10 Best Flare Guns and Marine Signals In 2022

A flare gun and its bullets for firing

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Flare guns are not just for fun or the stuff of movies. You can’t predict when your engine is going to fail, when your propeller is going to break, or when your sail is going to tear in stormy weather out at sea. That’s why it’s important to always have distress signals – such as a flag, a flare gun, or smoke signals – every time you set sail.

Required by law for some recreational boats, distress signals or distress calls are an internationally recognized means to indicate that you require immediate assistance.

They can be radio signals, flags, sounds, arm movements as well as pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic signals, of which the flare gun is probably the most recognizable.

In this post, we’re going to focus on pyrotechnic signals such as flares.

The Top 5 Marine Flares in 2022

All the Marine Flares We've tested

Serious Package

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Convenient kit combining both daytime and nighttime USCG Approved signals in a floating storage case. 

Specs & Features

  • (1) 12-gauge safety launcher with bandolier
  • (4) 12-gauge high-performance red aerial signals
  • (4) hand-held red flares
  • (2) hand-held orange smoke flares

Our Overall Review

We have thoroughly tested - and read reviews from other experts and users. In summary, this is what we think:

4.8

Reasons to buy:

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    The kit comes with distress signals for both day and night use
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    It comes in a floating and waterproof case

Reasons NOT to buy:

  • check-markThe storage case is a double-edge sword. Because all your signals are kept there, if it eventually falls overboard, you lose all your marine distress signals.
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Orion Safety 544

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This is another convenient marine safety kit featuring a flare gun, aerial signals, a signal mirror, and a whistle all in a neoprene waterproof bag.

Specs & Features

  • (1) 12-gauge safety launcher with bandolier
  • (6) 12-gauge high-performance red aerial signals (up to 16,000 candela, 7 minutes burn time, 500 feet altitude, USCG Approved for day or nighttime signal)
  • (1) signal mirror
  • (1) SOLAS Approved safety whistle with lanyard

Our Overall Review

We have thoroughly tested - and read reviews from other experts and users. In summary, this is what we think:

4.7

Reasons to buy:

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    Convenient kit with a variety of distress signals
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    Effective for both daytime and nighttime
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    It comes in a waterproof pouch

Reasons NOT to buy:

  • check-markCartridges aren’t spring loaded and can fall out while loading
  • check-markPlastic safety launcher seems fragile so it can break easy
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Orion 572 Coastal Alert Launcher Kit

Pocket Option

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The Orion Safety 584 Flare Gun pack is an easy to use and reliable piece of signalling equipment. Load up a 12-gauge cartridge into the pistol and fire it in the air and a search party or a passing ship will notice your distress signal and come to the rescue.

Specs & Features

  • It includes: (1) 12-gauge safety launcher with bandolier and (4) 12-gauge high-performance red aerial signals
  • Altitude: up to 500 feet
  • Burn time: up to 7 seconds
  • Brightness: up to 16,000 candela
  • USCG Approved as a day or nighttime signal

Our Overall Review

We have thoroughly tested - and read reviews from other experts and users. In summary, this is what we think:

4.7

Reasons to buy:

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    Easy to load and fire
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    Burns bright enough to see at quite a distance

Reasons NOT to buy:

  • check-markCartridges aren’t spring loaded and can fall out while loading
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Orion Safety 584

Phosphorescent Smoke

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The Orion Safety 956 is another easy to use and safe distress signal. Simply peel off the black top, unscrew the orange cap, and then strike it to produce a large dense orange cloud. Use it only during the day when an aircraft or another vessel is sighted.

Specs & Features

  • Burn time: up to 1 minute each
  • Visibility: 5 miles
  • USCG Approved for daytime use only

Our Overall Review

We have thoroughly tested - and read reviews from other experts and users. In summary, this is what we think:

4.7

Reasons to buy:

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    Simple to operate
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    Good visibility

Reasons NOT to buy:

  • check-markIneffective at nighttime
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Orion Safety 956

Ultra Bright

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Get the attention from a rescue party, another vessel, and/or an aircraft with the Orion Safety 589. This is a refill pack for 25mm launchers featuring very bright and potent red aerial signal flares.

Specs & Features

  • It includes (4) 25mm high-performance red aerial signals
  • It can be seen for over 25 miles
  • Altitude: up to 375 feet
  • Burn time: up to 7 seconds
  • Brightness: up to 33,000 candela

Our Overall Review

We have thoroughly tested - and read reviews from other experts and users. In summary, this is what we think:

4.7

Reasons to buy:

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    Be seen up to 25 miles away!
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    Effective at daytime and nighttime
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    It burns 50% brighter than 12-gauge high-performance signals

Reasons NOT to buy:

  • check-markNothing
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Orion Safety 589

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Another way to ask for help and attract attention while at sea, is by launching a parachute signal rocket. To fire it, simply remove the red cap from the bottom to release a string, hold the rocket upright, then pull on the string to launch the parachute. 

