Fire as a weapon

Weapons are guns and knives, but they’re also all around us. An essential way station on our peregrination from African arboreal apes of a million years ago, to today’s worldwide parade of humanity, was taking control of fire. Because fire is very powerful. It can maim and kill as well as cook, light and propel us.

The ancients used fire several ways, as any fan of 1950s sword-and-sandal epics knows. In World War I, pressurized gas was used to drive an inflammable liquid: first flamethrower. By World War II, all nations deployed them, although the best-known user was the USMC in the Pacific. In Vietnam, flamethrowers were also used., both the WWII vintage M2A1, but also the tank-mounted M67). Naturally there’s a go-to guy for flamethrowers out there, Charlie Hobson.

Incendiary bullets, mortar rounds, artillery shells and aerial bombs are also common. Active ingredients have included napalm and white phosphorous.

During the Vietnam War, the US replaced liquid flamethrowers with the XM197 (later M202) FLASH firing the M74 rocket. The acronym meant FLame Assault SHoulder weapon. Lighter, longer-ranged, more accurate, and less prone to collateral damage than the old backpacks, the FLASH replaced the M2 andM9 despite a so-so safety record. Russia also replaced liquid with rocket incendiaries, for similar reasons.

The M202 fires up to four incendiary rockets based on the M72 LAW Light Anti-armor Weapon (originally called the Light Antitank Weapon, until it rather spectacularly failed to stop tanks at Lang Vei in 1968). Unlike the LAW, which has a shaped-charge warhead, the FLASH has only incendiary warheads.

The fire weapon is often used by terrorists or would-be terrorists — thanks to the natural human fear of fire, it lets someone with few resources and few followers destroy property and (the ultimate goal of all terrorists) grab headlines, and even gives this power to creeps with no followers at all.

It can be used in a targeted way against a single person, as in this horrible murder in New York. (If the Times paywall cuts you off, “Cornered by Attacker in Elevator.” Then follow the Google link in).

That guy used a bug-sprayer filled with gasoline. He may not have test-fired his weapon, apparently, because he managed to burn himself quite badly while committing his crime. (The Times article, though, says he was burned in a separate arson). As we said, fire is very powerful. But his sprayer has no combat application.

Likewise, this hero tried a blowtorch vs. the police. The cops (in NH) showed remarkable restraint by not blowing his gizzard into the future and his life into the past. He “faces several charges,” it says here. We guess. For some reason, attempted arson of a police officer is not among them.

Special Forces employs certain manufactured and improvised fire weapons, mostly for point defense of camps, the classic example being the fougasse. (Many military-engineering terms, like fougasse, are originally French.  We owe to the Francophonia to the man who systematized the profession — Vauban). Flamethrowers, a staple of WWII Pacific War films, are no longer in US service; they were replaced by he M202 series, as noted above.

Interestingly enough, flamethrowers fall into a gap in Federal regulations and are not regulated by BATFE whatsoever.

Arsonists of course use fire (Depatment of Tautology!) In the 1980s and 90s, the ATF feared that arsonists-for-hire were using rocket fuel or a similar self-oxidizing material as an accelerant. (Reportedly, they have changed their minds about this, but they never solved the original Seattle case).

For the average citizen, though, fire is of little use as a weapon. Fire bombs like Molotov cocktails are considered Destructive Devices under the National Firearms Act of 1934 and regulated by the BATFE.  So all those internet experts that tell you how to make them and advise you to practice with them are setting you up to matriculate at Cold Stone College for the long course. (Tip: steer clear of Professor Bubba!). People who expect to use Molotovs against tanks are operating from a standpoint of ignorance of both weapons.

Yes, the Finns and the British produced them in 1940. Both nations were up against the wall and lacking better weapons at the time.

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