That Time the U.S. Made a Nuclear Gun

In the 1950s U.S. forces were stretched dangerously
thin. U.S. President Dwight D Eisenhower stated
of this, “My feeling…remains, that it would be impossible for the United States
to maintain the military commitments which it now sustains around the world (without
turning into a garrison state) did we not possess atomic weapons and the will to use
them when necessary.” No surprise from this that, unsatisfied with
the portability of their shiny new M65 nuclear cannons, which required a couple of very large
trucks to transport, and further unsatisfied that firing it off in many tactical situations
would be a bit like killing a mosquito with a hand grenade, in the late 1950s the U.S.
military brass for once were thinking smaller. What they really wanted was a simple weapon
that could launch a miniature nuclear warhead, could be carted around by a few soldiers,
and be fired relatively quickly and reliably. This would allow a handful of soldiers to
successful combat far superior forces on the other side, even at relatively close range,
which none of the other nuclear weapons of the age could safely do- Enter the Davy Crockett. Rumor has it the name was chosen in homage
to the famed American politician owing to the legend that he once grinned a bear to
death, with the idea referencing the association between Russia, and the Soviet Union in general,
with bears. Whether that’s actually the reasoning behind
the name or not, the first prototype of the Davy Crockett was completed in November of
1958 and ultimately deployed about two and a half years later in May of 1961. Featuring a variant of the W54 warhead contained
in an M388 round, the projectile was fired from an M-28 or M-29 smooth bore recoilless
gun. This was capable of launching the 10 or 20
ton yield nuke as far as about 1.25 miles for the M28 or 2.5 miles for the M29. As for portability, the Davy Crockett could
be either deployed and fired from the back of a jeep for maximum mobility, or even broken
down into its components, with the pieces of the weapon carried by five soldiers on
foot. The general procedure for firing the 76 pound
nuclear round was quite simple. First a spotting round would be shot from
an attached gun to ensure the weapon was aimed reasonably well. After this, in order to get the nuke to end
up more or less where the spotting round did, the angle of the gun would have to be adjusted. To do this, a small book with pre-calculated
tables was carried giving adjustment figures for said angle. However, it turns out test firings with non-live
nukes showed again and again that the Davey Crockett was an obscenely inaccurate weapon,
possibly both because of the angle adjustment and that the weapon itself was smooth bore. Of course, the fact that the Davey Crockett
was shooting a nuclear warhead helped make this inaccuracy issue not as much of a problem
as would be the case with other similar weapons. Once the target was mildly locked on, the
propellant charge would be inserted into the muzzle with a metal piston placed in after
as a sort of cap. This was followed by the M388 round itself
containing the W54 warhead. As the M388 was far too big to fit inside
the bore, instead a rod would be attached to the back, with the nuke sitting at the
front. As for how the warhead would know when to
detonate, there was a timer dial that would be set based on estimated distance to the
target, using figures given in the aforementioned book containing a spreadsheet of tables. However, contrary to what is often stated,
the timer was not actually the thing that triggered detonation. Rather, it simply armed the bomb once the
time ran out. The actual trigger for detonation was a simple
radar device in the back of the M388 that would detect how far above the ground the
nuke was. There was also a high and low switch that
could slightly adjust height of detonation based on the radar reading. As you might have gleaned from all this, also
contrary to what is often stated, this switch did not control the yield of the bomb, just
what height it would detonate above the ground, roughly 20-40 feet AGL, depending on setting. It should also be noted that, unlike many
other nuclear weapons, this was an otherwise dumb nuke. Once the timer was set and it was fired, it
would either go off or prove itself to be a dud. There was no aborting detonation after launch. If all that is involved in firing the Davey
Crockett sounds like it might take a long time, it turns out not at all given the destructive
power of this weapon. One former Davey Crockett section soldier,
Thomas Hermann, notes that they were actually trained and well capable of firing a nuke
every two and a half minutes! So just how deadly could this weapon be? While extremely low-powered as nukes go, the
weapon nonetheless produced a blast in the ballpark of as large as the highest yield
non-nuclear explosive devices of the era. But unlike many of these, it was relatively
small and portable. More important than that was its potential
for extended damage long after the initial blast. This was particularly useful when fired around
critical routes that enemy soldiers would have to traverse. Not only would the initial blast do significant
damage to any soldiers and enemy vehicles around at the time, but the radioactive fallout,
which would almost certainly be fatal to anyone within about a quarter of a mile of the initial
blast when it went off, would remain long after, making a given route, such as a mountain
pass, impassable for several days after if one was interested in not dying of radiation
poisoning. Naturally, the Soviets could defend against
this simply by equipping each of their soldiers with lead-lined refrigerators, but for whatever
reason they never seemed to have chosen to go this route. On the other end of things, neither did the
Americans. This was despite the fact that the Davey Crockett
was also not terribly safe for those firing it. While 1.25-2.5 miles away is plenty of range
to keep the soldiers who pulled the trigger safe from being harmed by the blast itself,
in real world scenarios the enemy being fired upon could be closer and some of your own
troops might also be even closer still. Critical to all of this was also wind direction. With no wind, the radiation kill zone in the
immediately aftermath of the blast was approximately 1,500 feet, but wind could easily blow dangerous
radioactive particles towards one’s own troops. As such, crew were instructed to, if possible,
only fire the gun when suitable cover behind a hill or the like was available to help reduce
radiation exposure. That said, presumably to try to get the soldiers
operating the weapon to be slightly less hesitant about firing it, the instruction manual notes
that the leader of the troop should instill a great sense of urgency in the soldiers operating
the Davy Crockett and to remember that, to quote, “The search for nuclear targets is
constant and vigorous!” On top of that, the manual states that if
the nuke failed to detonate for some reason, the soldiers should wait a half hour and then
go and recover the supposed to be armed and ready to detonate at the whim of a radar trigger
nuke… Needless to say, while the Davy Crockett was
deployed everywhere from West Germany to South Korea, with well over 2,000 of the M388 rounds
made and 100 of the guns deployed, it was never actually used in battle. That said, the Army did do one test fire of
the Davy Crockett with a live M388 round. This occurred during Operation Sunbeam in
a test code named “Little Feller I”, which took place on July 17, 1962. The nuke flew approximately 1.7 miles and
detonated successfully about 30 feet above the ground, with an estimated yield of 18
tons from the blast. Interestingly enough, this was the last time
the United States would detonate a nuke in the air close to the ground thanks to the
1963 Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water. (And, yes, that is the real name of the treaty). In the end, as cool as having a portable nuclear
gun is and all, within only a few years the weapon would become antiquated, and by 1967
the Army was already beginning to phase it out, with it going the way of the Dodo completely
by 1971. No doubt to the eternal relief of the soldiers
tasked with firing the things should the need arise.

