Japanese flamethrower (American design from World War II) Type 93.
A U.S. soldier firing a flamethrower during the Vietnam War
United States Marines demonstrating flamethrower usage (2012)

A flamethrower is a mechanical incendiary device designed to project a long, controllable stream of fire. First deployed by the Greeks in the 1st century AD, flamethowers saw use in modern times during World War I, and more widely in World War II.

Most military flamethrowers use flammable liquids thickened into a consistency similar to napalm, but commercial flamethrowers generally use high-pressure propane and gasoline; such mobile liquids and gases are safer in peacetime applications, because their flames dissipate faster and often are easier to extinguish when necessary, because they are volatile and their liquid residues soak into porous media such as dry soil. In contrast, a military flamethrower's viscous or gelled fuel sticks to the surfaces of its targets and is harder to dissipate with water, so it easily re-ignites after the flame has been extinguished. It also spreads less than mobile fluids, so that it permits a more manageably targeted burn.

From the military point of view, when flamethrower fuel burns in a confined space such as a tunnel or dugout, its effects go beyond the threat of burning; it quickly consumes the enclosed oxygen and pollutes the air within, so that smoke inhalation and asphyxiation may be as effective a weapon as the actual flames.

Apart from the military applications, flamethrowers have peacetime applications where there is a need for controlled burning, such as in sugarcane harvesting and other land-management tasks. Various forms are designed for an operator to carry, while others are mounted on vehicles.

Military flamethrowers

Modern flamethrowers were first used during the trench warfare conditions of World War I and 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 — the 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 flammable 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 flammable 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, 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 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 (160–260 ft) 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 and length, which impairs the soldier's mobility
  • The weapon is limited to only a few seconds of burn time, since it uses fuel very quickly, requiring the operator to be precise and conservative
  • The weapon was very visible on the battlefield, which caused operators to become immediately singled out as prominent targets, especially for snipers
  • Flamethrower operators were rarely taken prisoner, especially when their target survived an attack by the weapon; captured flamethrower users were in some cases summarily executed[1]
  • The flamethrower's effective range is 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.
Army War Show November 27, 1942

The risk of a flamethrower operator being caught in the explosion of their weapon due to enemy hits on the tanks is exaggerated in films.[2] However, there are cases where the pressure tanks have exploded and killed the operator when hit by bullets or grenade shrapnel. In the documentary Vietnam in HD, platoon sergeant Charles Brown tells of how one of his men was killed when his flamethrower was hit by grenade shrapnel during the battle for Hill 875.

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 "Wasps" (Universal Carriers fitted with flamethrowers) 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.[2]

Other Languages
العربية: قاذفة لهب
български: Огнехвъргачка
català: Llançaflames
čeština: Plamenomet
Deutsch: Flammenwerfer
Ελληνικά: Φλογοβόλο
español: Lanzallamas
Esperanto: Flamĵetilo
français: Lance-flammes
한국어: 화염방사기
հայերեն: Հրանետ
Bahasa Indonesia: Pelontar api
italiano: Lanciafiamme
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қазақша: Отшашар
lietuvių: Liepsnosvaidis
македонски: Пламенофрлач
Nederlands: Vlammenwerper
日本語: 火炎放射器
português: Lança-chamas
русский: Огнемёт
Simple English: Flamethrower
slovenčina: Plameňomet
slovenščina: Plamenomet
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Plamenobacač
svenska: Eldkastare
Türkçe: Alev makinesi
українська: Вогнемет
Tiếng Việt: Súng phun lửa