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"Little Boy"

The first nuclear weapon used in warfare was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945.

"Little Boy" was dropped from a B-29 bomber -- the Enola Gay -- piloted by U.S. Army Air Force Colonel Paul W. Tibbets. The bombardier set the control plugs to arm the 9,700-pound bomb just before it was dropped. When the bomb reached 1,850 feet, a radar echo set off an ordinary explosive inside. This drove a wedge of U-235 into a larger piece of U-235, setting off a blast with a force equal to 15,000 tons of TNT. Immediate deaths were between 70,000 and 130,000.

Little Boy in preparation for loading into the Enola Gay
Little Boy in preparation for loading into the Enola Gay

Three days later, a second atomic bomb, called "Fat Man," was dropped on Nagasaki.

How It Worked

"Little Boy" was what is commonly known as a "Gun-type" bomb, and actually did contain a gun. At one end of the barrel was a "target," a piece of U-235 slightly smaller than critical mass and shaped like a sphere with a conical wedge removed from it. At the other end of the barrel was another, smaller, piece of U-235 in the shape of a cone with its point towards the gap in the target. It was in the exact shape of the piece missing from the sphere. Together, the two pieces were just over critical mass. The smaller piece was backed by a charge of ordinary high explosive (a bag of cordite). When this was set off, the cone was shot into the sphere and the force of the impact welded the two pieces together solidly. The explosion followed instantly.

The "projectile" was a cylinder, about 6 inches long and 4 inches wide, and weighing 55 pounds. It was actually a stack of six uranium rings protected by a casing of steel, with a tungsten carbide and steel backing plate at the back end. The entire "projectile" assembly was locked in a thick steel box. The "target" was a hollowed-out cylinder, 6 inches long and 6 inches in diameter, with a 4-inch hole in the middle for the bullet, with a uranium mass of 85 pounds

The two parts were protected by boron casings designed to absorb the neutrons. The system of neutron reflectors was composed of steel and tungsten. This part, called the tamper, weighed about 5,070 pounds.

The barrel was made from a modified artillery gun barrel and breech assembly, measuring 4 inches wide and about 6 feet long, and weighing about 990 pounds..

The entire bomb was 10 feet long and 28 inches in diameter.

detailed schematic of Little Boy
detailed schematic of Little Boy

1) Box tail fins
2) Steel gun breech assembly
3) Detonator
4) Cordite explosives
5) Uranium-235 projectile
6) Barometric sensing ports and manifold
7) Bomb casing wall
8) Arming and fusing equipment
9) Gun barrel
10) Arming wires
11) Tamper assembly
12) Uranium-235 target (two 38-kg rings)
13) Tamper/reflector assembly
14) Neutron initiator
15) Telemetry monitoring probes
16) Recess for the boron safety plug to be ejected into

Although occasionally used in later experimental devices, this design was only used once as a weapon because of the extreme danger of accidental detonation. A simple crash could conceivably drive the "bullet" into the "target," resulting in a massive release of radiation, if not a full-scale nuclear detonation. A lightning strike or fire could also trigger the bomb. None of the other five "gun-type" atomic bombs built on the model of "Little Boy" were used by the United States Army.

See Also

"Fat Man"

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The Robinson Library >>Air Forces and Air Warfare >> Equipment and Supplies

This page was last updated on 08/30/2018.