Rounding Out the Departmental Tool Cache– The “Fire Hammer”

PERSONAL HAND TOOLS IN A DEPARTMENTAL TOOL CACHE. This is a long short-story. The details may vary, but the general plotline will be familiar to a lot of firefighters– finding the “perfect” personal handtool(s) and integrating it/them into day-to-day local fire operations. This particular chapter deals with my flirtation with “sledgehammers.” It’s not an account that’s going to be of much general interest. It merely summarizes experiences that led to adoption of Indianapolis fire officer Nick Childers’ “Fire Hammer” as my personal tool of choice.

My first fire department was located in a heavily wooded region of the Northeast. This was a woodburning area and our call volume included lots of fire suppression. However, in a district where even the major highways were narrow and winding, with mature trees right up to the edge of the roadway, motor vehicle collisions were our primary activity. This launched my interest in handtools, but primarily in terms of extrication and technical rescue.

Ironically, my interest in firefighting handtools actually began in a department that didn’t have many. Fire suppression was practiced primarily in terms of water application– “tools,” other than a hoseline and nozzle, were more-or-less an after-thought. In some respects, departments that don’t devote much attention to tools can be a perfect place for an individual who does. In my case, members understood the potential value of tools for certain jobs. The department just didn’t have many. I could acquire and carry just about anything I wanted because ultimately most people agreed– anything was better than nothing. So, what to acquire with this newly recognized freedom of tool choice?

WHICH “ANYTHING?” Initially, I focused on overhaul. That was clearly a tool-oriented set of tasks and we did a lot of it. Of course, we did, in fact, carry a couple of pickhead axes. We also had a few long hooks– the generic, fat-handled, pike poles that somehow seem to show up, automatically, with each new apparatus delivery (if you’re not paying attention). The thin blades of the pike poles did more slicing through materials than pulling. They would suffice for leisurely late-stage overhaul and mop-up but were virtually worthless for the more hectic work of finding fire during active fire attack. I started looking for something to fill in the blanks. It would need to be beefy (but not awkward), multi-functional, and shorter than normal (to work in tight-quarters alongside an attack line). And, probably because I was accustomed to using one of the department’s pickhead axes for overhaul, I had decided that any personal tool that I adopted (especially one tailored for overhaul) needed to be good for chopping.

THE FIRST STEP: AN ODDBALL “CLOSET AXE?” For quite a while, I approached my goal pretty informally– I was going to build it myself. What I ended up with can best be described as a D-handled pickhead axe. The D-handle provided a firm, slip-resistant grip and amplified the pulling force when the pick of the axe was used as a closet hook, of sorts. I had learned from my earlier experiences using pickheads for overhaul that they have a tendency to get jammed up in their work. So, in addition to the wierdo D-handle, I gave the blade of the axe a radically curved profile, inspired by U.S. Air Force crash axes of the post Korean War era. This worked beautifully in preventing the blade from getting stuck in solid wood, plywood, gypsum board, lath & plaster, etc. The end-product was an ugly duckling, for sure. And, it was considerably shorter than would eventually be my preferred length for interior hooks– but, I didn’t know that yet. In a very short time, I sacrificed a couple of cheap D-handles to battering ram duty before switching to cast aluminum (much later). Still, other than that and its too-short length, it was durable and reliable. On balance, I thought it was OK and it was about the only tool I used for well quite a while.

While my hook/axe seemed pretty practical to me, its nerdy, home-handyman look turned everyone else’s stomach. Nobody wanted to be seen near it, nevermind using it. I had hoped that my personal tools would help pave the way for development of a more functional departmental inventory. But, instead, it looked like the closet axe was scaring them off. DOA.

SOMETHING MORE WIDELY ACCEPTABLE: THE CLEMENS HOOK. But, having met Richie Clemens, the creator of the Clemens Hook (“Wrecking Tool”) at Hyattsville, my sights were already being realigned toward his tool as a replacement for my “Rube Goldberg” concoction. Several things favored the Clemens Hook. It had a thin chisel point to improve piercing of wall and ceiling materials, its heft and transverse (crosswise) blade made it a pretty decent chopping tool (a continued personal priority), and it was commercially available– not some Rube Goldberg concoction. So, I purchased a 48″ version from Richie and moved the _whatever-you-call-it_ tool home.

