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The Davy Crockett: America’s Tactical Nuclear Weapon

The name Davy Crockett has become immortalized in the United States. Born in 1786, Crocket is remembered as the “the king of the frontier” – a soldier, a politician – a folk hero the likes of which we just don’t see much of anymore. His death during the Battle of the Alamo only strengthened this almost mythical persona. But the name Davy Crocket has also been used for something entirely different.

Accompanied by one of the smallest nuclear weapons ever built, the Davy Crockett Weapon System was developed during the 1950s – as the threat of a possible nuclear war with the Soviet Union appeared to grow. While this tactical nuclear recoilless gun was of course never used, it did provide an entirely different kind of threat to the massive atomic bombs produced by both countries. For the first time, small-scale nuclear weapons could now be used on the battlefield – warfare was forever changed.  

The 1950s

Once the battle lines had been drawn after World War II, Europe became the most likely place that an armed conflict between the Soviet Union and NATO countries might arise. But the world had recently moved into the nuclear weapons age, which would likely change large-scale combat beyond recognition. 

The most likely point of contact in this hypothetical battle of Europe was at Fulda Gap, a low-land corridor that connected east and west Germany. It was here that NATO commanders believed Soviet tanks would come through, should an invasion ever take place. Unsurprisingly, this was where the largest concentration of troops was stationed, on both sides. Seven U.S divisions were stationed at the western mouth of the Fulda Gap, with the Soviet 8th Guard Army positioned to the east.    

Should a land war break out, both sides would have to make some deeply uncomfortable decisions. By the 1950s, the USA, the Soviet Union and the UK had nuclear weapons, but these were large-scale atomic bombs, the likes of which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. They were incredibly powerful, but their destructive capabilities were little use on the battlefield with both friendly and enemy soldiers in close proximity. 

NATO had another dilemma; the overwhelming Soviet superiority in terms of both men and tanks. It was generally agreed that if a full-scale invasion was to come through the Fulda Gap, NATO would need something special to halt it. If only a small-scale tactical nuclear weapon could be deployed, one which was powerful enough to cause significant damage, but not so powerful that it blew Europe apart. 

Development 

The bombs that had fallen on Japan were enormous contraptions weighing 4,535 kg (10,000 pounds) and measuring 3 metres (10 ft) in length. The only aircraft capable of lifting such monsters was the behemoth B-29 Superfortress, they could cause terrible damage, but they weren’t easy to operate. Yet technology progressed at a rapid rate, and spurred on by the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949, the U.S began producing smaller and more compact nuclear devices. 

In the mid-1950s, the Army’s Ordnance Corps began exploring the possibility of a tactical nuclear weapon – one small enough it could be easily transported and fired quickly and easily from a specially designed launcher. Nothing like this had been produced before, so there were plenty of unknowns, but generally, the Ordnance Corps was looking for a weapon with a range of between 457 and 3,657 metres (500 and 4,000 yards), with a sub-kiloton yield (a weapon with a strength of less than 1,000 tons of TNT). Just as a quick comparison, the bomb that dropped on Hiroshima was equal to about 12,000 to 15,000 tons of TNT.  

In 1957, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), announced it had constructed a lightweight sub-kiloton yield fission warhead and the project was subsequently passed to the Army’s Chief of Ordnance, Major General John H. Hinrichs, who would be responsible for turning the warhead into a usable weapon.

At this point, it wasn’t entirely clear the best method to launch this small-scale weapon. A host of possibilities were considered, ranging from mortars to conventional artillery, but a recoilless rifle system was deemed the best option as it was the simplest and lightest choice. A recoilless rifle is pretty much exactly what you might think it is. A portable launcher which typically fires out a countermass, such as a gas canister, from the back which essentially counteracts the gun’s natural recoil.

The weapon was eventually given the name Battle Group Atomic Delivery System (BGADS) – not exactly a humdinger of a title – and was tested and constructed at a variety of military facilities across the country. 

By 1958, a new name had arrived. It’s not exactly clear how the name of a 19th-century frontiersman came to be used, but the weapon was now known as the Davy Crockett Weapon System and after further testing, it entered service in 1961.  

The Davy Crockett

The weapon came in two varieties; the light M28 120mm recoilless rifle with a range of approximately 2 kilometres (1.25 miles) and the heavy M29 155mm recoilless rifle with a range of around 4 kilometres (2.5 miles). Both were designed to fire the 34 kg (76 pounds) M388 shell which contained the MK54 nuclear warhead, which weighed about 23 kg (51 pounds) and had a yield of between 10 and 20 tons of TNT – making it by far the smallest nuclear warhead ever created.  

The Davy Crockett was designed to be loaded onto an armoured personnel carrier but would be fired from the ground using a tripod, or a jeep, where the gun would remain mounted. It was operated by a three-man crew and procedures dictated that a “spotting round” be fired first to gauge distances (using a non-nuclear shell of course). The M388, along with the MK54, would then be inserted into the nozzle, followed by a metal piston. There was a switch on the weapon which allowed the crew to adjust the height at which the warhead would detonate before the shooter finally pulled the trigger. And just like that, a tactical nuclear weapon was tearing towards an unaware Soviet tank crew at speed of 160km/h (100 mph) – hypothetically speaking of course.  

