We know what a flamethrower looks like and how it was used to clear out the enemy trenches of World War I. This weapon that could be traced back as far as the 5th century BC was one of the most terrifying and devastating weapons on the battlefield. So terrifying that rules were set in regards to using it in warfare. Here are some other lesser-known facts about it.

Originally an Intimidation Weapon

Although movies usually portrayed flamethrowers as a weapon to annihilate the enemies, the truth was that it was more of a psychological weapon. Its 20 to 30 feet projected blaze was no question terrifying, and the fear of burning to death or watching others be consumed by the 3000 degrees blazing fire was something you definitely would not look forward to.  Oftentimes, the mere appearance of a flamethrower on the battlefield was enough to send troops occupying a position to bolt.

However, it was more of a tool to incapacitate than to kill. Not to be mistaken, it could definitely annihilate troops hiding in the trenches.

The Majority of the Flamethrower Casualties Were Not From the Flames

The first time the flamethrowers were used in modern warfare was at Verdun during World War I, when the Germans terrified and shocked the French with their new incendiary weapon. Many were no doubt injured and killed with this unpleasant introduction, but only a small percentage of these casualties were victims of the fire itself. Most of them were terrified soldiers who scurried out of their trenches in fear of getting burned alive, which resulted in their cover being broken and them being exposed to enemy fire. As mentioned above, it was an effective psychological weapon, so it was known to be more effective in scaring the troops out of their positions than killing them in many cases.

The men who wore them were also in great danger as they were wearing on their backs gallons of sticky flammable goo that if hit by a bullet could ignite and incinerate them instead of the enemy.  Still, for clearing out bunkers and caves they were all but unmatched in effectiveness. During WWII, the Germans, the Russians, the British and the Americans all developed flame-throwing tanks.

Zippo Boats Were Originally APC-Craft Vessel Hybrid

During the Vietnam War, the US forces realized that they could use flamethrowers to burn enemy bunkers and concealed positions along the river banks of the Mekong Delta region, where they first launched their large-scale assault. So in 1967, the navy improvised the “Zippo Boat” by parking the M132A1 flame-throwing Armored Personnel Carriers (APC) onto landing Craft Vessels. This started was what led the engineers of the Navy to make the  Zippo Boats into an actual thing.

US Navy patrol boat with a flamethrower, 1969. (USN, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The navy replaced these Armored Personnel Carriers with a specifically-built boat with two M10-8 flamethrowers. There were also added compressed air and napalm tanks housed in the well deck. This Zippo boat could carry a crew of seven and up to 1,350 gallons of compressed napalm, enough to fire over a distance of 300 meters for good three minutes. It could also travel at a speed of more than 9 miles per hour.

Additionally, early flamethrower operators were called walking Zippos because the canisters that they carried were filled to the brim with gasoline, so one hot shot of bullet could set the can and its bearer ablaze.

It’s Legal to Own One in the US

Flamethrowers are no longer used by most militaries around the world, but it’s pretty surprising that owning one in the United States is not restricted by federal law, so it’s legal to own one. It is not considered a firearm, which seems odd since they literally spew fire. It is only in California and Maryland where it is considered a destructive device (same with bomb, grenade, mine, shell, missile, etc.) that has some restrictions on the use of these, not firearm flamethrowers. Usually, they are used for agricultural purposes, land management, and firefighting. As per Vulcan Flamethrowers,

You do not need an NFA tax stamp or FFL dealer to transfer ownership. However, it’s the purchaser’s responsibility to ascertain that ownership and or use does not violate any state or local laws or regulations.

The Boring Company Flamethrower. (boringcompany.com)

In fact, according to Techcrunch, Elon Musk managed to sell 15,000 flamethrowers in 2018, earning a whopping $7.5 million for his Boring Company. To be fair, the Musk device is more a cool looking propane torch than only expels its flame about 3 feet.