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A U.S. soldier firing a flamethrower during the Vietnam War

The M2A1-7 United States Army flamethrower with its parts labelled

A flamethrower is a mechanical device designed to project a long controllable stream of fire.

Some flamethrowers project a stream of ignited flammable liquid; some project a long gas flame. Most military flamethrowers use liquids, but commercial flamethrowers tend to use high-pressure propane and natural gas, which is considered safer. They are used by the military and by people needing controlled burning capacity, such as in agriculture (e.g. sugar cane plantations) or other such land management tasks. They can be designed to either be carried by the operator or mounted on a vehicle.

Military flamethrowers

Modern flamethrowers were first used during the trench warfare conditions of World War I; their use greatly increased in World War II. They can be vehicle mounted, as on a tank, or man-portable.

German Brennkommando (Burning Detachment) destroying Warsaw during the Planned destruction of the city.

The man-portable flamethrower consists of two elements: a backpack and the gun. The backpack element usually consists of two or three cylinders. In a two-cylinder system, one cylinder holds compressed, inert propellant gas (usually nitrogen), and the other holds flammable liquid - typically petrol with some form of fuel thickener added to it. A three-cylinder system often has two outer cylinders of inflammable liquid and a central cylinder of propellant gas to maintain the balance of the soldier carrying it. The gas propels the liquid fuel out of the cylinder through a flexible pipe and then into the gun element of the flamethrower system. The gun consists of a small reservoir, a spring-loaded valve, and an ignition system; depressing a trigger opens the valve, allowing pressurized inflammable liquid to flow and pass over the igniter and out of the gun nozzle. The igniter can be one of several ignition systems: A simple type is an electrically-heated wire coil; another used a small pilot flame, fueled with pressurized gas from the system.

The flamethrower is a potent weapon with great psychological impact upon unprepared soldiers, inflicting a particularly horrific death. This has led to some calls for the weapon to be banned. It is primarily used against battlefield fortifications, bunkers, and other protected emplacements. A flamethrower projects a stream of flammable liquid, rather than flame, which allows bouncing the stream off walls and ceilings to project the fire into blind and unseen spaces, such as inside bunkers or pillboxes. Typically, popular visual media depict the flamethrower as short-ranged and only effective for a few meters (due to the common use of propane gas as the fuel in flamethrowers in movies, for the safety of the actors). Contemporary flamethrowers can incinerate a target some 50–80 meters (165–270 feet) from the gunner; moreover, an unignited stream of flammable liquid can be fired and afterwards ignited, possibly by a lamp or other flame inside the bunker.

Flamethrowers pose many risks to the operator. The first disadvantage was the weapon's weight, which impairs the soldier's mobility. The weapon was very visible on the battlefield, operators become prominent targets for snipers. Flamethrower operators were rarely taken prisoner, especially when their target survived an attack by the weapon; captured flamethrower users were often summarily executed. Finally, the flamethrower's effective range was short in comparison with that of other battlefield weapons of similar size. To be effective, flamethrower soldiers must approach their target, risking exposure to enemy fire. Vehicular flamethrowers also have this problem; they may have considerably greater range than a man-portable flamethrower, but their range is still short compared with that of other infantry weapons.

The risk of a flamethrower operator being caught in the explosion of his weapon due to enemy hits on the tanks is exaggerated in Hollywood films.[1]

It should be noted that flame thrower operators did not usually face a fiery death from the slightest spark or even from having their tank hit by a normal bullet as often depicted in modern war films. The Gas Container [i.e. the pressurizer] is filled with a non-flammable gas that is under high pressure. If this tank were ruptured, it might knock the operator forward as it was expended in the same way a pressurized aerosol can bursts outward when punctured. The fuel mixture in the Fuel Containers is difficult to light which is why magnesium filled igniters are required when the weapon is fired. Fire a bullet into a metal can filled with diesel or napalm and it will merely leak out the hole unless the round was an incendiary type that could possibly ignite the mixture inside. This also applies to the flame thrower Fuel Container.[2]

The best way to minimize the disadvantages of flame weapons was to mount them on armoured vehicles. The Commonwealth and the United States were the most prolific users of vehicle mounted flame weapons; the British and Canadians fielded the "Wasp" (a Universal Carrier fitted with a flamethrower) at infantry battalion level, beginning in mid 1944, and eventually incorporating them into infantry battalions. Early tank-mounted flamethrower vehicles included the 'Badger' (a converted Ram tank) and the 'Oke', used first at Dieppe; the most famous flame tank was the Churchill Crocodile.[1]


A propane-operated flamethrower is a relatively straightforward device. The gas is expelled through the gun assembly by its own pressure and is ignited at the exit of the barrel through piezo ignition.

