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What is a Flamethrower?

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  • Written By: Henry Gaudet
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
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  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2016
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A flamethrower is a device that can project a stream of burning fuel, most often used as a weapon. Since prehistoric times, fire has been used as a weapon, valuable not only for the physical damage it inflicts but also for the fear it inspires. The earliest flamethrowers, which launched solid fuel through a tube like a blowgun, date back to at least the 5th century B.C., and the Byzantines of the 7th century employed a weapon similar to the modern flamethrower that could spray a liquid fuel known as Greek Fire. Greek Fire was especially effective as a naval weapon, because the fuel was oil-based and continued to burn even in water.

German scientist Richard Fiedler is credited for the creation of the modern flamethrower; his Flammenwerfer was submitted to the German army in 1901 for testing. Fiedler created two models: the man-portable Kleinflammenwerfer, with a range of 20 yards (18.3 meters), and the Grossflammenwerfer, which was too big for a man to carry but was capable of sustaining a 40-second constant spray over a target at a distance of up to 40 yards (36.5 meters). Both flamethrowers were introduced into the German arsenal and deployed to three battalions in 1911. During World War I, early German successes with the weapon caused Britain and France designed flamethrowers of their own.

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Fiedler’s flamethrower consisted of three cylinder tanks, two filled with a liquid fuel and the third with a flammable compressed gas. Gas was fed to the weapon’s ignition system by a hose. A second hose fed into the fuel tanks, and pressure from the gas forced fuel through the weapon. Fuel was ignited as it sprayed out of the weapon, creating a steady stream of fire.

The flamethrower continued to see military use throughout the 20th century, with armies around the world deploying their own variants. United States Marines used flamethrowers during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Flamethrowers, however, do have limitations, such as comparatively poor range and the inability to control and direct a fire with any sort of precision or reliability, leading some to question their usefulness on the battlefield. The horrific nature of fire as a weapon, of death by fire and of disfiguring injuries has forced military leaders to consider the weapon’s impact on morale and public image. In 1978, the U.S. Department of Defense made the decision to remove the flamethrower from military service.

Civilians have also found the flamethrower to be useful. Most notably, it is used in forestry for controlled burns to manage forest growth. Farmers also might use flamethrowers for land management and to clear fields.

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