A Well-Kept Secret– Blackhawk’s Breaching Sledge

FORCETHEDOOR. If you’re in the fire service, own a cell phone or computer and don’t pay regular attention to Andrew Brassard’s “forcethedoor” posts on Instagram, you’re not taking life seriously (or you’re taking it too seriously– I don’t know). Andrew’s over 3,000 posts read like a post-Doctoral photographic dissertation on fire service anthropology– Dr. Brassard. It is so cool; but, words don’t do it justice. Take a look.

A WELL-KEPT FIRE SERVICE SECRET. The significance of forcethedoor here, is one of his recent photos of an Indianapolis Firefighter wielding an unusual handtool. A sledge hammer-like tool with a wide adze (instead of a maul’s customary cutting blade, or a typical sledge hammer’s…spare sledge hammer). Not surprisingly several people responded with the popular “What’s that tool?” or “I’ve got to have one of those.” As best I can tell, I had the same reaction when I first saw Blackhawk Tactical’s “Dynamic Breaching Sledge,” the tool the IFD guy appears to be carrying, but with a replacement solid fiberglass handle. I don’t think I’m alone in having at least 8 to 10 “favorite” tools. Be that as it may– this is one of mine.

Blackhawk Dynamic Breaching Sledge

Everybody knows how cool sledge hammers and mauls are. So, why’s this tool a best kept fire service secret? Because Blackhawk doesn’t devote much marketing to the fire service– just as many fire service suppliers ignore the law enforcement community. But, this one’s a gem. It has been produced in at least three different versions at various times.

The first version I saw was distributed by Council Tools, a mass marketer of basic fire service axes, sledge hammers, Halligan-type bars and other hand tools. This version had a 36″ polyethylene over fiberglass handle with an exaggeratedly wide, thick, and long adze extending from a 10 pound sledge hammer face. The long adze threw off the balance of the tool. It was awkward to use.

Council Tool Breaching Sledge
The original Council Tool Breaching Sledge– too long and ungainly for fire service application. That seemed to be OK– it wasn’t really marketed to the fire service.

Later, it showed up in a second version marketed by Blackhawk. Their version used used a shorter, improved ergonomic handle. More importantly, they shortened the adze which resulted in a far more balanced piece. But, its 10 pounds seemed excessive. And, the adze was still too wide and thick for forcible entry, its intended purpose.

Blackhawk Breaching Sledge Knife Country USA

Blackhawk apparently made the same assessment.  Not long after their first altered version of the Breaching Maul appeared, it was followed by a third version (their second) which featured a usefully narrowed, thinned, and shortened the adze. The flat surfaces of the adze were ribbed which did a great deal to hold the tool in its work. Weight was reduced to 8 pounds. Nice tool.

Blackhawk Old 10# Upper- Newer 8# Lower
The shorter length of Blackhawk’s original version of the Breaching Sledge (top left and in the enlarged photo) was a big improvement. But, at 10 pounds, it was a boat anchor and its adze was overly wide and thick. The [so-far] “final” version (lower left) of the tool trims down every aspect of the head and should make it a fire service classic.
Blackhawk B & L-1
A comparison of light (top) and heavy (bottom) versions of Blackhawk’s Breaching Sledge.
Blackhawk B & L-2
The original The proportions of the adze on the heavy Breaching Sledge (left) made it less efficient for getting into gaps and gave up leverage when using it to pry inward swinging doors using the “lever” method.

BUT, HOW DO YOU GET ONE?  Its a little like legalized gambling. There are lots of suppliers of Blackhawk’s Breaching Sledge, but they all seem to share a bewildering failure to distinguish between the two versions. Most descriptions of the tool show contradictory photos and weights. The model number is generally given as #DE-BS, but, I’ve yet to see conclusively whether its the larger, heavier tool or the smaller one. NOTE: Blackhawk markets Council Tool’s original 36″ handled configuration as the DE-SBS, “Super Breaching Sledge.” Probably the best way of getting what you want is to call one of the many dealers and ask about weight: according to Blackhawk, the larger one weighs in at about 11-1/2 pounds overall weight, the smaller one is around 9 pounds (the DE-SBSd is 12 pounds).

IMPROVING ON A GOOD THING. Having used the lighter version of the Breaching Sledge as a primary personal tool for several years, it has definitely earned personal preference. Immediately upon its arrival, one of our standard departmental “fruit loops” was added with 8mm cord to enhance carrying and hoisting the tool and securing it on the tip of a roof or ground ladder. It also got reflective tape identification.

