November 29, 2023
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In a former life, I spent two years as the OIC (Officer in Charge) of the US Army’s High Altitude Rescue Team. Our mission was to support the National Park Service retrieving injured climbers off of Denali. Denali is an Athabascan word meaning, “The Great One.” It is the modern enlightened moniker for Mount McKinley, Alaska. At 20,310 feet, Denali is the highest point in North America. We operated Boeing CH-47D heavy lift helicopters stripped down to just the crew, airframe, and fuel. In this configuration these immensely powerful aircraft could just get over the top of the mountain. For a machine that has to displace its bodyweight in rarefied air to remain aloft, 21,000 feet is a fairly arduous operating environment. Working with the HART team was the edgiest flying I have ever done.
On this particular day we were on a training flight. The weather was marginal but met minimums. We had planned a quick trip up with an approach into the high base camp followed by an expeditious ride back down. We landed uneventfully amidst a deluge of blowing powder and then ran through our before takeoff checks. Before we could lift off I caught an annoying glint out of the corner of my eye. I followed the flash to see a blue-clad climber flashing me with a signal mirror. We put our plans on hold long enough for him to approach the aircraft. The climber was an Air Force PJ or Pararescue specialist. He and his mates were climbing Denali as part of a training exercise. He explained that they had an injured climber who was going to die if we didn’t get him off of the mountain.
Typically a live rescue required the approval of the first General Officer in the chain of command, but this was the right thing to do. I made the call, and the PJ’s bundled the injured man and his climbing buddy onboard the aircraft. I took some heat for that later, but we saved the man’s life. The reason he survived was that the PJ’s had the means and skills to signal us amidst the chaos.
Attracting attention might make you popular in high school, but it can get you killed in combat. In a survival situation, attracting attention can be either good or bad. If you find yourself stranded in a remote area while the good guys are looking for you, the capacity to make yourself known could potentially spell the difference between life and death. Particularly at night, nothing works better than light. The classic solution is the flare gun. First patented in 1859, the concept was fully developed by an American naval officer named Edward Wilson Very. Due to this, early flare launchers were colloquially referred to as “Very pistols.” They first saw widespread use during World War I and sported a 26.5mm (1-inch) bore. Nowadays most flare launchers are chambered in either 12-gauge (18.5mm), 25mm, 26.5mm, or 37mm. There is also an extensive selection of flare cartridges available for the expansive family of military standard 40x46mm SR grenade launchers.
The US military has for years used portable rocket-powered signals as well. These little rockets are universally referred to as star clusters. These disposable one-shot flares come packaged in tin tubes and are used for initiating ambushes and general signaling, particularly at night. For more portable applications, the military developed a variety of small pen launchers designed to fire miniature signal flares. These launchers typically are not much larger than a fountain pen and come in two broad flavors. The Penguin Pen Gun used screw-in rounds fired by conventional means. The standard-issue flare launchers I was issued when I was a military aviator were based upon the 1960s Gyrojet project by MBAssociates. We will review a smattering of examples here.
The Leuchtpistole 34
The Leuchtpistole 34 is a break-action, smoothbore, single-shot flare pistol used by the German military from 1934 through 1945. These compact handguns were cut predominantly from aluminum and sport a 26.5mm bore. The Leuchtpistole 34 weighs 26 ounces and features a 6.1-inch barrel. The Leuchtpistole 34 operates much like your grandfather’s favorite single-shot break-open 12-gauge scattergun. To charge the weapon you activate a lever underneath the trigger guard to tip the spring-loaded barrel forward for loading. The hammer has to be manually cocked for each shot. As this is a signal gun there are no sights. The Germans made a wide variety of signal rounds for it. They also deployed smoke rounds and illumination loads. Before the war was over, the Germans had fielded a variety of anti-personnel and anti-tank rounds for this compact little weapon as well. However, the small diameter and limited payload meant that these rounds were only marginally effective. 26.5mm flare guns were widely used by military forces around the world for signaling and firing illumination rounds.
The Star Clusters I was issued in the military were titled M158s. The newest version of these classic military signals is the M127A1. In military parlance, the M127A1 is a single-use illuminant device used for non-verbal communication between troop emplacements as well as illumination. The M127A1 is propelled by a fin-stabilized rocket that is carried in a single-use 10-inch aluminum tube. A single disposable round weighs 1.2 pounds. The M127A1 deploys a parachute-retarded candle that burns for 29 seconds and produces around 150,000 candela. For comparison purposes, a single conventional wax candle produces one candela. A 25-watt lightbulb makes around 135. To fire a star cluster you open the Spam-style metal container using the included key and retrieve the round. You then remove the cap and place it on the opposite end of the tube. Hold the tube in your left hand and strike the cap from the bottom sharply with the right palm. A firing pin built into the cap strikes a primer and launches the rocket. Be forewarned, every single time I have ever fired one of these things both in uniform and otherwise I inadvertently started a fire.
