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M65 Atomic Howitzer

When nuclear weapons were first introduced, there emerged a debate over their ultimate purpose. Were they strategic weapons, or tactical weapons? Were they only to target cities, or could they be used on the battlefield against soldiers? Who holds the authority over nukes, the civilian government or the military?

While we do still have this debate from time to time today, particularly with the lapsing of certain arms treaties, it was a far more hotly contested question in the 1950s. For example, during the Korean War, the American general Douglas MacArthur asked President Harry Truman to drop nuclear bombs on Chinese soldiers who were crossing the border to fight for communist North Korea. Truman said no, and later sacked MacArthur when he didn’t play ball.

Yet that scenario was only a microcosm of the larger picture, and this question would continue to get more complicated as technology around nuclear weapons advanced. Today, we have for you one of the results from that technological advancement. This is the M65 Atomic Cannon – the howitzer that could shoot nuclear artillery shells.

The Cold War

Launch of 'The Nordic Countries- From War to Cold War, 1944-1951'
Launch of ‘The Nordic Countries- From War to Cold War, 1944-1951’ by Foreign and Commonwealth Office is licensed under CC-BY

The year was 1949. The Soviet Union had just performed their first successful test of a nuclear weapon, and America was coming to grips with the fact that it no longer possessed a nuclear monopoly. At this point in time, nuclear weapons consisted almost entirely of bombs, dropped from the air. Rocketry was still a new concept to the world, and it would be another few years before missiles would become the mainstay of not just nuclear arsenals, but armed forces in general.

With that in mind, officials in the US Army were anxious to develop some sort of nuclear capability for themselves. Up until this point, the Air Force had been the branch of the American armed forces that handled all things nuclear, and in a classic display of interservice rivalry, the US Army wanted their own crack at it. The stated justification was self-reliance; if push came to shove, they wanted to be able to rely on their own tools rather than have to say please when asking the Air Force for help. Ultimately it was decided that the army should have a nuclear-capable artillery piece for tactical situations. To that end they enlisted the aid of Picatinny Arsenal, a research and development facility located, where else, in New Jersey.

The development of the weapon, named the M65, was rushed forward, and it was finished within three years – a remarkably quick process, if you don’t consider that artillery had been a thing for hundreds of years and it would have been somewhat embarrassing if it had taken any longer. Whatever the case, the development was completed and a test piece created, which in 1953 rolled down the streets of Washington, D.C. as a part of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inaugural parade. But this gun was no mere showpiece. He says.

Atomic Annie

M65 Atomic canon
M65 Atomic canon by Mark Pellegrini is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The M65 drew quite a bit of inspiration from the German K5 railroad gun, which achieved fame during World War 2 when a pair of them were used to great effect against American landings at Anzio, Italy. The gun would subsequently earn the nickname, “Anzio Annie”, and when it was used as inspiration for the M65, its nickname would come along with it, turning the M65 into “Atomic Annie”.

The gun was not self-propelled, instead being transported by two specially designed tractors in the same way that German railroad guns were carried by specially designed locomotives. Including both the gun and the carriage, the entire thing weighed a total of 172,865 lbs (78,410 kg) or, to use the official YouTube unit of measurement, around 60 Toyota Corollas. The gun itself had a 280mm (11 inch) barrel, with the whole assembly resting on a ball and socket joint, allowing it a full-360 degree firing angle. Its primary armament was, of course, the W9 nuclear artillery shell, which it could fire up to 20 miles (30km) away. This shell was 54.8 inches (~4.5 feet) long, weighed a staggering 850 lbs (390kg) and had an explosive yield around 15 kilotons of TNT. In short, big gun with nuclear shells.

Soon after appearing in Eisenhower’s parade – four months, to be exact – the M65 underwent a test in Nevada, where a W9 shell was launched and detonated seven miles away. To date, this is the only nuclear shell to ever be fired from a cannon. The test was considered a success, and at least twenty additional M65s were built, destined to be deployed overseas in Europe, Korea, and Okinawa, living proof that America was there to defend the world from communism with everything it had.

Of course, that was the idea, now let us tell you why it didn’t work.

A Matter of Prestige

Soon after the M65 was introduced and its 20 or so pieces were manufactured, a bunch of factors came together at once to make the gun more or less obsolete. To start with, the M65 itself was hardly a state-of-the-art piece of military hardware, being big, bulky, and difficult to move around. What’s more, the range of the artillery piece was severely limited when compared with even short-range bombers. This trade-off was not new; a similar fate befell the battleship when aircraft carriers proved superior in almost every respect.

What’s more, the M65 was starting to see competition. We mentioned rocketry earlier in the video, and after the M65 was complete, the US conducted several successful tests of attaching nuclear warheads onto rockets and missiles, including the W54, one of the smallest nuclear warheads ever deployed. This gave the M65 competition for its role in delivering tactical nuclear weapons, and as if that weren’t enough, the US developed new nuclear artillery shells, the W48 and W33, which were compatible with the army’s more conventional artillery. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, nuclear artillery shells are a much bigger risk to their operators than conventional artillery shells. If a regular shell cooks off and blows up before being fired, that’s one thing, but if a nuclear shell does that… you see the problem.

In short, the M65 became a white elephant: a weapon kept not for its merits, but for the prestige associated with it. For this reason, it was not fully retired until 1963, after the Cuban Missile Crisis laid bare the risks associated with nuclear weapons. Today, the M65 lives on only in museums and there is a general consensus the world over that more nukes is bad, and it is perhaps a very good thing that nuclear artillery didn’t catch on.

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