Two functional modifications were also made to the adze. First, since I planned to use the adze regularly for prying, I shortened it about 5/8″ to improve (slightly) its mechanical advantage and balance– I can see that some people would be reluctant to give up the added surface area for pulling wall materials, especially lathe and plaster. Secondly, since part of the appeal of the adze for me was its application to forcible entry. So, toward that end, 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 provide a before and after comparison of the adze modifications.

Blackhawks Small Compared

AND THE HANDLE? I’m definitely ol’ skool and I one of the first things I do to a new axe, maul, sledge, etc. is exchange its polyethylene over fiberglass handle for a straight Nupla solid fiberglass version. That appears to have been the case in the top photo– hard to tell. But, I have to admit that Im really fond of the stubby stout handle that comes with the Blackhawk Breaching Sledge. Maybe after I loan it out a few times and the handle takes a bath, I’ll change over. But, for now, it seems just right.

THE “SMITH-IT” & ONE-PERSON ENTRY

THE SMITHIT CONCEPT. Back in one of the very first posts on this site, in a write-up
entitled “Truck 15’s House– Baltimore,

Jerry
Jerry Smith

MD” (under Stations and Places of Note), it was mentioned in passing that when Baltimore City Firefighter Jerry Smith (a very good friend, now with Rescue 1) was riding as acting officer on T15, he would throw a 3# rock hammer into his coat pocket! After a while my curiosity got the best of me and I had to ask why? Well, Balto City truck officers often find themselves responsible for doing forcible entry single-handedly and Jerry thought that if he was going to be doing it solo, he’d rather give up a little striking weight for more precision. Wallah(!): the rock hammer! OK, maybe being a little skeptical, several of us gave it a try– on entry props, car fires (under-hood access), residential calls, etc., and for these and for 90% (or more) of the stuff we do, the results were very impressive:

  • Tight quarters work is significantly enhanced.
  • Low to zero visibility work is enhanced (your kinesthetic abilities let you strike on-target with amazing precision and force).**
  • Reduced weight and bulk = increased agility and mobility.

NOTE** At the very least, most of the people we polled found this method preferable to being hit in the ribs by their “buddy,” flailing away in the dark with a 6-8# axe.

EXPERIMENTATION WITH THE SMITHIT. The small hand sledge did a pretty good job of setting the Halligan adze or fork into the gap. However, during our experimentation, we did some testing comparing the 3# hammer with a 3-3/4# flat-head axe on a short hand sledge handle. Both showed advantages and limitations. Having a slightly wider face, we felt the hand sledge gave slightly more consistent low/zero-visibility striking. It was also better balanced (which may have accounted for more accurate strikes.  On the other hand, the flat-head axe provided an ever-present (and pretty effective) wedge. And, if the Halligan has squared off shoulders on the fork end, the narrow width of flat-head privides clear advantages when striking in low or zero-visibility conditions.

 

ENHANCING PORTABILITY. Almost immediately we concluded that using a 3-4 pound short-handled “hammer” for striking was a superior way for an individual to perform forcible entry. At this point, several friends use the technique religiously (so to speak). However, everyone has been wondering how best to transport (carry) the small striking tool(s)?

That’s where our earlier blog post rather casually tossed in a couple of photos of methods we use to “marry” a short striking tool to a Halligan. Unfortunately, as noted by one reader– Mitchell Sowers– there wasn’t really enough detail included to be useful. So, the following is an effort to clarify the idea. So far, the best method we’ve found mates the striking to the Halligan’s forks, as shown in the photos below– for implementation, you’ll need:

  • a) A 3# – 4# striking tool of your choice.
  • b) The Halligan(s) with the thickest fork (at the crotch or bottom of the fork) that you plan to use with this method.
  • c) Two fender washers (wide diameter with a much smaller hole) for a 1/4″ bolt.
  • d) One nut, wing-nut, fiber lock-nut (my preference), or internally threaded handle (shown below) to fit the 1/4″ bolt you plan to use.
  • e) a light-weight coil spring, approximately 1″ long x 1/2″ diameter– not requiring too much pressure, since its strength doesn’t actually come into play.
  • A 1/4″ bolt long enough to thread through all of the above– with the nut in place– without compressing the spring much, if at all.
IMG_5568
The basic approach using a rock hammer (in this case, a 3 pound Estwing, which I think is the coolest looking tool on the planet): Here (starting on the opposite side, out of sight), a) the bolt runs through one washer, b) then through the crotch of the Halligan fork, c) then through the hammer, d) then (visible, again) through the spring (“squished” between the hammer and the next washer), then e) through the washer itself (the one shown is standard, not a fender washer), then f) the wing nut is adjusted to the correct tension for gripping the Halligan fork between the far-side washer and the hammer.
IMG_5569
The opposite side of the combination shown above.  Once you’ve adjusted the spring tension where you want it, the Halligan can be fairly easily released by tapping the tip of the forks on the ground or reinserted by pushing on the wing-nut end, sliding the Halligan under the fender washer and tapping the horn end of the Halligan on the ground. Little additional adjustment should be needed. Since all my Halligans are the same (we recommend MalvenWorks, right?), I eventually switched to a fiber lock nut instead of a wing-nut; less bulky, stays in adjustment, and less sharp to push on when spreading the washer for returning the Halligan.
fullsizeoutput_1261
A sketched schematic of the parts and assembly outlined above. It also works on the 3-1/2# flat head axe on a short handle over the hammer, which provides an additional wedge and works nicely for striking the squared shoulders provided on some Halligans when working in really tight quarters.

Our local experimentation with Jerry’s original idea took two different directions. The first (the most direct application of his concept) utilized Estwing’s classic “rock hammer,” a small hand sledge. Estwing’s rock hammer has a good feel and balance– and it’s easily one of the coolest tool designs on the planet.

CASE STUDIES. The following photos show some of the variations explored in developing this Halligan/Maul team of entry tools. Users who like Jerry’s original idea will undoubtedly find additional refinements to improve their compatibility.

Screen Shot 2019-01-15 at 2.20.09 PM
One of the first people to adopt the Smith-It as “everyday carry” was Captain Chad Cave of the Frederic County (MD) Department of Fire and Rescue Services (top row of photos). Chad joins the Estwing rock hammer to his Pro-Bar using a spring-loaded bolt and washers. The second example (bottom left, above) sandwiches the rock hammer between a Malven Hawk Tool and a Halligan– a knurled knob replaces the wing-nut to facilitate adjustment of the spring tension while wearing gloves.
IMG_2752
On a trip to L.A., a visit to L.A. County Fire Station 170 netted yet another variation on this theme of more efficient one-person entry. Their Truck 170 had two sets of midi-irons (photo above), each Halligan had two pins welded to its side and a hand sledge modified to attach to them. At some point the hammers were retained by hitch pins, but they were currently just retained by gravity, as shown in the top set. The screwdriver slid into a sleeve near the head of the bottom hammer and was held by its longer back peg.Enter a caption

 

69438047_10220961687659869_4671711639542693888_n.jpg
Back on the East Coast, Canada’s Andrew Brassard made a September 29 (2019) Facebook post summarizing some highlights of a recent visit to the Boston FD.  Among the photos included was this shot of a well-worn tool team in what appeared to be the “entry” riding position of one of their rigs. Hit it with as much as you can comfortably wield. But, this photo is a reminder that you need to pay as much attention to the grip as you do to the weight and geometry of the striking surface.

WORK WITH IT– MAKE IT WORK. Even if you’re a forcible entry purist, he bottom line is that, if you: 1) regularly find yourself responsible for forcible entry on your own and/or 2) carry a hook or some other non-striking tool with your Halligan, you should give the lighter-weight rook hammer or hand axe a try.  And, if fact, Jerry’s original method of stuffing the rock hammer in his coat pocket works pretty well, as is. I think the Estwing version is one of the coolest designs on the planet. But, Jerry’s 3# hammer with a wood handle, is a bit lighter and enough shorter that it fits comfortably in most coat pockets. By contrast, the Estwing (also advertised as a 3-pounder) isn’t as pocketable. I find I’m always more conscious of its weight and it is enough longer that some coat pocket flaps won’t close securely around it.

 

 

RJ Doin FE w: SmithItCAPITAL FIRE TRAINING. If you find yourself fightin’ fire and hungry for training in the Northeastern U.S., be sure to take a look at Capital Fire Training’s web sight and schedule of class deliveries. The CFT Instructors have earned a very strong reputation for rigorous training with great attention to detail, especially in the areas of integrated engine/truck operation, up-to-date RIT and personal survival strategies, and fire officer development. Robert James (“RJ”) has been a particularly tireless supporter of our company’s efforts to get on its feet– hope you’ll help us return the favor.  Contact: capitolfiretraining.com