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Tsar Bomba: The Most Powerful Nuclear Weapon Ever Built

Tsar Bomba
Tsar Bomba. Image: USSR screenshot from YouTube.

The 20th century saw the development of many weapons that could have ended civilization as we know it, but nothing compares to the potentially devastating power of the Soviet Union‘s epic “Tsar Bomba.” It will be remembered as the most powerful nuclear bomb ever built, and it had a blast that was more powerful than 50 million tons of TNT.

A Short History

The hydrogen aerial bomb actually is even listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as being the most powerful thermonuclear device to be created and it lived up to the moniker Tsar Bomba or “King of Bombs.”

When it was tested on October 30, 1961, it became the most powerful human-made explosive ever detonated when it was dropped from a specially modified Soviet Tu-95 bomber over the Novaya Zemlya islands in the Soviet Arctic. It was so powerful that it nearly knocked the aircraft out of the sky, and it took great effort from the pilot to regain control and correct it.

The fact that the aircraft almost crashed wasn’t a surprise – in fact, the crew had been told they’d have a 50/50 chance of survival!

According to Reuters, the explosion created a fireball and a mushroom cloud that rose up some 60 km above the surface, even penetrating the stratosphere. Everything within three dozen miles was vaporized and there was damage from the bomb more than 150 miles away. Windows as far away as Norway and Finland were reported to have shattered.

In the nearly 60 years since that test, no single explosive device has even come close to matching its destructive power.

Yet despite the size of the impact, the bomb’s existence wasn’t widely publicized, and it was only in August 2020 that the Rostom State Atomic Energy Corporation, Russia’s state atomic agency, finally released 40 minutes of previously classified video footage. Now available on YouTube (see above), it documents the bomb’s manufacture all the way to when it became nothing but a truly massive mushroom cloud.

Why Was It Built?

The bomb had been personally commissioned by then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who originally called for the development of a 100-megaton nuclear weapon – an unheard of bomb then and even now. Fortunately, Soviet engineers were unable to actually develop such a weapon but still managed to present Khrushchev with a 50-megaton version.

Even at half of what the Soviet dictator had called for, the AN602 – or Tsar Bomba – was literally thousands of times more powerful than the atomic bombs that the United States dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. More notably, the Tsar Bomba also dwarfed the detonation of the United States’ Castle Bravo, which yielded just 15 megatons and yet was the most powerful nuclear weapon ever tested by the United States.

The video footage shows that it wasn’t just the size of the yield that was truly massive, the bomb itself was huge in every sense of the word, weighing 27 tons and comprising the size of a city bus.

The bomb was so powerful it could have destroyed any major city, as well as the surrounding suburbs. One can only wonder what damage the Soviet Union and its neighbors might have experienced had an actual 100 megaton been tested.

Fortunately, there were no human casualties from the test, and no bomb matching its near-godly power was ever tested. Two years later, in 1963, the U.S. and Soviet Union signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited airborne nuclear weapons tests.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

Written By

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

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