The terrifying weapon you can now easily buy online
By JESSICA CONTRERA | The Washington Post | Published: September 9, 2015
"This, my friends, is what dreams are made of," the bearded man says into the camera with a deep chuckle. And then he brandishes his shiny new flamethrower.
"I'm talking about git'n some for sure!" he laughs.
Yes, a flamethrower: As in, a gun that shoots flames. They are 100 percent legal — and now, easier to obtain than you ever imagined.
Mark Hoffman's YouTube channel was mostly focused on shotguns and pistols until he got his hands on an XM42, one of two personal flamethrowers put on the market this year and the subject of his rollicking video review. Anyone with $899 and an Internet connection can buy one.
No background checks, no permits, and in 48 states, no regulation.
"Fire 'er up!" Hoffman hollers before blasting some grass with a 25-foot stream of ignited gasoline.
Until this year, if you wanted to own a flamethrower, you would probably have to build it yourself, or spend big on a vintage World War II-era weapon.
A Cleveland-based company called XMatter changed that in January with the X15, a $1,599 flamethrower made of a 200-ounce carbon dioxide tank, a fuel tank and a liquid-shooting gun. When the trigger is pressed, the carbon dioxide pressurizes the fuel, and the fuel is set ablaze at the gun's tip. The flames can shoot 50 feet into the air.
Does this sound dangerous? It obviously could be in the hands of the wrong person. The flamethrowers now on the market are all ordered online, so there's no way of knowing whether a minor, a convicted criminal or a mentally unstable person is behind the credit card number.
Hopefully, the customers are only those the manufacturers say the product is intended for: farmers, firefighters and well-trained specialists.
"Seventy percent of our market is farmers using flamethrowers agriculturally," said XMatter co-founder Quinn Whitehead. "The rest are fire departments, pyrotechnicians, movie special-effects companies and a lot of people in the forestry industry who are preventing wildfires" by clearing out dry brush via controlled burns.
Whitehead declined to share sales numbers. (He also declined to share his age but eventually acknowledged that public records show he and founder Mike Sammarco are both 20 years old.)
Six months after their "practical" flamethrower went for sale, a company in Michigan released the XM42, an $899 model that looks more like a toy. It is handheld, shaped like a long-barreled gun and decorated to resemble a shark.
"Most people use it just to show off to their friends, going out in the open to shoot fire in the air, or setting up stuff you want to burn," creator Chris Byars said. "It's like going to a target range and shooting a gun. It's just fun to do."
And according to XMatter's research, it is legal to do this everywhere but Maryland, where flamethrowers are banned, and California, where they require a permit.
A spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives confirmed this: There are no federal regulations or restrictions on flamethrowers. Ironically, flamethrowers don't qualify as "firearms." The National Firearms Act defines a firearm as a weapon that expels a projectile by the action of an explosive, which a flamethrower does not.
Though the modern versions aren't intended to be weapons, that's how we've seen flamethrowers used in movies — from Iron Man shooting flames from his hands, to Sigourney Weaver incinerating aliens, to that very scary scene in "Project X" where an angry drug dealer lights homes, cars and SWAT team members on fire.
The most historically accurate portrayal of flamethrowers is one that offers a sharp reminder of just how lethal they can be. In the Omaha Beach scene in "Saving Private Ryan," troops surround a bunker and, in seconds, ignite everything inside. Enemy soldiers come tumbling out, engulfed in flames, and are left to burn.
"With flamethrowers, you had the ability to attack without being attacked," said Bruce Gudmundsson, a historian at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Va. Flamethrowers, such as the ones used in world wars I and II, were created by the Germans, but the concept dates back to A.D. 672. That's when "Greek Fire" was said to have been invented by a man named Kallinikos to defend the Byzantine Empire's capital of Constantinople, or modern-day Istanbul. His fire siphon would squirt flames from one wooden boat to another.
Not surprisingly, "it was as hazardous for the people shooting the flames as the people in the line of fire," said weapons historian Mike Loades.
This volatility persisted with fire weapons through time, from catapults that launched fireballs over castle walls to the flammable liquid napalm, known for the horrific damage it caused in the Vietnam War. The Defense Department phased out incendiary weapons around the same time the United Nations banned the use of flamethrowers and napalm against civilians. Three decades later, President Barack Obama signed that U.N. treaty on his first day in office.
He probably never imagined that the use of flamethrowers by — or against — civilians on American soil might soon be an issue. But it's a concern voiced by opponents, whose numbers are likely to rise as the public becomes aware of the flamethrowers' availability. So far, the only outspoken politician on the topic is Jim Fouts, the mayor of Warren, Mich., near where XM42s are manufactured.
"My greatest fear is that this could be used by terrorists," Fouts said, specifically citing homegrown killers such as Adam Lanza, who in 2012 killed 27 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. "Imagine what an unbalanced mind would do if he had a flamethrower."
In a phone interview, Fouts cited all manner of potential harm, including to the person holding the flamethrower. The liquids used — gasoline, diesel fuel or napalm — are extremely flammable and could cause explosions if they leaked while the devices were in use.
The creators of the X15 and the XM42 are adamant about the quality of the sealants holding their flamethrowers together and the careful inspection of each flamethrower before distribution.
As with any other tool or weapon, defenders say, safety comes down to the person using the object.
"A gun, a screwdriver, a hammer, a flamethrower — there's no reason they shouldn't be allowed," said Brian Alexander, who uses an XM42 for controlled burns on his Kansas ranch. "They're only dangerous when used irresponsibly by the incorrect person."
In Warren, the mayor's proposed ordinance to ban the assembly, storage and use of flamethrowers was set for a vote on Tuesday night. City Council President Cecil St. Pierre said he expected it to pass unanimously.
Flamethrowers will remain legal in the remaining 96,682 square miles of Michigan and 47 other states.