS-2, the Hetzer could be knocked out at a distance of 1,000m, while the Hetzer had to be within 100m (108 yards) to kill a JS-2. The limited traverse of the gun forced Hetzer crews to change vehicle position constantly to shift to other targets, thus exposing the thin 20mm side armor to enemy fire. An interesting feature was the remotely controlled MG34/42 mounted on the roof, with 360 degrees rotation for local defense. The machine gun had a 50-round drum magazine and could be aimed and fired from inside the vehicle. However, the loader was then exposed to enemy fire for reloading. The late StuG III also used this machine gun system.
The Hetzer’s interior was cramped for the four-man crew (commander, gunner, loader and driver), because of its sloped armor and low silhouette. The interior was divided into two compartments—engine and fighting/crew compartment. The gunner and loader were located on the left side of the gun, and the driver sat in front of them, while the commander was in the rear, on the right side of the gun. The crew communicated using an intercom system and a 10-watt FuG5 radio set. Hetzers completed as command vehicles—Befehlswagen 38(t) Hetzer—had an additional 30-watt FuG8 radio set.