Liquid-operated flamethrowers use a smaller propane tank to expel the liquid. For safety reasons, the propane tank is behind the combustible liquid tanks in order to prevent being hit by a bullet. The propane is fed to two tubes. The first opens in the napalm tanks, providing the pressure necessary for expelling the liquid.[3] The other tube leads to an ignition chamber behind the exit of the gun assembly, where it is mixed with air and ignited through piezo ignition. This pre-ignition propane line is the source of the flame seen in front of the gun assembly in movies and documentaries. As the napalm passes through the flame, it is ignited and propelled towards the target.


Greek fire may have been an early version of the flamethrower.

The concept of throwing fire as a weapon has existed since ancient times. Early flame weapons date from the Byzantine era, whose inhabitants used rudimentary hand-pumped flamethrowers on board their naval ships in the early 1st century AD (see Greek fire). Greek fire, extensively used by the Byzantine Empire, is said to have been invented by Kallinikos (Callinicus) of Heliopolis, probably about 673. The flamethrower found its origins also in the Byzantine Empire, employing Greek fire in a device of a hand-held pump that shot bursts of Greek fire via a siphon-hose and piston, igniting it with a match, similar to modern versions, as it was ejected.[4] Greek fire, used primarily at sea, gave the Byzantines a substantinal military advantage against enemies such as members of the Arab Empire (who later adopted the use of Greek fire). An 11th century illustration of its use survives in the John Skylitzes manuscript.

A Chinese flamethrower from the Wujing Zongyao manuscript of 1044 AD, Song Dynasty.

The Pen Huo Qi (Fire Throwing Machine) was a Chinese piston flamethrower that used a substance similar to gasoline or naphtha, invented around 919 AD during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. Advances in military technology aided the Song Dynasty in its defense against hostile neighbors to the north, including the Mongols. The earliest reference to Greek Fire in China was made in 917 AD, written by the author Wu Ren-chen in his Shi Guo Chun Qiu.[5] In 919 AD, the siphon projector-pump was used to spread the 'fierce fire oil' that could not be doused with water, as recorded by Lin Yu in his Wu Yue Bei Shi, hence the first credible Chinese reference to the flamethrower employing the chemical solution of Greek fire.[6] Lin Yu mentioned also that the 'fierce fire oil' derived ultimately from China's contact in the 'southern seas', with Arabia (Dashiguo).[7] In the Battle of Langshan Jiang (Wolf Mountain River) in 932, the naval fleet of the Wenmu King of Wuyue defeated the fleet of the Kingdom of Wu because he had used 'fire oil' (huo yóu, 火油) to burn his fleet; this signified the first Chinese use of gunpowder in warfare, since a slow-burning match fuse was required to ignite the flames.[8] The Chinese applied the use of double-piston bellows to pump petrol out of a single cylinder (with an upstroke and a downstroke), lit at the end by a slow-burning gunpowder match to fire a continuous stream of flame (as referred to in the Wujing Zongyao manuscript of 1044 AD).[7] In the suppression of the Southern Tang state by 976 AD, early Song naval forces confronted them on the Yangtze River in 975 AD. Southern Tang forces attempted to use flamethrowers against the Song navy, but were accidentally consumed by their own fire when violent winds swept in their direction.[9] Documented also in later Chinese publications, illustrations and descriptions of mobile flamethrowers on four-wheel push carts appear in the Wujing Zongyao, written in 1044 AD (its illustration redrawn in 1601 as well).

Although flamethrowers were never used in the American Civil War, the use of Greek Fire was threatened, and flamethrowers have been in use in most modern conflicts ever since.[10]

Early 20th century

An M67 "Zippo" tank of the U.S.M.C. during the Vietnam war.

The English word 'flamethrower' is a loan-translation of the German word Flammenwerfer, since the modern flamethrower was first invented in Germany. The first flamethrower, in the modern sense, is usually credited to Richard Fiedler. He submitted evaluation models of his Flammenwerfer to the German army in 1901. The most significant model submitted was a man-portable device, consisting of a vertical single cylinder 4 feet (1.2 m) long, horizontally divided in two, with pressurized gas in the lower section and flammable oil in the upper section. On depressing a lever the propellant gas forced the flammable oil into and through a rubber tube and over a simple igniting wick device in a steel nozzle. The weapon projected a jet of fire and enormous clouds of smoke some 20 yards (18 m). It was a single-shot weapon - for burst firing, a new igniter section was attached each time.

