Flare Gun 101: What It Is, How It Works and More

When you're stuck in open water or lost in the woods, a flare gun can get you the help you need.

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The flare gun is one of the most misunderstood safety devices. It can be helpful to those who are well acquainted with them but dangerous to the uninitiated. Get your burning questions about them answered to be part of the right camp.

What Is a Flare Gun?

Flare guns are signaling devices made of plastic and designed to shoot aerial flares — cartridges with colorful chemicals. They go by signal pistols, flare pistols and Very pistols, after Lieutenant Edward Very. He was an American naval officer who developed a 10-gauge, short-barreled gun whose breech could accommodate a flare. The United States Navy adopted his invention in 1882.

Although Very gets credited for being the father of modern flare guns, a woman beat him to the punch. Martha Coston patented a pyrotechnic signaling system in 1859 based on the notes of her late inventor husband — Benjamin Franklin Coston. The main difference between the Very pistol and Coston’s Pyrotechnic Night Signals was a minor adjustment to the trigger mechanism.

The widow worked on this ship-to-ship communications technology for 10 years. After perfecting it, the U.S. Navy bought the rights to her signaling system. Her creation was instrumental in helping the Union win the Civil War.

How Do Flare Guns Work?

Flare pistols work the same as ordinary handguns. Each has a trigger that releases the hammer when pulled. The hammer then uses the energy the main spring stores to send a strong force toward the firing pin, striking the flare’s back. The flare shoots off the barrel, which pivots for loading and unloading.

What Is a Flare Gun Used for?

Sending distress signals is the number one use of flare pistols. You fire one to make your presence known to anyone nearby, and broadcast you need help at sea or on land. Handheld flares can alert others of your exact location more accurately, but aerial ones are more efficient in revealing your general whereabouts to prospective rescuers at greater distances.

Flare cartridges contain strontium nitrate, producing a bright red or red-orange spectacle lasting for a few seconds. An aerial flare’s range depends on the device. For example, the Orion Safety Alerter Basic can send a distress signal up to an altitude of 500 feet. Parachute flares stay airborne longer and are visible at any time of the day.

Flare guns save lives. Watercraft and aircraft usually have them to give accident survivors a way to communicate with first responders and Good Samaritans in case of emergency, and speed up search and rescue. The authorities may require you to bring a flare pistol and a minimum number of flares before you embark on your adventure.

A signal pistol works wonders only when used correctly. Launching two flares in a row is better than one because it allows helpers to determine their origin. That said, you should conserve your rounds.

As with road flares, nail your timing when firing your first flare. Wait until you see or hear a rescue craft around, or know someone in the area who can see your distress signal. Mismanaging your supply will reduce your chances of survival during an emergency. Mishandling a flare gun may cause more harm than help, too.

Moreover, the average pyrotechnic flare shelf life is 36 to 42 months from manufacture. The chemicals in older products are weaker and unlikely to work as intended.

Do Flare Guns Work in the Rain?

Signal pistols can operate underwater and flare rounds can be water-resistant. Despite these, water will negatively affect the reliability of these emergency devices. Their containers are usually waterproof because flare guns may misfire when soaked.

Do Flare Guns Set Things on Fire?

Flares are incendiary. These flying torches can ignite dry foliage upon landing if you discharge them onto the ground or horizontally. They’re so effective firefighters utilize them to start backfires without an explosion.

State governments may classify these pyrotechnic products as explosives. Regulators have rules for disposing of these hazardous substances properly.

Is a Flare Gun Good for Self-Defense?

Flare pistols can inflict severe injury and be lethal. Their muzzle velocities are generally too low to penetrate the human body, though. Firing a burning projectile may burn or set your target ablaze, but your aggressor can also deflect the flare unharmed.

Compared to traditional firearms, flare guns shoot one at a time only, and can be inaccurate and unpredictable. An assailant who understands how they work knows you’ll be defenseless if you miss your shot. Knives and pepper sprays may offer better protection when facing a lethal threat.

Then again, pulling the trigger on a launcher that can blast a glowing ball of flame and create a loud noise may deter wild animals. Using it to protect yourself against large predators — like a bear — can spare you from sustaining a life-threatening injury in a remote location.

Although a signal pistol is unlikely to immobilize your attacker, you must still use it cautiously. Observe gun safety when handling it to avoid inadvertently causing burn damage to anyone or starting a costly fire.

Are Flare Guns Legal?

The legality of flare pistols can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but the law generally allows them under proper circumstances. The authorities want the public to learn how to use these emergency devices, so they’re typically available for sale to anyone over 18.

However, misusing these safety tools — like firing one to cause a false alarm — may make you a felon. A felony conviction may involve jail time and a hefty fine, and may deprive you of buying and possessing flares in the future.

Furthermore, modifying signal pistols to make them capable of shooting conventional bullets may or may not be illegal. You may even carry one in states that consider it a firearm for lawful use. However, using a flare gun to commit a crime is almost certainly against the law anywhere. Having it when committing a crime may increase your sentence.

Can You Shoot Bullets With Flare Guns?

Signal pistols can taper enough to prevent 12-gauge shotgun shells from being chambered. However, such a design hasn’t stopped some people from trying to fit in real ammo. A few vloggers were able to shoot rubber ball shells. Launching an unintended projectile from a flare pistol may be unsafe and illegal.

Respect the Etiquette About Flare Guns

As with other safety devices, flare pistols can backfire on you. They can bail you out when you’re in a bind but turn your life upside down when misused, so handle them responsibly.

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