A Nuclear Bomb Bazooka: Meet the Davy Crockett Recoil-less Rifle

Photograph of a U.S. developed M-388 Davy Crockett nuclear weapon mounted to a recoilless rifle on a tripod, shown here at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland in March 1961. Department of Defense.
August 22, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Davy CrockettNuclear WeaponsCold WarTactical NukesU.S. Army

A Nuclear Bomb Bazooka: Meet the Davy Crockett Recoil-less Rifle

Straight out of the Fallout games.

Davy Crockett was never deployed as extensively as originally envisioned. Although funding was okayed for 6,247 guns, only 2,100 were produced, along with 400 XM-388 rounds. The nuclear rounds were manufactured between April 1961 and February 1965. Instead of hundreds of Davy Crockett-armed squads roaming the nuclear battlefield, a limited number of Atomic Battle Groups, consisting of an officer and 12 men, were assigned to battalion headquarters companies by special authorization of the Department of the Army. With four launchers under his control, a battalion commander had the capability of initiating a nuclear-fire mission within minutes. Even so, the Davy Crockett’s utility depended on decentralized control. The weapon was viewed negatively by the Kennedy administration and by field commanders in Europe. Test firings described as “too inaccurate to deliver even low-yield nuclear fires” led to a short deployment for Davy Crockett, with retirement taking place over the period 1967 to 1971.

B54 Special Atomic Demolition Munition (SADM)

The final weapon to make use of the W-54 warhead was the B54 Special Atomic Demolition Munition (SADM). The primary purpose of atomic demolition munitions was to breach enemy defenses or to deny various facilities and approach routes to an advancing enemy. SADM was deployed concurrently with the larger W-45 based Medium Atomic Demolition Munition (MADM). SADM had a variable yield in a range from 10 tons to one kiloton. It came complete in a shipping case that measured 35 inches by 26.6 inches by 26.2 inches and weighed 163 pounds. The case, which also contained arming and firing components, was nicknamed “the suitcase bomb” because of its shape. It was equipped with a mechanical lock for security. SADM itself was a cylinder 12 inches in diameter and 17 inches long, with a weight of 58.7 pounds.

SADM was equipped with an H-912 backpack for offensive operations. Special Forces troops rigorously practiced training missions in which a SADM-armed team was parachuted into enemy terrain, where it could use the weapon for harassment and interdiction. The two-man rule for nuclear weapons was practiced even here. Divers were also trained to swim the device into an enemy harbor for attacks on shipping and infrastructure. The device was equipped with a special flotation device if divers were parachuted into the water. This kept the unit afloat while the divers readied their underwater gear. In Europe, the placement of the munition to blunt a Soviet thrust was preplanned, although the units were not pre-positioned, being kept under centralized control. The SADM had a mechanical timer with delays available from five minutes to 24 hours. The weapon was manufactured from August 1964 to June 1966, and 300 were produced. The last unit was retired from service in 1989.

Although the W-54 warhead has long since been retired and dismantled, the legacy of the weapon lives on. Its technology is highly sought after by terrorists desiring to prosecute a nuclear attack. Although multi-kiloton yields would be difficult to produce, a yield in the Davy Crockett range would not be insurmountable for a motivated individual or group able to obtain an adequate supply of plutonium. A terrorist weapon with an explosive yield in the 20-ton range could bring down many of the world’s largest structures if properly placed, and its radiation could kill thousands or even tens of thousands of people. The final, unforeseen cost of the XW-51/W-54 will be eternal vigilance.

Originally Published December 14, 2019.

This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Photograph of a U.S. developed M-388 Davy Crockett nuclear weapon mounted to a recoilless rifle on a tripod, shown here at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland in March 1961. Department of Defense.