Penguin Associates Pen Guns
In the 1960’s a company called Penguin Associates produced a line of signal and defensive products based upon a simple pen gun. Though I have no way of verifying this, I have read that the originator’s children named the company. The Navy widely adopted these flare launchers, one of which was called the MK 80 Mod 0. Essentially the same launcher was marketed to civilian users along with tear gas rounds. The theory was that in a defensive situation you could load and fire one of these pyrotechnic shells that would deploy a cloud of incapacitating irritant. Personally, I think I’ll stick with my favorite 9mm handgun. The MK80 Mod 0 consisted of a simple aluminum tube that contained a sliding spring-loaded bolt mechanism. One end was sealed, while the other was threaded. The body of the gun was slotted in the manner of a Sten submachine gun. To prepare the launcher for firing, the operator would simply lock the bolt back in the firing notch and then thread a round onto the end. You then point the whole affair skyward and thumb the bolt knob loose. Each launcher was issued with seven rounds. These flares were expected to ascend to between 200 and 250 feet.
First issued in 1970, the Personnel Distress Kit, Red, A/P25S-5A was also known as a “Foliage-Penetrating Signal Kit.” These kits consisted of a single pen launcher and seven rounds of ammunition shipped in a plastic bandoleer strip. Both the launcher and the ammo strip were connected with a length of nylon dummy cord. The entire rig was sealed in a plastic Ziploc bag along with an operator’s manual. It was small enough to be readily carried in an aircrew survival vest. These rounds were percussion fired and spin stabilized. Each rocket included a pair of nozzles drilled at an angle in the base that imparted the required spin. They would typically climb to around 600 feet before deploying their flare payload that would burn for around 9 seconds. Visible range was listed as three miles in daylight and nine miles at night. A hardened round nose allowed these little rockets to bounce around through tree branches until they ideally cleared a jungle canopy. To fire one of these Gyrojet flares you simply retrieved the round from the plastic bandoleer and inserted it primer-down into the open end of the launcher. A spring system held it in place based solely upon friction. You then pointed the launcher upward before retracting and releasing the striker knob. Unlike the Penguin offering, there was no trigger notch. These little rockets made very little noise and were indeed quite easy to spot, particularly on a dark night.
The Orion Marine Flare Gun
None of the stuff we have discussed previously is currently in production for civilian consumption. You can find all of it on the collector’s market, but the ammo is both old and expensive. By contrast, you can buy the Orion Safety Products flare gun set at your local Walmart or through Amazon. The basic Orion flare pistol is 12-gauge and made almost entirely from orange polymer. The smoothbore barrel is throated down to exclude standard 12-gauge rounds. While it might accept one of those nifty little 12-gauge Aguila Minishells, you’d have to have a death wish to touch one off. In addition to being quite illegal, I suspect the plastic barrel would just disintegrate under the pressure. The gun with four rounds runs about $67. Reloads of four rounds will set you back about $28.
The Orion flare pistol is a basic tip-up design. The barrel has a spring-loaded detent to hold it in place but lacks a dedicated mechanical catch. The Orion flare cartridges are stepped to accommodate the bore restrictor and extend all the way to the muzzle. The latest versions have a weird safety button that has to be pressed to retract the hammer. The company claims that the flares burn at 16,000 candela for seven seconds and reach an altitude of around 500 feet. There is an ammo strip affixed to the butt of the pistol with room for up to six rounds of ammunition. While most of the gun is lightweight polymer, the hammer does include a steel firing pin insert. I couldn’t find any load information about the flares, but the difference between a fresh and fired case is 125 grains. That would obviously include both the projectile and the propellant. Most of what I have read online lists the Orion flares at between 300 and 500 fps.
I would estimate that the gun’s aerial performance is about what was advertised. Against terrestrial targets these rounds will punch paper, thump cardboard, and dent light plywood. One round did lodge in my target stand and explode. That was fairly epic. It actually set my target holder alight and looked like something out of Star Wars. For signaling purposes the flare pistol from Orion Safety Products is more than up to the task. It’s not terribly rugged, but you’d never need to fire it more than a handful of times. If it started to get long in the tooth just throw it away and pick up another one the next time you’re out for milk, bread, or toothpaste. The US Coast Guard says signal rounds must be replaced every 42 months in operational use. Inexpensive, reliable and simple to use, I added an Orion flare pistol to my survival kit. For more information visit www.orionsignals.com.
This article was originally published in Be Ready! magazine, and an original copy can be found at OSGnewsstand.com. If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.