Right out of the box, I did make an important modification to my new hook. As mentioned earlier, I considered chopping a minimum expectation of a good overhaul tool. The basic design of Richie’s hook was well suited to chopping. However, I had concluded that in order to optimize chopping a tool’s D-handle needed to be aligned with the axis of the swing (see sequence above, right). Clemens Hooks were shipped with the D-handle oriented horizontally, perpendicular to the arc of the swing. So, my handle was chopped off so that the handle could be appropriately rotated 90°, during which process the length was reduced from 48″ to 42″. Perfect.

SEA-CHANGE: ESTABLISHING A BASIC DEPARTMENTAL SET OF TOOLS. As a personal tool, my new Clemens Hook went everywhere– local fire calls and training and mutual aid calls, of course. But, we also gave it a lot of fire service exposure at regional training sessions, state fire schools, and a couple of FDICs. Because it was always in my vehicle, it was also pulled out for spontaneous hands-on reviews at the random in=state and out-of-state departments that I visited. It even flew along for use at a training class in Monterrey, Mexico. It was always greeted with a good deal of interest.

Of significance here, the Clemens also contributed to the long-awaited sea-change in my local department– a trend toward greater formal integration of fire tools into our operations. Local firefighters saw it used and used it themselves. It proved itself valuable and popular enough that gradually the department added them, mounted near riding positions in all its front-line apparatus; two engines, a ladder truck and a heavy rescue each had a Clemens assigned to the person filling its primary “back-up” riding position, working inside. At present each front-line piece still has 2-4 Clemens Hooks onboard.

Simultaneously, due to an ever-stronger affiliation with Iowa-American Firefighting Equipment (IA-AM), we also switched out all of our all-star team of longer conventional pike poles for New York Pikes (good weight, good balance, good choppers) and added multiple IA-AM versions of Halligan bars and flathead axes, near the “floater” riding positions, nominally part of a unit’s outside crew. This was an era of major progress in operational procedures and associated riding position equipping. But, with these tools becoming more or less assigned to certain jobs and the number and variety of departmental tools greatly expanded, it was also, of necessity, time to reexamine the role and nature of my own personal tool(s).

SLEDGEHAMMER? Fast-forward to the second decade of the twenty-first century: for the past several years, I’ve been functioning as a volunteer assistant chief, in charge of training. In that capacity, I typically respond to fires as an engine/truck officer or serve as “back-up” for my unit’s primary responsibility, whatever that happens to be. It has now been over two decades since my current department adopted the above riding position-oriented approach to preliminary operations. It was immediately clear that with all of the department’s own Clemens Hooks available, mine was more than redundant. So, what personal tool(s), if any, should I acquire to address my current role and complement the department’s more-or-less standardized departmental position responsibilities. My conclusion: I needed to start carrying a “sledgehammer.”

SLEDGEHAMMER VS. FLAT-AXE. Come on; everybody knows how cool sledgehammers are. In photos, in movies, and in life, the term “sledgehammer” is code for “getting in,” and “wrecking stuff.” But, when you start thinking seriously about your fire department EDC (every day carry)– personal favorites you’d like to carry or have assigned on a regular basis– sledgehammers are a tough sell. As evidence, look for pics of firefighters using them in your favorite online photo bank. Despite their cool, about the only thing you’ll find is shots of troops working out or participating in a Firefighter Combat Challenge or occasionally roughing up a masonry wall– there’s virtually nothing else. But, I don’t need to argue against my own preference sledgehammers. Instead, I’ll defer to a great 2008 web post by Nick Martin of Traditions Training, titled Sledgehammer vs. Flat-Axe (https://traditionstraining.wordpress.com/2008/11/21/fe-sledgehammer-vs-flat-axe/). He doesn’t appear to be a big fan of the sledgehammer. While I agree with virtually every point he makes– I just arrived at a different personal conclusion.

Sledges
One of the nice things about experimenting with sledges is the variety of low-cost options of weights, handle lengths and handle types (wood, fiberglass, composite, etc.). My long-time favorite– among several used– was this red, 6 pounder with a 28″ Nupla fiberglass handle.

