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A tripod mounted Davy Crockett (Public domain)

The Most Terrifying Weapon Ever Devised

It posed a severe danger to the user as well as enemy combatants

Grant Piper
Nov 17, 2020 · 6 min read

When people think of terrifying weapons from human history, they usually focus on the macro-scale “doomsday” weapons of the 20th century — especially Cold War weaponry. Things such as germ warfare bombs and thermonuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles often make the cut. However, the most terrifying weapon ever designed comes to us from a smaller more tactical level.

The Davy Crockett Weapon System was a recoilless gun that was just as likely to kill the user as it was to kill the enemy. A single shot from the Davy Crockett Weapon System also known as the M-28/M-29 was almost guaranteed to lead to dozens of friendly fire casualties, hundreds of enemy casualties and the outbreak of a world ending thermonuclear war.

So what exactly was this weapon and what was it used for?

A Nuke For The Common Man

The Davy Crockett is a miniaturized nuclear warhead capable of being launched from a recoilless rifle by a single man or a tandem team. The warhead itself was an Mk-54 which weighed only 50lbs. This allowed a single dedicated operator, or pair, to setup, aim and fire a nuclear warhead at the tactical level.

Today, nuclear weapons are tightly controlled by centralized nests of authority. In the United States and Russia, nuclear missiles cannot be authorized for launch without a strict adherence to a chain of command that operates at the very highest levels of the respective governments. That means the only people who can truly authorize mass nuclear strikes are world leaders.

This system was put into place after the Cold War due in large part to the development of weapons such as the M-29.

The miniaturization of nuclear weapons shifted their use to people lower and lower on the chain of command. While it would take a world leader plus a handful of high level military officials to launch a nuclear weapon today, in the 1960s it was possible that a field commander or platoon leader could order a nuclear strike via the use of a Davy Crockett.

Operator Beware

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A nuclear equipped Jeep (Credit: Army Historical Foundation)

The Davy Crockett Weapons System came in two variations, the M-28 and the M-29. The difference between the two was the effective range at which they fired. The M-29 had an effective range of 2.5 miles while the M-28 had an effective range half that at 1.25 miles.

This range is extremely short for the use of nuclear weapons and immediately put the operator and surrounding friendly forces in danger of getting exposed to lethal doses of radiation.

In fact, it was shown that lethal radiation could extend out a quarter mile from the point of detonation. That means with the use of the M-28, you only had a mile of wiggle room to play with when launching a nuclear warhead in order to not damage friendly troops.

Adding another level of danger to the already scary prospect of hand launching a nuclear warhead from the tactical level was the fact that the Davy Crockett rifle was horribly inaccurate.

The point of impact was hard to predict and hard to control. The launch system for the warhead itself just was not accurate enough to warrant the use of nuclear weapons. For conventional warheads such as mortars, inaccuracy poses more of a headache than a major SNAFU. Being inaccurate with a 80 gigajoule nuke is much scarier.

It also did not come with a kill switch or abort function. If the warhead was fired, it would detonate. There was no going back from a mistake and no room for error. The only option the warhead gave to the operator was to choose at which height it exploded at. There was no way to deactivate it mid-flight and no way to fire a round which was not primed to detonate.

Use with care.

Even under the most generous situations, the use of the Davy Crockett would be extremely risky to friendly forces. In the unpredictable environment of a live modern battlefield, the risk goes up even further.

Potential Use

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A tandem aiming a Davy Crockett tripod (Credit: Army Historical Foundation)

Despite the inherent danger to using such an inaccurate nuclear weapon, the United States manufactured around 2,100 units of the Davy Crockett Weapons System. This was not a weapon system that sat in a warehouse as an item for potential use, NATO forces deployed to the field with these weapons in the 1960s.

Most NATO commanders were squeamish about deploying nuclear weapons at such a granular level. The risk of human error was simply too great to put these weapons in the hands of people on the ground. Yet, they did.

One member of the NATO leadership openly advocated for their use. West Germany Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss claimed deploying the M-28 and M-29 nuclear weapons on the bridges linking West Germany with East Germany would be the ultimate deterrent and would cut down on the need for mass artillery batteries.

Luckily, Josef’s wish for mass deployment of tactical nuclear weapons never came to fruition.

The only reason to ever need to use such a weapon would be in the face of overwhelming ground forces that were threatening to overrun important NATO positions in Europe. The idea was to launch Davy Crockett at advancing Red Army positions in order to stall them or halt their advance in order to open an avenue for a ceasefire.

They were appealing to commanders on the ground due to their maneuverability and firepower. The M-29 could be mounted to a Jeep or APC and moved rapidly across the battlefield and be capable of launching a nuclear warhead.

The problem was, any use of nuclear weapons now matter how small ,was seen as a potential spark for all out nuclear war.

The True Terror

Not only was this weapon an inherent and almost certain lethal risk to the soldiers tasked with operating them, they were also a sure fire way to start a thermonuclear war. Putting the spark for the potential annihilation of all humanity into the hands of common soldiers was a terrifying prospect. And that has nothing to do with the soldier’s themselves.

When you get down to the level of an individual soldier the risk of error goes up massively. Orders can get misinterpreted, orders can get passed down wrong, orders can be cut off. The confusion and terror of battle could cause someone to fire a nuke without proper authorization. These nukes could be fired by a single person. Nuclear war could have come down to an accident, an itchy trigger finger or poor judgement from a low level officer.

Not only that, even if the use of the Davy Crockett did not immediately start a nuclear World War III, the resulting explosion was at a high risk of zapping the operating crew with lethal radiation as well as blowing dozens if not hundreds of the enemy out of existence. Fire more than one and an entire battlefield could become a confused radioactive hellscape that was indiscriminate in who it killed.

Today, we rarely fear the threat of nuclear annihilation because we have some faith that our leaders have enough sense not to use The Bomb. In the 1960s, that decision was not in their hands but in the hands of privates in the trenches.

These factors combined truly make the Davy Crockett the most terrifying weapon ever devised.

Don’t agree with me? Raise your hand if you would sign up to fire a 50lb nuclear warhead, prone to a high level of inaccuracy, at a range of one mile.

Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

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Grant Piper

Written by

Hobbyist historian | Political scientist | Story teller | Lover of animals | Freelancer | Always open for work ->

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

Grant Piper

Written by

Hobbyist historian | Political scientist | Story teller | Lover of animals | Freelancer | Always open for work ->

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

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