Of all of the many silly names for nuclear weapons system that have been given, Davy Crockett has got to be one of the odder ones, in my view.1
The “Davy Crockett” was a nuclear weapons system using the smallest nuclear warhead (by weight and yield, but not diameter) that the United States ever produced. The sucker was little — in photos it looks like it is just about a yard long, barely over a foot high.
By nuclear standards, it was, as one colleague has put it, “a mere firecracker.” Only .01–.02 kilotons — just a baby! From a physics perspective, you’re talking about a warhead that weighed 51 lbs yet put out the explosive equivalent of 10 to 20 tons of TNT — in other words, a weapon which has the explosive output of roughly 780X what it would it would be if it were made of conventional explosives. The largest conventional (non-nuclear) bomb in the US arsenal is the MOAB, which has a blast yield of some 11 tons of TNT, according to Wikipedia. So this is a nuke that sits right at the threshold of the conventional/nuclear range, in terms of energy output. Except for, you know, the radiation, which is a big part of its selling point.
The last atmospheric (above ground) nuclear test series that the United States ever had — just before the Limited Test Ban Treaty took effect — was to test the Davy Crockett system. The aptly named ”Little Feller” tests were held on July 7 and 17, 1962; Attorney General Robert Kennedy, among others, was present to observer the test. (Last Tuesday was the 50th anniversary of the second one.)
As for the name “Davy Crockett” itself, it’s not at all clear who named this thing, or exactly why. It’s almost surely done in the spirit of the 1955 Disney movie — the “king of the wild frontier,” who “killed him a b’ar when he only three” — as prior to that he was a much more obscure figure in popular culture. The name apparently goes back to the earliest days of the project, in 1958.2
Personally, I think naming a nuclear weapon after a guy who (probably) died defending the Alamo in an utterly avoidable last-stand battle is a little grim, but nobody asks me my opinion on this sort of thing. Did the French name any of their nukes after Dien Bien Phu?
All right, enough jibber-jabber, let’s look at some images.
I have — after a few weeks of effort, I might add — managed to get the Library of Congress system to cough up Army Field Manual FM23-20, “Davy Crockett Weapons System in Infantry and Armor Units,” which has some great Davy Crockett photographs that I’d never seen before, as well as notes on how you’d go about trying to use this thing.
The LOC has somewhat slow scanners, and somewhat expensive photocopiers, so I’m not going to reproduce the report in full (at least at this time). But it’s a cool thing, and here are my favorite parts.
First, the Davy Crockett was really two different systems — a “light” gun (the M28) and a “heavy” gun (the M29). They used the same ammunition; the only difference was how far they could shoot the projectile and how large the cannon was. Both could be mounted onto jeeps.
The light system had a range of up to 2 kilometers, whereas the heavy system could go up to 4 kilometers. So that’s pretty close, but again, it’s a small detonation. In theory you could do this totally “safely,” but heaven help you if you’re talking about complicated engagements. I wouldn’t want to be out there on the tactical atomic battlefield on any side, frankly.
The advantage of having these on a jeep is that you could wheel it around pretty quickly, and you could store half a dozen of the warheads in the back. I mean, who hasn’t thought about doing this once or twice?
But the really gobsmacking aspect of the Davy Crockett is that it was man-portable. They had “port-a-packs” (their term!) that a little squad of soldiers could use to trudge these things around in the field.
The big guy, in the middle, has the nuke. The little guy, second from the right, wonders why they couldn’t just use the jeep.
The instructions in the manual explain that you — the guy in charge — needed to “indoctrinate” your squad with a sense of “urgency” when they used the Davy Crockett, so they would always be running around as fast as possible. It also mandates that, “The search for nuclear targets is constant and vigorous.” Vigorous!
OK, so you’ve got your squad. They are feeling urgent. You march them out. Suddenly, you see a nuclear target! What next? First, unload your “port-a-packs,” and assemble your tripod.
Next, get the gun barrel into the tripod.
Next, you put the propellant in. The projectile has no means of launching itself — it’s more like a grenade than a missile. The way the gun works is that you put a huge tube of conventional propellant behind the projectile, and then a long “launching piston.” The piston is attached to the nuke. When the conventional propellant goes off, it sends the piston flying, which in turn transfers that force to the projectile.