SLEDGEHAMMERS. So, why sledgehammers? Several things, including:

  1. Entry— By itself, it provides quick, one-piece, one-person forcible entry– with pin-point precision– into a high percentage of the occupancies we (my fire department) runs.
  2. Search— Many (or most?) fire tool alternatives are double-ended with sharp, potentially injurious metal ends. This limits their utility as a means of expanding search reach. By contrast, the sledgehammer’s handle is less hazardous, expands access under beds, behind sofas, etc., gives good, reliable feedback, and seldom gets caught on or in furniture and contents. The head of the tool itself generally provides an easily gripped, snag-free “brick” that helps its user slid unimpeded along the floor.
  3. Overhaul— While we tend to imagine overhaul in terms of hooks pulling things apart, for surfaces and assemblies at chest level or below, the sledgehammer often does it more easily and just as well by caving things in. Want to get to a stove fire that’s spread behind a kitchen base cabinet? You can laboriously peel apart the cabinet with a hook or have it in pieces almost instantly with a hammer. Want to disassemble a burnt sofa to move it out a window? Hook or sledge?
  4. Routine Maneuvering— Sledgehammers tend to have relatively simple, clean surfaces, which makes it easy to slide in or out of an SCBA waist belt and minimizes the probability of it snagging somebody or something, in use or in motion.
  5. Striking— In general, this is the sledgehammer’s functional strength. Firefighting has lots of situations that call for breaking things, (parts, connections, materials, and assemblies), driving things (entry bars, picketts), and knocking things out of the way (displaced or distorted materials and assemblies). The broad surface area typical of sledgehammers reduces misstrikes. It should be noted, however, that this also makes them less effective as tools for driving Halligan forks with square shoulders.
  6. Breaching— Breaching walls is generally just another type of striking. But, think for a minute about trying to get in, out, or through a wall, the first thing that comes to mind is a sledgehammer, right?
  7. Sounding— Sounding is still another type striking, but an important one. The sledge works well in this capacity, especially when the striking is done with the end of the handle, rather than the head. The handle concentrates more of the tool’s weight on the contact point and will give sound feedback from a variety of angles.
  8. Routine Maneuvering— It tends to have relatively simple, clean surfaces, which makes it easy to slide in or out of an SCBA waist belt. It also minimizes the probability of it getting caught on somebody or something, in use or in motion.
  9. Etcetera— Every serious firefighter I’ve known has had enough creativity to double the length of this list.
members-of-a-truck-company with sledge
There are some jobs for which the sledgehammer is uniquely well-suited. The trick is in finding a way of having the sledge conveniently available when it is urgently needed. (Photo: Alamy Photo Library)

I carried a short sledgehammer of some sort as my primary personal tool, off-and-on, for several years, primarily for interior operations. Within a short time, I settled on a 28″ handle length. It always seemed just right for tight quarters. At one point, I bought a used 16 pound head on eBay and experimented with that a bit. Not a great idea, for me– it was a humbling reminder of my strength limitations and never went on a run. I worked with a couple different weights, but for most of my time working with them, I used a 6 pounder (if that’s considered a sledgehammer?). I loved it. For the entry challenges we encountered, and for overhauling floors and walls at head level or below– even for pulling normal ceilings, in a pinch– it was great. Most of the time, for pulling surfacing materials, it was a matter of making a couple of battering ram-like strikes, rotating the head 90°, and pulling off big slabs of material.

I liked the short 6-pounder a lot. It seemed to fill the gap between various departmental tools quite well. In the end, the decision to move on to something else was more philosophical than practical; I felt that an optimal overhaul tool had to be a good chopper. Despite its other merits, the sledgehammer wasn’t a chopper.

NEXT STOP: THE SPLITTING MAUL. Having lived in Connecticut for 8 years, heating with wood, I lots of experience with splitting mauls and had periodically considered the splitting maul as a replacement for my sledgehammer. In the early teens, I made the switch. Having been happy with the 28″ handle length on the sledgehammers, I started there with the mauls I tried (again, though, the length was configured for interior work and wasn’t all that practical for any exterior functions). As with the sledge, my body told me the heavier tools weren’t for me. Consequently, while I again played around with heavier heads, most of my experience was with a 6-pounder.

