Directory of U.S. Military Rockets and Missiles
Copyright © 2002 Andreas Parsch

Douglas M31/M50/MGR-1 Honest John

The Honest John was the U.S. Army's first nuclear-armed surface-to-surface rocket.

Development started in May 1950, when Restone Arsenal was tasked with the development of a large caliber unguided solid-fuel field artillery rocket with a capability for nuclear armament. In late 1950, Douglas was contracted to develop the new rocket, to be named Honest John. Flight testing began in June 1951, and in January 1953, the first limited-production Honest John rockets, designated Artillery Rocket XM31, reached U.S. Army units. In September 1953, the Honest John was reclassed as M31, and the first operational units were deployed in Europe in Spring 1954.

The M31 Honest John was an unguided 762 mm artillery rocket, powered by a M6 solid-fuel rocket engine, and spin-stabilized in flight by two M7 spin motors. Of all U.S. nuclear weapons of the 1950's, the Honest John was the easiest to operate. The rocket was transported from the depot to the launching unit by truck and trailer in three parts (warhead, motor, fins). Assembling the rocket, and mounting it on the M289 launcher was then accomplished by six men with a crane in about five minutes. The rocket was then ready for aiming and firing to a range between 5.5 km (3.4 miles) and 24.8 km (15.4 miles). Because of its simplicity, Army units actually preferred the Honest John to the guided MGM-5 Corporal and MGM-18 Lacrosse missiles.

Photo: U.S. Army
M31 (MGR-1A)

In 1954 production switched to the M31A1 model with a slightly improved M6A1 rocket motor. Further improvements of the rocket motor resulted in the M31A1C (late 1956), and the M31A2 (1959, M6A2 motor). Production of the M31 basic Honest John continued until 1960, with almost 7800 rockets built.

As early as 1955, the Redstone Arsenal started looking for a major improvement of the Honest John, tentatively known as XM31E2. Contractual problems with Douglas, as well as technical difficulties of finding a new rocket configuration delayed the program, but in 1957 Douglas had completed the design of the improved Honest John, now known as XM50. Flight tests of the XM50 started in June 1958 and continued through July 1959. In 1960 production of the Honest John switched from the M31A2 to the XM50, and the first XM50 rockets reached operational units in 1961.

The XM50 Improved Honest John had a significantly improved solid-rocket motor, being lighter and yielding higher thrust, and had completely new square-tipped fins for much improved stability. These changes almost doubled the range, and significantly increased the accuracy of the rocket. In December 1962, the XM50 was reclassified as M50. There was also a product-improved version designated M50A1.

Photo: U.S. Army
XM50 (MGR-1B)

In June 1963, all Honest John rockets were redesigated in the MGR-1 series, as follows:

Old Designation New Designation
M31 (all variants) MGR-1A
M50 MGR-1B
M50A1 MGR-1C

Production of the MGR-1B/C (M50) versions ended in 1965, after more than 7000 rockets had been built. By the late sixties, the MGR-1A had been completely replaced by the newer versions. In 1973, the MGM-52 Lance began to replace the MGR-1, and Honest John was relegated to U.S. Army National Guard units. In 1982, the last Honest John was discarded by the National Guard.


Note: Data given by several sources show slight variations. Figures given below may therefore be inaccurate!

Data for MGR-1A/B:

Length8.30 m (27 ft 3 in)7.92 m (26 ft)
Finspan2.77 m (9 ft 1 in)1.37 m (4 ft 6 in)
Diameter0.76 m (30 in)
Weight2640 kg (5820 lb)1960 kg (4330 lb)
SpeedMach 2.3
Ceiling9+ km (30000+ ft)
Range24.8 km (15.4 miles)48 km (30 miles)
PropulsionHercules M6 solid-fueled rocket; 411 kN (92500 lb) Solid-fueled rocket; 666 kN (150000 lb)
WarheadW-7 (20 kT), later W-31 (2-40 kT), nuclear fission; or 680 kg (1500 lb) conventional HE

Main Sources

[1] James N. Gibson: "Nuclear Weapons of the United States", Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 1996
[2] Bill Gunston: "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rockets and Missiles", Salamander Books Ltd, 1979
[3] Redstone Arsenal Historical Information Website

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Last Updated: 11 January 2002