How to Use a Flare Gun

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.
  • Baer, F.H. "Lieutenant Very's Pistol." American Rifleman. July 1993.
  • Bifelsky, Dan. "European legislators back tough gun control rules."
  • Hauksson, K. Mar. "Danish navy stuck with Somali pirates." Ice News. Jan. 15, 2009.
  • Kifner, John. "The Gun Network: McVeigh's World -- A special report." New York Times. July 5, 1995.
  • McKenzie, Mike. "The Dictionary of the English Nautical Language." SeaTalk.
  • Panse, Sonal. "Signaling an Interest in Flare Guns." WorthPoint. March 16, 2009.
  • Shortridge, Robert. "Elimination of Perchlorate Oxidizers from Pyrotechnic Flare Compositions." SERDP. March 19, 2009.
  • Spiegl, Mark. "Road Flare Composition."
  • Suarez, Ray. "U.N. Takes New Steps to Curb Somalia's Pirates." Dec. 17, 2008.
  • Tierney, John. "Bear Attack? Not to Worry." New York Times.
  • "SOLAS Flare Approval." Landfall.
  • "When are SOLAS flares required?" West Marine.
  • "Flares & Signal Pistols of the World." Digger History.
  • "Flare." Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
  • "Fire Starts Blaze in Rooms Used as Illegal Dental Lab." New York Times. April 24, 1989.
  • "Frequently Asked Questions." Orion Safety Products.
  • "Principles of signaling." Orion Safety Products.
  • "When to signal." Orion Safety Products.
  • "2 Men Held in Shooting at Officers in Park." New York Times. Feb. 10, 1993.