Signaling an Interest in Flare Guns

hebel-flare-gun-flippedEditor’s Note: There are all manner of gun collectibles and antiques. One of the more interesting types is World War I flare guns.

Guns enthrall collectors for a variety of reasons—for their mechanical design, for their historical value or for a liking of weapons. They collect them by type, make, style or period. If you are into collecting World War I guns, flare guns could add an interesting highlight to your collection.

Lt. Edward Wilson Very, of the U.S. Navy, invented the flare gun in 1877, and the U.S. Navy first used these guns for signaling and communication purposes in 1882. By 1910, flare guns, referred to as “Very” pistols, were being used the world over. During the First World War, they either played an important role in guiding soldiers to safety and in bringing them succor or helped send them to their doom.

Flares Guns in the First World War

The flare guns of the First World War were larger in size than Very’s 10-gauge shell original. Common bore sizes were 1 inch or 1.5 inch, but different design styles developed in different countries. Lighter, one-hand grip models replaced heavier, two-hand grip guns. Instead of a single barrel, some guns had two to four barrels. Webley & Scott, J. G. Anschütz, Remington, Inman, Meffert Gewehrfabrik and Greifelt & Co were some leading manufacturers of flare guns. Some well-known flare-gun models were Hebel, Druckknopf, Eisfeld, Pioneer and Remington Mark III.

World War I Hebel (photo courtesy of Bob Adams)

World War I Hebel (photo courtesy of Bob Adams)

Flare guns operated like normal guns. Pulling the trigger made the hammer strike the detonator cap, and this unleashed the flare. The gun, pointed upward, shot out a bright-colored flare, usually of magnesium, that glowed for around 5 to 40 seconds and was visible for miles around in clear weather conditions. Usually, firing flares in quick succession was necessary to catch attention. The flare sequences, the intervals between firing and the flare colors used were predetermined, so there would be no confusing friendly flares for enemy ones or vice versa.

Remington Mark III

Remington Mark III


Take a closer look at this flare gun on GoAntiques.

Although, primarily meant for signaling, there were instances of downed pilots or cornered soldiers using flare guns as defensive weapons.

Collecting World War I Flare Guns

The first step in beginning a collection is to get well informed. Gather good reference materials including price guides. Read up on different makes and types of World War I flare guns. Learn about gun serial numbers, manufacturer markings and inspector stamps.

Attend online as well as offline gun shows, gun auctions and gun collectors’ shows. Rare gun collectibles often surface in these places. You also get to meet gun vendors, dealers and more-seasoned collectors. They may have the right leads, information or advice for you.

Join historical societies, and subscribe to gun and auction magazines. These are good sources for research and may also have guns-for-sale advertisements. Check the ads in local papers, too. Advertising your interest in collecting flare guns may also help.

Visit antique and gun shops specializing in war memorabilia, gun- or war-memorabilia-related Web sites and estate sales.

Check if there are WWI flare guns for sale on GoAntiques and other online retailers, and what the current bids on the items are.

Royal Air Force flare gun

Royal Air Force flare gun


Click here for more details on this RAF gun.

As far as possible, buy flare guns in fine condition. Inferior ones won’t appreciate in value over time in case you’re thinking in investment terms.

Make sure the provenance is in order before buying. The flare gun you want should come with a valid proof of authenticity—photographs, written letters, official paperwork, clear manufacturer’s marks and proper serial numbers, a verifiable record of how the seller came to possess it, etc.

Get the flare gun authenticated by an expert in World War I gun memorabilia. The Birks Foundation may be able to help you with this.

Maintaining your flare-gun collection

Flare guns fall in the firearms category, and as firearms manufactured more than 50 years ago, WWI flare guns come in the curio or relics section of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ CFR Title 27, Volume 1, 178.11. You may have to get them deactivated and/or get a legal permit to have them around. Check with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), and go through the National Firearms Act (NFA) and the National Firearms Act Handbook. Also visit the National Firearms Act Trade and Collectors Association Web site.

Implement gun-safety rules. Keep the flare guns unloaded and securely out of reach of children and casual visitors.

Consult an expert before cleaning a flare gun.

If you want to try out the flare gun, check online for manufacturers making compatible flares. Don’t use any old flares. Flares, past the use date or incompatible, could explode and cause accidents.

Resources to check:
Buchverlag Delphine Kern
Antique Advertising, Arms & Accoutrements

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