"While it isn't politically correct to even think the word "Flame Thrower," I didn't get the nickname, 'Zippo', just because of the spelling of my last name. I can personally attest to the effectiveness of the weapon. You can sometimes even get people to surrender just by coating them with thickened fuel and then let their imaginations work for a few minutes. The one thing that they CANNOT do when coated with jellied gasoline, is shoot anything. All they can do is stand there staring at you with big soft, houndawg eyes, waiting......We learned that one from the Engineers in a flame track that worked with us for about a month."
If ever a weapon deserved the term "Horrific" it is probably the Flamethrower. Many armies seem to have phased it out of service, at least publicly.
This is probably one of the more controversial pages that I've put together. My original draft has been uncirculated for nearly four years while I decided whether or not to place it on the web. My conclusion is that if we don't discuss weapons such as the flamethrowers we are less likely to come up with alternatives or to understand why they were used in the past and might be needed in the future.
There are still valid tactical roles for this weapon. Some of these are summed up nicely here
The main roles for Flamethrowers include:-
On Iwo Jima the Japanese had dug in so extensively that bunkers could only be attacked by tanks or flamethrowers. Even with such weapons it took the Marines 35 days of fighting to win an island of just eight square miles
- Destruction of Field Fortifications and Bunkers.
- Close range attack against vehicles
- The clearing of confinded spaces such as rooms, trenches and corridors.
It is likely we will have as much need for flamehrowers in the future as we have in the past.
The psychological effects of the flamethrower is also worth consideration. There are many cases of simply the threat of flamethrower use causing units to surrender or withdraw.
Nowadays flamethrowers come in several forms.
Flame Cartridge Weapons. The flame cartridge weapons are perhaps the least well known. I haven't located that much information myself.
The principle is basically that of a canister round or shotshell, but it contains flammable material. When fired a jet of flame is ejected from the gun's muzzle instead of buckshot or flechettes. Ralph Zumbro's unit created 90mm flame cartridges from old Canister rounds filled with grease.
RZ:".........the canister rounds were very old, Korean War vintage and tended to come apart. Some of them we pulled the cannister off and installed a plastic bag full of grease....About two gallons, replacing much of the powder. We had to operate the breech manually, of course but it was nice to have a good substitute for a flamethrower in the ammo rack.
It occurs to me that by replacing the projectile with a one piece nozzle and inserting a small propulsion charge in a plastic bag, you could create a real nasty weapon. It could also be used independantly of the cannon by emplacing it in the ground, claymore style. That way you wouldn't have to modify the gun or tank, just load the ammo.
The full grease round was done, but not by me, personally. I think that was Ferguson in 2nd Plt. Ref grease/napalm round...Take an aluminum billet and machine the outer surface to fit a tank gun chamber. Drill and tap nose end to recieve a flamethrower nozzel. Drill from rear to make about a three gallon recepticle. Machine threads in rear to take a brass reloadable insert which contains powder and primer. You can now load with either axle grease or napalm, screw in powder and primer cap. You'll need a fuel proof plastic bag for the powder bag, of course, and might even need a pusher plug, but you can load and shoot. Will require manual extraction, but can be reloaded by the crew or company Ammo Sgt. The reason for the relatively sophisticated grease/napalm round with the nozzle is range. A greaseball ain't effective much past 50-75 FEET."
Most Flame cartridge rounds are smaller.
In World War 2 the Germans issued a one shot disposable cartridge flamethrower. I've also come across references to a bolt action weapon.
The FmW 46 was a 60cm x7cm tube weighing 3.6 kg and produced a half second flameburst with a range of 30m.
Modern types include the HAFLA DM34 and "Dragon's breath" shotshells, although both of these use powders rather than liquid. In fact the HAFLA is more of a red phosporous grenade that explodes when it reaches 70-80m. Burst area is 10m wide by 15m and burns at 1300°C for at least two minutes. If it strikes a hard surface at a range of 8-70m it shatters spreading burning material over 5 to 8 metres.
A flame cartridge for weapons such as the 40mm M203 grenade launcher would prove very useful but given the performance of the FmW 46 I think it is unlikely that any round that will fit in a M203 will have sufficient capacity to be useful. Even if this is possible some form of nozzle assembly may be needed.
