How Flamethrowers Work


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from howstuffworks.com.

Josh Clark: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark. There's Charles W. "Chuck" Bryant. That makes this Stuff You should Know, right Chuck?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Yeah?

Chuck Bryant: Jerry just - I love it when we get last second instructions.

Josh Clark: Yeah, and they don't make any sense.

Chuck Bryant: "Save it for the show, guys."

Josh Clark: Or show that picture on the podcast - the audio podcast.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, goodness. How are you, sir?

Josh Clark: I'm fine. It's by all rights Friday, but it's actually Thursday. But it's almost Memorial Day.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. Are you coming in tomorrow at all? No?

Josh Clark: I'm not comfortable saying either way.

Chuck Bryant: Okay. Well, I guess it'll be a surprise.

Josh Clark: Well, I don't want to get in trouble.

Chuck Bryant: Well, I'm not.

Josh Clark: I'm still scared of the man. I know you're not. But you're all like, "Hey, look at me. I'm 40. I make my own decisions."

Chuck Bryant: I'm not 40.

Josh Clark: Yeah. So, Chuck. You're a George Carlin fan, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, the late George Carlin - RIP.

Josh Clark: You always add the bummer, don't you? The late George Carlin! It could be like, "George Clarin. He's the greatest stand-up comedian ever."

Chuck Bryant: Well, when he was alive he was.

Josh Clark: But no, it's the worm food George Carlin.

Chuck Bryant: The dearly departed. Yes, I like him. Why?

Josh Clark: I have an obscure stand-up bit that I'll bet you haven't heard of that is apropos of our topic today.

Chuck Bryant: Let's hear it.

Josh Clark: So George Carlin had a bit about flamethrowers.

Chuck Bryant: I never heard that one.

Josh Clark: He said that the very presence of flamethrowers - and I'm paraphrasing.

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: The very presence of flamethrowers means that at some point sometime someone said to himself, "You know, there's a bunch of people over there that I'd like to set on fire. But they're too far away for me to get the job done. I wish there was something that I could use to throw flames on them." And as a result, we now have the flamethrower.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, we -

Josh Clark: Which is kind of crazy?

Chuck Bryant: When you think about it that way, it is pretty interesting.

Josh Clark: It is. And when you start to really look into flamethrowers, you realize just how horrific the acts that humans inflict on other humans can be. It's pretty awful stuff, actually.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, actually all kinds of modern weaponry. I know my brother-in-law's in the Marines. He told me about this - I think it's called a flishet [02:23.54] - some sort of bomb that explodes above people and sends thousands of razorblades shooting out.

Josh Clark: What?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. I think it's mainly used for clearing jungle. But -

Josh Clark: Yeah, clearing jungle of enemy combatants.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, exactly. So some sicko thought that up.

Josh Clark: Yeah. We're like one step away from the alien weapons in District 9, where people just blow up in an almost cartoonist fashion.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: its coming 2015.

Chuck Bryant: Sure. The Atomizer or something, they'll call it.

Josh Clark: Yeah. What's odd is that first person that George Carlin envisions actually lived a lot longer ago than you would think?

Chuck Bryant: I was shocked.

Josh Clark: I was as well.

Chuck Bryant: 5th century B.C.?

Josh Clark: 5th century B.C., man.

Chuck Bryant: Right. Well, it was a flamethrower. It was a very crude vulgar - if you will - flamethrower. It was a long tube, sort of like a blowgun. And they filled it with solid stuff, like hot coal and sulfur.

Josh Clark: And went - pff.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. Ideally, you don't suck in. That would be bad.

Josh Clark: No, I was thinking that, too. You have suck in the breath before you put the tube to your mouth or else you're in big trouble. Although that's the case with any blowgun, right?

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: Yeah. Did you ever make those when you were a kid?

Chuck Bryant: No, I never did. I was too busy burning stuff.

Josh Clark: You could've done both, apparently.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, true. So, yeah, they would shoot hot coal or sulfur out at their enemy combatant, instead of a flame per se.

Josh Clark: Yeah. Which, I guess ultimately it would bounce off of their arm and they'd be like, "Ah, that burns." And then they'd just tussle and leg wrestle and shake hands afterwards and go eat a boar. That's how that went down.

Chuck Bryant: Life in 5th century B.C. with Josh.

Josh Clark: But leave it to the Greeks, who were one of the brainiest most thieving culture of all time.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, yeah.

