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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.
 Military flamethrowers
Flamethrowers date from the Byzantines, who used hand-pumped flamethrowers on board their naval ships (see Greek fire). Infantry flamethrowers were of limited range and capacity; the larger naval flamethrowers were used to set alight enemy ships' sails and rigging. The composition of the flammable chemical projected with these primitive flamethrowers is not definitely known.
The flamethrower is in two elements, back pack and gun. The backpack element usually consists of two or three cylinders. One cylinder holds compressed, inert propellant gas (usually nitrogen), and the other two hold flammable liquid. A three-cylinder system often has two outer cylinders of flammable liquid and a central cylinder of propellant gas to improve the balance. The gas propels the fuel liquid out of the cylinder into and 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 flammable liquid to flow and pass over the igniter and out 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, delivering a particularly horrendous death — being burnt alive. 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, of a few effective meters (due to common use of propane gas as the fuel in flamethrowers in movies, for safety for the actors), but contemporary flamethrowers can incinerate targets at 50-80 meters (165-270 feet) distance from the gunner; moreover, an un-ignited stream of flammable liquid can be fired and afterwards ignited.
Flamethrowers pose many risks to the operator. The first disadvantage is its weight, which impairs the soldier's mobility. Flamethrowers are very visible in the battlefield, and so operators become prominent targets for snipers. Historically, flamethrower operators rarely were taken prisoner, especially when their targets survived the impacts of the weapon; in reprisal, captured flamethrower users often were summarily executed. Finally, the flamethrower's effective range is short in comparison with that of other battlefield firearms, i.e. for effective use, flamethrower soldiers must approach their targets too closely, exposing themselves to close enemy fire.
The risk of a flamethrower soldier being caught in the explosion if enemy gunfire hits the flamethrower is exaggerated in Hollywood films.
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.
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) at the infantry battalion level, beginning in mid 1944, and, eventually, incorporating them to 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.
The concept of throwing fire has existed since ancient times.
Greek fire, extensively used by the Byzantine Empire, is said to have been invented by a Syrian Jewish refugee named Kallinikos (Callinicus) of Heliopolis (Syria), 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 on a match on its way out, in a manner like its modern versions. Greek fire, used primarily at sea, gave the Byzantines a great military advantage against enemies such as the Arab Empire (which later adopted the use of Greek fire). An 11th century illustration of its use survives in the John Skylitzes manuscript.
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. 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. Lin Yu mentioned also that the 'fierce fire oil' derived ultimately from China's contact in the 'southern seas', Arabia (Da-Shi Guo). In a battle of 932 AD, at the Battle of Lang-shan Jiang (Wolf Mountain River), the naval fleet of the Wen-Mu King was defeated by Qian Yuan-guan because he had used 'fire oil' (huo yóu, 火油) to burn his fleet, signifying the first Chinese use of gunpowder in a battle (see also blackpowder). The Chinese applied the use of double-piston bellows to pump petrol out of a single cylinder (with an upstroke and 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). 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. Documented also in later Chinese publications, illustrations and descriptions of mobile flamethrowers on four-wheel push carts appear in the Wu Jing Zong Yao, written in 1044 AD (its illustration redrawn in 1601 as well).
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, usually is 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 inflammable oil in the upper section. On depressing a lever the propellent gas forced the inflammable 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.
It was not until 1911 that the German army accepted the device, creating a specialist regiment of twelve companies equipped with Flammenwerferapparate. Despite this, the weapon went unused in WWI, until 25 June 1915 when it was briefly used against the French. On 30 July 1915 it was used against British trenches at Hooge, with limited, but impressive, success.
The weapon had drawbacks: it was cumbersome and difficult to operate and could only be safely fired from a trench, so limiting its safe use to areas where the opposing army trenches were less than 20 yards apart, not a common situation. Nevertheless, the German army continued deploying flamethrowers during the war in more than 300 battles, usually in teams of six flamethrowers.
In WWI it was usual to shoot burning enemy soldiers, to save them the agonising death by incineration, but in WWII such mercy was uncommon, unless they were a danger to one's own troops.
The flamethrower was extensively used during World War II. In 1940, the Wehrmacht first deployed man-portable flamethrowers, to destroy Dutch gun emplacements and fortifications. Subsequently, in 1942, the U.S. Army introduced its own man-pack flamethrower.
The vulnerability of infantry carrying backpack flamethrowers, and the weapon's short range, led to experiments with tank-mounted flamethrowers (flame tanks). The British hardly used their man-portable systems, relying on special Sherman, Churchill, and Matilda 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 SS units executing, out-of-hand, any captured British flame tank crews.
See http://www.diggerhistory.info/pages-weapons/flamethrowers.htm : history and images
The British WWII 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". See description and image and Flamethrower, Portable, No 2.
