Introduction to Military Flamethrowers with Charlie Hobson

Flamethrowers are a significant piece of military weapons history which are very widely misunderstood, as flamethrowers have never been the subject of nearly as much collector interest as other types of small arms. The US military removed its flamethrowers from inventory in 1985, and all other major national militaries have done the same. In the US, the lack of general interest led to most of the surplussed weapons being destroyed as scrap, and few survive in private collections. At the same time (and for the same reason) a great deal of the information on these weapons was also discarded and lost.

One of the people who has done a tremendous amount of work to recover practical information on historical military flamethrowers as well as restore, service, and operate them is Charlie Hobson. He has worked extensively with the US military museum system as well as the entertainment industry (if you have seen a movie of TV show using a real flamethrower, is was almost certainly done under his supervision).

Today I am discussing the basic of flamethrowers with Charlie. The goal is to provide a good baseline foundation so we can go on to look at a couple specific historical flamethrowers and understand them in context. So sit back, relax, and enjoy a chat with a man who is truly passionate about this underappreciated aspect of military history!

You can reach Charlie through his web site, if you are interested in the purchase, restoration, or testing of military flamethrowers. I also highly recommend his book, US Portable Flamethrowers. It covers not only the whole sequence of US flamethrowers from WWII through the 1980s, but also includes experimental models, vehicle-mounted units, and foreign designs as well.


  1. “removed its flamethrowers from inventory in 1985, and all other major national militaries have done the same”
    Russian Army still use RPO-A Shmel, which in Russia is classified as flame-thrower hence O in RPO – огнемет.

    • Ill say its correct, the classification of Shmel as a flametrhower is bit off. I even read somewhere (unfortunately cant figure out where, and cat say if its true) that its done to dodge some law or treaty on explosives.

    • RPO-A is a thermobaric warhead rocket launcher. As such it has much the same tactical role as flamethrowers had in WW1 and WW2, but technically it is not a flame thrower, but a rocket launcher.

  2. Always wondered about these. My Dad, in his book, in the chapter entitled “The Bravest Thing I Ever Did,” on the line, 0300, seeing the outline of an enemy observer across the line, outlined by the backlight of a burning Japanese fuel dump. Taking his issue bayonet, he stalked the nefarious enemy, sweating and fearfull, rolled upon him from the rear and realized he was about to cut throat of an otherwise completely innocent abandoned US issue flamethrower. (Imagine, if you will, what two larger scuba tanks side-by-side, with a smaller tank in the middle may look like, in backlight.)
    He always said he deserved a medal for bravery for that one, but was too embarrassed to mention it to anybody.
    In the Army, ca 1967 I can recall asking why I saw nothing of the legendary “Flamers”. And the answer was “They’re so scary on the sending-end we have trouble getting anybody to do it.”

  3. I will have to get that book. Both my mother’s late father and I have built improvised flame throwers. Granddaddy’s was a gasoline powered plumbing furnace and my last started out as a propane powered insect fogger. It is addictive fun.

  4. [In the Army, ca 1967 I can recall asking why I saw nothing of the legendary “Flamers”. And the answer was “They’re so scary on the sending-end we have trouble getting anybody to do it.”] In 1962 at Camp Geiger we were scheduled to have a “Fam-Fire” (familiarization firing exercise) with what the instructor called his “Big Zippo.” He carried a chrome plated one in the trunk os his car at all times and in my opinion had more than one essential screw loose if not entirely missing. I refused to even put one on much less fire it, not from fear, but because after being raised in the East Texas oilfield and seeing more than one man burned to death, I had very strong negative feelings about using one on another human. We knew nothing about the carbon monoxide issue in a closed environment but I have seen films of them being used in the open so that would have made no difference to me. I was threatened with a General Court Martial but still refused. I told our CO that I would shoot anyone they said, set Claymores and mines anywhere they said, or use a knife on anyone I had to but would not use a flame thrower on any living thing. I never did use one. Nothing against those who did, but it is not a weapon for me. However, their design and operation has always intrigued me no end. Well done and long overdue documentary. Thanks to you both.

    • I can’t blame you for not wanting to burn a fellow man to death. It’s even worse if you consider that some tank crews die from magazine explosions or fuel tank conflagration…

    • Chrome plated flamethrower!!! All it needed was fake pearl grips for the wand. I guess it would set you off from the rest of the crowd.

