Piston Fire Starter (AKA “Compression Fire Starter”)
What Is It? and Why Should I Care?
Fire pistons are also commonly known as a compression firestarter (“Compression”), slam rod, and fire syringe. (All of these terms and variations will be used here), is a tool for starting fires that were, in ancient times, made from animal horns, wood, bamboo, antlers, and other natural substances. This tool is a challenge to master. (Manufacturers even mention this) However, as they are compact, they are a great to have as part of your survival gear cache.
How Does This Tool Work?
The fire piston is a simple fire-starting tool the uses compression of the air to lite a small piece of tinder. After the tinder is lit, the ember is then used to lite a larger fuel source, and then a campfire is gradually started by adding additional fuel sources. (I.e. Wood)
For more information on questions considering the mechanics of the fire piston, history, etc., please go below to the appendix. However, just start reading below, if you just want to get to the reviews.
The Best Budget Compression Starter Review
You can get decent, no-thrills, fire piston, for well under $20. So, even though you might be able to find sub $10 fire pistons on the market. I would not buy one unless they are on sale or closeout. The following are the most highly rated and vented fire pistons that are sold on Amazon.
- Included– 1-fire piston, Metal Tin Carrying Case, Paracord, Char cloth (Pre-Assembled), 1 DIY Char Cloth, Spare O Rings and lubricant for o rings
- Product Dimensions– 9.6 oz.
- Warranty- 30 Day Money Back Guarantee
- Sturdy-Fire piston is a well made durable product made of 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-Using the American Heritage Fire Piston, and pretty much any fire piston, can be hard. American Heritage even admits that it can be tricky to learn how to use his fire-starting technology. So, they included a how-to video using their fire piston, which, according to many users, makes it easier to use.
- Attention to Detail: Numerous indicators show that American Heritage paid attention to small details in assembling this kit. For example, o rings and extra cloth is included. Also, I like that a metal, waterproof, tin container is included.
- Video-The instructional video for this product was said to be quite helpful.
- 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 has long passed.
- Learning Curve-Even, the manufacturer admits that it takes time to learn how to use a fire piston. As a result, they included an instructional video. However, even with a video, may users claimed that 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. These fire pistons are made in China; however, they name their company American Heritage, which is quite deceptive.
Based on reviews, this is an excellent product that is well made and gets the job done. Also, as it has everything you’ll need, this is an excellent buy for beginners. This product is rated highly with multiple ratings. As a result, it is not a brash assumption, that any complaints concerning it not working, are not because of the product; but, users who didn’t see the video or they just somehow aren’t capable of using any fire piston.
PSKOOK Metal Fire Piston
- Included: Fire 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 and gives them a chance to fix it)
- 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.
- 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 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 work 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.
As stated, with nearly 100 reviews, the PSKOOK is highly rated. So, if you purchase this fire piston, you should be reasonably confident that (with practice) it will get the job done. However, most of the one and two-star reviews mentioned that it either never worked or worked sparingly. As a result, you need to be sure to practice using it if you are going to use it for emergency/survival purposes.
Campfirepiston Hickory Fire Piston
- Included: Fire Piston, O Ring(s), Lube, 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)
- 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
- Well, Made-Its hickory and aluminum construction not only looks great. But, more importantly, it also is well made and quite sturdy.
- Instructions-Excellent instructions included. Instruction includes not only how to use it; but also how to make char cloth.
- Ease of Use-An alleged novice, fire piston user, said that he could get it to start a fire with little effort.
- Not As Complete-This fire piston 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 back into the piston-chamber once the 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 pressure needed to get it to spark embers.
Conclusion And Recommendations
The PSKOOK and American Heritage are essentially the same. They cost the same, look the same, and everything that you will need is included for both of these models. The Hickory only differs from the above in that it doesn’t include lubricant. ( Not a big deal as the lubricant is just petroleum jelly) As a result, you could likely not go wrong if you are wanting to purchase either of the three that I reviewed.
However, if I had to choose one of these fire pistons it would be the American Heritage. The reason that I would choose it over the PSKOOK is that it has overall better reviews. And I would choose the American Heritage over the Hickory because it is more compact and has slightly better overall reviews.
When Was The Fire Piston Invented?
Southeast Asian Origins
Other than what culture developed them, little is known about the ancient origins of the fire piston. What is known is that the fire pistons were first invented by South East Asian primitive cultures. (Most likelyAustronesian civilization around 100 to 500 AD)
Some of the countries where fire pistons were extensively used were the Philippines, Sumatra, Java, Madagascar, Thailand, Burma, Mainland Southeast Asia, Laos, and areas in Japan.
The first ones were made from substances common in their environment, bamboo, bone, ivory, horn, antlers, etc. It has been theorized that the fire piston was likely developed from primitive blowgun or pipe weapons. And it eventually evolved into fire piston
For Europe, the first mentions of the fire piston were in 1745 in Italy by an Abbot Agostino Ruffo. He wanted to make a blowgun for the Portuguese King. Per written documentation, Ruffo was testing the blowgun for air leaks, whereby he plugged holes in the gun with scraps of wood. Consequently, after using the blowgun that way, the wood was burnt. Ruffo attempted to follow up on this “accident,” but it didn’ become popular until it was patented in 1807. They remained semi-popular in areas of Europe until 1826 when the match was invented.
Other than practicing bushcraft skills, the fire piston is used now primarily as a secondary source for fire-starting. The fire piston works well as a secondary source as they are compact, can work in most environmental conditions, and (unlike a mirror) even during the night.
How Does A Piston Fire Starter Work?
The fire piston is composed of a hollow cylinder with length ranging from roughly three to six inches. It also has a bore of around 3 inches in a diameter that is sealed at one end and opened at the other end. The cylinder is fitted with a piston having an airtight round seal, which contains a handle on its end to allow for applying a firm grip. Generally, the piston has a recess or a notch in or on its face, where the burning tinder is placed.
Swiftly ramming the piston into the cylinder causes the air to compress and make the temperature in the inner part of the cylinder to rise to 500 degrees Fahrenheit rapidly. 500 degrees is hot enough for the tinder in or on the end of the piston to light with a flash that is visible in a transparent or translucent cylinder. The piston is withdrawn quickly before the tinder, which is now burning, can deplete the oxygen in the cylinder.
At this point, it is safe to remove the smoldering tinder from the piston’s face. To create a flame, the ember is blown or fanned upon vigorously. Various stages of the larger kindling are then added until such a time that a proper fire is built.
How To Use The Piston?
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 this primitive technology.
When using the slam rod fire starter keep the following tips in mind.
- Prepare First: Before you use the fire piston, make sure that you have your tinder bundle at the ready. You must be able to transfer the ember immediately to more tinder.
- Lubrication: Occasionally lubricate or grease the string gasket using 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. The purpose is to allow a larger air volume to be compressed. 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.
- Is it Humid?: Humidity makes it harder to light a fire because each attempt at compression heats and drys up the tinder. As a result, and several attempts may be required to spark an ember and start the fire.
- Tinder: Make use of good tinder, like char cloth. This is even more important when you are learning how to use this tool.