The Germans made considerable use of the weapon (Flammenwerfer 35) during their invasion of western Europe, especially in Holland and France, against fixed fortifications, but it soon fell into disfavor, except in reprisal operations. Yet, on the Eastern Front its battlefield and "scorched earth" tactic uses continued until the end of the war. See the Stroop Report link on article of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
WWII German army flamethrowers tended to have one big fuel tank with the pressurizer tank fastened to its back or side. Some WWII German army flamethrowers occupied only the lower part of its wearer's back, leaving the upper part of his back free for an ordinary packful of supplies.
External link with images: http://www.lonesentry.com/articles/portft/
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 protected from the flames by deep caves, the burning flames often consumed the available oxygen, suffocating the occupants. The Marines eventually stopped using their infantry-portable systems with the arrival of adapted Sherman tanks with the Ronson system (c.f. flame tank). The U.S. Army used flamethrowers in Europe to clear out German bunkers, notably during Operation Overlord.
Some Soviet Army flamethrowers had three backpack fuel tanks side by side. Some descriptions seem to say that its user could fire three shots, each emptying one of the tanks.
Unlike the flamethrowers of the other powers during WWII, the Soviets were the only ones to consciously attempt to camouflage their flamethrowers, which 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.
Flamethrowers have not been in the U.S. arsenal since 1978, when the Department of Defense unilaterally stopped using them, because of public opinion concerns that found their use inhumane, although they are not banned in any international treaty the U.S. has signed. Thus, the US decision to remove flamethrowers from its arsenal is entirely voluntary. The USA Army does, however, use the M202A1 FLASH, a rocket launcher with four triethylaluminum-packed warheads.
In the United States, private ownership of a flamethrower is not restricted by federal law, but is restricted in some of its states, such as California, by state laws (c.f. California Health and Welfare Codes 12750-12761, Flamethrowing Devices) CA H&W Code on line
In California, unlicensed possession of a flame-throwing device —statutorily defined as "any nonstationary 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 or she deems fit, but must publish those criteria in the California Code of Regulations, Title 11, Section 970 et seq. CA Regs (CA H&W 12756) (definitions and scope, administration, enforcement and penalties)
Flamethrowers also are used by people needing controlled burns, as in agriculture and other land management tasks. In ripe canebrakes of sugar cane, they are used to burn up the dry dead leaves which clog harvesters, and incidentally also kill any lurking poisonous snakes. Flamethrowers are also sometimes used for igniting controlled burns of grassland or forest, although more commonly a driptorch or a flare (fusee) is used.
U.S. troops used flamethrowers on the streets of Washington D.C. to clear snow (as mentioned in a December 1998 article in San Francisco Flier), 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". The massive effort by city, military, and others even included 1700 Boy Scouts. The work paid off the next day, January 20, 1961, with JFK's successful inauguration.
Flamethrowers are also used for special effects, such as concerts and special events; particularly, the band Rammstein's lead singer Till Lindemann is known to use a flamethrower during live performances.
Due to the flamethrower's spectacular effect, it is often featured in fiction, action movies, and, in video games, even where in reality it would not be used.
Hollywood seems to have no difficulty getting hold of flamethrowers, but, on-set, for the safety of the actors, they often are filled with propane gas, instead of liquid fuel, producing a visually-equivalent flame effect, but without the spray of fuel, splatter of flame, dense smoke, and area effect of the genuine fuel, i.e. in the Omaha Beach sequence of Saving Private Ryan, the exploding flamethrower was filled with enough propane gas to burst the containers and produce spectacular flames. The explosion seen occurred seconds after the tank burst: it was caused by blowing vaporized propane onto the explosion (the cloud is visible in the finished film as a billowing white cloud in front of the actor).
- In the first Alien film, it is Ripley's primary weapon against the Xenomorphs.
- In the video game Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater the flamethrower is used by the Fury, a member of the Cobra Unit during the battle between against Naked Snake.
- In the game Starcraft, the Terran unit "Firebat" is a ground unit with dual-flame throwers on either arms.
- In Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory the flamethrower is a popular weapon. A lot of players disapprove of its use and often call players who use it flamers.
- In the PC version of Halo: Combat Evolved the flamethrower is available in multiplayer mode.
- In the most recent games in the Grand Theft Auto series (II, III, Vice City, and San Andreas), the flamethrower is an available weapon.
- In Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, Dr. Rick Dagless, MD sets the screaming Larry Renwick on fire with a flamethrower, after a barrage of shots from himself and Thornton Reed.
- Garfield uses a flamethrower to clean out his refrigerator.
- Repairman Jack uses a flamethrower to defeat the evil Rakoshi in the end of F.Paul Wilson's novel The Tomb