September 22, 2020

Hoplology: The History of Flamethrowers

By Mike Burns

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Is there anything in the entire lexicon of the English language capable of evoking such primal, instinctual, and emotional fears as the word “fire?” Humans have had a fascination and a magnetic attraction with this destructive force ever since our prehistoric ancestors first learned how to wield its incredible power. Since then, the use of fire as a weapon has advanced to the point of near perfection. With the ability to cause unimaginable amounts of damage in relatively short amounts of time, fire proved an even better psychological weapon than a physical one; able to transform even the smallest enemy army into a daunting force seemingly sent from the pits of hell.

From the ancient flamethrower to modern weapons like the M2A12, the flamethrower has played a key role in warfare.

Welcome to Hoplology, a new series from Rock Island Auction Company that takes a closer look at the history, development, and evolution of different weapons from across the ages. Deriving from the ancient Greek words “hoplos,” a plate-armored animal from mythology, and “logia,” a branch of learning, Hoplology is the study of human combative behavior, performance, and weaponry. As is human nature, every advancement, breakthrough, and success along the path of discovery overflows with even more amazing stories to accompany them. Through clues scattered across millennia, Hoplology looks to uncover truths hidden, lost, and diluted to time.

For the first installment, we are diving directly into the inferno! Today’s subject: the flamethrower.

The Ancient Flamethrower

The use of fire as a weapon is certainly nothing new. Practically from its discovery by prehistoric humans, fire was used as means of protection against the environment, predators, and even other humans. The first “flame thrower” consisted of a large beam, fitted like a flute that held a cauldron at one end and a bellow at the other. Invented by the Boeotians of ancient Greece around 400 B.C., the device operated by sending pressurized air through an open fire, fueling the combustion and creating bursts of flames. The Boeotins used the ancient flamethrower in war against the Peloponnesians in an attempt to penetrate the walls protecting the city of Athens. Although fire was already being used by armies from around the world for centuries at this point (oil and resin-soaked fibers were frequently used by archers to create flaming arrows), what distinguishes this device is that it remains the earliest description of a weapon that utilized fire projectiles of this size and scale.

Boeotian flamethrower, illustrated by J. Nakas

Greek fire was another popular tool for armies around the world. Credited to Kallinikos of Helipolis, Greek fire was a liquid incendiary weapon that was famously used by the Byzantines to defend Constantinople from Arab conquests in the 7th century. Considered by some historians to have single-handedly saved western civilization and culture from demolition, this ancient flamethrower was a powerful weapon that was significantly valuable to the Byzantines. Although its exact ingredients are not entirely known, it is generally accepted that Greek fire was mostly likely a combination of naphtha (a highly flammable liquid hydrocarbon mixture) and quicklime (calcium oxide that, upon contact with water, can heat to temperatures exceeding over 300° Fahrenheit).

“Automatic fire also by the following formula. This is the recipe: take equal amounts of sulphur, rock salt, ashes, thunder stone, and pyrite and pound fine in a black mortar at midday sun. Also in equal amounts of each ingredient mix together black mulberry resin and Zakynthian asphalt, the latter in a liquid form and free-flowing, resulting in a product that is sooty colored. Then add to the asphalt the tiniest amount of quicklime. But because the sun is at its zenith, one must pound it carefully and protect the face, for it will ignite suddenly. When it catches fire, one should seal it in some sort of copper receptacle; in this way you will have it available in a box, without exposing it to the sun. If you should wish to ignite enemy armaments, you will smear it on in the evening, either on the armaments or some other object, but in secret; when the sun comes up, everything will be burnt up.”

-Julius Africanus, The Cestus (3rd century A.D.)

Its composition was held in such secrecy that any opposing forces who managed to obtain a sample of the “liquid fire” were unable to recreate its exact formula; even to this day historians aren’t sure what was exactly in it. As if straight out of an episode of “Game of Thrones,” Greek fire was immune to water and was notoriously difficult to extinguish. Bursts of Greek fire would be pumped through tubes called siphons, sprayed on enemies, and once ignited, burned everything and everyone in its way. In the coming decades, Greek fire would be experimented with and improved, ultimately being an integral fuel source for devices resembling modern flamethrowers, the cheirosiphon being a prime example.

