FE: Sledgehammer vs. Flat-Axe

In the truckman’s world the debate between the sledgehammer an the flathead-axe has become equivalent to the age old smoothbore/fog nozzle debate.  Over the past few years, the sledgehammer seems to have gained popularity – buy why?  Personally, I had a brief affair with the sledgehammer (admittedly, because it was the “in” thing) but after some experimentation and experiences, I’m back to the flathead-axe.

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Hopefully it’ll spark some good discussion, but here are a few of my reasons to choose the axe over the sledge for your next forcible entry operation.

inward-door1) The great “force” debate.  When asking a firefighter why they choose the sledgehammer, the most likely response is that the sledgehammer delivers more force.  Does it?  Reaching deep into my high-school days, I seem to remember that Force = Mass X Velocity (Newton’s 2nd Law).  In truckman terms: how big a stick you swing and how fast.  Assuming that Mongo puts just as much effort into swinging an axe as he does a sledge, the variable then is the mass (weight) of the tool.

Now I will grant you that if you have a 10 or 12lbs (or greater) sledgehammer, it will deliver greater force. However, those heavier sledge’s are a BEAR to swing repeatedly – especially in tight spaces or on your knees.   Yet it seems that most companies that run a sledge with the irons have a 6-8lbs sledge….

I would argue that an 8lbs axe will deliver just about as much force as equally weighted sledge, with the added benefits of increased versatility (discussed below).  Many departments still buy a 6lbs axe.  The next time you buy axes, think about springing for the extra 2lbs.

photo102) Increased versatility.  Sledges are great for “pounding”, but thats about all they have.  I have found many times, particularly when forcing inward opening doors, that I run out of leverage.  The door bends or breaks enough so that when I push on the bar, it is flat against the body of the door – but the door is not open.  This is where the axe comes in….

When the bar is out of leverage, it’s time to re-position.  But if I just pull my bar out, I lose the ground I’ve gained.  With the flat-axe, I can instruct my partner to “wedge” – swing the blade of the axe into the gap we’ve created.  This will at least hold the progress we’ve made while taking the pressure of the Halligan bar and allowing me to re-position.  Maybe I move closer to the lock, or if I can, flip the bar around and get the adz in the gap – effectively giving me at least 90 degrees more of leverage.  

More on this later...

More on this later...

3) Lone-Firefighter Forcible Entry.  Despite what the “safety squad” may say about this, understaffed companies are an unfortunate reality for most of the country and we still have a job to do.  When forcing an outward opening door alone, the axe blade can be used to get a gap between the door and the frame so that the Halligan bar may be placed.  This function cannot be performed with a sledgehammer.

This was just a quick little rant about my preferences and why.  There are surely more factors to consider, not the least of which being your department’s normal operations and a size-up of the forcible entry challenges in your particular box alarm district.  

The main take home point I’d like to leave everyone with is:  why do you carrry whatever it is you carry?  Do you know?  Are there reason?  Are you sure those reasons are correct?  Or do you do it just “because“?

7 Responses

  1. I prefer the axe as well, Another tip is when you use the axe head to gain additional leverage. When it is placed between the door and the fork end of the halligan bar when forcing inward opening doors, it will increase the angle, and therefore provide you with more room that you have to push against. Once the door is open, simply put the head of the axe down, handle up, between the open door and the jamb frame, and give a little boot kick to snug it in there….it makes for a very effective door chock. You can also use it as a chock to slide under the door (layed flat on the floor) but in this position it is often kicked or knocked out when the line comes in, or just some bear of a truckie…. Obviously its still and axe too, if you need any type of cutting done. I like the axe, with the halligan, they make a very effective pair….

  2. The axe it is! The 8lbs to be exact! I think both Nick and Doug have excellent points. You can get a lot of work done with a good set of irons. Notice I said good set! The proper halligan bar makes it all come together.

  3. I agree, The 8 pound axe !!! However the “sledge” does have its place on the fireground, I just don’t think it should be a part of the “Irons”. Danny also hit the nail on the head when he said the “proper halligan bar makes it all come together” because I have used those off the wall brand halligan bars and they just don’t cut the mustard.

  4. There’s a good video on http://www.firehouseinnovations.com/ showing the versatility of the flathead axe along with the bar. I noticed in the pictures above that the bar is “backwards” as compared to what is traditionally taught. It still works, and often times it works even better. Drill as much as possible to see what works best in your area. Bottom line is that it comes down to being combat ready.

  5. Ocassionally I have found myself operating by myself despite my departments’ best practices, and during these occasional moments I like to have tools with me that can do the most for the effort of lugging them around. I have had a long relationship with ‘Bernadette’, who is a ‘HUX BAR’ shaft and fork with a welded adz and pick resulting in a beefier than normal haligan. My point is that a long standing trait of firemen was to create tools out of need. The shaft of the tool does not need to remain of wood if a metal one allows creativity. If an axe is still too light when ordered out of a catalogue, think about ways to add weight if desired to give it more striking power. If a sledge lacks the cutting or prying capability, think about adding something to the un-used end that might.

    Never stop thinking about ways to do things smarter and better…Greg

  6. I too agree that an axe, eight pound axe is a more versatile tool than the sledge hammer. I have seen some pretty rough characters wield a sledge hammer like nobody’s business… But they typically cannot sustain that activity for very long. A few other reasons for the axe are the ability to cut things (yeah I know a flat head isn’t a real cutting axe) and easier to use overall….
    I still hope that my man card is ok, but I am getting older and a nice eight pound axe works very well in my hands…..

  7. Damn, I missed Danny’s comments on a proper halligan and he is right on target. That is a forged tool with a proper set of forks, pick and adz… Those pinned tools are almost worthless and make us look bad.. Have you ever tried to shove the fork end of a pinned halligan into a door jam? Not easily done if you are able to do it at all…..

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