Who Wants a Flamethrower?
Flamethrowers are among the most brutal and horrifying weapons of modern warfare. They strike terror in enemies and are often a frightening weapon even for their own users to wield. Allied and Axis forces used them to merciless effect in World War II. As contributor Paul Huard explained in a previous War Is Boring entry, more than one German flamethrower operator met a fiery death when a well-placed shot from an Allied soldier caused his weapon to explode.
The United States continued using flamethrowers through the Vietnam War. Most industrialized nations finally agreed to quit using flamethrowers after adopting treaty No. 22495 from the 1980 United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which sought to end the use of weapons “deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects.”
Protocol III of the treaty greatly restricted the use of flamethrowers and other incendiary weapons. The treaty went into effect in 1983, with the the United States finally ratifying it in 2008.
However, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms doesn’t officially consider flamethrowers to be firearms. There are currently no federal laws banning the sale, purchase, ownership or use of flamethrowers by civilians in the United States, according to a CNN report.
Now, state or local laws may restrict usage or prohibit shipping. For instance, flamethrowers are outright illegal in Maryland and require a permit in California and Ohio. But absent such ordinances, civilians are free to own and use flame weapons in accordance with other applicable laws.
And apparently there is a market for them. At least two companies — Detroit’s Ion Productions Team and Cleveland’s Xmatter — now sell commercial flamethrowers in the United States. And they’re selling a lot of them.
Ion touts its XM42 flamethrower as “the world’s first fully handheld, grab-and-go flamethrower.” It’s simple in design, with a rear grip, a foregrip and a perforated barrel shroud reminiscent of the M1919 Browning machine gun. The XM42 is powered by a 12.6-volt lithium-polymer battery and fueled by 1.5-gallon tank that uses either unleaded gasoline or a mix of unleaded gasoline and diesel fuel.
The fuel tank is on top of the flamethrower. A push-button trigger engages the fuel, which propels through the barrel. A butane pilot torch at the end of the barrel ignites the dispensed fuel. The XM42 can shoot a steady stream of fire up to 25 feet for approximately 40 seconds.
Screengrab from a promo video for the XM42 flamethrower
Weighing in at 10.4 pounds when full of fuel and “ready to run,” the XM42 is relatively lightweight and easy to operate. When you run out of fuel, you simply refill the tank like you would on a lawnmower and you’re ready to go again.
The “cool tool,” as its manufacturers have called it, retails for $1,199.99 and takes just six weeks for delivery.
Xmatter’s X15 is a little more advanced. “The Xmatter X15 flamethrower closely follows the principles first used in the German Flammenwerfer Kleif of 1906,” Iain Harrison wrote in a recent issue of Recoil magazine.
“A large tank containing flammable liquid is pressurized by a smaller propellant bottle, causing the fuel to be expelled through a nozzle, and a torch attached to the nozzle ignites the fuel as it heads downrange.”
Harrison concluded that the X15 is “simple, effective and heavy.”
The “large tank” Harrison referred to is a 3.3-gallon fuel tank. The propellant container is a standard 20-ounce CO2 tank that comes with the X15. A propane gas cylinder, not included, feeds the nozzle torch.
Fully loaded and operational, the X15 weighs a hefty 45 pounds. The bulk of the weight is in the backpack. The hose wraps around and the operator holds the wand — a setup similar to the design of the M9 models of flamethrowers the U.S. military used until the late 1970s.
The X15 also comes with three interchangeable wand tips that allow the operator to adjust the range and efficiency of the flamethrower for specific applications. The quarter-inch tip achieves a maximum range of 50 feet when using a 90-percent diesel and 10-percent gasoline mix with the CO2 set to 1,000 pounds per square inch.
The X15 can sustain a full stream of fire for approximately one minute.
“Santa and the X15 Flamethrower.” Screengrab from Xmatter promotional video
The X15 retails for as little as $1,599.00. Xmatter claims it has shipped more than 1,750 units.
Despite its formidable price tag and impressive performance, the X15 is still more or less a prototype. The hose is attached to the wand with hose clamps. Harrison even mentioned that the X15 resembles a pressure washer and notes that “$1,600 is a lot of coin to drop on something that looks like it came out [of] the plumbing department at Home Depot.”
All the same, he gives it glowing review.
