Why the U.S. Military Stopped Using Flamethrowers

In 1937, German scientist Richard Fiedler developed the “Flammenwerfer” — translated "flamethrower" — which was small enough to be carried by one man and shoot a stream of flaming oil about 20 yards. Both the Americans and British were quick to develop new models that were fueled with napalm, a thickened gasoline that burned with intense heat. The biggest disadvantage of the flamethrower was that a soldier had to wear a heavy tank on his back, which restricted movement and made him a very large target. While the fuel might not ignite from being hit by an enemy round, the escaping gas — once mixed with oxygen — would be quite flammable. The other issue was that the flamethrower had was that it only offered about 20-30 seconds of use, after which it was just a heavy piece of equipment to carry. Despite these issues, the U.S. Department of Defense clearly saw some potential advantages that the flamethrower offered. In Vietnam, various flamethrowers were also seen as a valuable close combat weapon — one that could demoralize enemy troops and reduce positions that have otherwise resisted other forms of attack. However, images of the “Napalm Girl” — the 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a naked 9-year-old girl fleeing her village following a napalm attack — helped turn public opinion against the use of such weapons. In 1978 the Department of Defense finally issued a directive effectively retiring flamethrowers from use in combat. Various commercial versions that can shoot fire up to 50 feet are still completely legal in 48 states, with only Maryland banning them completely.