MGR-1 Honest John

The MGR-1 Honest John rocket was the first nuclear-capable surface-to-surface rocket in the United States arsenal.[notes 1] Originally designated Artillery Rocket XM31, the first unit was tested on 29 June 1951, with the first production rounds delivered in January 1953. Its designation was changed to M31 in September 1953. The first Army units received their rockets by year's end and Honest John battalions were deployed in Europe in early 1954. Alternatively, the rocket was capable of carrying an ordinary high-explosive warhead weighing 1,500 pounds (680 kg).

MGR-1 Honest John
An "Honest John" rocket on truck
TypeNuclear-capable surface-to-surface rocket
Place of originUnited States
Service history
In service1953–91
Used byBelgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, and USA
WarsCold War
Production history
ManufacturerDouglas Aircraft Company
Mass5,820 lb (2,640 kg)
Length327 in (831 cm)
 length197.4 in (501.5 cm)
Diameter30 inches (76 cm)

15.4 mi (24.8 km)

History and development

Developed at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, the Honest John was a large but simple fin-stabilized, unguided artillery rocket weighing 5,820 pounds (2,640 kg) in its initial M31 nuclear-armed version. Mounted on the back of a truck, the rocket was aimed in much the same way as a cannon and then fired up an elevated ramp, igniting four small spin rockets as it cleared the end of the ramp. The M31 had a range of 15.4 miles (24.8 km) with a 20 kiloton nuclear warhead and was also capable of carrying a 1,500-pound (680 kg) conventional warhead.

The M31 system included a truck-mounted, unguided, solid-fueled rocket transported in three separate parts. The Honest John was assembled in the field before launch, mounted on an M289 launcher, and aimed and fired in about 5 minutes. The rocket was originally outfitted with a W7 nuclear warhead, with a variable yield of up to 20 kilotons of TNT (84 TJ); in 1959, a W31 warhead with three variants was deployed with yields of 2, 10 or 30 kt (8.4, 41.8 or 125.5 TJ). There was a W31 variant of 20 kt (84 TJ) used exclusively for the Nike Hercules anti-aircraft system. The M31 had a range between 3.4 and 15.4 mi (5.5 and 24.8 km).

Early tests exhibited more scatter on target than was acceptable when carrying conventional payloads. Development of an upgraded Honest John, M50, was undertaken to improve accuracy and extend range. The size of the fins was greatly reduced to eliminate weathercocking. Increased spin was applied to restore the positive stability margin that was lost when fin size was reduced. The improved M50, with the smaller fins and more "rifling", had a maximum range of 30+ miles with a scatter on target of only 250 yards (230 m), demonstrating an accuracy approaching that of tube artillery. The Honest John was manufactured by the Douglas Aircraft Company of Santa Monica, California.[1]

In the 1960s, sarin nerve gas cluster munitions were also available, designed to be interchangeable for use with either the Honest John or MGM-5 Corporal. Initially the M79 (E19R1) GB cluster warhead, containing 356 M134 (E130R1) bomblets for the M31A1C Honest John. The production model was the M190 (E19R2) GB cluster warhead, containing 356 M139 (E130R2) bomblets when the M31A1C was phased out in favor of the XM50 Honest John. Under nominal conditions it had an mean area of effect of 0.9 square kilometers.[2]


The two basic versions of Honest John were:

  • MGR-1A (M31) was 27 feet 3 inches (8.31 m) long, had an engine diameter of 22.875 inches (58.10 cm), a warhead diameter of 30 inches (76 cm), a span of 104 inches (260 cm), weighed 5,820 pounds (2,640 kg) (nuclear), and had a maximum range of 15.4 miles (24.8 km). The Hercules Powder Company X-202 rocket motor was 197.44 inches (5.015 m) long, weighed 3,937 pounds (1,786 kg), and had 90,325 lbf (401.79 kN) average thrust.[3]
  • MGR-1B (M50) was 24 feet 10.53 inches (7.5827 m) long, had an engine diameter of 22.8 inches (58 cm), a warhead diameter of 30 inches (76 cm), a span of 56 inches (140 cm), weighed 4,332 pounds (1,965 kg) (nuclear), and had twice the range of the M31. An improved propellant formulation gave the rocket motor 150,000 lbf (670 kN) thrust.

