In these days of endless anti-smoking campaigns and ever fewer tobacco users, I wonder how many homes have even a small supply of matches or lighters to survive a disaster. If there was an electrical grid failure, or similar calamity, many of our favorite fire starters would be hard to come by as they are likely to be the first things to disappear from store shelves. A better backup plan is to understand civilization’s earliest methods of producing fire, including the “fire piston.”

This obscure piece of equipment was common until the advent of the first safety match in the mid 1800s, a much more convenient addition to every household. Tribal Indonesians may have been the first to discover that a hollow, wooden tube and a plunger could help produce fire. This could have been a serendipitous discovery while making blowguns. The first fire pistons were made of various materials, such as horn, wood, and even lead.

Fire Piston Simplicity

When you pack the plunger with tinder (here, it’s char cloth) make sure not to over pack. You just need enough to sit in the plunger.

The design is elegantly simple. These days it usually consists of a hollowed-out piece of wood, metal or synthetic material, and a close-tolerance plunger with a seal to trap air as the plunger is pressed. The plunger has a slot or depression at the end to hold a piece of tinder. The idea behind the fire piston is not to directly light the fire, but instead, to create an ember that will ignite your tinder bundle. It’s very similar to the way that a bow drill makes an ember.

But first, we need to understand how fire happens. We have all heard of the fire triangle: oxygen, heat, and fuel. If you provide all three sides of the triangle, you can have a fire. Remove any one of them, and the fire fizzles. In an unusual twist, the air inside the fire piston tube makes up two sides of the triangle: oxygen and heat. A piece of tinder such as char cloth or chaga fungus is placed in the cup on the end of the plunger, thus completing the fire triangle. The plunger is then placed at the entrance of the hollow base. The piston will usually have an O-ring seal lubricated with petroleum jelly, animal fat or even spit in a pinch.

When the plunger is rapidly pressed, the internal temperature climbs toward 500 degrees Fahrenheit. This sudden surge causes combustion, which ignites the ember. The plunger is immediately pulled before oxygen in the cylinder is spent. Then, the ember, now nursed with fresh air, can ignite a waiting tinder bundle. This process is somewhat similar to what happens in a diesel engine during combustion.

In this process, the human muscle creates the kinetic energy that presses the plunger, which in turn, creates the conditions for combustion. There are many other ways to build a fire, and arguably, the “easier” way is to use a regular lighter, or the survivalist’s favorite: a ferrocerium rod. While these are great and dependable tools, a fire piston is a nice fallback option.

First, a fire piston is easier to work than bow drills, hand drills or fire plows. Second, it’s quiet, fast, and more controllable than a fire steel; it won’t flash your night vision as bad as the sparks from a rod. Most important, it’s very simple to use and a great tool when controlled ignition is necessary.

A fire piston is an interesting way to learn primitive skills, and the kids will get a lot out of it. It is both primitive and “mad science” all at the same time. Another major benefit is that you could use it one-handed. Just wedge the base between something solid or dig a little hole, load the tinder and let it rip. You won’t be doing that with a bow drill or fire steel.

Rings Of Fire

fire piston rings

Spare O-rings enhance your fire piston’s reliability. Reputable companies will include spares with your purchase.

As with many things, advances in design, over time, will slightly change how a piece of equipment works. The piston will always have the same basic action principles, but there are several different schools of thought on the materials for the various types of piston seals.

Originally it was thought that the seals were made of string coated in pig or perhaps dog fat. These days, O-rings are the preferred seals because they’re durable and efficient.

The basic body of the fire piston has also improved. While various woods remain popular—allowing for classic, elegant designs—composite plastics and machined aluminum are favored for industrial strength and durability.

Early fire pistons were difficult to lube because they wouldn’t stay seated during travel. If the piston moved, this allowed debris, dirt, and water to fill the chamber. The addition of an operable vent solved this problem. When the tool is not in use, a screw vent allows the piston to be parked in the cylinder without the pressure pushing it back out. Once parked, the vent is screwed shut, thus creating a vacuum and keeping it in place. This also helps to keep the pieces together so that nothing gets lost.

A particularly intriguing design change involves clear cylinders. These are usually made of transparent plastic, such as acrylic. When the plunger is pressed, the flash is visible, thus confirming ignition. While not a necessity, it is an option and works as a very cool surprise to teach kids the science and magic of building a fire.

Blaze Prep

fire piston place ember

Once you have your ember, make sure to quickly move it to your tinder bundle.

Begin by thinking ahead. We’ve all seen miserable survivors on reality TV shows who spend a week trying to make a primitive fire, only to fall asleep or step away and the fire dies. Worse yet, they wear the skin from their hands to get an ember lit, but then realize that they didn’t have enough kindling or wood. Always get your fire supplies in place before you labor to make any fire.

Before building your fire bed or teepee, be sure you’ve collected different sizes of wood. You won’t get a tree to burn with just an ember; you must steadily add bigger sizes of fuel. Start with grass, jute twine, paper or wood shavings, and then have toothpick-sized sticks ready. You’ll then move to pencil-size sticks, then finger size, then arm size and finally trunk size. You are building from small to large as needed depending on how much heat you want and how long you want the fire to burn.

Once you have everything in place, build your bird’s nest of tinder and place it nearby. Load a piece of char cloth into the fire piston’s plunger; add lubricant as needed to the piston—you won’t need to lube every time—but try not get any lubricants on the char cloth!

Place the plunger at the entrance of the cylinder and be sure the O-ring is settled inside comfortably. Put the piston on something solid and hold firmly in a position that will allow you to slap it quickly and reasonably hard. Slap the piston and immediately pull it all the way out of the cylinder.Is the ember lit? If so, gently blow to nurse it, and then use a small twig to scoop it onto your bird’s nest. Lift the nest and ember into the air and breathe life into your fire. If successful, you will probably hear triumphant music in your head as you conquer the primal need for fire.

If your ember was not lit, try again.

Troubleshooting

fire piston blowing smoke

With a little bit of coaxing on your part, you’ll have a fire in no time.

Before you need a fire in some dark, wet place, be sure you understand how the piston works. While it’s easy to use, it still demands practice and basic maintenance. Sound technique brings consistent results. If there’s no ember after several tries, disassemble the device and check the cylinder for debris. Also, make sure the O-ring is intact and lubricated. A clean, lubricated cylinder is important. The piston should try to bounce back as you press on it if you have a good seal.

Make sure the tinder is loosely packed in the cup. Air in and around the tinder is important to create two sides of your fire triangle.

I like the piston because it is a great crossover from primitive to modern fire making. If you appreciate classic bushcraft, there are some awesome heirloom designs on the market, or you can research and craft your own piston.

I’m not one to reinvent the wheel, so I like the Campfire Piston and the TERA-Light from Wilderness Solutions. Both are rugged enough for regular use and emergency survival. Also, both companies include char cloth, spare O-rings, and plenty of nesting materials to build lots of fires.

The Campfire Piston has a classic, no-frills, no-fail design, and it’s lightweight. When I’m traveling, I like the TERA-Light for its industrial design and screw vent pressure relief that keeps everything together.

Regardless of the model, you can’t go wrong with a fire piston in your pack.

This article was originally published in “Survivor’s Edge” Summer 2017. To order a copy, visit outdoorgroupstore.com.