Capsule Flamethrowers. Most of us would call these incendiary rockets or napalm missles but the Russians class such weapons as flamethrowers and the term has come into quite common useage. This class includes the M202 Flash, 122mm RPO Rys, 93mm RPO-Z Schmel and multi-barreled vehicle mounted systems such as the TOS-1.
This section from FM 3.06-11 "AN INFANTRYMAN'S GUIDE TO COMBAT IN BUILT UP AREAS"
"M202 FLASH. The M202 FLASH can deliver area fire out to 500 meters. In combat in built-up areas, the range to targets is normally much less. Point targets, such as an alleyway or bunker, can usually be hit from 200 meters. Precision fire against a bunker aperture is possible at 50 meters.
(a) The FLASH warhead contains a thickened flame agent that ignites when exposed to air. The minimum safe combat range is 20 meters, which is the bursting radius of the rocket warhead due to splashback. If the projectile strikes a hard object along its flight path and breaks open, it will burst into flames even if the fuze has not armed. M202 rocket packs must be protected from small-arms fire and shell fragments that could ignite them.
The M202 has a backblast that must be considered before firing (see Figure 8-13). Urban conditions affect this backblast exactly the same as the LAW (see paragraph 8-5). The same considerations for firing a LAW from an enclosed area apply to the M202.
(b) The M202 FLASH is not effective in penetrating typical urban targets. It can penetrate up to 1 inch of plywood at 200 meters, and at close range it can penetrate some wooden doors. The rocket reliably penetrates window glass. The M202 does not damage brick or cinder block construction. The flame agent splattered against the top, flanks, and rear of light armored vehicles can be effective. The psychological effect of hits by flame rockets on closed-in crewmen is significant.
(c) A round detonating near or on a vehicle’s rear deck or engine compartment could set the vehicle on fire. A wheeled vehicle, such as the BTR, could have its tires severely damaged by the M202. Modern threat tanks and BMPs have an NBC protective overpressure system that could prevent flame from reaching the vehicle’s interior."
The filling of the M202 is usually designated "TPA" (Thickened Pyrotechnic Agent). The actual chemical used is in fact Triethylaluminium (TEA).
Flow-Stream Flamethrowers. These are the weapons that most people associate with the term "Flamethrower", essentially hoses that shoot a stream of burning liquid.
Examples include the US M2A1 and M9A1 and the more modern weapons such as the Brazilian Hydroar LC T1 M1 and Italian Tirreria Mod T-148. These latter two examples use electrical ignition and the Mod T-148 eliminates the need for a separate tank of compressed air or nitrogen by using integral pressurization in the fuel containers (rather like an aerosol)
Probably one of the most common modern examples of Flow-stream Flamethrower is the Russian LPO-50 and its copies.
In some ways the LPO-50 is intermediate between flow-stream and cartridge weapons. The apparatus has three tanks, each of 3.3 litres, and pressure is created by the ignition of a pyrotechnic cartridge. Each shot completely empties one tank, producing a stream of flame for two to three seconds. The operator therefore has only three shots.
The main uses for flow-stream flamethrowers are against fortifications, tunnel systems, building interiors and for "bug-hunts". Anyone who has watched a fifties' horror or sci-fi film will know they are the weapon of choice against most unearthly threats. More seriously, one of the major countries still developing flamethrowers is Brazil, and I doubt it is a coincidence that this country is also the home of the Army Ant, "Marabunta".
An advantage of the Flow-stream flamethrower is that the burst can be played across a target and can be directed through the smallest firing slot in a bunker. It can also be bounced off surfaces to "shoot around corners". Using flamethrowers to set fire to structures makes it difficult for an enemy to remain in them or re-occupy them.
For these reasons, in Jane's Military Review, 6th Year 1987, SS Fitz Gibbon proposes an organisation table for a specialised FIBUA battalion that calls for two flow-stream flamethrower teams per company. During the Pacific war the Japanese made great use of underground installations, and some marine units had a flamethrower with every rifle squad. In Vietnam Armoured Cavalry Battalions (Squadrons) had four M132 vehicles with the HQ and HQ Company (Troop).
"The mechanized flame-thrower has its primary mission of dislodging or destroying personnel in emplacements such as fortified positions, caves, tunnels, underground installations and buildings that resist assault by other weapons. It has a secondary mission of destroying material."
This nicely sums up the applications of all flamethrowers, not just vehicle mounted ones.
