©2013 - Patrick L. Groleau

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I'm always curious if others who have worked with "special weapons" have found this to be one of the more common questions they are asked. "Largest" or "most powerful," of course, is easy, since the Soviets nicely obliged us by naming their perverse toy "Tsar Bomba," a name which loosely translated means "King of Bombs." As for the original question, I will alter slightly the "can they make them" to a more demonstrable "How small did they make them?"

Of my own experiences, there are things still I cannot tell you, but, of what can be easily investigated utilizing resources which are open to the public, it is most likely that there is a sort of "tie" when it comes to the answer to this question.

All of the readily available sources state that at 10-3/4" in diameter and 15-7/10" in length, weighing only 51 pounds, the W54 warhead is the "smallest" nuclear weapon ever produced. The W54 was used in the air-to-air AIM-26A Falcon. Variations of the warhead, such as the Mk-54 (used in the Army's "Davy Crockett" portable battlefield "mortar") and the Mk-54 SADM (utilized as the warhead package in the M-129/M-159 Special Atomic Demolition Munition), were all slightly larger than their parent W54 warhead.

These above three photographs are the best I can do to give you sense of the size of the W54. For the Falcon missile, it is obviously held in an internal chamber. Its location in the Davy Crockett is obvious, within the little "bomb" at the nose of the weapon. As for the SADM case, it suffices to say that this nuclear "mine" was referred to as a "backpack nuke!" I have not been able to locate a photograph of an actual W54 (a fact of which in and of itself should allow you to make certain inferences), however, a cutaway diagram of the W79, a 25% larger artillery shell also based upon a linear explosion design, should give you a sense of the appearance of the W54 warhead.

Interestingly, as pertaining to this "smallest" question, all of the available resources ignore the Army's W48 howitzer shell. Compared to the W54, while longer at 33-1/3" length and heavier at 118-128 pounds, at only 6-1/10" diameter the W48 Army howitzer shell (or, perhaps, an unknown counterpart produced behind the Iron Curtain) was clearly the narrowest nuclear weapon ever developed, tested, and deployed (I'll leave it to you to determine if a "linear implosion" design was ever employed in developing weapons even smaller than the W48. Hint: "Redwing Yuma").

When you compute the volume of the W54 it comes out to be 1422.89 cubic inches. A similar computation determines that the W48 has a volume of 973.57 cubic inches, making it overall 68% the size of the W54! Also, seeing that the diameter given for the W54 is the actual caliber of the howitzer for which it was ammunition, I wonder if the dimensions given for the W48 are of the warhead itself, or if they are its projectile's larger dimensions. If so, and the W79 projectile diagram is used as a guide, this would mean that the W48 warhead is even smaller than its listed dimensions!

What about questions such as, "What is the lightest weapon," or, "What weapon has the greatest explosive yield per pound, or, per cubic inch of weapon?" Hmmmmm ... tell you what, go to this chart and do the math yourself!

Perhaps more interesting, however, would be an answer to the question, "Why is the man in the striped shirt grinning as he pokes his finger inside an atomic bomb?"


“so, how small can they make ‘em?”