Josh Clark: They probably got this idea from the Kemites, frankly, but there's this stuff called Greek fire.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And actually, I can't say that the Greeks came up with it. It's called Greek fire, but the Byzantines - what we know as Turks - were most notorious for using this stuff.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. And they think - they're not sure because it was a long time ago - it was a mixture of liquid petrol and sulfur and stuff like quicklime.

Josh Clark: Petrol.

Chuck Bryant: Um-hum.

Josh Clark: That's British for gas.

Chuck Bryant: Yes, it is.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: And they would pump it out, actually, from a reservoir through little narrow tubes. And like anything that goes from a big reservoir type system to a small thin one, it would create pressure to shoot it out. And then some unlucky guy would be the lighter at the end of it. And that would be like a real flamethrower, like dozens of feet.

Josh Clark: Yeah, as we're going to learn, anybody whose job it was to deal with any aspect of flamethrowing was the unlucky guy.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I would say so.

Josh Clark: It was one of the more dangerous weapons you can use.

Chuck Bryant: Sure. Yeah.

Josh Clark: But it was very effective. Number one, since it's oil-based, this Greek fire could be used in Naval battles because it would still burn even when it con tacted the water.

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: And so the Byzantines mounted it on their ships, these flamethrowers, and on the city walls around Constantinople, and basically just repelled people out fear as much as burning them alive.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. Their enemies were really freaked out, I imagine, when they first saw fire shooting at them.

Josh Clark: Yes. Freaked out and intrigued, especially in the case of the Chinese. See, what the Byzantines had was a single-action pump.

Chuck Bryant: You just did the foot pump - like you literally did the bellows.

Josh Clark: Did you see that, Jerry? I'm following your command. The Byzantines had a single-action bellows pump to where when you pressed down, on the down stroke, it would push the liquid out, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yes, you'd get a burst of fire and that's it.

Josh Clark: Right. Because on the up stroke, nothing was happening, except the bellows were filling back up with air to press down, to compress, right? The Chinese said, "Hey, that's really funny because we have a double-action bellows, to where you are compressing air on the up stroke and the down stroke. So instead of your stupid little short bursts of Greek fire, we have one long burst that just cuts you in half."

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. Leave it to the Chinese to make it all better.

Josh Clark: Yeah. The wheelbarrow, the kite, the hang glider, the flamethrower -

Chuck Bryant: You name it.

Josh Clark: - gunpowder. And actually gunpowder equaled the demise of flamethrowers for about 1,000 years, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, as soon as gunpowder came along, they were like, "We're just chumps with fire when we can actually shoot a gun. That's the way of the future." And it was, but so was the flamethrower as it turns out.

Josh Clark: Yeah, because it laid dormant for about 1,000 years. And then in WWI - actually right before WWI - the Germans, a very warlike state at the time, said, "What exactly can we add to our arsenal that is just totally scary and wildly destructive? Let's look back through the annals of historic weaponry and find something." And they looked through and they said, "The flamethrower."

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, Richard Fielder was an engineer in 1901. They credit him with inventing it, but he clearly was using old technology as the initial idea, at least.

Josh Clark: Right. It's a clever design, though, isn't it?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Because from this original design, there have been some polishing moments for the flamethrower over the years. But from that modern era, the design has remained relatively the same, right? It's a three-tank design.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, the Flammenwerfer?

Josh Clark: Is that what it's called?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Nice.

Chuck Bryant: That's what the Germans called it.

Josh Clark: The lederhosen?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. And it was - well, let's go ahead and explain how it works with the tanks.

Josh Clark: Okay. All right.

Chuck Bryant: And this is the handheld flamethrower, which is the one that, I guess, was most readily used in combat.

Josh Clark: Yeah, and it's the one you see - like a guys' wearing these tanks on his back and he's got the rifle and it's just [shooting noise].

Chuck Bryant: Right. So you've got two outer tanks and those are filled with the flammable fuel - oil-based petrol, if you will. Like Greek fire. And then there's a center smaller tank, which holds compressed gas, like butane. And it would feed the gas through a pressure regulator connected to the tubes. And you can take it from here.

Josh Clark: Right. Well, this is why I think it's very clever. The butane served a dual purpose. One, it was compressed. So when you open the valve, it would push the liquid fuel out of the tanks into the tube and ultimately into the reservoir in the gun, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, the pressure regulator is what they would switch on.

Josh Clark: But there is another tube that came directly out of the third tank that held the compressed gas, like butane. And this tube went directly to the ignition valve.

Chuck Bryant: Right. So it served as the igniter later on.

Josh Clark: Right. Because it was the butane that was actually burning! When you opened the ignition valve, the butane flows to the end, mixes with air -

Chuck Bryant: The end of the rifle.

