Eli5: How effective were flamethrowers when they were still in use in the military and what were the dangers of operating one?

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Eli5: How effective were flamethrowers when they were still in use in the military and what were the dangers of operating one?

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For a specific purpose (clearing tunnels, bunkers etc…) it works. It’s sticky flaming goo and it kills people.

As for dangers, it’s sticky flaming goo.

Flamethrowers were highly effective and were one of the scariest weapons to go up against.

Being burned alive by flaming fuel is not a pleasant way to go, and flame throwers had a strong psychological effect as a result.

Every injury from a flame thrower is a severe and very painful injury.

Being a flamethrower operator had it’s problems though, as they would be deliberately targeted by the enemy and if the pressurized fuel tank were hit it would explode killing the operator and everyone around them in a ball of flame.

People today don’t truly appreciate how nasty Flame Throwers were. We think of them like what we see in movies, or shooting flame like out of a propane cylinder but that’s not how they work at all. They squirt a mix of pressurized flaming fuel over 100 ft away, and when soldiers are feeling nasty they’ll mix the fuel with soap to prevent the flames from being put easily out with water. Go check out Youtube videos of people testing Vietnam era flamethrowers and they are almost always shocked and appalled at just how insane they are as weapons.

Although flame throwers aren’t explicitly banned by the Geneva convention, there are lines in there that argue that Flamethrowers should be considered a banned weapon.

Despite this the US military continued to use them throughout Vietnam.

Flamethrowers have not been in the U.S. arsenal since 1978, when the Department of Defense unilaterally stopped using them ⁠— ⁠the last American infantry flamethrower was the Vietnam-era M9-7. They have been deemed of questionable effectiveness in modern combat.

But given their effectiveness we haven’t seen the last of them, and they will re-appear on the battlefield at some point.

I’ve used an M2 Flamethrower the past. They’re still sometimes used to clear out bee and wasp nests. A few things I learned.

They have a kick. A big one. Honestly about as bad as hip-firing a 50cal rifle, only its not instantaneous, but about 2 or three seconds long. While you have a burning hose in your hand.

They run out of ammo fast. Well, not exactly “ammo” but the M2 has this wierd “mini flare” wheel ignition system that is absolutely irritating to refill. And can only be used…I forget if it was 6 or 8 times. Basically, front trigger ignites a mini flare that burns about 10 secs (but is crazy Inconsistent) the rear trigger let’s out the fuel.

It’s crazy scary on both sides. Even with a weaker propellant used, you feel the heat from that flame, and can feel the air being sucked away. Do NOT use an M2 if you have claustrophobia.

They are surprisingly utilitarian. I can’t imagine the flame of a flamethrower killing a tank but you can squirt out some unlit propellant and blind those viewholes and cameras at 100 feet. You know that if any propellant got through a view hole the crew would be absolutely s******* themselves. Anyone in half a mile who looks directly at a flamethrower fireball in night vision goggles WILL be permanently blinded.

Flamethrowers are good for three reasons. They can shoot around corners, they suck up the oxygen, and they are a source of abject terror for the enemy. That is good in one situation. Clearing out bunkers and tunnels. As for the terror part, if given the choice on who to shoot first it will be the guy with the flamethrower. I would call that a drawback.

Something no one’s explicitly mentioned as a danger is that you don’t get to surrender. They’ve touched on it, as to how awful it is to be burned alive and how flamethrower operators were specifically targeted. And like, officially, rules of war, anyone can surrender and it *must* be accepted.

Unofficially, if you’ve got a flamethrower on and you surrender, “they didn’t see you surrender” or “you attempted to attack after surrendering” or “there was an accident,” assuming an excuse is even given. Flamethrowers were hated, and no one would bat an eye at a little bit of war crime if it was a flamethrower operator at the receiving end of them.

I’d just like to add there’s a psychological impact of operating them. You’re hearing people’s screams while they burn to death and smell them being cooked alive. I’ve heard of veterans unable to look at flames the same way after that.

IIRC, the marines on Iwo Jima had to clear hundreds of tunnels, and the best way to use a flame thrower was to start shooting at the entrance and the guy with the flame thrower pretty much had to stand out in the open to get the best angle. The main problem they had was the Japanese had as many as 3 separate tunnel systems over/under each other, so you could be attacking one known location and they’d shoot from another position.

And the main way to find a tunnel entrance was to walk around till someone started shooting at you.

I would say devastating in closed environments, but the operator has an effective range about the same as a pistol or shotgun.

They were incredibly effective for a lot of things. There were issues because of how effective they were basically if you had one on your back, everyone wanted to kill you to keep you from using it on them. Sometimes the tank would get hit though and you could end up on fire yourself. They weren’t discontinued though because of that, it was decided that they caused too much damage without killing often times. People would end up in with major painful burns yet wouldn’t die or would die after long periods of suffering.

That’s when they were banned in war. Believe it or not a lot of things in war are banned for not being deadly enough. The official position is “suffering should be kept to an absolute minimum”. So they want quick instant painless deaths as the goal. No using things designed to maim or cause undue suffering.

Truth be told I think flame throwers are still in the military but used quite sparingly. It’s good for clearing fields and such but can’t be used against people. Obviously not much use in like Afghanistan, but if we went back to war in a jungle you’d see them used again.

Flamethrower is extremely effective in close proximity. Fire can bounce off surface of wall and objects to give you ability to clear corner, which is impossible with normal rifles. Flamethrower doesn’t require precise aim and can cover a bigger angular view quickly compared to rifle. Flamethrower can easily inflict terror on enemy. Downside of flamethrower is short range and slow projectile speed. So you need to focus play on spot with cover instead of open field to get the most out of it. Smoke and fire covering your view is another downside. You can also easily kill yourself with flamethrower if not careful. Due to its bouncing off capability, playing around mates is dangerous, so solo play is ideal. Flamethrower tank can explode and blow up if shot, which can immediately kill you, but also “gives” you a free molotov cocktail to deny enemy’s advance. By the way, this is from my experience with flamethrower in game, real life experience can differ.

A fun fact: Flamethrower in german is called ‘Flammenwerfer’.

Example:

*”Hans, go take the Flammenwerfer!”*

They were effective for the time mainly as a bunker buster and all around terror weapon. After WWII they were mainly phased out due to better weapons that were lighter and had greater range, starting with rifle grenades and AT rockets/RPGs and now the 40mm/30mm grenade launcher.
The most effective flamethrowers were the tank mounted ones. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rpEO3oiuos