Use of a hand-siphon, a portable flame-thrower, from a siege tower equipped with a boarding bridge against the defenders on the walls.

Reportedly invented by Emperor Leo VI the Wise during the late 9th century, the cheirosiphon was a handheld flamethrower that pumped Greek fire through a tube that ejected the liquid through a nozzle located above an open flame, igniting the liquid as it was sprayed. Greek fire was unequivocally invaluable to the Byzantines; but once they began losing grasps on major areas in the east, their empire began to decline. By the 15th century, following the fall of Constantinople, the empire had essentially dissolved and the mysterious formula for Greek fire was lost with it. Some researchers suggest that the production of Greek fire became increasingly harder for the Byzantines because the areas rich in the materials needed to produce the liquid were slowly being conquered by invaders. Others argue that, because of the Empire’s near 1,000 year long lifetime, the exact, original formula could have simply been lost to time. The Byzantine Empire would eventually fall to the Ottomans who held control of the area up until the 20th century. While attempts would be made to “recreate” the formula, none proved successful and the fabled Greek fire would be swept away by the winds of time, only to be brought up in legends and myths.

Depiction of Greek Fire being used against enemies.

However, the development of early thermal weapons was not just limited to the Mediterranean. In his Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, Greek historian Arrian of Micomedia (widely credited as the author of the Perilpus) notes the use of “flame throwers” by the Early Cholas of India around the year 50 A.D. Various other designs were developed by other Asian countries in the following centuries, which suggests that the original invention could have been used as a bartering tool in the area. Some researchers even suspect that the Chinese inherited their design, the Pen Huo Qi, from other Indian cultures whom they frequently traded with in the area. The Pen Huo Qi (Fierce-fire Oil Cabinet) was a Chinese pistol flamethrower employing a substance similar to petrol (as the Chinese had been using petroleum regularly since the 5th century) and an ignition system to create streams and bursts of inextinguishable flames. Much like their European counterparts, the exact formula of the flammable liquid used in the Pen Huo Qi was a highly guarded secret.

“What is 'fire oil'? It comes from Arabia (Dashi Guo) in the southern seas. It is spouted forth from iron tubes. and when meeting with water or wet things it gives forth flame and smoke even more abundantly. Wusu Wang used to decorate the mouths of the tubes with silver, so that if (the tank and tube) fell into the hands of the enemy, they would scrape off the silver and reject the rest of the apparatus. So the fire oil itself would not get into their hands (and could be recovered later).”

-Lin Yu, The History of Wu and Yue (919 A.D.)

This evolution of the ancient flamethrower, along with other advancements of the Song Dynasty in the 10th century, significantly aided in the defense of the area against invading Mongols. Mirroring similar conditions nearly 4,000 miles away, the use of fire as a method of defense and intimidation could very well have been the saving grace that protected these communities from invasion, assimilation, and certain destruction. The military and technological advancements made during this time would prove effective against the invaders and resulted in the strengthening of China and its eventual reunification in the 13thcentury.

Pen Huo Qi (Fierce-fire Oil Cabinet)

Despite minor changes made to improve performance during combat, the ancient flamethrower would basically go unchanged for almost 1,000 years until the outbreak of World War 1. It was reported that Greek fire was threatened to be used during the American Civil War, but this threat never came to fruition.

Who Invented the Flamethrower?

Originating in early 20th century Germany, the modern flamethrower owes its conception to scientist, Richard Fiedler, who is widely credited as the inventor of the weapon. Introduced in 1901 as the “flammenwerfer,” Fiedler’s evaluation model submitted to the German Army consisted of a single tank divided into two different chambers, one for pressurized gas and the other housing flammable liquid. Once activated, the pressurized gas would propel the flammable liquid through a rubber hose and eject it through a specialized nozzle, making contact with some sort of open flame, igniting the liquid (sound familiar?). The difference between this device and the cheirosiphon was that this modern flamethrower was exponentially more powerful and had the ability to send streams of fire and smoke for nearly 20 yards.

