Handheld nuclear weapons? The Army was once working on them

Update (Aug. 30, 2012) – Thanks to an alert reader (see Yale S. in comments) I now know the Army actually did deploy the weapons mentioned in this post. Known as the Davey Crockett, the low-yield, sub-kiloton nuclear devices were deployed in Europe from 1961 to 1971. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Davy_Crockett_%28nuclear_device%29 for more detailed information.

If you check the Internet, you will find some discussion on the possibility of developing a handheld or shoulder-holstered nuclear weapon launcher. More recently, the discussion has centered on a so-called briefcase bomb that terrorists might be able to deliver undetected to a major U.S. city.

But I was amused recently to come across a very matter-of-fact discussion about the imminent development of a handheld nuclear launcher on a “Meet the Press” program broadcast Jan. 4, 1959.

Gen. James M. Gavin, left, is decorated by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery during World War II.

The guest that day was Gen. James M. Gavin, who had just resigned as chief of the Army Division of Research and Development. The questioner is John W. Finney of the New York Times. (Thanks to otrcat.com, where I purchased an archive of these shows.)

Gen. Gavin was no crackpot. He was a highly respected military man who had served with distinction during World War II and was a leading advocate for racially integrating the armed forces.

More than anything, what this clip illustrates to me is the incredible naivety the military had about nuclear bombs in the 1950s. Remember, this was the period during which above-ground tests were contaminating wide swaths of the American West and sickening its people — something the government has belatedly, and reluctantly, admitted.

Click the link below to listen to the clip, then feel thankful the general’s predictions didn’t come true. Otherwise, U.S. troops may be training Afghan soldiers today in the use of such weapons, while hoping they don’t end up in the hands of terrorists or, in any case, that soldiers could run away faster than the fallout from such a bomb could come back to get them.

Meet the Press, Jan. 4, 1959

Categories: Utah issues, Washington

About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.


  1. Yale S.

    Mr. Evenson,
    General Gavin was not referring to -possible- nuclear weapons, he was describing weapons that were in fact deployed in Europe.

    The “tube” weapon was the Davy Crockett. Over 2000 were made, and was in field service from 1961-71.


    A typical “backpack” is shown here:

    A nuclear artillery shell, deployed by the thousands, years ago, that would make a perfect “suitcase nuke”.

    • Yale S.,
      Thank you for that reply and for educating me. I thought I had researched this, but obviously was using the wrong search terms. This is very interesting stuff.

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