100 thoughts on “That Time the U.S. Made a Nuclear Gun

  1. Thank you Crossout for making this one possible! Check out and get three extra

    weapons or a cool vehicle cabin as a bonus here:

  2. Crossout is a pile of shit that doesn't work. All it does is suck up system resources without the game actually working.

  3. the soviets looked at the "Atomic Cannon" and not being able to mske such a small atomic device so small built enormous self propelled guns. The OKA and another somewhat smaller Kondensator P2, having 16 inch barrels. These were replaced by rockets.

  4. "grinned" a bear to death? If there isn't already a Biographics episode on Crockett I want one. I will check after this video.

  5. Imagine being the one assigned to go and recover a misfired Davy Crockett mini nuke. "Just grab it and go back to the base like nothing happened".

  6. Okay now this is a fun subject. My father was prone to taking jobs, that paid a bit extra..and were consequently a bit riskier….So at one point he was a forward observer for an atomic artillery unit. Now at first glance this seems insane….. but as he put it if they never used the weapons he got paid extra for doing nothing more than his training duties. If they used the nukes…well everyone was about to have a bad day so he wasn't in any worse shape than anyone else. Fortunately for everyone they never had to do their jobs.

  7. I feel like America (I'm an American saying this) needs to put a disclaimer warning on like 1940's-present day to the rest of the world that reads "Warning: The following decades were lived under the supervision of nobody. Some of the actions taken can be viewed as both indubitably heroic and absolutely moronic. Please do not try this at home."

    Seriously. Little Boy and Fat Man, Atomic Annie, Davy Crockett, Facebook and Twitter. . . .Seriously, I feel like we're the kid on the world playground with the lit firecracker in hand saying to everyone else, "Watch this!!!"

  8. I learned about this in polisci class. There was nothing practical about it and that wasn't the point, it had a really high chance to kill the people using it and would almost certainly expose them to high levels of radiation. The point was that the airforce and navy were both getting massive amounts of funding at the time of the cold war to develop nukes and the army wanted a cut of some of that sweet pork barrel spending. They knew it wouldn't work off the bat.

  9. Fire a "small nuke" with a maximum range of 1.25-2.5 miles? Fire another every 2-5 minutes? Madness! (That only coats the troops firing the doomsday weapon with enough nuclear fallout to kill them.)

  10. for those of you who don’t understand the lead lined refrigerators reference, it’s from Indiana Jones.

  11. Fun fact:
    The W54 warhead of the Davy Crockett was also used in the SADM (Special Atomic Demolition Munition) or atomic mines.
    These devices were planted in the area of the Fulda gap to stop enemy troops.

    Luckily non of this mines ever detonated… I’m pretty happy about that fact, living only 10 miles away from one it would be a rather unpleasant youth for me.

  12. Davey Crockett was a last stand, fighting to the end for your country. The Russian military would easily overrun allied forces, this weapon was meant to deny Russia the ground… if you had to fire this in anger, your survival isn’t likely to begin with, but maybe you could stop the red advance.

  13. "The search for nuclear targets is constant & vigorous!"

    Yeah… you can really start to see how this era inspired the Fallout series…

  14. Davy Crockett Nuclear Gun. Perfect home protection gun. You won't have a house after using it, but you won't have to worry about the burglar either.

