Little Shots – The Cold War’s Smallest Nukes

The "Davy Crockett" was a three-man team nuclear weapon deployed to the U.S. Army in West Germany during the 1960s.

The “Davy Crockett” was a portable 50-lb. nuclear weapon deployed to the U.S. Army in West Germany during the 1960s. It could be fired by a three-man team.

MHN REGULARS WILL remember our recent story about the Soviet Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated.

As we reported, the 30-foot long, 58-megaton weapon created an explosion over the Russian Arctic in 1961 that was roughly 3,000 times larger than the Hiroshima bomb. The blast was observable for hundreds of kilometres in every direction and generated a mushroom cloud that rose to an altitude of 200,000 feet — well into the Earth’s mesosphere. Ironically, Soviet military planners never put the Tsar Bomba into production – the weapon itself was unfeasibly large and far too destructive, even for a nuclear warhead.

Interestingly enough, America’s M-388 Davy Crockett nuke, the world’s smallest atom bomb, posed no such concerns. In fact, in the event of a shooting war in Europe between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, allied commanders fully expected to use hundreds, even thousands, of the small 50-pound projectiles against concentrations of Soviet armour and infantry.

Designed during the 1950s as a low-yield miniature battlefield nuke, the Davy Crockett could be fired from a tripod or a vehicle-mounted rocket launcher. At the heart of the M-388 was the W54 warhead, perhaps the smallest nuclear fission device ever developed. With a user-selected yield of equivalent to either 10 or 20 tons of TNT, the Davy Crockett could generate an explosion about .01 percent the size of the Hiroshima bomb. But don’t be deceived by the seemingly small-scale punch – it was a deadly weapon. Anyone within 500 feet of the blast would be vapourized instantly, while those up to a quarter mile away would suffer lethal doses of radiation. The launcher itself, which was operated by a three-man crew, had a range of about two miles.

And talk about ‘cost effective’ — a single M-388 team could deliver the firepower equal to 50 salvos from a typical artillery battery. That’s enough to stop a massed Soviet armour assault in its tracks. If used in large enough numbers however, the weapon would certainly have left vast swaths of central Germany uninhabitable for generations.

Beginning in 1961, more than 2,000 Davy Crocket systems were manufactured and delivered to U.S. Army units in West Germany. The 82nd Airborne even had M-388s that could be rapidly deployed on a battlefield by parachute teams. By 1967, the Pentagon withdrew the weapons from frontline units and phased the system out entirely within four years, although versions of the W54 warhead were retained as backpack-sized Special Atomic Demolitions Munitions or “suitcase bombs” for possible use by infiltration and sabotage teams.

Amazingly, the Davy Crockett wasn’t the only micro-nuke in the American Cold War arsenal. The U.S. military planned to use other smaller yield weapons on the ground, in the air and at sea. Consider these:

The U.S. Army fires a nuclear artillery shell as part of the 1953 Upshot-Knothole Grable tests, held in Nevada.

The U.S. Army fires a nuclear artillery shell as part of the 1953 Upshot-Knothole Grable tests, held in Nevada.

From 1962 until 1992, the U.S. military maintained a stockpile of several thousand W48 nuclear artillery shells. Each of the $1.25-million 155-mm rounds could be fired by conventional artillery pieces. The W48 would have created an explosion equal to 72 tons of TNT (roughly between three and seven times more powerful than the Davy Crockett). Other U.S. nuclear artillery rounds included the 203 mm W33 and the massive 1.1 kiloton W79 shell.

Planes like this 1950s-era CF-101 Voodoo might have fired nuclear tipped air-to-air missiles.

Planes like this 1950s-era CF-101 Voodoo might have fired nuclear tipped air-to-air missiles against Soviet bomber formations.

No need to aim the AIR-2 Genie air-to-air missile too carefully – the onboard 1.5-kiloton warhead would instantly blot out anything flying within 1,000 feet of it. The weapon was designed to be launched by fighter jets like the F-89, F-106 Delta Dart and the CF-101 Voodoo against large formations of Russian bombers like the Tu-95 Bear in the event the Soviets ordered a massive air strike on North America. More than 3,100 of the Mach-3 missiles were deployed between 1958 and 1985 — both U.S. and Canadian air forces were equipped with the weapons. Only one AIR-2 Genie was ever tested. The detonation took place 20,000 feet over a Nevada test range. To demonstrate the low risk associated with using the weapons, even over civilian areas, a group of military personnel supposedly stood in the open without any protective gear directly beneath the explosion. A similar weapon was the AIM-26 Falcon, which incidentally packed the same W54 warhead that was used in the army’s Davy Crockett.

The detonation of a nuclear depth charge off California.

The detonation of a nuclear depth charge off California.

The Mk. 90 “Betty” was a Cold War-era nuclear depth charge that was introduced in 1955 only to be removed from service five years later. The selectable five to 10-kiloton weapon (about a third to two thirds the size of the Hiroshima bomb) was only test fired once off San Diego.

The MADM or Medium Atomic Demolition Munition was a U.S.-built nuclear landmine with a selectable yield of between one to 15 kilotons. They were conceived to help halt any massive communist onslaught into Western Europe by blowing a hole in the advancing Red Army. It’s unclear if any MADMs were ever deployed, but what is certain is that the United States wasn’t the only NATO power to develop these sorts of devices.

The British Blue Peacock was a similar 10-kiloton bomb that could be buried beneath critical infrastructure throughout West Germany. In the event the Soviets overran NATO defences, the top secret weapons could be set to detonate within eight days of a general retreat, leaving the Soviets a with a series of smoking, radioactive craters within their newly-acquired territories. The British ordered an unknown number of the bombs deployed across West Germany in 1957, but withdrew them the following year recognizing that the political fallout from the project might be almost as toxic as nuclear waste. Oddly enough, Blue Peacock designers feared that the sensitive electronics within the buried bombs would become unresponsive during the frozen winter months. As such, the engineers proposed enclosing live chickens within the seven-ton weapon casings along with quantities of food and water. It was hoped that the birds would generate enough body heat to keep the explosives’ electronics from freezing solid. When details of the mines along with their unorthodox fowl-based heating system were declassified in 2004, the British media quickly dubbed the weapon the “chicken-powered bomb”.  

4 comments for “Little Shots – The Cold War’s Smallest Nukes

  1. 21 October, 2013 at 2:20 am

    Great stuff, especially the chicken-powered bomb. Truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.
    It makes me think of a James Bond movie that hasn’t been made … yet: –
    Bond is wandering around Q’s lab, and spots the Blue Peacock.
    Bond: “What the cluck does this thing do?”
    Q: “Oh, grow up, double-O Seven!”

  2. 11 December, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    These small nukes were so foolhardy… No real logical basis since if it ever came time to deploy these, the world would have been in shambles. At least with the WWII bat bombs, there was reasoning behind it. But after been in Hiroshima and met actual survivors, humankind is woeful when it comes to even having these true weapons of mass destruction. Interesting read once again.

    • admin
      11 December, 2013 at 5:37 pm

      Thanks, Mustang!

  3. subdriver
    23 April, 2017 at 11:06 pm

    Why is their no mention of the 45 cal. atomic bullet? That was developed and deployed to selected first line officers in Germany after WW II and the Cold War until mid 1990’s. Designed to take out Russian First line Battle Tanks.

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