Crews were also encouraged to seek a protective shelter to fire from, and rather comically, to “keep their heads down”. 

Wildly Inaccurate 

While the Davy Crocket packed a hell of a punch for such a small package, it was horribly inaccurate. Wherever it landed it produced a lethal radiation dose over 100 Sv within 150 metres (500ft) and a likely fatal dose of 6 Sv within a 400 metres radius. It’s generally considered that 8 Sv is enough to kill you with or without medical treatment. But getting it to the right spot proved to be a nightmare. The lack of accuracy was said to be down to the poor aerodynamic shape of the shell which earned it the nickname, the finned watermelon.  

Only two live tests of Davy Crockets were ever carried out. The first, codenamed Little Feller I, on 7th July 1962 and the second, codenamed Little Feller II, on 17th July, both at the same Nevada Test Site. The warhead from the first test detonated somewhere between 6-12 meters (20 – 40 feet) above the ground, roughly 2.7 km (1.7 miles) from the launch location, producing a yield of 18 tons of TNT – making it at least 700 times less powerful than what was dropped on Hiroshima. It had a rather important observer also that day. Robert Kenndy, brother of then-President John F Kennedy, was in attendance to evaluate this potential new weapon in the battle against communism. 

The second test was not done using the recoilless gun, instead, the warhead was suspended 0.9 metres (3ft) above the ground, and produced a slightly higher yield of 22 tons of TNT.

Production and Distribution

Despite the accuracy problems, it appeared the Davy Crockett had passed the test. Over 2,000 were produced and deployed to the U.S army between 1961 and 1971. They also underwent a huge amount of further testing (without the nuclear warheads) – probably in the hope of learning how to actually hit a target that it was meant to. Instead of large numbers of troops carrying them into battle, they were limited to specialised Atomic Battle Groups, consisting of an officer and 12 men.   

Sadly for our story, but very good for humanity, the Davy Crockett was never used in a real-life situation and the weapon’s tale begins to peter out at this point. It was removed from U.S military use in Europe in 1967 and completely out of service by 1971. This was still two decades away from the end of the Cold War so we have to assume that the weapon was withdrawn because it failed to meet its necessary standards. 

Not only was the weapon inaccurate, but it was also time-consuming to assemble. The Kennedy administration was said to be far from enthused by the weapon, a sentiment echoed by commanders on the ground in Europe. Even though times had changed, it seemed it was still not the time to be using such weapons on the battlefield.

One enthusiastic supporter of the weapon was West Germany’s defence minister Franz Josef Strauss who pushed the idea of arming German troops with the weapon. The U.S and NATO flat out rejected the idea as it was deemed that such a move might promote the use of nuclear weapons rather than using them as a last resort. 

Size Matters

Many wonderfully bizarre pieces of military hardware came out of the Cold War, as both the U.S and the Soviet Union egged each other on with how far they could go. Thankfully, a tactical nuclear weapon has never needed to be used, but the construction of the Davy Crockett did underline just how small they can be. 

While the threat of nuclear weapons may have diminished, that doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared – and that includes tactical nuclear weapons. In fact, you’ll be shocked at just how many there are. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, tactical nuclear weapons make up roughly 30-40% of the American and Russian nuclear arsenals, nearly 100% of the Chinese and French, and all of the Israeli, Indian, and Pakistani arsenals. The one nuclear-capable country that no longer uses them is the United Kingdom. Considering that Russia and the U.S each have over 5,000 nuclear weapons each, there’s an awful lot of tactical versions floating around.

The newest American version, the W-76-2, went into production just last year, with the Trump administration stating that these weapons make the threat of nuclear war less likely because it gives the U.S more flexible deterrents – a puzzlingly vague statement there. It’s believed that this new weapon will have the strength equivalent to five kilotons of TNT – roughly a third of what was dropped on Hiroshima.

Over seventy years after the introduction of the Davy Crockett, these kinds of weapons are still being produced in large numbers – probably more than most people realise. Technology has evolved dramatically over the decades, from the rudimentary recoilless gun that couldn’t shoot straight to sophisticated warheads located inside tactical ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets thousands of miles away. 

While the number of truly catastrophic nuclear weapons has indeed fallen, our desire to retain the option of a neat and tidy nuclear attack hasn’t diminished. However, it is still difficult to imagine a situation where this would be a viable choice. We’ve come a long way since the impending threat of World War III in the 1950s when the eyes of the world stared with suspended fear at the Fulda Gap, waiting for the end of the world to begin. The fallout from a tactical nuclear weapon used today, in terms of both radiation and global response, would be severe – and that just might be enough to keep these weapons off the battlefield – for now at least.  

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