German flamethrowers during the First World War on the Western Front, 1917

Using fire in a World War I battle predated actual flamethrower use, with a petrol spray being ignited by an incendiary bomb in the Argonne-Meuse sector in October 1914.[11]

It was not until 1911 that the German army accepted their first real flamethrowing device, creating a specialist regiment of twelve companies equipped with Flammenwerferapparaten.[citation needed] Despite this, the weapon went unused in World War I until February 26, 1915, when it was briefly used against the French outside Verdun. On July 30, 1915, it was first used in a concerted action, against British trenches at Hooge, where the lines were just 4.5m (5 yards) apart - even there, the casualties were caused mainly by soldiers being flushed into the open and being shot by more conventional means rather than from the fire itself.[11]

The flamethrower had other limitations: it was cumbersome and difficult to operate and could only be safely fired from a trench, so limiting its use to areas where the opposing trenches were less than the maximum range of the weapon, namely 18m (20 yards) apart - which was not a common situation; the fuel would also only last for about 2 minutes).[11]

Nevertheless, the German army continued deploying flamethrowers during the war in more than 300 battles, usually in teams of 6.

British forces in the Battle of the Somme used experimental weapons called Livens Large Gallery Flame Projectors, named for their inventor, a Royal Engineers officer William Howard Livens.[12]

World War II

Front and rear views of a man with a M2A1-7 United States Army flamethrower

The flamethrower was extensively used during World War II. In 1939, the Wehrmacht first deployed man-portable flamethrowers against the Polish Post Office in Danzig. Subsequently, in 1942, the U.S. Army introduced its own man-portable flamethrower.

The vulnerability of infantry carrying backpack flamethrowers and the weapon's short range led to experiments with tank-mounted flamethrowers (flame tanks), which were used by many countries.

Axis use


The Germans made considerable use of the weapon (Flammenwerfer 35) during their invasion of Holland and France, against fixed fortifications. WWII German army flamethrowers tended to have one large fuel tank with the pressurizer tank fastened to its back or side. Some German army flamethrowers occupied only the lower part of its wearer's back, leaving the upper part of his back free for an ordinary rucksack.

Flamethrowers soon fell into disfavor, except in reprisal operations.[citation needed] Flamethrowers were extensively used by German units in urban fights in Poland, both in 1943 in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and in 1944 in the Warsaw Uprising. On the Eastern Front the German army's "scorched earth" policy continued until the end of the war. (See the Stroop Report and the article on the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising). With the contraction of the Third Reich during the latter half of World War II, a smaller, more compact flamethrower known as the Einstossflammenwerfer 46 was produced.

A German soldier operating a flamethrower in 1944

Germany also used flamethrower vehicles, most of them based on the chassis of the Sdkfz 251 half track and the Panzer II and Panzer III tanks, generally known as Flammpanzers.

The Germans also produced the Abwehrflammenwerfer 42, a flame-mine or flame fougasse, based on a Soviet version of the weapon.[citation needed] This was essentially a disposable, single use flamethrower that was buried alongside conventional land mines at key defensive points and triggered by either a trip-wire or a command wire. It was found in Italy, buried with a fixed directional discharge tube and integrated with conventional landmines and barbed wire in defensive works. The weapon had an 8 gallon fuel tank and the seven flamethrowers in the installation were wired back to a control point and could be fired individually or all at once.


Italy employed man-portable flamethrowers and L3 Lf flame tanks during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, during the Spanish Civil War, and during World War II. The L3 Lf flame tank was a CV-33 or CV-35 tankette with a flamethrower operating from the machine gun mount. In the Northern Africa Theatre, the L3 Lf flame tank found little to no success.[13] An L6 Lf flametank was also developed using the L6/40 light tank platform.


Japan used man-portable flamethrowers to clear fortified positions, in the Battle of Wake Island,[14] Corregidor,[15] Battle of the Tenaru on the Guadalcanal[16] and Battle of Milne Bay.[17]

Soviet Union

Some Soviet Army flamethrowers had three backpack fuel tanks side by side. Its user could fire three shots, each emptying one of the tanks. The mechanism used to empty the tank was not a pressurized gas cylinder but a black powder cartridge on each fuel cylinder. This type is used in two versions, the "Light Infantry Flamethrower" (Легкий Пехотный Огнемёт) LPO-50 (ЛПО-50), and the "Heavy Infantry Flamethrower" (Тяжёлый Пехотный Огнемёт) TPO-70 (ТПО-70); a heavier, wheeled version was remotely triggered.