German Flammenwerfer, Illustration by Gregory Proch

Besides being safer than ancient models that haphazardly sprayed highly flammable liquids, these modern flamethrowers were precise, accurate, and more adapted for fighting on the land rather than at sea. Some cons of the weapon were the large size and weight of the tanks which severely constricted mobility, the limited ignition source that required replacements after every use, and the danger of holding on to highly combustible, highly flammable materials so close to the body. Some of these problems would be resolved by Hungarian inventor Gábor Szakáts, who designed the flamethrowers that were used by the German Army throughout World War 1. Szakáts would be the only Hungarian listed by the French following World War 1 as a war criminal directly because of his contributions to the development of the weapon. While never actually indicted, Szakáts’ hometown in Hungary rejected his body for burial and, to this day, refuses to erect any kind of monument or memorial in his honor.

Flamethrowers in War: WW1

With the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the world plunged into a horrific war unlike anything ever seen before. With momentous advancements in technology, engineering, and science, battlefields were essentially alien to even the most decorated veterans serving. Airplanes, tanks, and chemical weapons pushed the boundaries of warfare to levels unimaginable while winding, almost never ending, trenches made the lives of soldiers on both sides the fuel of nightmares. The constant fear of attack would be so severe that soldiers returned home with permanent psychological damage such as PTSD and shell shock. On top of this, many soldiers simply had no idea what they would be facing when entering combat. It might be easy, with 21st century hindsight, to be unimpressed by the technology of the time, but for the men serving overseas, something like mustard gas was so foreign, it might as well have been magic. Soldiers never knew what they would be confronted with on the front lines. Phosgene gas, fully automatic machine guns, and now… Flamethrowers.

Various images of World War I technology and warfare.

The first use of flamethrowers in the war came on February 26, 1915, when German Special Forces, equipped with the newly improved “Flammenwerferapparaten,” converged upon a group of French soldiers outside the city of Verdun. The first concerted efforts using Flamethrowers came only a few months later against the British in the trenches near the Belgian city of Hooge. The flamethrowers used there were extremely effective at pushing enemy troops into compromising positions or into the open where they would be exposed to gun fire. The battle was a major loss for the British who suffered the casualties of 31 officers and over 700 other soldiers, but stood as a considerable victory for the Germans who would go on to supply more troops with flamethrowers as a direct result. The Germans deployed flamethrowers in more than 650 attacks throughout the entire war.

The British "Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector"

Europeans and Allied forces would attempt throughout the course of the war to develop their own flamethrower, but each design would prove too heavy or dangerous for practical use. For example, the British “Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector” (leave it to the British to come up with a name like this) was a massive flamethrower that weighed more than 2 tons and measured 56 ft. in length. Essentially a train, the weapon required extensive preparations before using and was not very fast, but its effects were devastating during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

The Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest battles in the entire war and its conclusion aided in the eventual defeat of Germany in 1918. Some researchers have speculated that the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector was largely responsible for this victory, but its later abandonment suggests that it was not favorable or entirely useful compared to other military developments. Interestingly enough, the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector’s fire projection inspired aspects of the fire-breathing by the dragon, Smaug, featured in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”

Other flamethrowers invented by the French and Russians were used throughout the war, but none had the exact same effect as the German Flammenwerferapparaten. With many designs being too large for a single person to carry, flamethrowers were determined to be better suited for boats and tanks. The United States, a latecomer to the war, never began official production on flamethrowers until the 1940s upon the outbreak of World War II.

Troops using a flamethrower in the trenches.

What truly made using flamethrowers in war so effective was its psychological intimidation. The fear of fire is something that is so primal within humans that the sheer thought of it is enough to send shivers down the spine. Along with the frighteningly confined trenches, almost serving as coffins, ambushes with flamethrowers were almost like shooting monkeys in a barrel.

Flamethrowers in War: WW2

During the years after the Great War, the flamethrower would see little use and not much advancement. This would change with the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s and the beginnings of World War II. No stranger to its power and symbolism, the Nazis employed fire frequently throughout the war on both enemy soldiers and civilians. The first usage of man-portable flamethrowers used by the Wehrmacht was during the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 where they were used in the attack against the Post Office in Danzig. A part of the September Campaign, the Nazis' ruthless capture and occupation of Poland would result in the deaths of over half a million people and signaled the beginning of another world war.

Images of World War II technology and warfare.

