Atomic Cannons.

America's Atomic Cannons

The Atomic Cannon occupies a sweet spot in the global nuclear arsenal -- somewhere between smart-bomb missiles and really dumb atomic hand grenades. Designed and deployed by the U.S. in the white-hot heat of the Cold War -- but never fired in battle -- the Atomic Cannon made sense in an insane Red Nightmare scenario: if you could build a gun big enough, it could fire a nuclear warhead far enough to vaporize the enemy without vaporizing the Americans who pulled the trigger.

Atomic Cannons.
Army brass watch Atomic Cannon aftermath from far away.

As an Atomic Armageddon delivery system, the cannon was promoted as cheaper, less vulnerable, and more accurate than 1950s-era bombers. The cannon was also touted as simple and efficient. In theory, a seven-man Atomic Cannon crew could wipe out an entire motorized division of invading Commie troops, then drive back to base in time for lunch.

With a fearsome 43-foot-long barrel, the Atomic Cannon was the Army's largest gun and a real celebrity weapon, appearing in President Eisenhower's 1953 inaugural parade and several mass-produced plastic model kits. Its biggest media moment -- seen in many newsreels -- came when one of the cannons successfully fired a live nuclear round at the Nevada Test Site. But nuclear weapons kept getting smaller, and the Atomic Cannon gradually found itself replaced by less bulky atomic howitzers and portable atomic mortars. Only 20 cannons were built; all were retired by 1963.

Atomic Cannons.

The public's fascination with the Atomic Cannon, however, proved as resilient as radiation in their fiestaware. There's something appealingly badass (but wrong, so wrong) about a big gun that shoots a nuclear bomb. Several of the cannons were saved from the scrap heap, and put on outdoor display at Army bases and civilian museums across the U.S. They remain as historical relics and popular attractions.

Casual observers may overlook an Atomic Cannon as just another plugged-up piece of military hardware, but Atom-Age-savvy tourists know better.

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