Next, you basically assemble the other parts of the gun, get the nuke ready to go (you can choose to have it go off in ways optimized for a “low” or “high” burst height — I don’t know what functional difference there was, or how a simple switch could change it) and carefully fit the nuclear projectile onto the front. (Please don’t drop the nuke. And I think it may be redundant at this point to note that you are instructed not to smoke around the nuke. If you need assistance, please call your IKEA service representative.)
Before you put the nuke on though, you’ve got to set the “timer dial.” This is actually located on the bottom of the nuke itself. This was a tricky thing, of course — you could only set it to a maximum of 50 seconds, and you wanted it to go off above the target in question, at the right height. The warhead was fairly “dumb” — it wouldn’t detect when the right time to go off was, you had to figure that out yourself to a pretty high degree of precision.
What if you messed up, and the nuke just slugged into the target? It wouldn’t, according the manual, detonate on contact. It would just break — a “functional failure” or “DUD.”
What then? Well, it explains, in such a contingency, the procedure is to wait 30 minutes, then verrrryyyy carreefully (my interpretation) go over to the maybe-dud nuclear warhead you just shot, recover it, and then pass it off to people who knew how to service nuclear weapons. (The nuke is not, it explains, serviceable in the field.) Not sure how that works when you’ve just aimed it at a Soviet tank column, but I’m just following procedure, here.
Back to firing the gun — a step not shown here is the work that goes into aiming it. Not very interesting photos, so let’s skip them. The gun itself shoots out a bunch of propellant from the back when it fires, so you have to unwind a very crude looking little firing line with a button on it.
And then you’re pretty much ready to go! Here’s the assembled Davy Crockett system (this is the large one, not the small one, but they look pretty similar).
The large one is somewhat more amusing than the small one, because loading it is quite inelegant looking by comparison:
There’s just no graceful way to load an atomic bazooka. Now you know.
Lastly, it’s time to address the obvious. Pretty much every photograph of the assembled Davy Crockett looks impressively phallic. But in my mind, the one below wins the award as “most disturbingly phallic.” This one comes from Chuck Hansen’s Swords of Armageddon. It’s kind of hard to imagine it wasn’t purposefully staged.
The less said about that, though, the better.
The Davy Crockett system was actively deployed from 1961 through 1971. The redoubtable Atomic Audit reports that they were found to be highly inaccurate and were not effectively integrated into actual war plans. Nonetheless, according to the same source, some 2,100 warheads for the Davy Crockett system were produced, at a cost of about half a billion (1998) taxpayer dollars.
The same warhead was also used for an “Atomic Demolition Munition” which was deployed until 1989 (!), but more on those another time — they’ve got their own story.
Just a note: the NPR’s very-cool Robert Krulwich has two pretty great posts recently. The first, which would be great even if it didn’t involve yours truly, is on “Five Men Agree To Stand Directly Under An Exploding Nuclear Bomb.” Check it out, if you haven’t already. The second sounds like a Bio-ethics 101 hypothetical but was a real question for a small number of people : “If You Are Hit By Two Atomic Bombs, Should You Have Kids?“
- The nickname of the AIR-2 Genie — “Ding-Dong” — would of course have taken the cake, if it were official. [↩]
- Roland B. Anderson and Leonard C. Weston, ”Project Management of the Davy Crockett Weapons System, 1958-1962,” (Army Weapon Command, Rock Island Arsenal, 26 October 1964), available from the Defense Technical Information Center. On the name, see the “discursive footnote” on page 12 of the report (page 24 of the PDF).
This report, incidentally, starts off in a highly amusing way:
Several centuries ago, Edmund Spencer recorded that he was impressed by “…the ever whirling wheel of change.” We can but speculate what his reaction would be today, for we have seen the pace of acceleration increase a thousand times more than it has during the entire previous span of human history. This is especially true in the continuing military technology affecting weapons, equipment, strategy, tactics, and even the fundamental concepts concerning the role of military power.
Today, we must telescope tremendous technological concepts, whose more simple tactical and strategical counterparts of a few years ago could be worked out at a relatively leisurely pace. The story of the Davy Crockett project is the recounting of such a telescoped project.
Wow! What an intro — from Spencer to the atomic bazooka, in two paragraphs.
The report also has a thesis that would not pass muster in any of the classes that I taught: “It is extremely difficult to draw any conclusions about the management of the Davy Crockett weapons systems’ development, except to say, it was successful.” [↩]