The ROKS-1 (РОКС-1) flamethrower was a stationary device used in defense. It could also be categorized as a projecting incendiary mine. Different from the LPO and TPO flamethrowers, the ROKS had only one cylinder of fuel.[citation needed]. The November 1944 issue of the US War Department Intelligence Bulletin refers to 'Fougasse flame throwers' used in the Russian defense of Stalingrad.

Unlike the flamethrowers of the other powers during World War II, the Soviets were the only ones to consciously attempt to camouflage their flamethrowers. With the ROKS-2 flamethrower this was done by disguising the "gun" as a standard issue rifle, such as the Mosin Nagant, and the fuel tanks as a standard infantryman's rucksack, to try to stop snipers from specifically targeting flamethrower operators.[citation needed]

Western Allies

British Empire

The British World War II army flamethrowers, "Ack Packs", had a doughnut-shaped fuel tank with a small spherical pressurizer gas tank in the middle. As a result, some troops nicknamed them "lifebuoys". It was officially known as Flamethrower, Portable, No 2.

The British hardly used their man-portable systems, relying on Churchill Crocodile tanks in the European theatre. These tanks proved very effective against German defensive positions, and caused official Axis protests against their use. There are documented instances of German units executing, out-of-hand, any captured British flame-tank crews.[citation needed]

United States

Marines engaging Japanese positions on Guam with a flamethrower.

In the Pacific theatre, the US Marines used the backpack-type M2A1-7 flamethrower and M2-2 flamethrowers, finding them especially useful in clearing Japanese trench and bunker complexes. In cases where the Japanese were installed in deep caves, the flames often consumed the available oxygen, suffocating the occupants. The Marines still used their infantry-portable systems despite the arrival of adapted Sherman tanks with the Ronson system (c.f. flame tank).

The U.S. Army used flamethrowers in Europe in much smaller numbers, though they were available for special employments. Flamethrowers were deployed during the Normandy Invasion in order to clear Axis fortifications.[18][19] Most boat teams on Omaha Beach included a two-man flamethrower team.[20]

In the Pacific theatre, Australian forces used converted Matilda tanks known as Matilda Frogs.

After 1945

A Riverboat of the U.S. Brownwater Navy shooting ignited napalm from its mounted flamethrower during the Vietnam war.

The United States Marines used flamethrowers in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The M132 Armored Flamethrower, an M113 armored personnel carrier with a mounted flame thrower was successfully used in the conflict.[21]

Flamethrowers have not been in the U.S. arsenal since 1978, when the Department of Defense unilaterally stopped using them. They have been deemed of questionable effectiveness in modern combat and the use of flame weapons is always a public relations issue due to the horrific death they inflict. They are not banned in any international treaty the U.S. has signed. Thus, the U.S. decision to remove flamethrowers from its arsenal is entirely voluntary.

The USSR developed a rocket launcher specifically for the deployment of incendiaries - the ΡΠΟ-80 (RPO) or Rocket-launched Infantry Flamethrower. It has similarities to the famous RPG-7 but the warhead is much bigger (approx. 2-3 liters of Napalm), reducing the effective range.

In the last stages of the Troubles, during the mid-80s, the IRA smuggled a number of flamethrowers from Libya.[22] They used a flamethrower, among other assault weapons, to storm a British Army permanent checkpoint in Derryard, near Rosslea, on 13 December 1989.[23] Another IRA unit attacked a British Army watchtower, the Borucki sangar, with an improvised flamethrower towed by a tractor in Crossmaglen, on 12 November 1992. The device consisted of a manure spreader which doused the facility with a thickened fuel this was then ignited few seconds later by a series of electrically triggered small gunpowder charges fitted inside tubes on the back of the manure spreader. The trigger for the gunpowder charges was a series of electrical timers contained in a tupperware box in the cab of the tractor which towed the manure spreader into position. A nine meters-high fireball engulfed the tower. The four Royal Scots soldiers inside were rescued by other soldiers from the main patrol base following which an Army Bomb Disposal Team flown in from Newry put out the fire inside the tower and defused the remaining charges on the manure spreader.[24]

Private ownership

In the United States, private ownership of a flamethrower is not restricted by federal law, but is restricted in some states, such as California, by state laws (cf. California Health and Welfare Codes 12750-12761, Flamethrowing Devices) [25]