Throughout World War 2, the Germans made significant use of their newly improved Flammenwerfer 35 during their subsequent invasions of the Netherlands and France. Unlike those used in World War 1, these flamethrowers consisted of two tanks, one larger tank filled with fuel and another smaller pressurized tank to propel the fuel forward. Smaller than previous models, new designs freed up space on the upper back of soldiers to carry additional equipment with them. However, advancements in other types of weapons (such as longer-range rifles and machine guns) made those with large tanks of explosive fuel vulnerable to attack. More useful for street fighting and suppressing riots, flamethrowers were used by the Germans, famously, during the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The Germans also dispatched various aspects of the flamethrower to other weapons and vehicles such as conventional land mines and tanks. The flamethrower was used by other Axis powers, but never to same degree as the Germans and Nazis.

For the Allies, World War 2 saw positive results in the usage and development of flamethrowers. The United States, in particular, favored using flamethrowers against the Japanese as they could easily clear areas of traps and deprive oxygen from enemy troops hiding in caves. Japanese troops later recounted how terrified they were of the flamethrower more than any other weapon used by the United States during the war.

U.S. Troops using flamethrowers during World War II.

The development of the flamethrower in the United States began in 1940 with the introduction of the M1 and M1A1 flamethrowers, along with the later M2 flamethrower. The M1 weighed close to 70 lbs., had a range of over 50 ft., and incorporated the use of napalm; a stark comparison to the cumbersome, heavy, and less powerful versions used throughout the war. Also unlike early versions, the M1’s ignition system features a battery spark to light the fuel as opposed to an open flame that would have to be replaced every time. Primarily used in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of the War, flamethrowers were used sparingly in Europe by the Allies and Americans, but still made an appearance, most notably during the storming of Omaha at Normandy. D-Day saw about 150 flamethrowers on the field, with over half of them being abandoned on the beach as the soldiers made their way through the water to reach the German lines. The M2 Flamethrower would eventually replace the M1 and M1A1 models later in the war, and while not possessing the same range as the M1, the M2 was much more reliable during combat. Understanding the limited effectiveness, reliability, and risk of using hand-held models in combat, armed forces began to focus more on developing more powerful and larger flamethrowers that could be mounted to vehicles such as tanks and boats. Following the war, most M2 flamethrowers were scrapped and destroyed once declared obsolete, although some were sold off.

Soviet ROKS-2 disguised to look like a rifle and pack.

The Soviets, unlike any other country involved in the war, focused on trying to camouflage their flamethrowers in an attempt to conceal the soldiers carrying them. The ROKS-2 was a flamethrower designed to appear like a standard issue rifle, like Mosins, and the tanks were disguised to look like backpacks and sacks. Featuring a working action, these flamethrowers could cycle through blank igniter cartridges much like a rifle. Soviets also were the first to experiment with flamethrowers and hidden explosive devices such as land mines that would be later plagiarized by the Nazis throughout the war in the form of their Abwehrflammenwerfer 42.

Flamethrowers in War: the Cold War and Beyond

After seeing the power and resulting destruction caused in the dense tropical areas of the Asiatic-Pacific Theater in World War 2, the United States continued using the flamethrower throughout conflicts that reached well into the late 1970s. During the Korean War, the M2A1-2 flamethrower was introduced as an upgrade to the original M2 version.

Constrained within straight backpack frames, these flamethrowers utilized safety measures that previous models lacked, drastically increasing the reliability and advantages of using one in combat. Vented gas caps, regulators and safety valves, and a well-fortified fuel tank protected soldiers from some of the unexpected risks that came with the flamethrower.

Soldier using a flamethrower in Vietnam to clear jungle area.

Arguably the most famous use of flamethrowers in combat came during the Vietnam War. While the M2A1-2 was still used throughout the war, it was the M2A1-7 and M9A1-7 models that made the most impact on the war efforts. Expanding on previous design upgrades and safety improvements, these later models were easier to use and possessed longer range and firing times compared to previous models. The war in Vietnam has since been the subject of intense debate concerning the morality of the fighting along with the use of inhumane weapons. As the United States was experiencing the colossal culture revolution of the 1960s and 70s, public opinion of war became increasingly more and more unpopular.

With disturbing pictures, unsettlingly news reports, and casualty rates climbing higher and higher, the war efforts became the center of protests that swept the country by storm. Increasing pressure from the public led to the reexamination of ethical weapons employed by the U.S. army. Following the war’s end in 1975, the United States continued to develop flamethrowers all the way up to the M9 that features a circular propellant tank located below the fuel tank. However, flamethrowers were discontinued by the United States Department of Defense starting in 1978 and were effectively removed from the U.S. arsenal. Contrary to popular opinion, flamethrowers are not against the Geneva Convention and are still allowed in combat under some restrictions and limitations.

