Flare guns and signal flares have been used by the military and the public as safety tools for more than a century. Early signaling pistols were patented in the United States in the mid-19th century. Flares come in varying forms and compositions, but generally, they are devices that use fire or a burning substance to provide illumination without an explosion.
The father of the modern flare gun is generally held to be Edward Very (1847-1910), although Benjamin Franklin Coston invented a similar, earlier flare gun. Very was an officer in the U.S. Navy, and in 1877, he designed a short-barreled, 10-gauge pistol in which a flare could be easily loaded into the breech and fired. His flare gun was first used by the Navy in 1882. By World War I, flare guns were in use throughout the world.
Thanks to Edward Very's accomplishments, early flare guns and even some later models are referred to as Very pistols. Many of these guns were larger than Very's invention, and some had multiple barrels.
Armies created protocols for firing flares -- including the number of flares to be fired and at what intervals -- so that they wouldn't mistake friendly flares for those of enemies [source: Panse].
In general, flares are used for attracting attention and to indicate a precise position, particularly when at sea. Aerial flares are more useful for alerting rescuers or authorities to a problem, while hand-held, signal flares or smoke signals are used to broadcast a location.
If you're in a boat, depending on what type of body of water you're on, you may be required to carry signaling devices with you. In that case, it's best to check with the Coast Guard or local maritime authorities to see what rules apply and what equipment they recommend. The U.S. Coast Guard usually requires that boaters carry at least three signal flares.
On the next page, we'll take a look at the various types of flares available.
Types of Flares
Color is one of the main distinctions in types of flares. White flares are for signaling in non-emergency circumstances -- say, for finishing a race -- and red flares are supposed to indicate an emergency. Red flares owe their distinctive color to the presence of strontium nitrate.
There are also aerial signals and hand-held signals, both of which are what they sound like. Aerial signals are generally more useful for attracting the attention of rescue craft. They fire up into the air, providing a brighter spectacle that generally illuminates an area. They also may hang in the area for a long time if they're parachute flares (more on them soon).
Hand-held signals are more useful for signaling your exact location. They may be visible by other surface craft for 3 to 5 miles (4.8 to 8 kilometers) [source: Orion Safety Products].
Parachute flares are flares that deploy small parachutes when fired into the air. These flares can hover in the air for 25 to 30 seconds [source: Orion Safety Products].
SOLAS flares -- SOLAS is an acronym for safety of life at sea -- are more powerful flares often used by oceangoing vessels. In fact, if you're a commercial fishing boat operating 50 miles (80 kilometers) or more offshore, SOLAS flares are required -- three parachute flares, three smoke flares and six handheld flares [source: West Marine]. There are similar legal requirements to carry SOLAS flares if you're racing in an official sailing event.
Now that you've learned about different types of flares and signals, let's learn how to use them.
Using a Flare Gun
Using a flare gun is quite similar to firing traditional firearms. Pulling the trigger causes the hammer to hit a detonating cap. The detonating cap both fires the flare and causes it to ignite. The gun should be pointed vertically, in the air.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, you should fire two flares in succession, which allows authorities to both see your signal and try to determine where it came from [source: Orion Safety Products]. If possible, it's best to wait until you see a rescue craft, such as a circling airplane, or know that one is in the area before firing your first flare.
You should conserve your signals and use them judiciously. If you're going out on the ocean, always make sure you have a solid cache of flares that are at most a few years old. If you need help, you may have to use multiple flares, or possibly flares of varying types, to signal and draw rescue craft to your location.
Flare guns can also be used for other purposes besides signaling. Some outdoors types carry flare guns to scare away bears and other predators [source: Tierney]. Be careful though: Firing directly at an animal may harm it -- besides possibly being illegal -- and the heat of the flare can easily lead to a fire that may quickly become out of control.
Flare guns have also been used to deal with pirates off of the Somali coast, an area that has seen an epidemic of piracy in recent years. Ships, both military and civilian cargo boats, often use flares to warn off pirates. In one incident, a Danish cargo ship fired a flare that then landed on a pirate boat, sinking it. The pirates were later taken into custody by the Danish navy.
In an ironic twist, police officers found two men illegally firing automatic weapons in the woods in Westchester County, New York, by following a flare they fired into the air. Although the men later fired their guns at the police, the officers were uninjured, made the arrests and charged the men with a litany of crimes, including attempted murder [source: New York Times].