Josh Clark: Right. And then there's two triggers - there's the fuel release trigger, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yes.

Josh Clark: And then there's the ignition trigger. And the ignition trigger is - basically you're operating a battery that operates a spark plug, sends a current, generates heat, and ignites the butane. How you have - whooo - that little blue flame on the end.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, that's what you see in the movies. If you see them traipsing around -

Josh Clark: Like in Aliens.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, exactly. You see the little three-inch flame coming out the end.

Josh Clark: Right. That's actually butane burning. The fuel hasn't been released. The hellfire has not been opened yet, or released yet. That's when you squeeze the fuel release trigger and then all hell breaks loose.

Chuck Bryant: Well, then that pulls back a little valve plug because you obviously want it plugged or else you're going to have a big mess on your hands. You'll be on fire very quickly. So when you pull the fuel release trigger, it pulls the little valve plug back and then all the fuel supply suddenly rushes through to the tip of the gun where the flame is and boom. There you go.

Josh Clark: Yeah. And in 1942, the Army Chemical Warfare Service, I think is what it was called - they came up with a little something called napalm, which is ultimately a gasoline or petrol - in the case of Chuck and our British friends. A gasoline thickening agent! So with a slightly thickened gas, you have a longer range. It carries further because it has more mass or girth or whatever. There's less friction from the ground coming up, right?

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: And it also can be concentrated more easily.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Right. So basically, that was one of those real big polishing moments. It went from just gas that sprays to thick gas which sticks and burns. It evaporates much less quickly. So it'll burn forever and it's really difficult to put out. And if you get covered in it, you're entirely in trouble.

Chuck Bryant: Yes, you're out of luck. And they would mount these on - well, PT boats for one. Have you ever seen the videos of those things cruising down the river shooting napalm into the forest?

Josh Clark: Well, there's a picture of it in the article.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: But I've never seen video of it.

Chuck Bryant: It's pretty wicked, in a bad way.

Josh Clark: And they called them Zippo flamethrowers, right?

Chuck Bryant: Oh, really?

Josh Clark: Because the ignition system failed so frequently, it's just like on a gas grill.

Chuck Bryant: Would they have to light it with a Zippo.

Josh Clark: With a Zippo.

Chuck Bryant: You're kidding.

Josh Clark: No.

Chuck Bryant: And that's the other unlucky dude, I guess. He'd be like - don't get too close to it with his hand.

Josh Clark: Right. And so flamethrowers - it wasn't just some guy. There would be like a bunch of infantry guys and then some guy on the end happened to grab the flamethrower that morning when they went out. They were part of a tactical strategy. What would happen, was the rifleman would lay down cover fire. Let's say you come to the mouth of the cave and there's a bunch of enemy combatants in there and they're shooting you and they have snipers - you're in big trouble. All of your riflemen lay down fire on this cave so these guys can't move.

Chuck Bryant: Cover fire.

Josh Clark: Right. To allow your flamethrower man to get close!

Chuck Bryant: He was highly susceptible at this point because of what he's wearing on his back.

Josh Clark: Yes. All it takes is one good shot to one of those tanks and that guy is gone.

Chuck Bryant: Right. Or a bad shot - just a shot.

Josh Clark: Sure. Yeah. If you come in contact with a bullet! So the flamethrower guy gets close, basically cooks everybody. He burns everyone to death in that cave. That's his job. And then after that, the munitions guys come in and explode the cave so it can never be used again.

Chuck Bryant: And that's sayonara -

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: - for cave dwellers.

Josh Clark: Yes.

Chuck Bryant: Speaking of a quick death, I always heard when I was a kid, "If you're a flamethrower in war your average life span is 30 seconds in combat."

Josh Clark: Is that right?

Chuck Bryant: Well, I always heard that. And I've scoured the Internet, and I could not find anything to verify that. But that's what I always heard. I thought that was an interesting tidbit.

Josh Clark: I did read that most people who were flamethrower operators didn't survive.

Chuck Bryant: I would imagine. It's a pretty dangerous thing to be toting around.

Josh Clark: Yeah, and they also had assistants because the assistants would open and close the valves on the pack for them. That was their whole job.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, yeah. It was always a two-man team.

Josh Clark: So both of them would usually not make it.

Chuck Bryant: If I was the assistant, I would turn on his little valve and then run for cover, and then run up and turn it off again. And I'd probably be pretty unpopular with the flamethrower guy.

