A Brief History
On September 30, 2004, the AIM-54 Phoenix air to air missile was retired from service with the US Navy, having been the prime air to air weapon of the F-14 Tomcat swing wing fighter plane, the king of naval aviation from 1974 to 2006. With Mach 5 speed and 100 nautical mile range, the Phoenix could be targeted at as many as 6 targets at a time, making the Tomcat the first fighter in aviation history that could shoot down an entire flight of enemy planes at one time! Oddly enough, the AIM-54 is still in service with the Iranian Air Force and has been credited with 62 air to air kills for the Iranians, although this high tech and mighty missile was never fired in combat by an American pilot. Today we take a look at 5 iconic American weapons or weapon systems that are no longer in service but are certainly remembered fondly by those who used them. What weapons or systems would you add to this list?
Grumman F14 Tomcat and the AIM-54 Phoenix missile system.
A match made in aviation heaven! The 2 engine, 2 crewman F-14 was to defend the US fleet from enemy bombers by shooting down intruders at long range. Expecting the possibility of numerous incoming threats, the F-14 was designed to employ the AIM-54 Phoenix missile and associated radar and guidance systems, incredibly sophisticated for its day (introduced in 1974) with the capability of shooting down 6 enemy planes simultaneously. Plus, the 100 nautical mile range (a nautical mile is about 6076 feet, as opposed to a statute mile at 5280 feet, the “normal” mile we use with our cars and the like) allowed the Tomcat to defend the fleet before the enemy could launch its weapons. The F-14 was built to carry 6 of the big Phoenix missiles along with 2 short ranged Sidewinder (AIM-9) infrared guided missiles and an internal 20mm cannon, though the size and weight of the Phoenix meant that carrying a full load created excess weight for the fighter which resulted in accelerated wear and tear on the airframe. No other fighter was ever developed to employ the Phoenix system, and the Iranian Air Force was the only user of the F-14 and the AIM-54 other than the US Navy. The F-14 was rather large for a carrier deployed fighter, with a length of 62 feet and a wingspan (wings fully extended) of 64 feet, and a rather hefty gross weight of 61,000 pounds! (Compared to the World War II main US Navy fighter, the Grumman F6F Hellcat, which topped out at 12,598 pounds gross weight.) This meant only the largest aircraft carriers could deploy the Tomcat. The Phoenix missile was big, too, checking in at 13 feet long and weighing 1000 pounds. Surprisingly fast and agile, the Phoenix had a top speed of Mach 5, while the Tomcat could zip along with its wings swept back at over Mach 2.4. While the Phoenix was retired from service with the US Navy in 2004, the Tomcat soldiered on without it until that great plane was itself retired in 2006.
106mm Recoilless Rifle.
Designed as a lightweight anti-tank and armored vehicle weapon that still had the punch to actually destroy an enemy tank, the 6 gun weighed in at a svelte 462 pounds, which may sound heavy until you compare it to the 5,000 pounds a typical 105mm howitzer weighs, or the similar weight of a 105mm tank main gun. Designated the M40 and introduced to service in 1955 to replace the less than satisfactory M27 105mm recoilless rifle, in fact, the M40 was also a 105mm caliber weapon, but the “caliber” was changed to prevent confusion with the 105mm ammo used by the M27, the 105mm howitzer ammo, and the 105mm tank ammunition. A direct fire weapon, gunners did not have to worry about the extensive laying of the gun as in mortars or howitzers, and aiming was aided by a .50 caliber spotting rifle attached to the gun that fired a White Phosphorus round that gave a distinct puff of white smoke when it hit. Capable of accurate direct fire up to 1480 yards, the gun could actually lob a round over 6000 yards if for some reason the gunner wanted to crank up the elevation and let loose. Usually mounted on a light vehicle such as a Jeep, Humvee or M274 “Mule,” the 106 could also be used on the ground with a tripod. The ammo had a nifty shell casing with hundreds of little holes in it allowed the hot gasses to escape into the chamber where they were redirected out the back of the breach, creating a tremendous “backblast” equal to the muzzle blast, thus equalizing pressure and creating no recoil. (Personnel had to beware the backblast! That blast could kill you.) the 106 was a versatile weapon, relatively cheap to make and operated and capable of blasting away with High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rounds, High Explosive Plastic (HEP or HEPT) rounds, High Explosive Armor Piercing, and “Cannister” or “Beehive” rounds that fired a massive load of flechettes (darts) in a manner similar to a giant shotgun for anti-personnel use. Another nifty use of the 106 was to mount 6 of the guns on a light armored vehicle called an “Ontos,” and although the guns had to be loaded externally by the crew, they could be fired from inside the vehicle, providing a light armored assault weapon useful for anti-bunker and anti-personnel use as well as in the anti-armor role. The 106 was replaced in the USMC by the Dragon anti-tank wire guided missile and phased out by 1981. In 1981, this author was the platoon commander of the Dragon/106 platoon for a USMC rifle battalion and was ordered to turn in the guns prior to deploying overseas. Somehow, this absent minded lieutenant “forgot” to turn in the guns and we took them on our deployment to the Mediterranean and Red Sea/Persian Gulf deployment. Heck, the ships were pre-loaded with ammunition for the guns and we had the men and “mules” to use them, so why not bring them along? They would have provided an extra level of comfort in combat, adding to our versatility fer sher. Powerful, cheap and relatively easy to use, these big guns will be missed.