On first consideration, it seemed like the maul would be an obvious improvement over the sledgehammer. It could perform all the driving, breaking, and sounding chores every bit as well as the sledge. And, where the breaking needed to be more controlled and linear (splitting wood along the grain, breaking cabinetry and other assemblies along their joints, etc.) or breaking room and cabinet doors off their mounts, the addition of an axe-like blade seemed like a sure winner.

But, for me, it wasn’t. First of all, what I had expected to find was a sledgehammer-like tool that could also cut. However, the blade didn’t provide the “axe-like” cutting edge I’d imagined. Instead of the narrow, keen, cutting edge of an axe, the blade was more like a [poorly] sharpened hammer head– it could break things but couldn’t really cut or pry much of anything (what was I thinking– it’s a splitting maul!). Secondly, since I’d been using a sledge for a long time, I was still thinking of it as a striking tool. However, the blade of the maul is heavier than the hammer and hangs down. The net result was that it felt out-of-balance, more awkward to carry and, in my opinion, a much less efficient striking, driving and breaching tool (again, what did I expect– its a flippin’ splitting maul!). Finally, the extra length of the maul’s head also tended to reduce its effectiveness when pulling interior (or exterior) wall materials– it couldn’t seem to comfortably perform the “Ram, Rotate (90°), ‘n Pull” maneuver in structural voids that made the sledge such a surprisingly efficient overhaul tool.

fullsizeoutput_209e
Mauls used at various times during my splitting maul phase (chronological order, L-R). The weight of the first three (red 12# and two 8# on either side) made them good striking tools but were far less desirable for overhaul. The Nupla ergonomic handle (and 2nd from left and 2nd from right) are excellent.

I found one splitting maul to be about the same as any other. But, although I didn’t end up using it much, one maul– an 8-pounder with a 32″ handle by Fire Hooks Unlimited–had me taking notes of ideas to explore if I ever started messing around with mauls again. First, its striking head was more square in cross-section (rather than roundish). This could have made it adaptable for striking and driving the squared-off shoulders found on some modern Halligan bar forks. In this case, it’s actual performance was marginal because of excessively rounded edges. But, I noted it as a function worth looking for in my “ideal” personal striking tool. The FHU maul also had a “C”-shaped piece of steel strap welded onto its front edge, presumabley to facilitate nesting with a Halligan. In concept, it provided a level striking surface on the front edge for use as a sort of “battering ram.” However, in my short experimentation with it, it didn’t hold up well and needed a “tune-up,” after every couple of strikes). Hmmm: 1) a squared off striking surface for close-quarters striking, and 2) a flush front surface for “battering ram” service– things to consider in the future.

Over the years that I carried sledgehammers, they always seemed to get the job done. But, my experimentation with mauls was a disappointment. I didn’t actually mess work with the mauls very long, but, when I did, I never felt like I was carrying the right tool for the job.

A PROMISING NEW DIRECTION: THE “BREACHING SLEDGE.”. At this point, I would probably have gone back to the 6-pound sledge had I not stumbled across a tool I had never seen before– the “Breaching Sledge.” The first version of the tool was distributed by Council Tools, a mass marketer of basic fire service axes, sledgehammers, and other hand tools. It was a hefty 12-pound tool with a 36″ poly-over-fiberglass handle and a wide, thick, and disproportionately long adze extending from its 10-pound sledgehammer face. Its massive adze threw the tool way out of balance and made using it for striking a forbidable battle against gravity. In other words, it was a three-dimensional encyclopedia of the negative features I’d experienced with earlier tools.

BUT,… the idea of a transverse blade was intriguing.

Council Tool Breaching Sledge
The original Council Tool Breaching Sledge– too long, too heavy, and wildly out of balance. It was too ungainly for fire service applications. But, it wasn’t aimed at that audience. It was targeted at the military/security/law enforcement crowd.

Fortunately, I didn’t see this long-handled version until much later. Instead, my first glimpse of a Breaching Sledge was of a substantially revised model marketed by Blackhawk. This 2nd generation version (2nd from left, in photo below) initially caught my attention because of its short handle, bold ergonomic grip, and unique transverse adze. Although I didn’t know it at the time (since I hadn’t seen Council’s original), the handle of the tool I was using had been shortened significantly (down to 22″ from Council’s original 36″).

