Flamethrower



 Type 93 flamethrower  Greekfire-madridskylitzes1  Marineflametank1968

Note: Type 93 flamethrower // Greekfire-madridskylitzes1 // Marineflametank1968

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Flamethrower

For other uses, see Flamethrower (disambiguation).
"Flame warfare" redirects here. For the online term, see Flame war.

A flamethrower is a mechanical incendiary device designed to project a long, controllable stream of fire. They were first used by the Greeks in the 1st Century AD. In modern times, they were used during World War I, and more widely in World War II.

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. They can be designed to be either carried by the operator or mounted on a vehicle.

Military flamethrowers

Modern flamethrowers were first used during the trench warfare conditions of World War I; their use greatly increased in World War II. They can be vehicle mounted, as on a tank, or man-portable.

The man-portable flamethrower consists of two elements: a 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 upon unprepared soldiers, 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 blind and 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, 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.
  • Finally, the flamethrower's effective range was 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.

The risk of a flamethrower operator being caught in the explosion of his weapon due to enemy hits on the tanks is exaggerated in Hollywood films. However, there are cases where the pressure tanks have exploded and killed the operator when hit by enemy 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.

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 fitted with a flamethrower) 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; the most famous flame tank was the Churchill Crocodile.

Operation

A propane-operated flamethrower is a relatively straightforward device. The gas is expelled through the gun assembly by its own pressure and is ignited at the exit of the barrel through piezo ignition.

Liquid-operated flamethrowers use a smaller propane tank to expel the liquid. For safety reasons, the propane tank is behind the combustible liquid tanks in order to prevent being hit by a bullet. The propane is fed to two tubes. The first opens in the napalm tanks, providing the pressure necessary for expelling the liquid. The other tube leads to an ignition chamber behind the exit of the gun assembly, where it is mixed with air and ignited through piezo ignition. This pre-ignition propane line is the source of the flame seen in front of the gun assembly in movies and documentaries. As the napalm passes through the flame, it is ignited and propelled towards the target.

Origins

Main article: Greek fire

The concept of throwing fire as a weapon has existed since ancient times. Early flame weapons date from the Byzantine era, whose inhabitants used rudimentary hand-pumped flamethrowers on board their naval ships in the early 1st century AD (see Greek fire). Greek fire, extensively used by the Byzantine Empire, is said to have been invented by Kallinikos (Callinicus) of Heliopolis, 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 with a match, similar to modern versions, as it was ejected. Greek fire, used primarily at sea, gave the Byzantines a substantial military advantage against enemies such as members of the Arab Empire (who 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 spraying machine; lit. spray fire device) 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 Wu Renchen in his Spring and Autumn Annals of the Ten Kingdoms. 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 (林禹) in his Wu-Yue Beishi (吳越備史), 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', with Arabia (大食國 Dashiguo). In the Battle of Langshan Jiang (Wolf Mountain River) in 919, the naval fleet of the Wenmu King of Wuyue defeated the fleet of the Kingdom of Wu because he had used 'fire oil' to burn his fleet; this signified the first Chinese use of gunpowder in warfare, since a slow-burning match fuse was required to ignite the flames. The Chinese applied the use of double-piston bellows to pump petrol out of a single cylinder (with an upstroke and a 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 Wujing Zongyao, written in 1044 AD (its illustration redrawn in 1601 as well).

Although flamethrowers were never used in the American Civil War, the use of Greek Fire was threatened, and flamethrowers have been in use in most modern conflicts ever since.

Early 20th century

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, is usually 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 flammable oil in the upper section. On depressing a lever the propellant gas forced the flammable 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 their first real flamethrowing device, creating a specialist regiment of twelve companies equipped with Flammenwerferapparaten. Despite this, use of fire in a World War I battle predated flamethrower use, with a petrol spray being ignited by an incendiary bomb in the Argonne-Meuse sector in October 1914. The flamethrower was first used in World War I on February 26, 1915, when it was briefly used against the French outside Verdun. On July 30, 1915, it was first used in a concerted action, against British trenches at Hooge, where the lines were just 4.5 m (4.9 yd) apart—even there, the casualties were caused mainly by soldiers being flushed into the open and being shot by more conventional means rather than from the fire itself.

The flamethrower had other limitations: it was cumbersome and difficult to operate and could only be safely fired from a trench, which limited its use to areas where the opposing trenches were less than the maximum range of the weapon, namely 18 m (20 yd) apart—which was not a common situation; the fuel would also only last for about 2 minutes).

Nevertheless, the German army continued deploying flamethrowers during the war in more than 300 battles, usually in teams of 6.

British forces in the Battle of the Somme used experimental weapons called "Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector", named for their inventor, a Royal Engineers officer William Howard Livens. This weapon was enormous and completely non-portable. Livens later invented the Livens Projector, these were in effect crude mortars firing large bombs filled with incendiary liquid. A little later the weapon was adapted to project canisters of poison gas. Hundreds, or even thousands, of projectors firing almost simultaneously, would produce an instant cloud of poison gas on the target. Two Morriss static flamethrowers mounted in HMS Vindictive (1897) and several Hay portable flamethrowers were deployed by the Royal Navy during the Zeebrugge Raid on 23 April 1918.

The French army deployed the Schilt family of flamethrowers, that were also used by the Italian army. The Russian army used 11,446 indigenously produced flamethrowers, over 10,000 of which were the Tovarnitski man-portable design.

In the interwar period, at least four flamethrowers were used in the Chaco War by the Bolivian Army, during the unsuccessful assault on the Paraguayan stronghold of Nanawa in 1933.




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