  5. Marines I knew who served on Okinawa and in other pacific campaigns were very grateful that they were in the inventory.
    And all of them were very grateful for the A Bomb, not one of them expected to survive an invasion of the main islands. It’s an ugly death ( I have seen it up close), but there are few better tools to deal with caves and pillboxes.

    • True, but I suppose you wouldn’t relish the thought of filling those caves with poison gas. As for the A-Bomb, one survivor attempted to sue America over the use of it on civilian non-combatants. The Japanese high court ruled that yes, the use of nuclear weapons on civilians is illegal! However, the same court also conceded that private individuals did not have the authority to sue foreign governments. In response to this somewhat gracious ruling, America denied a former POW the ability to sue Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, even though that company had used him as forced labor during the years prior to the Japanese surrender. Had the bitter soldier’s complaint been heeded and the US Army actually penalized the Mitsubishi group, the Japanese government may have retaliated in kind, perhaps citing the sorties of B-32 Dominators over Tokyo (AFTER the surrender) as potentially illegal, since the intercepting Japanese pilots did not understand that the unescorted but very much armed B-32’s were only taking photos. “Does one ever fly heavy bombers over the capital city of a defeated foe after he has surrendered in such a manner that he may think he is getting bombed AFTER having given up his sword!?”

    • Amongst the many parts of the story of the war in the Pacific, that are generally not told;

      The Japanese leadership had been offering surrender with one condition – that the emperor remained – since at least January 1945

      Overtures were made through Switzerland, Portugal, the Soviet Union and the Vatican. These were rejected as “premature”.

      That war could have been over in January 1945, with exactly the same terms that were actually used – that the emperor stayed in place. Instead it was deliberately strung out.

      and it looks like that stringing out was until the nukes were ready.

      Preference for the decision to nuke cities is based on a false dichotomy: that it was a choice only between the bomb or invasion.

      I don’t doubt that the top leaders of the western allies were narcissistic and psychopathic enough to actually see it in those narrow terms,

      however, there’s a very long list of top military and intelligence people who went on the record to express their complete disgust.
      Showing that it was real generals, real admirals, real intelligence people (not just armchair ones) who believed that the Japanese home islands could be safely and relatively easily blockaded until surrender, and that the surrender would have occurred at about the same time and under the same terms

      and that surrender had indeed been on offer in black and white since the beginning of the year.

      The List of objectors includes Dwight Eisenhower, Admiral William D. Leahy – chief of staff, General Douglas MacArthur, Joseph Grew – under secretary of state, John McCloy- Assistant secretary of war, Ralph Bard- under secretary of the navy, Lewis Strauss – special assistant to the secretary of the navy, Alfred McCormack – Director of Military Intelligence for the Pacific Theater…

      The titles are the offices those men held at the time of the bombing.

      There’s a fuller list and referenced quotes from those I listed, here:
      and here:

  6. The carbon monoxide problem (CO) is why you can use a FT to clear a trench, but only so long as you do it from outside said trench.

    Similarly, during the Vietnam War, when the 25th Infantry (Tropic Lightning) Division found a VC tunnel complex right under their main encampment in Cu Chi Province, FT was the first weapon they ruled out for clearing, as there was no way to use one down in the tunnels without probably suffocating the operator.

    (Fun fact; firing one 30-round magazine from an M16 on full-auto in one of those tunnels would do about the same thing to the soldier with the rifle. Now you know why “tunnel rats” preferred knives and .38 Special revolvers.)

    If the U.S. Army had wanted a properly-designed, effective flamethrower up front in 1940-41, other than simply copying a WW1 German model, the fastest way to get one would have been to ask a company that specialized in building things like oil-fired home heating furnaces or the mobile asphalt heaters used by road crews. In North Africa, my one uncle (Lt. Col, Army Corps of Engineers) noted that there wasn’t much mechanical difference between an M1 FT and his mobile asphalt heaters, except his units were a lot more reliable.

    The flamethrower goes back a lot farther than WW1. Ancient Arabic, Byzantine, and Chinese FTs were actually pretty sophisticated devices, and didn’t require high pressure to get their point across;



      • Thanks, I was impressed by the students’ work, too.

