The Cold War was characterized by the United States and the Soviet Union racing to outdo each other in terms of terrifying, species destroying weaponry. The general trend was toward more destructive nuclear weapons, although both countries also developed chemical and biological weapons as sides to the nuclear main course.
However, as nuclear weapons grew larger, they also shrunk. While both sides had developed weapons capable of leveling entire cities by the early sixties, less well known were the so-called tactical nuclear weapons. Designed to be used during a hypothetical Soviet invasion of Europe, they would be hard counters to the crushing weight of Soviet numbers.
The most bizarre of these tactical devices intended to be used during that nightmare scenario was the Davy Crockett Weapon System, the smallest nuclear device ever developed by the United States.
America’s smallest nuclear device
The nuclear warhead was housed in a projectile casing dubbed the XM-288, a stubby looking little projectile measuring a mere 30 inches long and 11 inches in diameter, and weighed in at about 76 pounds fully equipped. The heart of the system though was the W54 warhead. Weighing in at a paltry 51 pounds, the plutonium implosion device could pack a punch well outside its weight class. The explosive yield could be adjusted between .01 kilotons to up to 1 kiloton. For perspective, a 1 kiloton nuclear blast equals the the detonation of 1000 tons of TNT. At the .01 kiloton range, the weapon would have been five times more potent than the ammonium nitrate bomb that caused so much devastation during the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995.
Two versions of the Davy Crockett were produce, a “light’ and “heavy” version. The designations can be a bit confusing, since the warhead remained the same on both models. The only difference was the width of the recoilless rifle. The light version was a 122-millimeter tube, while the heavy was a 155 millimeter tube. Both versions could be mounted on vehicles, or fired from tripods. The lighter version fired the nuclear warhead about 1.25 miles, while the heavy variant fired it 2.25 mile.
A ridiculously impractical weapon
If between one and two miles sounds like a really short range to lob a nuclear weapon…well, it is. While most sane people would not want to be on the same continent as a nuclear explosion, the military expected the operators of the Davy Crockett to stand a short walk away. Yes, the weapon had a relatively low yield as compared to, say, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, but the blast itself was not the Davy Crockett’s main danger. The explosion would have relatively little effect on an enemy formation. The real danger came from the burst of ionizing radiation that would result from the fission reaction at the heart of the weapon. At close range the radiation dose would be enough to kill enemy soldiers within a few hours, if not instantly. The problem was that it would sicken or kill the weapon’s crew as well, especially on the highest setting, which would almost certainly have to be used in a combat situation for the weapon to have any real effect on an oncoming Soviet tank column.
As if that weren’t enough, the Davy Crockett wasn’t very accurate. It probably wouldn’t have been able to hit a fast moving column of enemy tanks. Even if it did, there was no guarantee of a knock out blow.
Despite these shortcomings, about 2100 Davey Crocketts were deployed in West Germany. Luckily for everyone, the only time the Davey Crockett was fired was during a test at the Nevada Test Site on July 17, 1962 during simulated battle maneuvers dubbed Operation Ivy. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and presidential advisor Maxwell D.Taylor were in attendance. The Davy Crockett test shot marked the last atmospheric test at the Nevada Test Site.
“The Davy Crockett.” Brookings.edu. Brookings. March 13, 2014. http://www.brookings.edu/about/projects/archive/nucweapons/davyc
Lewis, Jim. “M28 120mm Atomic Battle Group Delivery System (Light): M151A1D 4×4 Tactical Transporter / Launcher: ‘Davy Crockett’” GunTruck.com. Jim Lewis and GunTruck Studios. March 13, 2014 http://www.guntruck.com/DavyCrockett.html