Flare Gun Safety
Flare guns can be quite dangerous. They can kill if fired at a person. Flare guns have also, in the past, been modified to take real ammunition. Such "converted" weapons are a real concern in countries with tight gun control laws, such as European nations [source: Bilefsky]. Timothy McVeigh, the man convicted and later executed for the deadly terrorist bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, once claimed to be capable of converting a flare gun into a rocket launcher to shoot down government helicopters [source: Kifner].
A flare can also cause a fire that may lead to serious injury, death or damage. In 2009, two brothers were sentenced to 90 days in jail, three years probation and 500 hours of community service for firing a flare as part of a Fourth of July celebration two years earlier. The flare caused a fire in a Milwaukee meatpacking plant, which led to four buildings being destroyed and $50 million in damages [source: AP]. Another flare-gun-induced fire, in 1989, caused a fire in New York that injured seventeen firefighters [source: New York Times].
The compounds in flares have sometimes raised concerns of possible toxicity. Perchlorate oxidizers are found in many signal and decoy flares used by the military. But when perchlorate gets into the water supply, it can hinder the thyroid's ability to take in iodine [source: SERP]. For that reason, the military has, in recent years, tested possible replacement flares with some success, likely leading to new, safer flares.
You can get a kit containing a flare gun and flares for anywhere from fifty to several hundred dollars. Make sure to educate yourself on your community's laws surrounding their use and, when possible, talk to experts, such as someone from the Coast Guard or an experienced firearms dealer.
For more information about flares, signals and other maritime matters, take a look at the links on the following page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Associated Press. "Wis. Man Gets 90 Days in Jail for $50 Million Fire." New York Times. Oct. 27, 2009.http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/10/27/business/AP-US-Meatpacking-Fire-Sentence.htm
- Baer, F.H. "Lieutenant Very's Pistol." American Rifleman. July 1993.
- Bifelsky, Dan. "European legislators back tough gun control rules."http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/29/world/europe/29iht-29union.4.8530991.html
- Hauksson, K. Mar. "Danish navy stuck with Somali pirates." Ice News. Jan. 15, 2009.http://www.icenews.is/index.php/2009/01/15/danish-navy-stuck-with-somali-pirates/
- Kifner, John. "The Gun Network: McVeigh's World -- A special report." New York Times. July 5, 1995.http://www.nytimes.com/1995/07/05/us/gun-network-mcveigh-s-world-special-report-bomb-suspect-felt-home-riding-gun.html
- McKenzie, Mike. "The Dictionary of the English Nautical Language." SeaTalk.http://www.seatalk.info/cgi-bin/nautical-marine-sailing-dictionary/db.cgi?db=db&uid=default&FirstLetter=v&sb=Term&view_records=View+Records
- Panse, Sonal. "Signaling an Interest in Flare Guns." WorthPoint. March 16, 2009.http://www.worthpoint.com/article/signaling-interest-flare-guns
- Shortridge, Robert. "Elimination of Perchlorate Oxidizers from Pyrotechnic Flare Compositions." SERDP. March 19, 2009.http://www.serdp.org/Research/upload/WP_FS_1280.pdf
- Spiegl, Mark. "Road Flare Composition."http://www.spiegl.org/rocket/flare/flare.html
- Suarez, Ray. "U.N. Takes New Steps to Curb Somalia's Pirates." Dec. 17, 2008.http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/africa/july-dec08/pirates_12-17.html
- Tierney, John. "Bear Attack? Not to Worry." New York Times.http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/03/28/bear-attack-not-to-worry/
- "SOLAS Flare Approval." Landfall.http://www.landfallnavigation.com/solas.html
- "When are SOLAS flares required?" West Marine.http://www.westmarine.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/westadvisor/10001/-1/10001/SOLAS-Flares.htm
- "Flares & Signal Pistols of the World." Digger History.http://www.diggerhistory.info/pages-weapons/signal-pistols.htm
- "Flare." Merriam-Webster Dictionary.http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/flare
- "Fire Starts Blaze in Rooms Used as Illegal Dental Lab." New York Times. April 24, 1989.http://www.nytimes.com/1989/04/24/nyregion/flare-starts-blaze-in-rooms-used-as-illegal-dental-lab.html
- "Frequently Asked Questions." Orion Safety Products.http://www.orionsignals.com/marine/faq.html
- "Principles of signaling." Orion Safety Products.http://www.orionsignals.com/marine/Sguide/index.html
- "When to signal." Orion Safety Products.http://www.orionsignals.com/marine/Sguide/SG_02.html
- "2 Men Held in Shooting at Officers in Park." New York Times. Feb. 10, 1993.http://www.nytimes.com/1993/02/10/nyregion/2-men-held-in-shooting-at-officers-in-park.html