Blog By: FireRein Team
With files from Wikipedia and IFSTA Essentials of Fire Fighting and Fire Department Operations, 6th Edition
It’s The Grind That Sharpens The Axe
The Axe is one of the most ancient tools known to humanity. From its inception in the Stone Age (ending c. 2000 BCE), the stone head axe was made of hard stone; usually sharpened flint. It was used to cut down trees for firewood, building materials, and daily use items, to kill and butcher animals for food, and to defend against predatory animals and other humans. In the Bronze Age (c. 3200-600 BCE), the axe head was made of bronze, an alloy of copper, tin, arsenic, and other metals. Its function was the same as before, but now the liquid bronze could be cast into different shapes for more specific usage. From the Iron Age (c. 1200 BCE-800 CE) to present, axe heads have been made of iron and hardened steel alloys, and have undergone still further specialization as required.
Since the dawn of time, the core shape of the axe head has always been a variant of a wedge: heavy in the middle and tapering to a blade edge for cutting. The handle, also called the haft, is usually made of a hardwood, like hickory, or more recently, synthetic fibreglass. Handle lengths are usually between 28”-36”, though some specialized tools may be smaller.
Through the years, different axe head shapes have been used for specialized purposes, including woodworking, combat, and stone cutting. Never a stranger to innovation, the Fire Service has likewise developed its own variants. Common axe head shapes we use are a flat blade with flat back edge for striking; a pick back for poking, prying, and twisting; and the Pulaski adze back edge for digging fire breaks and cutting roots during forestry operations. Axe heads commonly weigh 6-8 lbs., picks are usually 2.5”-5” in length, and curved adze blades are generally 5”-6” long.
The “Seagrave” axe, manufactured by the Collins company in the early 1900s, is regarded as the first modern pick back axe. It’s known as the Seagrave because it was often sold as part of the kit loaded on Seagrave fire trucks. Originals are highly prized by collectors and have been copied by others for use worldwide. The pick end on the Seagrave axe is 5” long, whereas most other axes measure with a 2”-3” pick back.
The Pulaski axe is named for Ed Pulaski, an assistant ranger with the United States Forest Service, and is the American equivalent of a tool that has been used for centuries to plant trees in the Alps. Having saved the lives of 45 firefighters during the devastating August 1910 wildfires in Idaho, Pulaski’s fame helped to popularize his namesake tool and spurred the awareness of the need for improved firefighting equipment.
This drive for more innovation led to Paratech’s invention of the Pry-Axe and Biel mini axe. These new multitools combine the traditional axe with other forcible entry implements to give firefighters better options for emergency use, particularly for automobile extrication scenarios.
The fireground uses of the axe are many. During overhaul, the blade can break down building interiors to expose hot spots and damaged structure that could harm firefighters; in tactical ventilation it can cut through roof shingles and the plywood below to open a hole for a nozzle or chainsaw to be inserted. The pick head can pierce through walls and roof metal, and will also pierce vehicle sheet metal to expose hinges for insertion of powered cutting tools.
We remind our firefighter colleagues that axe maintenance is essential for long lifetime use. To maintain the cutting edge, sharpen it occasionally with a file, noting any chips, cracks, or spurs that may render an axe unserviceable. Grinding the blade of an axe is not recommended because the heat generated will cause the axe blade to lose its temper and become more prone to breakage. Wood handles should be washed, rinsed, and wiped dry after use, inspected for cracks and splinters, sanded if necessary, coated with boiled linseed oil, and checked for head tightness. Synthetic fibreglass handles should be checked for damage, cracks, and tightness of the tool head.
Please exercise proper safety when carrying. Hold the axe blade up and facing forward, with the blade away from your body. When carrying a pick head axe, place the pick head up, with the blade under your armpit and hold the pick point with your other hand to minimize injury to yourself and others. Never carry an axe on your shoulder.
FireRein salutes the caveman who first tied a sharp rock to a stick for his contribution to the Fire Service, and we’re proud to join our first responder colleagues who continue to depend on their “Tool of the Trade” every day.