This was the Army’s Cold War plan for a war on the Moon, and the weapons it’d use to win it

In 1965 the Army imagined a quick reaction force armed with dart-firing space guns.
Nicholas Slayton Avatar
(U.S. Army Weapons Command/Screenshot via Document Cloud)

The U.S. military likes to be ready for any situation or scenario. That is why the Army worked on developing secret space weapons for potential battles on the surface of the Moon. It wasn’t just a one-off idea either, the Army commissioned a full study looking at multiple options for space-ready armaments to use on a proposed lunar military base.

Step back in time to the 1960s. The Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik kicked off the Space Race, President John F. Kennedy promised to put a human on the Moon and the imagination of the Jet Age and the Atomic Age was in full effect. Technology had evolved so quickly in recent years, anything seemed possible. And with that can-do, the future-is-now mindset, the U.S. Army had an idea for space.

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The since-declassified 1965 study “The Meanderings of a Weapon Oriented Mind When Applied in a Vacuum Such as the Moon” — a title that feels far more like an early 20th Century science-fiction novella than military paper — lays out both ambitious ways for the Army to field a fighting force on the lunar surface, with revolutionary weapons. The paper comes from U.S. Army Weapons Command, Directorate of R&D, Future Weapons Office.

As the preface states:

The purpose of this brochure is to stimulate the thinking of weapon people all the way from those who are responsible for the establishment of requirements, through those who are responsible for funding, to the weapon designer himself.

(C) Although the primary purpose of man in space (on the moon or other planets) will not be to fight, he requires the capability to defend himself if necessary. There may be other countries desirous of preventing U.S. access to the moon and other planets. If space is truly for peace, we must be strong there just as we are on earth.

There is some context to this weapons proposal. Since the 1950s, the Department of Defense was exploring space as a possible front in both national security and the Cold War. A 1959 report outlined ideas for a lunar base, and way to move troops from terrestrial sites to the outpost — bear in mind this was all before Yuri Gagarin became the first person to be in outer space, it was still unclear how any of this would impact humans in actuality. 

The study outlines some issues with putting a military force in space. Although not as bad as initially feared, there are extreme temperatures on the lunar surface, and the vacuum of space presents issues with the use of weapons. 

(U.S. Army Weapons Command/Screenshot via Document Cloud)

Along with bases, this Army quick response force would need weapons, and that had its own challenges. As the paper outlines, space could create a “second evolution” of weaponry. This was after all the time of fantastical sci-fi B movies and pulp adventure, so the Army did consider laser guns. But the Army decided those futuristic weapons were at least two decades away, at least — an optimistic assessment in hindsight — so it proposed several ways to make kinetic weapons effective in space.

(U.S. Army Weapons Command/Screenshot via Document Cloud)

The ideas, under the section titled “Possible weapon concepts whose feasibilities have not yet been determined but are presented as ideas to stimulate thinking,” try to address these different concerns. Those included a fear that recoil of a conventional rifle might send a soldier flying backward. So the weapon concepts try to address that, with pre-loaded tubes of darts, or other novel ammunition. Those include two kinds of “sausage guns,” a “micro gun” and a close-range weapon that would fire gas from a high-explosive detonation. They even looked at a spring-powered gun that would fire a spherical projectile, which despite being for space feels much more retro in its type of ammo. Along with proposed schematics the Army even had some art drawn to show what these might look like in action.

(U.S. Army Weapons Command/Screenshot via Document Cloud)

Yes, that is a drawing of an Army soldier dual wielding space guns. Yes, this was a real proposal from U.S. Army Weapons Command.

Although the pop culture image of space warfare usually involves Space Marines — thank Starship Troopers and the James Bond film Moonraker — in 1965 the Army was convinced it would be the fighting force on the Moon. Granted, this is an Army study, and at the time the U.S. military had yet to coordinate its various space programs into a unified U.S. Space Command. 

Although the study was meant to stimulate ideas, it appears to have been discarded. The United States did send military pilots to the Moon in 1969, but as far as all historical records show, without the proposed space guns or lunar bases the paper outlines. In the more than five decades since it was published, the ideas in “The Meanderings of a Weapon Oriented Mind When Applied in a Vacuum Such as the Moon” never quite was realized, but it offers a unique perspective into how the Army thought future wars might play out in the final frontier. 

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