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Flamethrowers — Once tools of war, now toys

You want a flamethrower? We’re not talking about the weed burning, propane powered gadgets your grade school janitor carried while wandering around the kickball field. No, not those. A few brave companies are selling full-on, bunker-blasting tools of incineration.

One click and a you’re a short wait and a wakeup away from a performance of pyrotechnism that will likely invite a carnival of firefighters, police officers, and EMTs into your life at the request of your white-faced neighbors –no matter how safe you are.

But before we tell you about current offerings, here’s a very quick-and-dirty on flamethrower design and history. Early flamethrowers were used as far back as 900 AD by the Byzantine empire when they figured out how to fling Greek Fire using hand pumped sprayers. Flame throwers have been used in naval and ground combat ever since.

There are two major types of fuel for a flamethrowers, liquid and gel. Liquid fuels are things like gasoline, kerosine, naphtha, diesel. Heavier fuels burn longer but are harder to ignite, so different types of liquid fuel are commonly combined to enhance certain characteristics.

Gel fuels consist of flammable liquids mixed with a gelling agent. The thickened, burning jelly is sprayed just like a liquid fuel but it stays together in the air longer and sticks to surfaces, continuing to burn while adhered. The earliest form of gel fuel is the aforementioned Greek Fire. Another is napalm, a synthetic compound made by the US in the 1940’s and used in incendiary bombs and flame throwers during World War II. Later, Napalm-B was developed and used all the way through the Vietnam war. The important things to know here are that liquid fuels are easier to work with, but gel fuels are more destructive.Portable Flame Thrower M2 1 674

Here’s the explanation right from the manual of the US War Department’s 1942 technical manual for the M-2 Portable Flamethrower:

Thickened fuels give up to twice the range of liquid fuels. The stream of thickened fuel is comparatively narrow. Most of the glue-like fuel clings to and burns in or on the target for as long as 6 minutes. Liquid fuels, on the other hand, are largely consumed in flight to the target. If the location of small openings in the target is known, the stream of thickened fuel can be spotted by accurate aiming so that most of the fuel enters directly into the openings. While it does not billow around corners as does liquid fuel, thickened fuel strikes the target with force enough to ricochet inside. It clings to skin and clothing while burning. It also has excellent incendiary effects. The initial flame and smoke are less from thickened fuel than from liquid fuel, but the lower visibility, greater range, and much longer burning period of thickened fuel compensate for its smaller screening effect. Liquid fuels are easier to pour when filling than are thickened fuels.

Modern flamethrower design began with invention of the German flammenwerferapparaten (flame-thrower-apparatus) as used during World War I. Richard Fielder is credited for the invention. The first versions were barely portable, large contraptions that consisted of two tanks connected by a hose; one tank held thickened oil and the other held pressurized gas. When the system was activated, pressure from the compressed gas in the first tank forced the oil to flow from the second tank into an outlet hose that ended in a spray nozzle where a pilot flame was held. The oil would catch fire as it passed through the pilot and burn as a yards-long jet of flame.

Not much has changed since the invention of the flammenwerferapparaten. Sure, different, more efficient fuels have come along, but the once the flamethrower became a 50-70 pound backpack-worn systems during WWII, the delivery device has remained pretty much the same no matter which side used it. A canister of compressed gas forces a flammable liquid from a connected canister through an a nozzle containing an ignition source to create a massive flame.

No matter how they are depicted in WWII war movies, flamethrowers were used sparingly because an M-2 flamethrower, for example, with a full tank provided barely 10 seconds of flame before it had to be recharged. Also, flamethrowers don’t explode when struck by bullets. They might leak and spew fuel all over the place when punctured, but they don’t explode.

Flamethrowers were used on all sides throughout WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War against personnel. 121 developed countries (including the US) gave up the use of flamethrowers around 1980 as the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons forbade their use.

That’s it for the primer. On to the stuff that will excite your friends and scare your neighbors. We’ve found at least three commercially available flamethrowers you can order today. The XMatter LLC X15, the Ion Productions XM42, and the FTP Productions Ready Built Flamethrower.

x-matter-flamethrower 674

The $1599 XMatter LLC X15 takes a traditional, but refined approach to flamethrower design. This means it’s using compressed gas to charge the system like its World War I/II-era forebearers. But, instead of using air or nitrogen, the X15 runs on CO2 from a refillable bottle made for paintball guns. Despite more than a hundred years of technological advancement, the X15 still weighs 50 pounds and needs to be strapped to your back for mobile use. XMatter claims the X15 produces a 50 feet of flame burning through its three gallons of fuel in under a minute.

XM42 Flamethrower 674

The $899 Ion Productions XM42 is the most popular of the three since it garnered a lot of attention this spring with an indiegogo.com campaign that ignited a massive PR bonfire that still burns brightly in the embers of every Google search for “flamethrower.”

It’s also the most compact of these three immolation devices thanks to it’s ingenious, non-traditional design. Instead of using a pressurized tank to throw the fuel, the XM42 uses a compact electric pump powered by remote controlled car battery to spew fuel through a butane-powered, piezoelectric-activated ignitor. Plan on spending $3 for a can of butane, not included. This 7.4 pound, handheld setup burns through it’s 1.5 liters of fuel in about 35 seconds producing a 25 foot flame.

Kit flamethrower red 674

The $897 FTP Productions Ready Built Flamethrower was a do-it-yourself project that grew into a do-it-for-me product. It’s the most steampunk-looking of the three, combing what looks like a fire extinguisher bottle, a paintball CO2 tank, a pressure washer head and an off-the-shelf blowtorch into a commercial offering. And, yes, steampunk is my generous way of saying ghetto-looking. As ugly as this thing is, you can’t argue with the results at this price. Be aware, the Ready Built comes with everything except a $5 mini propane tank for the ignitor. The rig will run through 3.5 gallons of fuel producing what looks to be a 30 to 50 foot flame, providing a minute of continuous pyro action.

According to XMatter LLC, Ion Productions, and FTP Productions, their devices aren’t regulated by the federal government. Each state decides if its citizens can own and use a flamethrower. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that California and Maryland strictly regulate flamethrowers. Other states may regulate them, too, so make sure you check local laws before buying one.

Choosing one of the three offerings to add to your spider-killing collection shouldn’t be that hard. It looks as if the the makers of the X15 bought the plans for the Ready Built Flamethrower and went to town, adding hoses and a remote propane tank for the ignition system. On the other hand, the XM42 is the cheapest (barely) of the three baby dragons and and will take up the least amount of space in your parent’s basement. Seems like cost/size/fun ratio all tilt toward the XM42.

If you’re still with us, maybe you’re thinking of ways you can justify buying one of these for real uses around the yard. Don’t bother. Flamethrowers suck at melting ice; 60 seconds of flame is enough to turn ice into perfectly smooth, refrozen sheet of frictionless glass that would make an insurance agent sweat. Weeds? Sure, but a propane torch will do the job for half the cost. People will even say they are used in agriculture for prescribed burns all the time. They aren’t. They are pretty inefficient (remember, 50 pounds of gear for less than 60 seconds of flame?) Coffee can-sized drip torch canisters and chemical ignition (potassium permanganate balls injected with ethylene glycol) are used far, far more than flamethrowers for prescribed burns.

The only real justification for one of these is to fulfill the needs of your inner pyrochild. Not that there is anything wrong with that. We just thought you should know in case you planned on convincing someone that you got it for reasons.


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