IMG_6290
A comparison of Breaching Sledges (from left to right): 1. original Council tools “Breaching Sledge” (12#); 2. Blackhawk’s 1st revision (“2nd generation,” 11-1/2#); 3. Blackhawk’s most recent design (“3rd generation,” 9#); 4. my personal tool with slightly modified adze– shortened 5/8″ and the bevel reversed.

The length of the adze on the 2nd version had also been reduced by close to 50%– I would have been amazed if I had known that because even in its new, “trimmed down” form, the proportions of the adze seemed ill-fitted to fireground functions. Nevertheless, the transverse adze idea seemed to hold real promise. So, despite its apparent shortcomings, I cut short my trials and frustrations with the maul, and immediately invested in a Breaching Sledge.

Of course, it had some short-comings of its own. Like the mauls, it’s cutting edge was heavy, hung down and seemed awkwardly out-of-balance. And, as expected, the thick proportions of the adze limited its ability to get into gaps and sacrificed leverage when using it to pry inward swinging doors using the “lever” method.  What I hadn’t noticed in the literature and didn’t really expect was its chubby 11-1/2 pound weight. Whew. Still, rather inexplicably, it felt and performed significantly better than any of the mauls and kept my interest.

I used the chunky 2nd generation Breaching Sledge for a year or so. By that time Blackhawk seemed to have reached some of the same conclusions I had and introduced yet another model. But this was no half-hearted effort– it included several substantial and valuable refinements (second from the right in the above photo). Blackhawk described the revised tool, as follows:

“The Breaching Sledge brings together the best of both worlds: the strike face of a sledge hammer and the prying wedge of a Halligan tool, all in one revolutionary, compact, lightweight tool.”

Specific improvements? The new Breaching Sledge was considerably lighter than its precedessor– 9 pounds for the new model versus 11-1/2 pounds for the previous version. But, most of the change involved its adze. It was about 30% narrower (about the same width as the hammer head), roughly 30% thinner, and maybe 30-40% shorter. Thin horizontal ribs were added to the upper half of both the inner and outer surfaces to help hold its “bite” when prying. The striking head now hung downward. The previously used ergonomic handle was left unchanged. It felt good.

Blackhawk B & L-2
A comparison of Breaching Sledges– In contrast to the 2nd generation tool (left), the 3rd generation was 2-1/2 pounds lighter (9 pounds overall weight), introduced a totally new-shaped and further shortened adze, and reversed the weight distribution of the head to favor striking.

REFINING A GOOD THING. In the several years that I used the lighter, 3rd generation Breaching Sledge, it came closer than anything to filling my preferences for a personal everyday carry tool. Still a few standard additions were made right away. I added one of our standard departmental “fruit loops” (a loop of 8mm cord) to enhance carrying and hoisting the tool and securing it on the tip of a roof or ground ladder. It also got the multi-color reflective-tape bands we use to mark tools for different units (2-color) or individuals (generally 3-color).

I soon made a couple of minor functional modifications to the adze, as well. First, as designed, the fulcrum of the adze was the hammer head at the other end– 3:1 isn’t a lot of mechanical advantage in a prying tool. Since I generally used my tool for prying, I shortened it 5/8″; I might have gotten a minicule improvement in leverage? The balance seemed a little better? In any case, I had made a compromise– I lost a little surface area that might otherwise have been useful in pulling wall materials, especially lathe and plaster. Secondly, part of the appeal of the adze, for me, was its application to forcible entry. So, the bevel (angle) on the end of the adze was reversed to provide more surface area against the door stop when using the “lever” method of forcing inward swinging doors. The photos below (“as delivered” on the left; “as modified” on the right) provide a before-and-after comparison of these modifications.

 

Blackhawks Small Compared
A comparison of the original 3rd generation adze (left) with modifications made to improve handling: shortening the adze and reversing the bevel (angle of the top edge).

THE BREACHING SLEDGE. So, what’s the bottom line? The 3rd version of the Breaching Sledge held down the day-to-day favorite role for 5 or 6 years, not including the first year or so with the beefy 2nd generation model. It comfortably met or exceeded all the performances that I listed much earlier for the sledgehammer. And, it satisfied my certainty that I needed a chopping tool.

