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.

OKLAHOMA CITY (OK)– STATION 22, A FIRE TOOL HOT SPOT

MID-WESTERN PERSONALITY. Oklahoma City, with a population of over 650,000, is the largest city in Oklahoma. In terms of population, it is the 29th largest city in the U.S. But, occupying 621 square miles, it is the 9th largest U.S. city in terms of pure size. So, its population is relatively sparse per unit of land area which, for the fire department, means some long runs and some complex mixes of occupancy types, requiring some unique approaches to fire protection coverage.

The Oklahoma City Fire Department (OKCFD) is focused primarily on fire suppression. Its 900 uniformed firefighters respond to roughly 70,000 calls per year out of 36 Fire Stations and several other special-purpose work sites. Oklahoma City is a prototypical Midwestern city with a diverse mixture of a small collection of modern commercial buildings, a similar array of older– occasionally distinctive– commercial and industrial buildings, a meandering mixture of mixed commercial, struggling industrial and older residential, surrounded by a sea of residential developments and malls.

STATION 22. As a side-trip during a visit to headquarters of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) on the campus of Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater, I made a visit to OKCFD’s Station 22.

O.K.C.F.D. TOOL CULTURE– DENNIS PAIGE. Oklahoma City firefighters have made a significant number of contributions to the “serious” fire service tool market.** That was my principal reason for going to Station 22. I discovered that one such tool designer, Corporal Dennis Paige, was working there on the night I was in town. Dennis (pictured below) was the designer of the “Devil’s Claw” pike pole, one of the firefighter-produced tools marketed by Tim Brozoskie of RAGE.

*NOTE: Here, “serious” is used to distinguish fairly successful commercial tool ventures, from smaller production, virtually one-of-a-kind tools “crafted” tools produced for friends or personal use.

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Like many (probably MOST) designers of fire hooks, Dennis was inspired to action by the limitations of the hooks his department provided. In his case, it was the typical flat plate, “boat-hook”-inspired pike pole. He has recounted that at one particularly stressful residential fire, his crew encountered heavy smoke and high heat with a well-involved fire in the attic. His team’s assignment was to pull the ceiling and find the seat of the fire. A traditional pike pole was a typical choice for this task. What they found on the ceiling was sheetrock laid over lath and plaster, a combination that was virtually impenetrable using his standard pike pole. And, when it did enter, its narrow hook brought down little material when it was withdrawn. Fire conditions continued to escalate and Dennis’ crew had to back out of the structure and go defensive because of not being able to access the seat of the fire quickly.

With his Devil’s Claw, Dennis was seeking a design that would break through virtually any materials the firefighter was likely to encounter. He wanted his tool to penetrate, like a harpoon, yet firmly hook itself into walls, ceilings and floors so each pull would pull apart a worthwhile section of material.

In the process, he also developed a note-worthy roof hook. Most pike poles, when used to open or remove cut roof sections, allow pieces to rotate or spin off their single hook. By contrast, the Devil’s Claw’s two hooks work like an “LA Rubbish Hook” to keep cut panels on their original alignment, resulting in more controlled and efficient removal of roof sections– but without the Rubbish Hook’s bulk and awkward imbalance.

MORE O.K.C.F.D. TOOL CULTURE. After some general discussion and a look at variations of the Devil’s Claw, I was given a thorough tour of Station 22’s apparatus floor, accompanied by two of the station’s newer troops. Twenty-two’s ladder truck was interesting from several perspectives. For one thing, like many (if not all) of OKCFD’s other 100′ rear-mount aerials, 22’s Pierce is designated as a “Rescue-Ladder.” That’s not really surprising given that many ladder companies throughout the U.S. have been carrying extrication equipment for years and America’s near wholesale consolidation of rescue squads and pumpers into quasi-rescue (and sometimes fully equipped) “Rescue Engines.” Still, we don’t see many ladders that carry the “Rescue-Ladder” label.

“CRAFTED” TOOLS AND “SERIOUS” TOOLS. In its compartments, Rescue-Ladder 22’s tool cache included a broad range of types and applications worthy of the Rescue-Ladder distinction. Two contrasting pairs of tools (see above photos) were particularly eye-catching. The first pair was comprised of a Kelly bar reproduction and a convincing version of a Hayward Claw Tool. Both of these highly polished retro-classics appeared to have been artfully crafted in using hardened steel bar stock and splitting wedges formed by Quaker City Castings– perhaps in the fire department’s own shops.

And, the “serious” tools? This pair came together when (as shown in the bottom picture, above) each of the young firefighters pulled their personal axes of choice off the rig. The one on the left was an “Iron Fox” Pickhead. The one on the right was a “Wonderboy” Axe, produced by the Best Made Firefighter Tools, Blanchard, OK, a company operated by Oklahoma City Firefighters, featuring tools designed by Oklahoma City Firefighters. Incidentally, they also sell Dennis Paige’s Devil’s Claw.

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TRUCKS & TACTICAL RESILIENCE. If you asked a group of citizens to close their eyes and imagine firefighters battling a fire, I’m pretty sure their images would focus on water. And, even in some fire departments (many?) firefighter impressions of fire department operations concentrate almost entirely on water application.

Be that as it may, that’s certainly not the case in Oklahoma City. They’ve had their share of experiences that have underscored the criticality of broadly-based planning, training, and proficiency. One example comes instantly to mind– the bomb blast that swept away one whole side of Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building on April 19, 1995. That act, still one of the most deadly acts of domestic terrorism in the U.S., killed 168 men, women and children and physically and emotionally scarred countless others, for life.

okalhoma-city-bombing
In the immediate aftermath of one of America’s most horrible acts of domestic terrorism, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building, reliance on OKCFD’s fleet of ladder trucks was the real option available. AP Photo, Daily Beast.

In the hours immediately following the blast– before the full strength of the nation’s emergency response network could be mobilized– OKCFD understood the value of tactical resilience. Ladder trucks, rescue units, and ambulances, that normally played what might be considered a supportive role for engine companies at building fires– were elevated to the primary missions of scene stabilization, search, rescue and recovery, while engines picked up supportive roles. Ladder 22 was among the units deployed. Dennis Paige and his mates were among those on the scene.

Some places have ladder trucks, but lack “truckies.” Based on a short visit to OKCFD’s Station 22, there’s good evidence that isn’t a problem in OKC. The traditions of tool proficiency and “truck work” are alive, well, and in good hands.

SOURCES FOR THE DEVIL’S CLAW– THE R.A.G.E. COMPANY.  If you’re looking for a source for Dennis Paige’s “Devil’sClaw,” RAGE is always a good place to start.  Owner Tim Brozoskie specializes in fire tools and equipment developed and produced by firefighters. Tim is, himself, a career Firefighter/Emergency Vehicle Driver with Baltimore City Fire Department’s very busy Rescue 1, and a volunteer Captain with the Mt. Carmel Area Rescue Squad, Mt. Carmel, PA.  He’s a tool guy; he uses the stuff he sells.

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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.
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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.

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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.
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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

 

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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