The Davy Crockett – Back to the drawing board

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Few weapons in this series have been sent back to the drawing board because of their efficiency. This page is usually occupied by a terrible concept doomed from the start or a wacky idea that might just have worked but for a crucial, disastrous oversight at the last minute.

But for the Davy Crockett Weapon System, it was its capability for widespread nuclear annihilation – and the proposal to place it in the nervous hands of inexperienced American grunts during the tensions of the Cold War – which led to its abandonment.

It would have been with some trepidation that the caravan of military big-wigs, scientists, and VIPs crossed the Mojave Desert of southern Nevadaon 17 July 1962. Operation Sunbeam – a series of nuclear tests to establish the plausibility of small ‘tactical’ nuclear warheads – was in its final stages, and the main attraction of this innocently named ‘Little Feller I’ test shot was the maiden launch of the Davy Crockett.

Davy Crockett was a recoilless rifle secured on a tripod for firing the M388 atomic round

Designed to kill or incapacitate advancing troops and tanks in the event of a Soviet invasion, the Davy Crockett was, put simply, the most portable and convenient nuclear bomb delivery system ever created. Weighing in at 76lbs, this watermelon-sized nugget of destruction could be fired from a 4in-wide recoilless rifle and achieve a range of just over a mile. The launchers could be mounted on jeeps or on practical tripod-mounts for the use of infantry, and they were operated by three-man ‘atomic’ squads.

So, a small device controlled by a small team. The result of its activation, however, was devastating. Less than a minute after launch, the device would be detonated, initiating an increasing chain-reaction state known as ‘prompt critical’. In less than a second, the concentrated energy would reach explosive proportions, and anyone within a quarter-mile radius would be facing almost certain instant death.

Troops within 500ft of the blast – even those inside a tank – would be killed in minutes by the radiation spread by the explosion. Being 1,000ft away would expose you to a temporary feeling of nausea and fatigue, which, following a few days of apparent good health, would result in your painful death.

A Davy Crockett casing, preserved in the United States Army Ordnance Museum

While the designers at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory had managed to cross-breed a mini warhead with a reliable delivery system, they had neglected to include an abort feature; once launched, the Davy Crockett represented irreversible annihilation.

It was also worryingly inaccurate. One would assume that, given its extreme lethality, accuracy would have been of paramount importance. But no. Even with a spotter-gun and sturdy rifle-barrel, detonation was likely to be several hundred feet wide of the mark. Designers were unmoved by this, apparently content that the weapon’s inaccuracy would be compensated for by its inclination to disgorge debilitating radiation all over the battlefield.

Luckily for all humankind, these miniature agents of the apocalypse were never fired in anger. Between 1961 and 1971 – the period that the Atomic Battle Group was charged with the protection of Europe – 2,100 Davy Crockett Weapons Systems were manufactured and deployed. But the troops who stood poised on the border between East and West Germany were denied the chance to unleash their weapons.

This was the last atomic device tested by the US in the open atmosphere, and although variations were used in future projects, it was inactivated from the US Army Europe in 1967 – sent back to the drawing board because of its own deadly efficiency. The world breathed a sigh of relief.


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