Josh Clark: Probably. The flamethrower guy was well-liked, because if you can take out an entire gun nest of people then everybody's going to applaud you and clap. Probably not get too close, though, because you're going to die eventually.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. I'd rather be a sniper, I think. Like I play Call of Duty. I've got a PS3 now, did I tell you that?

Josh Clark: No. Wow, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: It was given to me by step father-in-law.

Josh Clark: You did tell me.

Chuck Bryant: And so I got just a couple of games. I'm not a huge gamer at all. Like the first Nintendo was the last thing I actually owned. But I play Call of Duty now.

Josh Clark: I like shooter games, too.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it's pretty fun.

Josh Clark: But you choose to be a sniper on that?

Chuck Bryant: Well, no. There are just certain levels where you can be a sniper. You'll pick up a sniper gun if you want. And I always usually just kind of hang back and pick guys off.

Josh Clark: Yeah. Especially guys with flamethrowers!

Chuck Bryant: I know. Here we go again - liberal peaceniks like us. When it comes to this war stuff, we just get all giddy.

Josh Clark: Well, this one - for some reason, I was reading a passage about a flamethrower operator in WWII who, you know, received the Medal of Honor for invading a Japanese pillbox. It was a little gun nest.

Chuck Bryant: And burning them all?

Josh Clark: And burning them all alive. And the guy wrote that there was some muffled screams and then silence. It's like - being burned alive is pretty much everybody's worst death.

Chuck Bryant: I would think so.

Josh Clark: It's up there.

Chuck Bryant: Well, we had worst way to die. That's right up there.

Josh Clark: And if I remember correctly, burning to death is consistently the number one -

Chuck Bryant: Oh, is it?

Josh Clark: - on informal polls.

Chuck Bryant: I imagine it's pretty painful.

Josh Clark: And that happened a lot in WWI, II, Vietnam - I imagine, Korea. This is a horrible weapon.

Chuck Bryant: Absolutely.

Josh Clark: But you can find civilian applications for it, can't you?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. Well, before we move onto that, we also need to say that they were on tanks as well. So it wasn't just boats. They used them on tanks and the design was basically the same. You just had a lot more fuel and you had like piston rotary pumps to get a lot more length on your shot.

Josh Clark: Girth.

Chuck Bryant: And girth.

Josh Clark: Yeah, the backpack mounted ones had a range of about 50 yards, right - or 46 meters.

Chuck Bryant: That's a long way, though.

Josh Clark: Yeah. That's half a football field. You don't have to get that close.

Chuck Bryant: Sure. I wonder who the first enemy that was like, "Oh, he's got a flamethrower, but we're way too far away."

Josh Clark: Right.

Chuck Bryant: Oops.

Josh Clark: They were within like 45 yards.

Chuck Bryant: Exactly. Yeah. Civilian applications! Forest firefighters!

Josh Clark: Forest firefighters?

Chuck Bryant: Is that how you say it?

Josh Clark: I don't know.

Chuck Bryant: They actually use these when they do the prescribed burning. Well, not just the firefighters. They do prescribed burns anyway, and then sometimes the firefighters do that. They'll burn a section to cut it off. And that's how they do it, with flamethrowers.

Josh Clark: Yeah. Which actually kind of made me want to go get a job with the forestry service?

Chuck Bryant: So you could burn things on purpose?

Josh Clark: Well, with the flamethrower, yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Did you hear about this car thing in South Africa? Theft deterrent system that burned you!

Josh Clark: No.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I don't think it's still around. This was like 12 years ago. A South African man invented what was called the blaster - and basically it would shoot a man-high fireball, is what they called it -

Josh Clark: What?

Chuck Bryant: - at you if you tried to break into the car. For a mere R3,500 - which was about $650.00. And this was 1998 dollars. And it would squirt liquefied gas from a bottle in the trunk through two nozzles located under the front door. And the rub is that you couldn't turn one on and turn one off. So if a guy was breaking into the driver's side door, it would still shoot fire out of the passenger's side to whomever might be walking by unluckily on that side.

Josh Clark: That's an invention that wasn't fully thought through.

Chuck Bryant: I would think so. But apparently he sold a bunch of them at the time. He said it was non-lethal, but it would definitely blind a person is what he said - and keep them from stealing your car.

Josh Clark: Yeah, because they can't see cars any longer. It's terrible.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Way to go South Africa. Lastly, Chuck, fire breathers - they're a form of - they follow the basic principles of flamethrowing by drinking kerosene and - whoo. There you go. If you want to learn about fire breathers, we have an article on them. If you want to learn more about flamethrowers - and before you send me a listener mail, we are aware of flamethrower exhaust systems. We've both seen Grease before. You can type any word you want to into the handy search bar at howstuffworks.com. It'll yield something interesting, I guarantee you that. So Chuck, listener mail?

