A Legendary Military Secret

Sighthead of a Norden bombsight (in the canvas bag) being taken to a Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan at an Army Air Field in Texas in 1942. The lower portion of the Norden bombsight, called the “stabilizer,” was permanently installed in the nose of the aircraft. In this photo the stabilizer has a canvas cover. The guards are carrying Thompson submachine guns.

Bombardier Training

The bombsight was a complex assemblage of more than 2,000 cams, gears, mirrors, lenses, and other components. The bombardiers were required to learn a precise, extensive tuning sequence to operate it. Training in the air was expensive so the bombardiers were trained on an A-6 bombing trainer, which duplicated the conditions of being in an aircraft.

The bombsight computed rate, speeds, times, wind, and distances and converted it into the release time. The pilot and the bombardier worked together to get all of the conditions correct. When the pilot leveled the airplane, the bombardier would level and stabilize the gyroscope – the level bubble needed to be dead center. By the time the bomb reached its target, the airplane was ahead of the target. After the bombs were released the pilot resumed command. When in the hands of a skilled bombardier, the bombsight was the best the military had for the technology of the time.

The sight was considered so important that it is said to have been armed with explosives so that it could be destroyed immediately, to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.


“Mindful of the secret trust about to be placed in me by my Commander in Chief, the President of The United States, by whose direction I have been chosen for bombardier training, and mindful of the fact that I am to become guardian of one of my country’s most priceless military assets, the American bombsight, I do here, in the presence of Almighty God, swear by the Bombardier’s Code of Honor to keep inviolate the secrecy of any and all confidential information revealed to me, and further to uphold the honor and integrity of the Army Air Forces, if need be, with my life itself.”

Pickle Barrel Club
In 1940, Barth, Norden’s business partner and marketer, to reinforce the bombsight’s reputation for accuracy, claimed the bombsight could hit its target into a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet. The company began using the “pickle barrel” accuracy imagery. After the bombsight became known publicly in 1942, the Norden Company rented Madison Square Garden for a company gathering and employee appreciation. Between the presentations of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, there was a demonstration that dropped a wooden “bomb” into a pickle barrel, at which point a pickle popped out.
Theodore H. Barth listens to famed clown Emmett Kelly explain his own plan for a bombsight. Surrounded by military personnel, Mr. Barth (right, foreground) was attending a celebration at which the company received its third consecutive Army and Navy “E” award given to recognize the outstanding war effort being made.
After the “Pickle Barrel” accuracy concept became synonymous with the Norden bombsight, the Navy established a yearly military accuracy competition for bombardiers. The bombardier who came the closest to the target would proudly get to sign his name in the book of the Pickle Barrel Club. It was a highly sought after honor to be a member of the Pickle Barrel Club.


Hermann W. Lang was hired by Carl L. Norden Company in 1929 and became a trusted member of the team (living in Ridgewood Queens). Despite the security precautions, Lang’s idenity as a German spy was unknown. Lang was thought to have delivered copies of the blueprints of the Norden Bombsight rolled up in an umbrella cane to the Germans before the war began. In 1941, Lang, along with the 32 other German agents of the Duquesne Spy Ring, were arrested by the FBI and convicted. Lang was deported back to Germany in 1950 and maintained his innocence, claiming he was set up by double agent Bill Sebold.

Patriotism in the Crosshairs

In 1941, when the War Department put out a call to the American public—for donations of long, healthy hair to use the strands in the development of military instruments — Mary Babnick Brown must have known immediately this would be her way to contribute to the war effort. She responded to an ad in a Colorado and offered to cut and donate all 34 inches of her untreated hair. Mary did not know that her hair had been used for the Norden bombsight until 1987 when, at the age of 80, she received this letter from President Reagan. Most crosshairs are made of wire or simply etched into the glass.