Ion’s founder Chris Byars crowdsourced funds through Kickstarter to begin producing the XM42. Ion’s Website boasts that the XM42 can be used for “weed control, clearing snow, starting your bonfire or just for fun!,” and Byars has also highlighted the “fun” aspect of his flamethrower.
“I wanted one, personally, back in 2007, solely due to the ‘cool’ factor and [for] taking out wasps,” Byars told the BBC.
As development progressed, Byars saw new applications and a broader potential market for the XM42. “Most of our customers are way out in the country, and have property and they see a use for it,” Byars said in a recent interview with local CBS affiliate WWMT.
“What I designed it for is just novelty, and then throughout development, throughout contact with fire departments, and customers, and potential customers that were interested in the product, they just described all kinds of different uses they would have for it, and gave us ideas on how to optimize the system for that.”
Xmatter founder Quinn Whitehead said he was initially motivated for different reasons than Byar was, although the two entrepreneurs now seem to share similar visions for their products. Whitehead told the BBC that inspiration struck as he watched a farmer struggling to burn off fallow crop. He thought “there must be a better way to do this.”
While Xmatter isn’t shy about promoting the fun aspects of the X15, the company still maintains a focus on practical uses. “We always have the people who just want it for fun. Impress the neighbors at the BBQ,” Whitehead said.
But the company’s Website lists numerous useful applications for the flamethrower, including agricultural controlled-burns and ground-clearing, incinerating weeds and insects, pyrotechnic events and movie props and clearing brush, snow and ice.
“We sell to farmers and forestry officers who implement our unit for land improvement and agricultural benefits,” Alex Haney, spokesperson for Xmatter told War Is Boring. “Our unit has also been utilized by fire departments when creating fire simulations for department training.”
According to CNN, the Department of the Interior — which controls the Office of Wild Fire — does use a variety of incendiary devices such as drip torches, flares, propane torches and Terra Torches. The latter function in much the same manner as flamethrowers but are fueled by a truck-mounted tank.
Not everyone is excited about the prospect of citizens running around with flamethrowers that can spray fire up to 50 feet.
“This is a potential weapon of mass destruction, whether it’s ISIS or home-grown,” Jim Fouts, mayor of Warren, Michigan, told the BBC. Warren is near Detroit, the home of Ion Productions.
Fouts began pushing for legislation to ban flamethrowers in Warren last fall. “In the wrong hands this could be catastrophic,” Fouts said.
“Think of Sandy Hook,” Fouts said to the BBC, referring to the Connecticut primary school where Adam Lanza shot dead 20 children and six staff members in 2012. “Imagine what that disturbed young man could have done with a flamethrower. Or, it could be a white supremacist that you’re worried about.”
The Simpsons capture
Speaking to WWMT, Fouts said he believes that owning a flamethrower falls outside of Second Amendment protections. “I believe in Second Amendment rights. I’ll defend your right to have a gun. This is not a gun,” Fouts said. “This is not a defensive weapon. This is an offensive weapon of mass destruction and it’s not meant to be something that you use to protect your wife and family.”
In a more lighthearted moment, Fouts did confess that in certain scenarios a flamethrower could definitely come in handy. “I had one guy say to me, ‘I’d like to have one because you never know when a horde of crazy people are going to come at your home,’” Fouts recalled. “I said, ‘You’ve been watching too much Walking Dead.’ Outside of zombie attacks, there’s no need to have this.”
Byars acknowledged there are potential dangers with the XM42 but insisted it is “perfectly safe” when used in isolated areas.
Despite such assurances from Byars, Ion is still careful to warn on its Websites that using the the XM42 “may result in injury or even death.”
Both Whitehead and Byars told CNN their flamethrowers have not caused any injuries and that safety is a priority for their companies. But neither company performs background checks on purchasers.
“[W]e do not do background checks,” Byars told War Is Boring. “The same way stores don’t do background checks on those purchasing knives, crowbars, gasoline or matches. There is no requirement or any format for doing so. Why would a manufacturer have any reason to? We’re selling a legal object that has legitimate uses and we don’t automatically assume everyone is a criminal.”
Background checks aside, all the precautions in the world can’t prevent user error in the wrong hands. Personal videos like this one and this one — both depicting people playing with flamethrowers — certainly don’t inspire confidence in the competence of casual users.