Specs & Features

  • SOLAS and USCG Approved for daytime and nighttime
  • Signal type: red rocket parachute day/night signal
  • Maximum Altitude: 1,150 feet
  • Burn time: up to 40 seconds
  • Brightness: up to 30,000 candela

Our Overall Review

We have thoroughly tested - and read reviews from other experts and users. In summary, this is what we think:

5

Reasons to buy:

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    Extremely bright
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    Waterproof container
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    Effective both at daytime and nighttime

Reasons NOT to buy:

  • check-markNothing!
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Orion Safety 800

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Help rescuers pinpoint your position during daytime emergencies with the Orion Safety 801. Pull the pin to produce a dense orange smoke and then throw the floating canister downwind of the boat so the smoke drifts away with the wind and current.

Specs & Features

  • SOLAS and USCG Approved for daytime use only
  • Burn time: each floating canister will deliver 3 minutes of a dense orange cloud

Our Overall Review

We have thoroughly tested - and read reviews from other experts and users. In summary, this is what we think:

4.2

Reasons to buy:

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    Easy to handle
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    It burns longer than a smoke hand-held signal

Reasons NOT to buy:

  • check-markIneffective at nighttime
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Orion Safety 801

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The Orion Safety 865 is a simple to use distress signal. But because this marine hand-held flare produces flames, you must follow the instructions carefully and wear protection, including leather gloves and safety glasses. 

Also, before igniting your Orion Safety 865, remember to hold the flare downwind. Next, remove the black lid from the red cap to reveal the abrasive scratch surface. Then twist and remove the red cap exposing the igniter button. Finally, strike the igniter button with the abrasive scratch surface to produce the flame. Do not wave the flare overhead. 

Specs & Features

  • (4) red handheld flares
  • Burn time: up to 3 minutes
  • Brightness: up to 700 candela
  • USCG Approved as a daytime or nighttime signal

Our Overall Review

We have thoroughly tested - and read reviews from other experts and users. In summary, this is what we think:

4.6

Reasons to buy:

  • check-mark
    Effective for both daytime and nighttime

Reasons NOT to buy:

  • check-markIt’s more dangerous to operate
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Orion Safety 865

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It’s better to be prepared, to be safe and not sorry. The Orion Safety 539 is a refill pack for your 12-gauge safety launcher or flare gun from Orion that comes with 4 red aerial signals.

Specs & Features

  • (4) 12-gauge high-performance red aerial signals
  • Replaces all 12-gauge aerial signals and fits all Orion launchers made since 1981
  • USCG Approved for day or nighttime signal
  • Altitude: up to 500 feet
  • Brightness: up to 16,000 candela

Our Overall Review

We have thoroughly tested - and read reviews from other experts and users. In summary, this is what we think:

4.6

Reasons to buy:

  • check-mark
    It comes in a waterproof resealable bag

Reasons NOT to buy:

  • check-markNothing
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Orion Safety 539

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The Orion Safety 534 is a marine signal kit featuring hand-held flares, a distress flag, and a whistle. This a perfect kit for lake and coastal boaters. 

Specs & Features

  • (4) USCG Approved hand-held red flares
  • (1) distress flag for effective daytime signal
  • (1) SOLAS Approved safety whistle with lanyard

Our Overall Review

We have thoroughly tested - and read reviews from other experts and users. In summary, this is what we think:

4.7

Reasons to buy:

  • check-mark
    It comes with flares for both daytime and nighttime use
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    Easy to store, water resistant and floating case

Reasons NOT to buy:

  • check-markNothing
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Where to buy:

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Orion Safety 534

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Last but not least is another piece of a simple but very effective signalling equipment. Push down with your thumb where the red arrow is pointing to release the bottom part of the Orion Skyblazer II, unscrew the base of the flare to release a chain, then pull it. 

Specs & Features

  • USCG Approved for day or nighttime signal
  • Altitude: up to 450 feet
  • Brightness: up to 16,000 candela
  • Burn time: up to 7 seconds each
  • Waterproof

Our Overall Review

We have thoroughly tested - and read reviews from other experts and users. In summary, this is what we think:

4.6

Reasons to buy:

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    Compact
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    Super easy to use
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    It doesn’t require a flare gun
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    Approved for day and night use
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    Waterproof

Reasons NOT to buy:

  • check-markNo pouch included
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Orion Safety Products Skyblazer II

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Marine Flares | Buyer’s Guide

Unlike some other products from our guides, there isn’t much to know or be said about marine flares. Just make sure you learn how to use each one of them in case of an emergency.