"M2A1-7 Portable flamethrower. Portable flamethrowers have a much shorter effective range than the M202 (20 to 50 meters) but require no special backblast consideration. The psychological and physical effects of the portable flamethrower are impressive. When used against troops behind a street barricade, the flamethrower can be fired in a traversing burst to cover a wide frontage. A blind-angle burst can be fired to exploit the splattering effect of the thickened fuel without exposing the gunner (see Figure 8-14, page 8-26).
(a) A burst of unlit fuel (wet shots) can be fired with the flamethrower and ignited with a subsequent shot, creating an intense fireball. This technique is effective in destroying captured equipment or for killing enemy soldiers in sewers. If the enemy has established a position in a wooden building, the building can be burned down. Flame is also effective when fired onto the back deck of tanks or at vision blocks.
(b) Thickened fuel is difficult to extinguish, and, therefore, a commander must decide what will burn before he employs flame. Limits imposed on collateral damage, either political or tactical, are the most serious constraints to the use of flames. If the portable flamethrower is issued in combat in built-up areas, it will probably be used by specially trained personnel. The infantry leader must ensure the flame operator is provided adequate security as he approaches the target. The enemy will concentrate his fire on any flamethrowers he detects.
(c) Although pinpointing targets at night is difficult, commanders should consider using flamethrowers at night for the psychological as well as destructive effect on the enemy."
One of the problems with there being no currently active flamethrower units is that many of the hard learned lessons about tactics and applications could be lost. As we have seen in the past, this means relearning "on the job", and the price for such is usually in blood.
Although we will talk of flamethrower battalions, flamethrower crews ("torchmen") are usually fielded as squads or platoons attached to infantry battalions.
It has been found that torchmen are most effective if they operate as pairs. Because torchmen have to get close to his target it is also vital that they operate with considerable support from other weapons such as machine guns, bazookas and smoke layers.
These comments about the M132 Flamethrower vehicle also hold true for man-portable weapons
"Mechanized flame-throwers should attack in conjunction with other ground attack weapons, which exploit the advantage gained by flame and provide the necessary supporting fires to the flame-throwers. Coordination and detailed planning with supported and supporting arms are of primary importance to the successful employment of mechanized flame-throwers."
The same source does a nice job of describing the "wetshot", a useful trick in the operator's repertoire:-
"The main problem with the Flame-thrower APC was its high rate of flame fuel consumption. If mixed properly it contained only 32 seconds of flame fuel. The approach that best sustained time in action was by firing in 2-3 second bursts. In certain instances firing of a wet burst (unlit) followed by a lit burst would cause an explosion due to the fumes gathering inside a structure. It also removed all the oxygen in any structure/building when lit."
Jets from a flow-stream (and some cartridge) flamethrowers can also be bounced off walls or from ceilings etc.
Many flamethrower fuels produce smoke, and this can be used to help conceal a flamethrower team. In certain types of terrain the flamethrower team can create secondary fires, and these may create enough smoke to screen not only the team, but also friendly units.
The jet from a flamethrower can also be used to "blind" a foe if it is directed towards a vision slot, periscope, sensor etc. It may still achieve this even if the target is slightly out of range or not vulnerable to fire. This may create opportunities for teams with other weapons to deploy.
Flamethrowers are not without their drawbacks, the most notable being short range (50-80m) and the weight and bulk of the apparatus (20kg+). A typical loaded flamethrower carries 15 litres of fuel weighs between 50-70lbs with more modern designs being at the lighter end of this range. Most of the weight and bulk is the fuel itself, 15 litres weighing around 25lbs so there is not much likelihood of weapons getting lighter for the same capacity.
The bulk and weight of the tank also makes it very difficult for an operator to crawl towards his objective and remain undetected. In the absence of cover such as buildings screening smoke must usually be used.
The fear the Flamethrower instills is also a two-edged sword. The enemy will regard the Flamethrower operator ("Torchman") as a target of priority. Some Russian designs had a projector that looked like a rifle and a backpack that looked like a rucsack, making the user less obvious until he opened fire. One could point out that a soldier making an assault wearing a rucksac is pretty unusual anyway and is likely to draw attention, but not as much as an obvious FT-pioneer. A flamethrower tank with a few pouches for other equipment is not such a bad idea anyway, and the webbing pouches will help hide the tank.
These drawbacks meant that it was not long before flamethrowers were being mounted on armoured vehicles such as tanks or personnel carriers.