  15. Wow I knew about the atomic Cannon. When you fire these weapons you're so close you're within the effect. Not a weapon you're going to use unless you're very desperate or stupid. Love the videos, later everyone.

  16. …No you dont understand, we dont want to kill MORE people FASTER. We want to kill FEWER people, EASIER.

  17. It would be easier and funnier, to Launch Hives of Africanized Killer-Bees or those Asian Hornets at the Enemy. Surrender would be immediate.

  18. Ya know I've enjoyed Simon's humor (a trait that only Humans possess) showing in the Vids lately and it's not disturbing, like when Lurch tried to smile in an old Adam's Family episode. Keep laughing Simon, just don't go by way of Onision and murder people at night. xD

  19. Can I build a giant magnetic coil that pulls asteroids from the belt to be fired upon any nation that dares oppose my global media dominance headquartered below Dr. No’s mysterious island?

  20. I was stationed at a certain base in the U.S. as an Military Police. I had the opportunity to be at an opening of an old storage igloo (reinforced storage bunker) and inside were many, many of these "guns". A couple or three were actually mounted on jeeps (this was just as the M151 jeeps were being faded out).

    There were no warheads inside that bunker. Those would be stored in "seclusion zone" igloos. This moniker would change to "exclusion zones" with seclusion zones inside those.

    The only reason we opened that old igloo was for inventory and to get rid of surplus no longer needed or used items.

    I was just there for one day of opening as our assignments changed daily. I didn't know what they were at first. All were in crates except for one or three mounted on jeeps. The armory officer explained to me what they were. I thought bazookas.

    There is stuff still stored in military igloos all over the world from both world wars (probably before that) and since. One igloo held Korean War era helicopters, created up and stacked. I loved opening up igloos. I saw history come alive. And it was like going behind the scenes at a museum.

    Edit: These would probably never be used in ANY way though is because the shooter would still be inside the "kill zone". They couldn't shoot the warhead far enough to keep the shooter safe. Didn't stop them from manufacturing a bunch, so there is the thinking of the idiots in charge who would never have to fire one in combat… "I won't have to fire it in combat, we'll take 20,000."

  21. Lol I was thinking it being non-accurate would be the opposite of it not being an issue… I realize in theory it's lobbing a nuke and the blast range is massive. But for that point it's a bloody nuke, isn't accuracy supposed to be too of the list ….. Lol sweet jesus…

  22. "it's an highly inaccurate weapon"

    who cares… its a nuke.. splash damage and radiation damage will do the rest XD

  23. Alternative doctrine suggested by one veteran: if the first one doesn't explode, toss another one after it before they can get it more than half a mile from wherever it landed.

  24. A nuke you can store and fire from the trunk of your car? Because AMERICA, that's fucking why!! 😎🇺🇸

  25. They should have kept it in service with non-nuclear payloads. A bomb that big fired from what amounts to a rather large mortar would have been great.

  26. If the detonation of the warhead is controlled by the launcher, could you not abort the detonation by turning the radar system off? This wouldn't disarm the warhead, though.

  27. In training,
    question sarge? Yes soldier!
    What about fallout if the wind shifts?
    Don't worry about it son, a little NUKIE never hurt anybody, it will be just fine. Deploy the weapon like we trained you and you will be ok.

  28. You didn't mention that the people firing the thing would be within the blast radius of the weapon they are firing.

  29. Super cool! I've always wanted to work for Lockheed-Martin too!. Their Ga site was simply amazing to visit.

  30. "THE" time? We've had tactical nuclear shells for artillery for the past 45 years. Can drop it in a rain barrel at 35 miles.

  31. According to Colonel Hackworth in "About Face", the biggest problem with this weapon was that nuclear weapons required authorization from the President to employ and a sergeant with a radio in Germany would need to send his request up the Army chain of command, to the President, and back down. Eventually said sergeant staring at a tank battalion driving across the Fulda Gap would get sick of the hold music and fire anyway, since these weapons had no actual authorization codes.

    Additionally the warhead was adapted as a "nuclear demolition charge" with a plain time delay. This version was a backpack-portable nuclear warhead that could be delivered into an enemy harbor by Navy frogmen, be planted as a "land mine" in the mountainsides of Korea, or left by some errant tourist outside the Kremlin…

  32. This weapon has the most hilarious flaw. The range of the nuclear blast exceeds the range of the projectile itself, basically turning it into a suicide weapon. Although I suppose they could have though of other delivery systems, but do we really need more nukes in the world? (Answer: no, in fact we should probably just get rid of all of them).

  33. See. This is why I love videogames. Metal Gear Solid 3 is the only reason I already knew what the Davy Crockett is. And people tell me you don’t learn anything playing videogames rolls eyes

  34. This has to explain WHY we are using fuel sources today that ARE going to kill human civilization. It already may be to late.

  35. Something i just realised while watching this. The US hasn't tested a nuke since 1963 right? That means that every nuke in the US arsenal right now is UNTESTED!

  36. Fatman from fallout comparison is close but this was a gun and the fatman is a slingshot

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