Lot 4625: U.S. M9 Flamethrower Tank Rig and M2 Wand

Available during the upcoming October Sporting & Collector Auction is an incredible U.S. M9 Flamethrower tank rig with an accompanying M2 wand. An impressive testament to the evolution of the design over the past half-century, this item features an M9 fuel tank, the last to be developed by the United States army for use during the Vietnam War before being discontinued after 1978.

Lot 4625: U.S. M9 Flamethrower Tank Rig and M2 Wand

While most of the M9 wands produced for use during the war were destroyed, a good number of the tank rigs managed to survive; with this one being in very good condition with no visible puncture marks. Surrounded by an iconic metal cage, this lot features the dual tank system described earlier that was much lighter and more compact than previous versions such as the M2. With no visible puncture marks, this M9 tank is perfect for those looking to start a new project or looking to quench the restoration thirst that just can’t seem to go away. The accompanying wand is originally from an M2 model, but still retains its green painted finish. While the wand has been deactivated, the overall item is an amazing symbol of the power of fire, war, and the human mind.

Not a Flamethrower?

Outside of combat, flamethrowers have played an important role in certain aspects of society. Flamethrowers can be an extremely useful tool for firefighters and forest management while conducting controlled burns. Agriculturally, flamethrowers are also used for controlled burns meant to clear dead leaves, weeds, or pests away from crops such as sugar cane. These controlled burns also protect harvesters from venomous snakes and other creatures that could easily hide in tall grass. Police and law enforcement officers will occasionally fill flamethrowers, or flamethrower-like devices, with tear gas as a form of riot control, although this is not typical or frequent.

"Not a Flamethrower"

Owning a flamethrower in the United States is completely, 100% legal and not restricted by federal law, although some states have tighter restrictions than others. Some companies have even started selling flamethrowers for personal and recreational purposes. More specifically, billionaire Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, started developing and selling flamethrowers through his company, The Boring Company. Marketed as “Not a Flamethrower,” the device resembles a small rifle with a fuel tank located above the barrel. A sleek design, these “flamethrowers” sold out almost instantly and 20,000 units have purchased around the world.

The Flamethrower

The flamethrower: a modern piece of technology with roots almost as old as the written language. Once humans first learned to conquer this powerful entity, a mass global-scale arms race would be initiated to test the limits of human engineering and question our deepest ethical instincts. From ancient India to the American Civil War, the use of the flamethrower began to take foot on the battlefield as a destructive and effective method of defense and attack. After the outbreak of World War I, the flamethrower would enter a renaissance of upgrades, alterations, and modifications to craft the perfect weapon of annihilation and fear. Along with other groundbreaking inventions of the time such as airplanes, tanks, and chemical bombs, flamethrowers were a pivotal transitional step into forming what would be considered modern warfare today. During World War II, the United States began developing their own version of the flamethrower that would see success in the tropic environments of the pacific so well that they would be deployed and utilized extensively in future conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. During the 1960s and 1970s, paradigm shifts in culture drastically changed the public’s perception of the United States Government, war, and the draft causing a surge in animosity towards the unethical treatments of civilians during war, and the flamethrower was decommissioned. While not prohibited by the Geneva Convention, flamethrowers became a symbol of the horrors and immoralities of war. Today, flamethrowers are used for a wide number of different reasons outside of the military including for agricultural reasons. In the United States, it is legal to own a flamethrower and many private companies have even sold models for recreational purposes.

A U.S. Army soldier uses a flamethrower to ignite a controlled fire to eliminate brush from roadsides so bombs cannot be concealed, near Al Anaflsah, Iraq, Sept. 11, 2008.

While the ancient flamethrower used aboard Greek warships has evolved dramatically, the fear of fire still resonates so deeply with ourselves that it strikes the same sense of fear our ancestors possessed thousands of years ago.

Thank you for reading the first installment of Hoplology. We hope that you were able to learn a few interesting facts about the flamethrower, and about the world in general. As always, if there are any questions about the items detailed throughout this article, please contact Rock Island Auction Company.


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