Production and deployment

Production of the MGR-1 variants finished in 1965, with a total production run of more than 7,000 rockets. The Honest John's bulbous nose and distinctive truck-mounted launch ramp made it an easily recognized symbol of the Cold War at army bases worldwide and National Guard armories in the U.S.. Even though it was unguided and the first U.S. nuclear ballistic missile, it had a longer service life than all other U.S. ballistic missiles except the Minuteman system. The system was replaced with the MGM-52 Lance missile in 1973, but was deployed with the National Guard units in the United States as late as 1983. Conventionally armed Honest Johns remained in the arsenals of Greece, Turkey and South Korea until at least the late 1990s.

By the time the last Honest Johns were withdrawn from Europe in the late 1980s (and replaced by the unguided M-26 artillery rocket), the rocket had served with the military forces of Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark (non-nuclear), France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway (non-nuclear), South Korea, Taiwan (non-nuclear), and Turkey.[4]

Name origin

In late 1950, Major General Holger Toftoy was a colonel overseeing the development of the rocket. The project was in danger of cancellation "on the grounds that such a large unguided rocket could not possibly have had the accuracy to justify further funds."[5] On a trip to White Sands Missile Range, Toftoy met a Texan man who was prone to making unbelievable statements. Whenever anyone expressed doubt about the man's claims, he would respond, "Why, around these parts, I'm called 'Honest John!'" Because the project was being questioned, Toftoy felt that the nickname was appropriate for the rocket and suggested the name to his superiors.[5]

Support vehicles

Vehicles used with the Honest John platform:

  • M33 trailer, launcher,
  • M46 truck, heating and tie down unit (G744)
  • M289 truck, rocket launcher, (M139 truck) (G744),
  • M329 trailer, rocket transporter, (G821)
  • M386 Truck, Rocket, 762mm, short launch rail, 5-ton (M139 truck)
  • M405 handling unit, trailer mounted,
  • M465 cart assembly, transport, 762mm rocket,

Surviving examples




United Kingdom

United States


Former operators


Used in various Corps and Divisional artillery units (75, 3, 20 and 14th Artillery Battalions) from 1960 to 1978. Replaced by Lance missile.


Canada adopted the MGR-1B with the 1-kiloton W31 warhead. Four units were assigned to 1 Surface to Surface Missile Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery at Hemer, Germany under 4 CIBG. Two to four units were supplied to 2 SSM Battery at CFB Shilo in Manitoba for training. These units were formed in September 1960. 1SSM maintained very high readiness and able to deploy to firing positions quickly. Their ability to maintain camouflage kept even elite NATO special forces from locating them in exercises. 1SSM was authorized to wear the black scarf of the Congreve rocket gunners. Canada disbanded the Honest John batteries in mid-1970 without replacement.[9][10]

 South Korea
 United Kingdom
 United States

See also


  1. The first nuclear-authorized guided missile was the MGM-5 Corporal.


  1. Gibson, Nuclear Weapons of the United States, pp. 177–179, 1996
  2. Kirby, Reid, "The CB Battlefield Legacy", Army Chemical Review July–December 2006, pp. 25 – 29.
  3. Bedard, Double Base Solid Propellants, "Major Hercules Motors", p. 3, 2009
  4. General Dynamics, Free World Tactical Missile Systems (Pomona, CA: General Dynamics, June 1973) p.251; Jane's Weapon Systems 1987–1988 (London: Jane's, 1987) p.127.
  5. McKenney, Janice E. (2007). The organizational history of field artillery 1775–2003. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army. p. 212. ISBN 9780160771149.
  6. "001". 28 September 2007. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  7. "Underwood Online--Sights". Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  8. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 3 February 2016.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  9. "Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery". Retrieved 4 July 2018.
  10. The Honest John in Canadian Service – John Davidson, Canada's Weapons of War Series, WOW030, A5 size softback, 24 pages,ISBN 978-1-894581-71-4, Service Publications, Canada


Meccano Ltd. U.K. in its Dinky Toys range produced a model of the International Harvester Honest John missile launcher under the reference 665.

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