Often described as “jellied gasoline,” this gooey, incendiary substance was invented in 1942 specifically for the US military. American fighting men use the stuff to burn down Japanese cities and burn out caves and bunkers containing the enemy during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. On January 21, 2009, on the first day of Barack Obama’s first term, the US finally signed the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) of 1980, agreeing to not use Napalm except to prevent the loss of civilian lives. No more would the Robert Duvall character (Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore) from Apocalypse Now be able to opine, “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning… it smells like victory!” Originally made with the thickening and gelling agents of co-precipitated aluminum salts of naphthenic acid and palmitic acid, the more modern version was made using polystyrene plastic as the thickening and stickening agent. Kind of a fiendish weapon, this modern version of Greek fire burns between 1400- and 2100-degrees Fahrenheit, and sticks stubbornly to anything it lands on, including flesh. While we are admittedly loath to see the stuff used on humans, the big fireballs emanating from the cannisters dropped by low flying ground support fighter planes have been a great comfort to our ground troops over the years. (And they look awesome!) Capable of ferreting out enemy troops concealed in bunkers or within armored vehicles, Napalm could burn down cities and enemy concealing underbrush alike. Unfortunately, as with other weapons of war, when Napalm finds its way onto civilians the effects are horrific and tragic, as evidenced by one of the most famous/infamous photographs of all time, that of a Vietnamese girl running naked from a Napalm attack. As useful and nifty as this stuff has been in combat, we hope it is never used in anger again.
Marine Raider Stiletto.
A deadly knife that looks like it belongs in the hands of a James Bond villain, this sleek dagger featured a pointy, thin two sided blade with a cruciform hand guard. It was issued to Marine Raiders in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II for up close and silent “wet” work as the previously issued World War I era trench knife, complete with its “knuckle duster” handguard was unsuitable for the finer forms of knife fighting, such as the “fencing” type of thrust. Similar to the British Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife, the USMC version was actually modeled on that deadly piece of steel. Designed by Lieutenant Colonel Clifford H. Shuey (later a Brigadier General) and manufactured by Camillus, less than 15,000 were made and issued to Raiders in 1942 before being replaced by the familiar Marine Corps Ka-Bar fighting knife, which had more general utility than just for silent killing. Unfortunately, the Americans used inferior materials (zinc alloy instead of brass) for the handles of the Stilettos, resulting in some durability problems in an effort to save important strategic war materials. Still, the knife was cool as heck and deadly in its intended use. With a blade over 7 inches long, the Stiletto cold be expected to reach vital organs in a thrust or to cut a throat of a sentry quietly and efficiently. As much as this author loves his Ka-Bar, there is something inescapably cool about the Raider Stiletto.
M-79 40mm Grenade Launcher.
Affectionately known by a variety of names, such as “Blooper,” “Thumper,” or even “Big Ed,” among others, this single shot wooden stocked top-break breech loading gun provided each USMC fire team with a designated “Grenadier,” wearing a vest containing a myriad of grenade types for all sorts of purposes. Since the grenadier did not carry an M-16, being issued instead with a .45 caliber pistol, he would often have his blooper loaded with a cannister shot shell (containing 27 x 24 grain metal balls as projectiles) in case he should encounter enemy troops. Other types of ammunition included smoke, CS gas, high explosive, high explosive dual purpose (capable of defeating 2 inches of steel armor), illuminating flare, and anti-personnel riot control rounds. The M-79 made its appearance in 1961, and by the 1970’s was being replaced by the M-203, an unwieldy device that placed the bulky grenade launcher tube under the barrel of an M-16. While the M-203 allowed the grenadier to retain rifleman capabilities, the launcher itself was harder to use and not as handy as the M-79. That sweet M-79 could be fired incredibly fast and was easier to shoot accurately, with a point accuracy range of 350 meters and an area (maximum) range of 400 meters. Produced from 1961 to 1971, about 350,000 of these bloopers were built in the US, while other countries made their own versions. A few of these handy weapons can still be found here and there, and when this author was deployed aboard a US Navy amphibious ship the ship was equipped with a complement of M-79, which were great fun to shoot at barrels floating in the water. Rate of fire is listed at 6 rounds per minute, but that must mean “well aimed,” because you could certainly fire the thing much faster if you were in a hurry to provide massive firepower. Other types of rifle/grenade combinations are being developed to replace the M-203.
Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite weapon we no longer use? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Escobar, Robert. Saps, Blackjacks and Slungshots: A History of Forgotten Weapons. Catoblepas Press, 2018.
Guardia, Mike. Tomcat Fury: A Combat History of the F-14. Magnum Books, 2019.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of a U.S. Navy Grumman F-14A Tomcat from fighter squadron VF-1 Wolfpack launching an AIM-54 Phoenix missile, is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 6640329. This file is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain in the United States.