The History of Flamethrowers

M1A1 Flamethrower

Flamethrowers and fire have a long and storied history in warfare, early armies used fire to raze foe’s strongholds and to burn land to prevent it from being used for a time. Fire is a difficult force to contain, even today and if the goal is total destruction then few modern weapons out class fire.

Greek fire
Depiction of Greek Fire in use

Early naval battles were also won and lost on the use of fire to burn the wooden ships that served in many navies until the move to metal ships and carriers in modern times. Flamethrowers, at least a thing that “throws flames”, started as early as the Byzantine Empire, with the advent of Greek Fire.

The still unknown liquid mixture would be sprayed onto enemy forces and ships to burn them, and it became a potent destructive and psychological weapon. Greek Fire would be pumped from nozzles on the bows of ships, these were used to burn enemy ships and their crews. Small hand-held devices, known as cheirosiphōn or cheirosiphōnes were also used as a means to destroy siege towers and disrupt enemy formations. These early flamethrowers were however, not massively effective nor did they create massive changes in the way that early combat was handled. In comparison, the advent of handheld firearms, such as flintlocks and other smooth bore rifles would do more to change the face of warfare.

German Brennkommando
German Brennkommando (Burning Detachment) using flamethrowers in Warsaw.

What we would call a flamethrower would not appear until the First World War. In the muddy trenches these devices would prove to be effective to clear the narrow corridors and tight spaces when flanking an enemy position. The psychological effectiveness of these weapons also once again became apparent with their use in the First World War and would lead to more widespread use in the Second World War.

When entering into the Second World War, the US fielded the M1A1 Flamethrower. This model was first developed in 1940 after the US forces realized that the Nazi troops were utilizing them in their Blitzkrieg efforts.

M1A1 Flamethrower
M1A1 flamethrower being used on a Japanese Bunker in Bougainville, March 1944


The result of this development was the model E1 and this was submitted for testing in 1940. Out of this testing the E1R1, an improved version, was developed in 1941. It sported a lighter weight and a range of 15 to 20 yards. Additional testing yielded a number of issues with the E1R1 or “Experiment 1, Revision 1” and it was modified to be more rugged and address a few issues relating to operation of the flamethrower. By March of 1942 the design was finalized and was adopted by the US Military as the M1 Flamethrower. With the development of napalm the design was further revised to use the new fuel. This lead to an effective distance of 50 yards and better combat effectiveness. The improved, napalm using, flamethrower was given the M1A1 designation when it was adopted by the US Military. In the European Theater 150 M1 Flamethrowers were issued to the troops to use against the entrenched, Nazi, positions. However many of these units were abandoned on the beach due to their weight and later recovered for the push into the interior of Europe. However it was in the Pacific Theater where they would prove to be the most effective in the jungle islands and entrenched positions when facing the Japanese forces.

The M1A1 flamethrower would be refined further in 1943 with the advent of the M2 series of Flamethrowers. The M2 series would also see a number of revisions, the M2-2 had an hourglass shape and hexagonal gas caps. The M2A1-2 was developed during the Korean war and featured a number of safety improvements and a straight sided backpack frame. The M2A1-7 was a further refinement of the M2 series and featured separate ignition and firing safety catches. The M9A1-7 would eventually replace the previous M2 flamethrowers for use in the Vietnam war and was the most common type of flamethrower to be utilized in the war. However the M9A1-7 would eventually be replaced by the M202 FLASH which is still, ostensibly, in use today and has been used in Afghanistan. You can see Ian at Forgotten Weapons going over and having fun with an M2 flamethrower.

While flamethrowers have fallen out of use for modern militaries many US States still allow them to be used by civilians for farm use, waste disposal, and more. Today there are two main models that dominate the civilian flamethrower market. The X15, which is a more traditional flamethrower design featuring a backpack and wand as well as the XM42 which is a smaller, hand-held, model designed more for portability and ease of use.

Fire seems like such a simple thing when we use it to cook and light camp fires, but it’s use in warfare cannot be understated. It seems that the use of flamethrowers and other incendiary devices will never fall out of use in combat and for more mundane uses.