Improvements? Well, I always regretted the 22″ handle (as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, I had long preferred a 28-incher). And, the handle was a little chunkier than I liked. If it had been a big deal, I could always have switched it out with one of my favorite Nupla handles, which I always had on hand. I didn’t. This 3rd generation Breaching Sledge seemed like it came as close to a perfect fit, for me, as I’d ever find. I fully expected to be using it for the rest of my fire service career.

NEXT STEP: A WELL-KEPT SECRET.  But, then I’m looking at Andrew Brassard’s forcethedoor Instagram post and find myself thinking, “Hey, that guy’s got one, too!” I was looking at an Indianapolis firefighter gazing down from a roof, holding one of Blackhawk’s Breaching Sledges. Or, so it seemed. I even wrote a quick post broadcasting my sighting. But, a friend quickly responded that it wasn’t a Blackhawk– it was a different tool. “Really,” my friend said, “I just bought one from the guy in the pic.” He provided me with a phone number.

Blackhawk Dynamic Breaching Sledge
Indianapolis Fire Department Lieutenant Nick Childers, designer (artist!) and fabricator of the “Fire Hammer.”

I called Nick Childers, the Indianapolis Lieutenant who artfully crafts each tool individually. He agreed to make one of his “Fire Hammer” heads for me to mount on my own Nupla Ergo handle. Despite some standing orders, he had it out to me in no-time.

Why all the fuss? Well, the Fire Hammer certainly wasn’t a Breaching Sledge. It was similar, but Nick has added in some valuable missing ingredients. First, my only real complaint about the Breaching Sledge had been that, with the adze being straight, it had very little leverage and the tool fell short of its potential as a prying tool. Nick’s adze curves back slightly, creating a shorter, more progressive fulcrum. And, in the process, it forms a hook-shape for firmer pulling surfacing materials. The way he shapes the tool also adds a function that I’d more or less given up on– its very angular geometry results in some nice, square corners that can be used to drive modern Halligan forks at their squared-of shoulders. The Fire Hammer performs this particularly well when slid longitudinally to strike the forks with its (previously, only Lone Star Axe’s “Pig” and “Piglet” seemed to truly satisfy that application– but, that’s a different story). This reminded me of thoughts I’d had about future design details after using the FHU maul. And, like that maul, the Fire Hammer gives a wide (but, not too wide) blunt front face that works really well as a battering ram. But, this one doesn’t have to go to the body shop after every slam.

For the first time in a long time, I feel like all the functions of my ideal EDC have come together in one tool. The Fire Hammer (hammer) is virtually the same size as the mauls and Breaching Sledges I’d used previously. Still, with the hammer, I’m carrying a tool that feels perfectly balanced and natural, for the first time since I gave up the 6 pound sledgehammer. As an officer or line back-up tool it works beautifully. It can easily handle most of our local entry chores. And, its easy to carry– grasped comfortably in one hand along with a box light or, quickly slid into the SCBA waist belt to free up both hands. Functionally, the hammer, seems to be a perfect fit for filling the gap between our department’s standard cache of married sets, 4-foot Hawk/Raptor hooks and longer 6′ pike poles and hooks.  In some respects its a bit of a downer that my search for “that” tools seems to have come to an end. But, I look forward to the fun-in-use that this tool seems to promise.

 

IN REMEMBRANCE: ALAN SONDEJ, L.O.D.D., MARCH 16, 1988. As a footnote, in writing reminiscences of sledgehammers, I was taken back to fond memories of Hyattsville VFD and time spent in discussion and en route with the “Monster Man,” Firefighter Alan Sondej (pronounced “Sunday”). Al was a graduate student at the University of Maryland and an ultra-dedicated and accomplished Hyattsville volunteer. He was the first person to explain to me the then-revolutionary idea of riding position-based job assignments and equipping. He, himself, was long involved in developing riding position recommendations for HVFD, but seemed to be stalled on one position, the “Monster Man” position– his position. Its most distinguishing characteristic was its equipping– one 16 pound sledgehammer, carried next to his seat, in an open-topped box. A true “Monster” on the fireground, in life he was a kindly giant. devoted to the service of others.

The MalvenWorks “Monster” Halligan Bar is dedicated to his memory.  https://magazine.nd.edu/stories/remembering-alan-sondej/

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