The United States Army once developed and fielded an atomic recoilless rifle. This weapon is sometimes mistakenly called an atomic bazooka. It was named the Davy Crockett Weapons System. Also, while still classified, the weapon made an appearance in a 1962 Japanese monster movie.
In the late fifties and early sixties the United States and its NATO allies were faced with a grave strategic problem; they were vastly outnumbered by the Communist armies stationed in Eastern Europe. NATO could not hope to match the Warsaw Pact tank for tank. So in an attempt to redress the balance, the United States produced a number of “tank killing” weapons; these included the Maverick missile mounted on helicopters and shoulder-launched anti-tank weapons. One of the stranger anti-armor weapons developed at this time was the Davy Crockett Weapon System.
The Davy Crockett was named after the frontiers- man and politician who had been killed at the Alamo. The recoilless rifle (sometimes misnamed a bazooka) fired the M-388 shell, a version of the Mark-54 atomic warhead which had a blast yield of between ten and twenty tons of TNT. Weighing about 75 pounds, or 35 kilograms, the Mark-54 was one of the smallest atomic weapons ever produced.
Between 1961 and 1971 America fielded some 2,100 of the Davy Crockett system, mostly to Europe. The atomic weapons were operated by a three-man team and were carried in either Jeeps or in armored personal carriers, but could also be dismounted and carried by the firing team. Off the vehicle the weapon was mounted on a tripod to launch. Depending on the launching mechanism used the shell could be lobbed up to range of 2.5 miles, or just over four kilometers. It could also be fired at targets as close as 1000 meters; firing the weapon at ranges that close was suicidal for the crew.
The M-388 shell was notably inaccurate, so the Davy Crockett was very much an area weapon. Also the blast effect was too small to have much direct effect on a tank, unless the armored vehicle was directly under the explosion. The Mark-54’s main killing effect was due to the massive amount of radiation from the bomb. Anyone within a quarter of a mile, or 400 meters, of the explosion, was dead. Someone within 500 feet or 150 meters of the blast, even inside an armored vehicle, would die in minutes to perhaps an hour of radiation exposure. A person between 150 meters to 400 meters away would be exposed to a fatal dose of radiation, but they could linger for a few days, to as long as a month before finally expiring. Beyond the 400 to 500 meter zone, people could survive the radiation with massive medical intervention. However, anyone within about 1000 meters, or 6/10th of a mile, would likely die of cancer.
One of the odder things about this strange weapon is that it made an appearance in the 1962 B-grade monster movie “King King versus Godzilla.” The Davy Crockett was still classified in 1962 and yet the weapon system made two appearances in the movie; once it fired the berry juice that knocked out King Kong and once loaded with atomic warheads as the last ditch weapon to divert Godzilla and King Kong from stomping Tokyo. It is still a mystery as to how this highly secret weapon managed to show up in the movie.