In California, unlicensed possession of a flame-throwing device—statutorily defined as "any non-stationary and transportable device designed or intended to emit or propel a burning stream of combustible or flammable liquid a distance of at least 10 feet" H&W 12750 (a)—is a misdemeanor punishable with a county jail term not exceeding one year OR with a fine not exceeding $10,000 (CA H&W 12761). Licenses to use flamethrowers are issued by the State Fire Marshal, and he or she may use any criteria for issuing or not issuing that license that he deems fit, but must publish those criteria in the California Code of Regulations, Title 11, Section 970 et seq. [26] [27] [28] [29]

In the United Kingdom, flamethrowers are a "prohibited weapon" under section 5, part 1 (b) of the Firearms Act 1968 [30] and possession of a flamethrower would carry a sentence of up to ten years imprisonment.[31]

A South African inventor brought the Blaster car mounted flamethrower to market in 1998 as a security device to defend against carjackers.[32] It has since been discontinued, with the inventor moving on to pocket-sized self-defence flamethrowers.[33]

The book Breath of the Dragon: Homebuilt Flamethrowers, by Ragnar Benson describes homebuilt construction of flamethrowers for private ownership.

Other uses

Flamethrowers are occasionally used for igniting controlled burns for land management and agriculture. For example, in the production of sugar cane, where canebrakes are burned to get rid of the dry dead leaves which clog harvesters, and incidentally kill any lurking venomous snakes. More common, however, a driptorch or a flare (fusee) is used.

U.S. troops used flamethrowers on the streets of Washington D.C. (mentioned in a December 1998 article in the San Francisco Flier), as one of several clearance methods used for the surprisingly large amount of snow that fell before the presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy. A history article on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers notes, "In the end, the task force employed hundreds of dump trucks, front-end loaders, sanders, plows, rotaries, and flamethrowers to clear the way".[34]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 " flamethrower article". Retrieved 2007-05-26. 
  2. Gordon, David. Weapons of the WWII Tommy
  3. Harris, Tom. "HowStuffWorks "How Flamethrowers Work"". Retrieved 2010-03-04. 
  4. Needham, Volume 5, 77.
  5. Needham, Volume 5, 80.
  6. Needham, Volume 5, 81.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Needham, Volume 5, 82.
  8. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 81–83.
  9. Needham, Volume 5, 89.
  10. History of Incendiary Weapons, and their use in the American Civil War
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 First World War - Willmott, H.P., Dorling Kindersley, 2003, Page 106
  12. Secret terror weapon of the Somme battle 'discovered'
  13. World War II - Willmott, H.P., Dorling Kindersley, 2004, Page 165, ISBN 1405304774
  14. p.50 Devereux, Col. James P. F. There are Japanese in the Bushes.. in the United States Marine Corps in World War II compiled and edited by S. E. Smith 1969 Random House
  15. World War II - Willmott, H.P., Dorling Kindersley, 2004, Page 121, ISBN 1405304774
  16. p.108 Hinton, David R. Letters from the Dead: Guadalcanal 2005 Hinton Publishing
  17. Boettcher, Brian Eleven Bloody Days: The Battle for Milne Bay self published 2009
  18. Holderfield, Randy (2001). D-Day: The Invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944. Da Capo Press. p. 76. ISBN 1882810465. 
  19. Drez, Ronald (1998). Voices of D-Day: The Story of the Allied Invasion, Told by Those Who Were There. Louisiana State University Press. pp. 35, 201–211. ISBN 0807120812. 
  20. Balkoski, Joseph (2004). Omaha Beach: D-Day, June 6, 1944. Stackpole Books. p. 368. ISBN 0811700798. 
  22. O'Brien, Brendan (1999). The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Féin, Syracuse University Press, p. 279. ISBN 0815605978
  23. Moloney, Ed (2003). A secret story of the IRA. W.W. Norton & co., p. 333. ISBN 0393325024
  24. Harnden, Toby (2001). Bandit Country: The IRA & South Armagh. Hodder and Stoughton, pp 123-124. ISBN 0340717378
  25. "CA H&W Code on line". Retrieved 2010-03-04. 
  26. CA Regs (CA H&W 12756)
  27. definitions and scope
  28. "administration". Retrieved 2010-03-04. 
  29. "enforcement and penalties". Retrieved 2010-03-04. 
  30. Firearms Act 1968, Part I
  31. Firearms act 1968, Schedule 5
  32. "Flamethrower now an option on S. African cars - December 11, 1998". CNN. Retrieved 2010-03-04. 
  33. Fourie, Charl (2001-02-13). Interview with Sara Sally. AM (ABC Radio). 
  34. Inauguration Weather: The Case of Kennedy The Washington Post, Capital Weather Gang, January 5, 2009


  • Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China. Volume 5, Part 7. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd.. 

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