        The important thing to understand is how the ancient FTs were used. Their limited range (7 to 10 yards) seems like a handicap, until your realize that other than bows, there weren’t that many effective ranged weapons around back then smaller than siege weapons (onagers, trebuchets, etc.). And javelin throwers had an effective range of only about 20-25 yards, never mind Hollywood.

        In a combat environment in which most weapons were used at arm’s-length at best, something that could squirt a stream of flame up to 25 feet distance was a hellaciously effective weapon, especially in the morale department.

        Also, while the Arabic and Byzantine versions were mobile weapons, the Chinese version was a stationary defensive type. According to the Osprey book mentioned, the Chinese version was usually sited on top of a parapet to be used against anyone attempting an escalade. Stick your head above the lip, get toasted. BTW, one ancient Chinese “cattie” equals about one pint US, so the Chinese FT had a capacity of about three pints.

        It would have been somewhat amusing to see an Arab siege of a Chinese city, such as Samarkand (which the Arabs took in the 6th Century AD), with these small FTs in use on both sides. First guy up the assault ladder has a siphon full of Greek fire; guy on parapet has Chinese FT.

        It might not have been conclusive, but it certainly would have been spectacular.



        • It’s not hard to imagine how it would break a formation up very quickly. Probably quite hard to use offensively in some ways since they’d be empty quickly and you couldn’t move into the space you cleared. Fits your point that it wouldn’t be decisive. Good point about the range being a significant benefit for the context. Defensively it’d be impressive!
          I will read up on the siege of Samarkand. I had no idea there was such a conflict. It sounds fascinating!

          • The Muslims took the city, including a paper mill the Chinese had recently finished. For the next century and a half they sold paper (about as durable as papyrus but a lot cheaper) to Europeans at exorbitant prices because nobody in Europe knew how to make it, and the Muslims never told them it was a Chinese invention.

            Even today, some Muslim “scholars” claim paper was an Islamic innovation as a result of this bit of creative larceny.



  7. Had the pleasure to fire a remade M2 flamethrower. It was a interesting way to light bonfires for party’s. A wet shot before ignition really helps out if you want it to burn and keep burning. One of the more interesting weapons I’ve fired in my life time. I’m glad I got the chance.

  8. Oh, boy… this is making me want to build a flame thrower.

    I need to be talked down off the ledge before I fire up CAD and figure out how to set myself and my range buddies on fire…

  9. Since most recent US wars (and probably future ones as well) have been fought in the desert regions of the world, where buildings are made of mud and stone — rather than wood and bamboo — it’s probably unlikely that the flamethrower will ever return to its former glory.

    I’ve wondered about the recent surge in interest in “non-weapon” weapons such as flame throwers and large-caliber air rifles (and maybe even thermite “bombs”).

    Is it due to historical interest (as both systems were long ago dropped by modern militaries) or is it more about exploiting a loophole in US laws — that increasingly ban and/or regulate guns and explosives while ignoring many of the more historical forms of weaponry? Or maybe just the excitement of having a new toy to play with — and knowing that it may be taken away soon.

    • Flamethrowers have been superceded by superior technology, namely thermobaric explosives, which can be fired at longer ranges and are much safer to the operator. The main purpose of flamethrowers was not to burn things down, but to clear bunkers and trenches, which they indeed did mainly by CO poisoning. The common building materials have very little to do with it.

  10. If nitrogen is not available…

    Is there any objection to using a gasoline engine’s exhaust fumes to feed a compressor?
    especially if the engine is running rich?

    I realise that the fumes will contain moisture, and the pressure vessels will need a good clean out afterwards to prevent corrosion…