Also, there aren’t many brands on the market that produce distress signal flares. Orion is the leading manufacturer of flares and their products come with the approval of the United States Coast Guard (USCG) so that you have peace of mind when you purchase them.

Because flare guns and other distress signals should only be used as a last resort, it’s very wise to have a VHF radio. It’s less dramatic, but you never know what the sea will do, so having both a VHF and flares will serve you well.

But here are a couple of things to consider before buying marine flares:

Types of flares

There are basically 3 types of marine flares: aerial (rocket or parachute flares), hand-held, and smoke flares. These are the main differences between them:

Aerial flares

  • When fired vertically, it is projected to a height of 300 meters;
  • Its visibility is up to 10 miles in daylight and 40 miles at nighttime;
  • It can be used as a distress signal both at daytime and nighttime;
  • Apart from a higher reach, it is also brighter than hand-held flares;
  • However, it burns for less time than hand-held and smoke flares

Smoke flares

  • It produces a dense orange smoke;
  • It is visible as a distress signal only in daylight;
  • It comes in two versions: hand-held, which burns for up to 1 minute and as a floating canister, which burns for up to 3 minutes
  • Since its visibility is very limited – up to 1.4 nautical miles – it is suitable for a relatively small radius

Hand-held flares

  • It produces a bright light, typically red;
  • It can be used a distress signal both at daytime and nighttime;
  • When set off, it should pointed downwind and held with arms outstretched;
  • Because they get extremely hot, a leather protective glove should also be used;
  • Similar to smoke flares, it is also suitable for attracting attention in a relatively small radius

Now that you know the differences between them, here’s a short video from the American Sailing Association that demonstrates how to properly use marine flares:

Storage and Disposal 

Flares should be kept in an easily accessible and waterproof compartment away from flame and heat. And for safety reasons, they should not be disposed of in an ordinary trash can. They need to be treated as hazardous waste with the appropriate local authorities able to direct you to the right place for disposal.

 

User’s Guide to Marine Flares

Do I need a flare gun on my boat?

If your vessel is over 16 feet, you need flares or other distress signals for your own safety as written in US federal regulations:

“All recreational boats operating in U.S. Coastal Waters or the Great Lakes, or bodies of water directly connected to U.S. Coastal Waters or the Great Lakes – up to a point where those waters are less than 2 miles wide – are required by law to be equipped with visual distress signals.

U.S. owned boats must also carry visual distress signals when operating in international waters.

There are some exceptions. During daytime hours the following boats are not required to carry visual distress signals:

  • Boats less than 16 feet in length;
  • Boats participating in organized events, such as regattas;
  • Open sailboats that are less than 26 feet in length and not equipped with an engine;
  • And manually propelled boats, such as canoes.

These boats are only required to carry visual distress signals approved for nighttime use when operating at night in the above listed waters.”

Here’s another video showing discharge of various types of flares:

Now, we’d like to know about you.

Have you ever had to use any kind of flares while at sea? or do you know anyone who has?

Share with us your thoughts and stories, we love to hear them!

FAQ

Frequently asked questions

When should you use a flare?

Only in the case of an emergency. In other words, when there’s an immediate or potential peril to the people onboard you should use Visual Distress Signals (VDS) such as flares. Misuse of VDS can incur severe penalties. If you’re on your boat near the coast and your motor is crippled, but there is no acute danger of sinking, for example, do not use a flare.

How to fire a flare gun?

Firing a flare gun isn’t complicated, but as any firearm, it needs to be handled with caution.

  1. Go to the edge of your boat on the downwind side
  2. Load a cartridge in your flare gun or hold the non-pistol flare away from boat at a 45-60 degree angle into the sky
  3. Arm the flare, look away and fire
  4. Dispose the removed cartridge/spent flare in a bucket of water
Can a flare explode?

Despite being a flammable solid, flares are not particularly sensitive to ignition. There is no threat of mass explosion, nor is there any threat of an individual flare exploding.

That being said, expired flares should be disposed of as hazardous materials at the appropriate facility.

Can flares work underwater?

According to Orion, “The flare will extinguish when placed horizontally in water (which is why puddles will extinguish flares) but vertical burning underwater shows that sufficient gas is being generated (as a byproduct of combustion) to displace the water away from the flame front.”

And as you can see from this video, even when dipped in the water, the fire from the flare does not go out

How long are marine flares good for?

Most flares have a life span of three years and they must be replaced before the expiry date

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