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What Is a Compression Fire Starter?

The Compression Fire Starter, (AKA Piston Fire starter, slam rod fire starter, fire piston, or fire syringe) is a primitive fire-starting tool that is used now primarily as a secondary fire-starting source. It is recognized by a hollow tube that is sealed on one end and the other end is hollow. Starting a fire with the compression fire starter can be a challenge. (Manufacturers even mention this) However, they are compact and can be easily fit in your survival kit, spare pocket, etc. Therefore, you should at least take a look at this ancient fire starter.

Interesting Fact: The technology used to make the piston rod is the same principles that are used for building the diesel engine.

Brief History Of This Ancient Fire Starting Tool

campfire

May or May Not Have Been Started By A Compression FIre Starter 🙂

The compression fire starter is truly old-school, tried and tested fire-starting technology that has not changed much since it was first invented around 100 to 500 AD. Little is known about the ancient origins of this tool. What’s fascinating about this ancient fire-starting tech is that the concept of the piston fire starter has not changed much. The only real change is the material that is used to make them; whereby, in ancient times compression fire starters were made from animal horns, wood, bamboo, antlers, and other natural substances. Now, most are made using metal. Below is a brief history of the fire piston’s origins.

Southeast Asia (100 to 500 AD)

The first ones were likely invented by South East Asian primitive cultures, in the Philippines, Sumatra, Java, Madagascar, Thailand, Burma, Mainland Southeast Asia, Laos, and Japan around 100 to 500 AD. It has been theorized that they were likely developed from primitive blowgun or pipe weapons that eventually evolved into fire pistons.

European Origins (1745 and 1807)

In 1745 by the Italian Abbot Agostino Ruffo first mentioned the compression firestarter. It is said that Ruffo wanted to make a blowgun for the Portuguese King. Per written documentation, Ruffo was testing the blowgun for air leaks and he plugged holes in the gun with wood scraps. Ruffo noticed that plugging the holes burnt the weed. From 1745 to 1807 nothing became of Ruffo’s discovery. However, in 1807 the compression firestarter was patented and was used by some as the main fire-starting resource.

Modern Use

Until the match was invented in 1826 the piston fire starter was widely used in Europe. Now, it is a niche product that isn’t that well-known. It is though used by some outdoorsmen as their backup fire starter.


How Is The Fire Piston Made?

The is composed of a hollow cylinder that is roughly three to six inches. It also has a bore of around three inches in diameter that is sealed at one end and it is opened at the other end. A cylinder is fitted with that piston that gives it an airtight round seal. To enable a tight grip, the cylinder has a handle on its end. Generally, the piston has a recess or a notch in or on its face, where the burning tinder is placed.

How Does A Fire Piston Work?

A fire piston uses compressed air to lite a small piece of tinder. After it is lit, the ember is then used to lite a larger fuel source whereby a campfire is gradually started by adding kindling. (I.e. Wood, Paper Sheets, Cardboard Strips, etc.)

Swiftly ramming the piston into the cylinder causes the air to compress and makes the inner cylinder’s temperature rise to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hot enough for the tinder in or on the end of the piston to lite up.

How to Use Fire Pistons?

It can a take bit of effort to learn how to properly use this tool. As a result, I’ve included the following video to help you learn how to best use it.

Miscellaneous Tips

Keep the following tips in mind when using this tool.

  • Prepare First– Before you use it, make sure that you have your tinder ready to go as you must be able to transfer the ember immediately to the tinder bundle.
  • Lubrication-Lubricate or grease the string gasket using petroleum jelly (Vaseline) as the seal is likely to weaken after a few tries, and the Vaseline helps in recreating the seal. (Lubrication is not needed if your fire piston has an O ring gasket)
  • Use Full Strokes-Begin with the plunger at the farthest end of the compression chamber. The gasket needs to be started just into the chamber as it allows for more air compression. This results in greater temperatures and improved ignition.
  • Compress Fast-The plunger should be hit forcefully and quickly to enable it to compress all the air inside the chamber into an extremely small area and in a short time.
  • Humid Weather-Humidity makes it harder to light a fire because each attempt at compression heats and drys up the tinder.
  • Tinder-Proper tinder material is especially important when you are learning how to use this tool. I.E. Char Cloth

 Fire Piston Samples From Amazon

The following, from Amazon, are highly rated and vented. I have not though personally tried any of these. As a result, I am highlighting the features, pros and cons, customer reviews, etc, that appeared on Google. I am not personally approving or disapproving any of the below models.

A Note On Price

You can get decent, no-thrills, compression fire starter, for well under $20. So, even though you might be able to find a sub $10 one on the market. I would not buy one unless they are on sale or closeout.

