Abstract This paper describes a new one-dimensional theory of nonsteady penetration of long rods into semi-infinite targets. The target is viewed as a “finite mass” that resides within the semi-infinite target space. Thus, an equation of motion for the target was constructed so that together with erosion and penetrator deceleration equations, expressions for penetration rates and depths were obtained. Forces acting on the target and penetrator are defined in terms of only ordinary strength levels usually associated with dynamic properties or work-hardened material states. Also, the concept of critical impact velocity was used to establish the onset of penetration in this formulation. This penetration equation corresponds in exact form to hydrodynamic theory in the limits of small strengths and/or high impact velocity. Results for penetration rates agree well with hydrocode calculations, and predicted penetrations agree with experimental data over an impact velocity range of 0–5,000 m/s.