Chuck Bryant: Not quite.

Josh Clark: Oh, okay.

Chuck Bryant: We've got to do our quick plugs. We're going to do it a little quicker this time, though, because we take like ten minutes to do our New York plugs and everything.

Josh Clark: New York, we're going to be at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn on June 7th from 5:30-7:30. We're having a happy hour for Stuff You Should Know fans.

Chuck Bryant: Come with your elbows prepared to be rubbed.

Josh Clark: Stay Wednesday, June 9th, for a trivia night to be determined.

Chuck Bryant: Not TBD, my friend. We have a location and a time. It is at the Bellhouse in Brooklyn, New York. Show up at about 6:30 and trivia will start at 7:00. And this one is 18 and older. 18 to get in, 21 to drink - and if you're showing up alone, that's fine, too. Just join up with some people when you're there and form a team and make some new friends. Come to one or both.

Josh Clark: Yes. And lastly, COED and Kiva, man.

Chuck Bryant: COED - Cooperative for Education, who we went to Guatemala with, if you like their bag - which is a pretty cool bag. You can donate a measly $5.00 with your little cell phone there. Text the word stuff to 20222. Text and data rates may apply. And the little $5.00 donation is going to be added to your bill.

Josh Clark: Right. When you text stuff, you'll get a reply text saying, "Are you sure?" And you just text back yes. And there you go, $5.00 to help out Guatemalan kids learn to read. And Kiva - we haven't thrown much love to our Kiva team lately, but we should. Because as everyone knows, we hit the $100,000 mark, right?

Chuck Bryant: Oh, like nothing.

Josh Clark: In March, I believe - March 19th. And since then, our moderators on our Kiva team, Glenn and Sonya, threw down the gauntlet pretty much immediately and said, "Let's get to a quarter of a million dollars."

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, man. That would be awesome.

Josh Clark: We are on track right now by Glenn and Sonya's estimate to hit the $200,000 mark around August 26th. Well, actually, we want to hit a quarter of a million dollars around August 26th.

Chuck Bryant: Is that the deal?

Josh Clark: Yeah. So we need to step it up a little bit. If you want to join the Stuff You Should Know kiva.org team, you can go to www.kiva.org/team/stuffyoushouldknow. And sign up and get a warm feeling in your heart when you donate. And remember, this is micro lending, so that money actually comes back to you. It's repaid.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. If you have a cold heart, you can actually pull your money back out and get it back if you want. But it's more fun to reloan.

Josh Clark: It totally is.

Chuck Bryant: It really is.

Josh Clark: All right. So there you have it.

Chuck Bryant: All right. So listener mail, my friend! I'm going to call this - I love this dude. And his name is Guy. And not as in, "Hey, guy." His real name is Guy.

Josh Clark: I gotcha.

Chuck Bryant: Guy from San Francisco says, "Guys just listened to the art theft podcast" - and by the way we do know about the Paris heist that just went down. Pretty cool! "Very intriguing for future monetary incentive. Neither here nor there, however I have a little habit that I thought I might like to share that loosely pertains. I have never stolen art knowingly; however I travel frequently and am subjected too much distasteful art. Guilty of being a budget traveler!" So there's the rub. "But to amuse myself, I like to take the horrible art off the wall, take it out of the glass and frame and add the ever-so-slightest detail."

Josh Clark: This guy's wonderful.

Chuck Bryant: He does this in hotels. "A chicken in the corner by the barn!" A seagull flying over the crest of a wave. A beer bottle and fishing pole by the babbli ng brook. I do it in every hotel, motel, hostel, bungalow, you name it. I will stay there and I will change the art."

Josh Clark: They have art in hostels, now?

Chuck Bryant: Nah, probably not. "It makes me chuckle to think that maybe one day someone will be staring at an awful hotel painting and look closely and notice one of the gallant cowboys has a tin of Skoal by his left boot heel." So if you stay in cheap hotels, keep your eyes out, people. You may have stayed where Guy from San Francisco has stayed. Just don't turn on the black light is all I have to say.

Josh Clark: That's awesome. That is awesome, man. I love to hear people doing cool stuff.

Chuck Bryant: Vandalism.

Josh Clark: Yeah. But it's vandalism with an eye toward coolness.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. It's fun-dalism.

Josh Clark: Right. Well, if you're a starving artist who shows your work at the Airport Hilton conference room, we want to hear from you. Just send us an email to stuffpodcast@howstuffworks.com.

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