American Heritage

American Heritage Industries Fire Piston Kit- Firestarter Kit with Char Cloth, Cord, and Tinder, Survivalist and Prepper Gift, Easily Start Your Next Campfire

Product Specifications

  • Included- 1-fire piston, Metal Tin Carrying Case, Paracord, Char cloth (Pre-Assembled), 1 DIY Char Cloth, Spare O Rings, and lubricant for the o ring.
  • Product Dimensions- 9.6 oz.
  • Warranty- 30 Day Money Back Guarantee

PROS

  • Sturdy- Made of durable steel.
  • All You Need – This fire starting kit has everything you need to start a fire: Char Cloth, Spare O Rings, and even lubricant for the O Rings.
  • Customer Service -Customer service is praised even by those who gave it a negative review. For example, one reviewer stated that he had no problem returning the product.
  • Works Well
  • Attention to Detail-Numerous indicators shows that American Heritage paid attention to small details. For example, o-ring and extra cloth are included. Also, I like that a metal, waterproof, tin container is included.
  • Excellent Video-Using the American Heritage Fire Piston, and pretty much any fire piston can be hard. (American Heritage even admits that it is tricky to use their piston) So, they included a how-to video which, according to many users, is quite helpful.

CONS

  • 30-Day Warranty-A 30-day warranty is quite weak for a product that, if used for emergencies, will likely not be used until after the 30-days have long passed.
  • Learning Curve-Even, the manufacturer admits that it takes time to learn how to use this gear. As a result, they included an instructional video. However, even with a video, many users claimed it didn’t work for them. However, it is unknown whether or not they also looked at the video.
  • False Advertising- This is a minor complaint and has nothing to do with politics or its quality. I feel that it is quite deceptive that they name their company American Heritage when these fire pistons are made in China.

PSKOOK Metal Compression Fire Piston PSKOOK Metal Fire Piston Educational Campers/Survival/Preppers Scientific Lesson

 

Product Specifications

Included

  • 1-Piston Paracord
  • O Ring Lube Char Cloth, Jute or Burlap (Tinder) Instruction Manual

Product Dimensions

5″ x .68″ and 5.2 Oz.

Warranty

No Warranty (Listing only tells them if something is wrong, contact them and give them a chance to fix it)

PROS AND CONS

PROS

  • Ratings -Overall positive reviews with nearly 100 total reviews
  • Works As Designed-Works well for those who are either experienced at using fire pistons or those who have an aptitude in using one. Also, reviewers state that it will light a fire up well as long as you use an excellent tinder.
  • Instructions -The operating instructions are unambiguous and easy to use.

CONS

  • Construction – Some reviewers state that the PKOOK, fire piston, is too short to get enough compression and oxygen to reach the spark needed to start a fire. Additionally, reviewers that the sealing is sub-standard.
  • Reviews – It does have a majority of positive ratings. However, it does have nearly 20% of either one or two-star reviews.
  • Inconsistent Performance – Reviewers states that even when it does work, it works inconsistently.
  • Tight Learning Curve – The biggest complaint among the poor reviews was that it simply does not work well or even works at all.
  • All In One -Everything is included in this fire-starting kit that you need for operation.
  • No Video -Unlike, the American Heritage model, PSKOOK does not have an instructional video for their product.

CampfirePiston Hickory Fire Piston

Campfirepiston Hickory Fire Piston

Included

  • Piston
  • O Ring(s)
  • Char Cloth Bag,
  • Instructions on how to use it and also how to make char cloth

Product Dimensions

4-1/2″ x 7/8″ at 2 Oz.

Warranty

30 Day Return Policy (Unworn or Unused and receipt required)

PROS and CONS

PROS

  • Customer Service -One reviewer even did a second 5-star review; so, he could rave about his customer service experience.
  • US Made-Great for North American Customers
  • Durable-Its hickory and aluminum construction not only looks great. But, more importantly, it also is well made and quite sturdy.
  • Instructions-Excellent instructions included that not only show you how to use it; but also how to make char cloth.
  • Ease of Use-Many customers states that they were able to start a fire with little effort when using the Hickory Fire Piston

CONS

  • Not As Complete -It is missing lubricant, and also a paracord. However, what’s worse is that it doesn’t come with a container to hold the char cloth, spare o-rings, lubricant, etc.
  • Storage-You can’t put the piston shaft back into the piston chamber once the rubber o ring is on the piston and it is ready for use.
  • Physically Hard to work -Multiple reviewers stated that it takes a lot of physical effort to get it to work. In fact, a female reviewer said that she wasn’t physically able to exert the needed physical pressure to get it to spark.

Final Thoughts

Should A Fire Piston Be In Your Survival Gear?-To some, learning to use this ancient survival tool, can be a rewarding experience. However, lighting a fire with one isn’t easy, and you want it to be as easy as it can be when it comes to outdoor survival. It should never be your first option or your second option. However, as they are light, compact, and can be used in most weather conditions, it is an acceptable secondary method for building your survival fire. However, be sure to practice using your compression firestarter, under all types of scenarios, if you want to use it for your backup/emergency fire starter.

APPENDIX

    Kindling List

    The following is a list of various, manufactured and natural kindling sources. This is a short list; but, there are a few surprises that you might not recognize.

    • Cardboard, Paper Sheets, Compressed Sawdust
    • Tinder Fungus
    • Potato Chips (AKA-Firestarter Chips)
    • Dry leaves, Twigs, etc.
    • Pine Cones
    • Wood Slices-AKA Wood Cookies
    • Artificial firelogs that are composed of Sawdust

    Other Back Up Fire Starters

    The fire-starting tools below are compact, cheap, and, to many, much easier to operate than the compression firestarter.