    • I don’t know, but during WW2 Red Army used ФОГ-2 flame-throwing-mine which use powder charge to split flames.
      АТО-41 and АТО-42 automatic tank flame-throwers used blank cartridge for 45-mm AT gun to throw flames, although in this case powder gases act against piston and thus force mixture into nozzle. Pressure tanks were still needed to cycle that weapon – after chamber was emptied new portion of mixture was forced into chamber pushing piston and thus cycling next 45-mm blank.
      АТО-41 has max range 90-100m (special mixture) or 60-65m (standard mixture) and max Rate-Of-Fire 18 shots/min, each shot require 10 liters of mixture
      АТО-42 has max range 100-130m (special mixture) or 60-70m (standard mixture) and max Rate-Of-Fire 24-30 shots/min
      Following tanks used this weapon:
      ОТ-34 (basis: Т-34), nozzle replaced DT hull machine gun, DT gunner was removed to make place for flame-thrower, fired by driver, capacity: 10 shots
      ОТ-34-85 (basis: Т-34-85), analog to ОТ-34, but with capacity of 20 shots
      КВ-8 (basis: КВ-1), mounted in turret, co-ax with main gun, 76,2-mm gun was replaced with 45-mm to make enough place for flame-thrower, mocked-up to look as 76,2-mm gun, capacity: 60 shots (early version), 90 shots (late version)
      КВ-8С (basis: КВ-1С), analog to КВ-8, but with capacity of 60 shots, enlarged capacity of rounds for 45-mm gun

    • First of all, “straight” IC exhaust (not run through a converter) will be largely CO. Mixing this with your flame fuel “mist” will probably seriously degrade combustion efficiency; you’re starting with a substantial portion of your mix being combustion waste product that excludes the oxygen needed for efficient burning.

      Moisture (water vapor) in the mix will probably have minimal or no effect, as Mr. Hobson pointed out in the video. Keep in mind that H2O and hydrocarbon fuels have different densities and don’t generally mix well; also, once the fuel is ignited, temperature rise will quickly turn water in any form to steam.

      For nitrogen pressurization, you might want to check a commercial garage or tire store. Lots now brag about inflating tires with pure N rather than compressed air. Exactly how this is an advantage for the tires I’m not quite sure, but if the service is available, filling a portable tank and then running it through a compressor to fill the FT’s tank would probably work.



      • “advantage for the tires I’m not quite sure”
        Nitrogenium has smaller volume change for same temperature difference, so maybe it is useful when you often through hot-zone cold-zone hot-zone cold-zone… (?)

      • Eon,
        Pure N in a tire (tyre) gives less pressure growth with heat and also eliminates the water present in compressed air.

  11. I’ve designed and built a couple of art-project flame effect devices.

    Here’s photos and video from a firing test last year:

    and here are a bunch of photos of the art installation (in the desert) where it was set up and fired by attendees at the art festival:

    The device’s I made do use regular gasoline and nitrogen at much lower pressure than military flamethrowers (the device above ran at around 70-80 PSI. The pressure vessel is a sandblasting tank rated at 125.)

    I can attest to the accuracy of Mr. Hobson’s comments about more pressure not always meaning more distance. For a given viscosity of fuel and nozzle configuration there is an optimum pressure – exceed that and the fuel stream simply starts to break up sooner. Nozzle (and feed tube) configuration do have an important impact on the emitted fuel stream.

  12. The inconvertible truth of the matter is using a flame thrower to burn an enemy to death is both real, demonstrable and even recorded by the survivors. The possibly contrived “scientific ” facts cited are true enough in a embarrassingly limited way…yes, carbon-monoxide is lethal, yes , under certain circumstances, no argument there. But the rock bottom truth of the matter is the belief that oxygen denial and/or carbon-monoxide poisoning “saves” someone from the burning death is completely bogus and a lie. Human physiology just plain doesn’t work that way and the concept exists only to ease the surviving relatives…and those wishing to ease their own conscience .
    I suggest reading, “Falling Through Space,” the short essay by Richard Hillary, included in “The Last Enemy” which tells the real life story of a Battle of Briton RAF pilot burning to death in the cockpit of his Spitfire in 1940…and escaping, severely damaged, at the last moment.
    I knew Boyington (Bye, Bye Blacksheep) slightly and he always described being shot down by the Japanese in 1944 as, “…opening the grate on a blast furnace and sticking your head in.”
    But lf I ever need a flame thrower, I know who to call, no problem. I do, however wonder s bit about exactly what venue, other than the back-lot at Universal Studios, is going to let one do it.

  13. Could someone post a link to the video? I just watched the Q&A vid, and I was dying to see the video (mentioned in the Q&A) demonstrating the M2, so I clicked the “flamethrower” tag, but the video (and this one! *sad face*) isn’t on the page for some reason. Thanks in advance! The Q&A video was *awesome* btw. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.