Advantages included more speed, better protection, more fuel and more powerful, longer ranged flamethrowers. Some vehicle-mounted apparatus can project 200m.
The better designs of flamethrower tanks retained their main armament so they were still useful once the fuel had run out or the target was still beyond range. The Churchill Crocodile had a 75mm gun and carried extra fuel in a jettisonable trailer.
The Russian TO-55 (some sources designate this as the OT-55) retains its gun and 25rds of 100mm ammo.
Although mechanized flamethrowers offer considerable advantages, there is still a need for man-portable devices.
The Personal Flamethrower.
A modern flamethrower should have an electrical ignition system as standard, this being stealthier than a pilot light or ignition cartridge system and allowing the firing of as many bursts as the user has fuel for. The backpack element of the weapon should be quite compact to make it less obvious and for use in confined spaces such as tunnels and vehicles.
Instead of one or two large tanks of fuel my proposal is to hold the fuel in several smaller tanks, maybe each of between one and five litres capacity. These have their own internal pressurization and can fire either multiple short spurts or one long stream. Each tank is used in turn and an empty tank can be removed and replaced by full ones carried by the assistant torchman or other accompanying infantry men.
This is a sort of "magazine reloadable" flamethrower and this system allows the torchman to be more mobile while allowing him to operate for longer. By carrying less fuel but being easily replenished such a system allows for a more compact and more managable combat lload. A complete system of around 35lbs weight is a not unreasonable expectation.
It's also possible that a single refill tank could be attached to a projector or abbreviated projector for short duration use or special operations. Such a rig would take up little more bulk than a "camelback" watercanteen and SMG.
Tapering the internal bore of the projector might improve performance by increasing the velocity of the stream and a special nozzle for introducing the stream under a door or window might be useful.
In some applications for a flamethrower one might want a fuel that burns for a long time and is highly likely to cause secondary fires. Such applications include attacks on AFVs, material destruction and area denial. For other applications one might want a shorter duration burn with less chance of unplanned secondary fires. If assaulting down a corridor or tunnel one might not want to render it impassible to one's own troops, giving the enemy you have driven out time to regroup.
For such applications a flammable gas or gas/fuel mix might be used instead of more traditional liquids. The character "Fireball" (Jim Brown) in the movie "Running Man" uses a flamethrower that apparently uses propane, and similar devices exist in real life for weed-burning. Similar technology could be adapted to military use. Essentially this is a giant blow torch.
Fireball also uses a rocket-belt, and this is potentially a way to quickly get torchmen within range of the target.
The "magazine" flamethrower could also be used with tanks filled with liquid or gaseous riot agents such as CS or irritant marker dye. An Austrian company called "Fire Kraft" makes a backpack water-cannon for riot duty. A short burst from this can knock a man from his feet.
Ralph Zumbro:- "The flamethrower mechanism can also be used to project any jell which has been saturated with an agent. To wit. A vegetable jell or a foam, impregnated with a mixture of pepper spray, tear/vomit agent, and dye, would end most riots rather suddenly.
The pump and nozzle of any fire fighting tank truck could also be used. An airport foam truck could also project Pepper/Tear agent, in addition to causing acute discomfort, the rioter's wouldn't even be able to stand up...."
It's possible that such a weapon might be officially adopted as a riot control device, and the ignition module added and the flamethrower ability made public only when necessary. Interestingly the M202 has/had a tear-gas containing rocket available. As I've mentioned on other pages, a HEAT-MP round for this weapon would also be very useful.
The torchman could also benefit from various pieces of specialized protective equipment. A gunshield would help protect the operator from both enemy fire and the heat from his own weapon. Heat/flame resistant garments are also a good idea, and these may be militarized and camouflaged versions of items used by fire-fighters. Flamethrowers produce smoke and fumes, so in confined spaces a respirator may be needed. The torchman may also need protection from the fumes of WP smokescreens that have been laid to conceal his approach. Fire also consumes oxygen, so a torchman may under certain conditions need his own supply. This could be adapted from something like the Helicopter Emergency Escape Device (HEED).
Flame Warfare Battalion.
Flamethrowers such as the RPO-Z or a TPA-loaded M72 can be treated as a disposable round of ammo and most platoons should have at least one available and some infantry formations will have one per squad. Flame cartridges for M203s (if practical) or disposable weapons like the FmW 46 could be issued in the same way.
