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On October 27, 1942, the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, the nation’s wartime intelligence agency, asked the National Defense Research Committee to come up with a silent, easily concealed weapon that its covert operatives could carry deep into occupied territories and use for such purposes as eliminating sentries or guard dogs. The OSS’s proposed specifications included a muzzle velocity of 1,000 feet per second and a minimum reloading time of 30 seconds. Wrestling with the challenge, the NDRC’s engineers set aside ideas for propellant weapons and, looking to the past for inspiration, decided instead to investigate the potential of crossbows.

Vital Statistics

Weighing in at 2.25 pounds, the Little Joe was 13 inches long and 8 inches high.


The upper arm pivoted up and back on a bearing until the string engaged with two release-mechanism “fingers.”


The pistol had a disk or bead front sight and an adjustable rear leaf sight.


With efficient cocking, the Little Joe could shoot four rounds per minute.


The darts were metal shafted and flighted, with a broad cutting head. In tests the arrows penetrated the 1,276-page Washington, D.C., telephone book at point-blank range.

One of their ideas, which reached prototype form in February 1943, was the “Little Joe Penetrometer” — essentially a hand-held, vertical-profile pistol crossbow. The frame was made from heat-treated aluminum; the bowstring from 50 rubber bands. A section of graphite-coated linen in the center of the bowstring was the contact point for an 8-ounce bolt with a broad-headed metal tip.

With a muzzle velocity more in the neighborhood of 170 feet per second, Little Joe failed to meet its design specification. But it was very quiet (just 72 decibels on firing) and very accurate (6-inch groups at 20 yards), with an effective range of 30 yards—at which distance the bolt would pass through a uniformed human. Despite the evident mechanical ingenuity of the Little Joe and some improved models (one of them dubbed the “Joe Louis”), U.S. special operations forces never adopted the pistol-style crossbow, suppressed pistols being more practical and efficient.

Chris McNab, a military historian based in the United Kingdom, is the author of many books.

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