This article on fire pistons was originally published in The Bushcraft Journal Issue 12 published in December 2016. As it’s now completely free there’s no excuse for not getting a copy! Don’t take my word for it, take a look for yourself.
Fire pistons can trace their history to the Pacific Islands and parts of south east Asia where it is thought they developed from blow pipes. Some have argued that they were invented separately in Europe, certainly they were being widely used in households in the early 1800s.
They work in the same way as a diesel engine (as fire pistons pre-date the diesel engine it is possible they inspired them), that is using compression. When a gas is compressed (air in the case of a fire piston) it creates heat and it is this heat that ignites the tinder.
There are many fire pistons on the market but they all have some features in common.; they consist of two parts, a piston and a cylinder. The cylinder is generally around 10 – 15cm long, 12mm in diameter with a bore in the centre about 8mm diameter. The piston needs to be a snug fit in the bore and many have a plastic or rubber seal on one end; the piston has a small depression to put some tinder in.
The fire pistons that I use come with some clever extras; they have a compartment for some char cloth and another for petroleum jelly and on top of that, if you unscrew the piston you’ll find a ferrocerium rod.
Make sure that both the cylinder and piston are clean before use. Put some tinder in the depression in the piston. I generally use char cloth, sometimes King Alfred’s Cake. Make sure the tinder is flush with the top of the depression.
Put a little petroleum jelly on your finger and smear a thin layer all the way around the underside of the seal.
I use two methods with a fire piston, onto a stump and standing upright. Both methods have one thing in common – you need to push the piston into the cylinder and back out in one fast, fluid motion. Down to build up the compression and back out again to get oxygen onto the tinder.
If there’s a handy stump or solid object around (in this case a fence post), I’ll take advantage of it. Place the piston on the stump with the tinder at the top. Place the cylinder on top and push down and bring back up quickly. Gently blow on the tinder.
If you don’t have a stump handy, you can use a fire piston standing up. Hold the cylinder in your non-dominant hand and the piston in your dominant hand. Again use a fast, fluid motion to push the piston into the cylinder and back out again and blow gently onto the tinder.
This is Ho Kyung, one of our instructors, blowing onto a piece of char cloth he’d just ignited.
Whichever method you use, you then need to transfer the tinder from the fire piston onto a larger piece of tinder and then place that in a tinder bundle to blow into a flame.
Whilst I think that fire pistons are good fun to use, there are quite a few steps to get to a fire, and many of those steps require fine motor skills and for that reason I wouldn’t rely on them for getting a fire going.
As always, don’t take my word for it, go give it a try.
We teach how to use fire pistons, as well as a host of other methods of ignition, on our 2 Day & 5 Day Bushcraft Courses, the IOL Bushcraft Competency Course and also our 2 Day & 5 Day Survival Courses. You can see plenty of photos from all of these courses on our Facebook page.