Mechanized and man-portable flow-stream flamethrowers require special training and tactics, which suggests that such needs are best served by a specialist unit. This unit would also train special forces personnel and other units in the use of flame weapons. Such a unit should probably be garrisoned in the desert, allowing it to train without causing unplanned forest fires.
Although the layman may class the flamethrower as an infantry weapon in many armies it is the combat engineers or pioneers that wield them. In the Russian army I believe the responsibility for Flamethrowers falls on the Chemical troops.
Flame warfare specialists will be designated "Pyros" or "Pyro-Technician" - a catchy term I found used in a computer game!
Currently the only TOE of flamethrower battalions that I've been able to locate are at 4-94 (pg 303), 4-96 (pg 305) and 5-65 (pg 393) of FM 100-60 and I suspect that some of this is supposition. This depicts three different types of Flame Warfare battalion:-
The primary weapon system of the Flame Warfare Battalion will be the mechanized flamethrower or "flame track". I think the size and powerplant of the M1 make it unlikely that a flamethrower variant will be developed. Updated versions of the M60 may be more practical.
- A Tank Flamethrower battalion of 31 TO-55s.
- An "Encapsulated Flamethrower" battalion with three companies, each with 81 launchers divided between three platoons. These specialist units apparently still use the larger reloadable RPO Rys launcher as well as the disposable RPO-Z. Some units have specialised armoured carriers based on T-72s or BMP-2s, both types of vehicle being called BMO-1s.
- A Flamethrower battalion with two light companies and one heavy company. Each light company has 72 LPO-50 projectors divided between two platoons. The Heavy company has 16 TPO-50s between two platoons. The TPO-50 appears to be three 21 litre fuel tanks mounted on a light carriage or handcart. Mechanism is similar to the LPO=50 with one tank being emptied by each shot. Loaded weight is 170kg and range is 180m with thickened fuel and 65m with unthickened. I've come across no information on how this is used tactically but logically one would expect it to be used to strengthen a static position.
On other pages I've suggested a "Crocodile" version of the 120mm Assault gun-mortar. This would be a very potent system, particularly if a projector nozzle was placed on both the hull and the turret. The 120mm mortar would be a potent anti-bunker weapon and could also be used to lay smoke screens. It could also fire large calibre incendiary rounds.
In Vietnam the most widely used mechanized flamethrower was the M132/M132A1 variants of the M113. Some flame track units insisted on loading their secondary weapons with nothing but tracers so that they were "all flame". At least one USMC flame track bore the legend "Semper Flame."
A vehicle like the M132 may be recreated but to my mind a Bradley based system would be more useful. The turret could mount a 60mm or 81mm gun-mortar for screening and light demolition. The same turret and flame projector systems could be mounted on M113A4s to create an air-dropable and heli-liftable platform to support the 82nd and 101st.
Flame warfare specialists would also be trained to operate personal flow-stream flamethrowers and weapons such as the M202 and westernized versions of the RPO. The latter might be based on the AT4. The Swedes also produce a 120mm version of this weapon, the AT-12. These systems would be used in situations where mechanized flamethrowers can't be used.
The Flame Warfare Battalion should also have a company of Heavy machine guns and mortars with smoke laying capability. As well as having a support role these would be used in training to allow practice in operating in conjunction with other weapons.
A weapon based on the M72 using an incendiary rocket similar to that used in the M202 would be very useful. It would be small enough to be carried by a stealthly crawling Soldier yet could quickly destroy a machine gun nest or similar position.
Ralph Zumbro: Ref flamethrower. The historian of our engineer corps told me this one. In RVN, he was an artillery Lt. Had a two gun platoon of 175s. He got word that the NVA were going to attack that night, and to prepare for "final fires" He commented that "Hell, sir, my shells don't even ARM till they're over the horizon when his platoon sgt interrupted with. "No sweat, L.T. I got one left over from Korea that'll work just fine."
The Plt Sgt took all seven powder bags and soaked them in diesel fuel and loaded them, WITHOUT a projectile. When they started to hear tin bugles in the jungle, the Sgt installed the primer, mounted the primer powder bag, which was dry, leveled the tube and fired. They got a fireball "about the size of a football field". When all four guns in the battery had fired, there was a deathly silence and NO attack that night, nor for months after.