If you’ve watched the 1985 action classic ‘Commando‘ starring the iconic star Arnold Schwarzenegger, chances are you’ve already seen this humongous rocket launcher that, without fail, annihilates all the bad guys. It also appeared in video games, including Capcom’s Resident Evil and Overkill Software’s Payday 2.

When it was first introduced, this four-tubed incendiary rocket launcher had hype considering it would replace the terrifying M2 close-range flamethrowers with soldiers running around the battlefield with literal fuel tanks on their backs. Not only the rocket launcher allows its operators to fire at a safe, obscured distance, but it can also fire explosives four times.

The badass weapon arose as a novel innovation to improve the safety of soldiers assigned to use flamethrowers in combat. However, shortly after its manufacture and induction into service, a series of issues forced its “pseudo-retirement” and, eventually, phased out.

Army’s Multishot Incendiary Rocket Launcher

Developed and manufactured by Northrop Corporation in the 70s, the M202 FLASH (“FLame Assault SHoulder”) is a lightweight, individual rocket launcher designed to replace the then-aging M1 and M2 man-portable flamethrower series. It derived from the XM202 prototype launcher that was tested during the Vietnam War and likewise fired operated through aiming and firing on the right shoulder from either standing, kneeling, or prone position. It is basically loaded with four 66-mm M74 rockets, which can be fired from one to four semiautomatically at one missile per second before being reloaded with a new clip between an operating temperature of -32 degrees Celcius to 60 degrees C (-25 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit).

Opened XM202
Opened XM202 prototype launcher (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The four-tubed rocket weighs half as heavy as the standard man-portable M9A1-7 or M2A1-7 flamethrower, both of which rose to prominence during World War II and were used in the subsequent wars in Korea and Vietnam. The M202A1 weighs about 5.22 kg (11.5 lbs) and has five times the range capabilities up to 750 meters, with much less servicing and maintenance. The rocket can weigh around 12.09 kg (26.6 lbs) with a full load. Moreover, it measures approximately 69 cm (27 in) and 88 cm (34.75 in) with the clip extended.

Obviously, unlike its predecessor, the four-tubed launcher does not use liquid fire and is instead loaded with M74 rockets, which are typically filled with 1.3 lbs of a thickened pyrophoric agent (TPA), a substance similar to white phosphorus that spontaneously burns when exposed to air at temperatures between 760-1200 degrees C (1,400-2,200 degrees F). As previously stated, these 66-mm incendiary rockets have a maximum range of 750 m in an open field and about 200 m when used on point-type targets such as bunkers or vehicles. As the M74 missile has a bursting radius of about 20 meters, launching closer and/or within the minimum radius could result in friendly fire.

An illustration of an M202 FLASH (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nonetheless, the M202 rocket launcher was arguably better than the traditional flamethrowers’ canister gasoline carried behind a GI’s back, essentially becoming a flammable target for the enemy. To use the flamethrowers, a soldier must get at least within 47 yards of the enemy to use them effectively against enemies in the field.

Lt. Gen. Frank Mildren, who had served as the second-in-command of all American forces in Vietnam, commented on what it meant for the service to switch from the traditional flamethrower to the innovative M202 rocket launcher, saying:

“The weapon reflects a radical departure from traditional flame throwers,” Mildren said in an official debriefing in 1970, adding that “It (M202) relieves the field soldier from the burden of mixing flame fuels for the weapons.”

Still Not ‘Safe’

Shortcomings of the M2 series like these were resolved with the introduction of the quad-tubed incendiary rocket, subsequently inducted into the US Army. However, the M202 weapon has several drawbacks of its own, such as being “still bulky and suffers from reliability issues,” leading to its pseudo-retirement into the depths of the Army’s arsenal in the mid-1980s.

Probably the biggest hiccup of the incendiary rocket launcher was the M74 warheads, which reportedly ignited as soon as it broke open. Given that it has four of these in one clip, the explosion from a malfunction would kill not only its operator but anyone nearby.

soldier firing M202
An illustration of a soldier firing an M202 rocket. (Screenshot from Google Books)

Meanwhile, the US Marine Corps also acquired the incendiary weapon into service, but with the development of the Mk 153 Shoulder-Launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon (SMAW) launchers, the service branch gradually phased out its M202 arsenal.

After identifying a number of issues and unresolved safety hazards, the once promising M202 was subjected to storage relegation until 1978, when Pentagon decided to remove flame weapons from future battlefields altogether—making the M202 rocket launcher the last flamethrower in service.



66-MM Rocket Launcher M202A1. (1978). In Google Books. United States. Department of the Army. https://books.google.com/books/about/66_MM_Rocket_Launcher_M202A1.html