Over the years, the U.S. defense apparatus has attempted to build an astonishing number of bizarre weapons. The Cold War was a time when it seemed like the Department of Defense and the CIA would try almost anything to get the edge over the Soviet Union.
From turning cats into listening devices to a plane that would drop nuclear waste forever, it was a real field day for the American military.
In 1973, the Army and the CIA, wanting to take advantage of Americans' love for sports, created a literal explosive football designed to bust Soviet tanks. If a soldier could throw a spiral, they could help win World War III, giving a literal meaning to the term "long bomb."
At the start of the Cold War, NATO planners envisioned as many as 175 Soviet divisions advancing across Western Europe. In their mind, NATO troops would find themselves fighting the Red Army's new T-62 tanks in cities and towns, populated areas where the collateral damage from anti-tank missiles could kill civilians.
NATO needed something that could fight armored vehicles effectively but was smaller and could be used by a single soldier at short ranges. They also wanted a weapon that would not reveal a soldier's location and leave them vulnerable to the enemy while being fired.
The Soviets had already developed the RKG-3 anti-tank grenade, which featured a shaped charge with a two-meter kill radius that was accurate within 80 feet. The U.S. Army created five possible tank-busting grenade prototypes and one from the Army's Land Warfare Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, came up with a football-shaped design.
"Since a regulation size football weighs 14 ounces, it was considered feasible to make a shaped charge grenade within this weight limitation. In addition, most US troops are familiar with throwing footballs," according to the Army's test report for the weapon.
Designing the explosive was a simple task, but not a well-thought-out one. The Army simply hollowed out a Nerf football and shoved the explosive charge inside. While the weight of the football was the same, the passer didn't enjoy the same accuracy a Roger Staubach might have enjoyed on the gridiron.
Footballs fly the way they do when passed, because there's an even distribution of weight surrounding the hollow ball. When you shove a 14-ounce explosive into it, it's not going to fly quite the same way. In fact, the result was "unpredictable," which is not a descriptor you want associated with your regulation grenades.
It wasn't the first time the U.S. military had tried merging the wide world of sports and the even wider world of weapons design. During World War II, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor to the CIA, created a grenade the same size as a regulation baseball, believing American soldiers would be more adept at throwing them.
This design actually killed more American troops during testing than it ever did enemy soldiers, but the military continued to work at a baseball-like design. By 1968, the M-67 saw widespread use in Vietnam and beyond. Smaller than a baseball, but heavier, it's still in use today. The football idea, however, got punted along with the idea of any anti-tank grenade.
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