Metal Match and Steel
Magnesium Fire Starting Tool
The Bow and Drill
Fire- The Measure of Civilisation
In Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast, Father would have us believe that "ice is civilisation." I say that fire is civilisation- in a survival or primitive situation, if you can create fire, you can control your destiny. With that said, this page will outline basic primitive fire-making techniques. When I say "fire-making", I do not mean piling rocks in a circle, throwing wood and paper inside, and tossing in a match. We discuss tinder, kindling and fuels, building a fire, as well as using fire rings and reflectors on our Primitive Skills page on Fire - be sure to take a look at those details before reading on. Our focus here is creating fire from sticks using friction- the Bow and Drill, and from a metal match or magnesium fire starter and steel. These are the easiest primitive fire-making techniques. There are other methods which we may discuss at a later date, such as the fire plow, the hand drill, the pump drill, the fire saw, and actual flint (a chunk of rock) and steel. For now we will stick with the basic two methods.
Metal Match and Steel
The "metal match", often referred to as "flint", is found in the form of rod from about one to two inches in length. It is composed of a metal alloy known as ferrocerium. The company Light My Fire makes a popular metal match by the name of Swedish FireSteel. It comes in three sizes: The Mini (giving 1,500 sparks), The Scout (giving 3,000 sparks), and The Army (giving 12,000 sparks). The Mini and the Scout are available at REI- the Firesteel Scout for 12 dollars, the FireSteel Mini
for 8 dollars. I keep one of these "flints" tied to the sheath of each of my survival knives. Each one comes with a piece of steel for striking. Since I keep mine tied to my knife, I usually discard this part of the kit. If you do use your knife blade for striking, use the back of the blade, and at an angle that allows for the least amount of contact from the blade along the striking rod.
This photo shows the difference in size between the Scout model FireSteel, the Mini Firesteel, and the Boy Scout Hot Spark. The rod on the Scout Firesteel is 1/4 inch in diameter and 1 3/4 inches in length, the Mini firesteel is 3/16 inch in diameter and 1 1/2 inches in length, and the Hot Spark is 3/16 inch in diameter and 1 inch in length. The respective striking steels are also shown. The difference in length is noticeable during use. The longer rod is easier to use.
The photo to the right illustrates the difference in the backs of the blades of two survival knives. On the top is the USAF Survival knife, on the bottom is the Frosts Mora Military Survival knife (read more about these knives on our Knife Review page.) The back of the USAF knife at the tip is perfect for running along the rod. It is very thin, essentially a sharpenable section of blade. The back of the Mora blade at the tip is the same thickness as the rest of the blade back. It is a bit harder to get the same amount of spark as with the USAF knife, but it still gives sufficient spark to start a fire. I tilt the mora blade so just the corner of the blade makes contact with the rod. The composition of the blades may also have something to do with the difference in spark, although I am not certain of this. The Mora knife is stainless steel while the steel blade of the USAF knife will rust.
Using the metal match and steel is a relatively easy method for fire starting- with practice. Do not expect to start a fire on your first try, or even your tenth. And do not underestimate the importance of preparing your tinder. The tinder bundle receives the spark from the rod and must be prepared with care. It is best if you have very dry tinder. Very fine, hairlike tinder that is loosely bundled is the goal here. The spark is directed from the rod as the steel, in my case the back of my knife blade, is steadily run down the flint rod towards the tinder bundle. Alternatively, the knife blade, or steel, can be held stationary while the flint rod is pulled away. The latter method tends to be a little more forgiving to your tinder bundle as there is less chance of disrupting the materials by hitting them with the knife blade. I use both methods, tending towards holding the flint stationary more often. You will need to experiment to find out which method works best for you.
Once the spark has ignited the tinder, blow the tinder bundle into flame and continue on with your preferred fire building technique.
Magnesium Fire Starting Tool
The photo to the left shows the magnesium fire starting tool, a military issue item. The striking rod is at the top of the block in this photo, near the saw blade, barely visible. It has been well used on this tool. The saw blade in this case is a sawzall blade snapped off to the length of the magnesium block and tied on with 550 cord.
The magnesium fire starting tool is essentially a metal match imbedded along one side of a block of magnesium. I keep a broken length of saw blade, the length of the magnesium block, tied to the block with a piece of 550 cord. I use the teeth of the blade to scrape magnesium shavings from the block. I slide the hacksaw blade down the corner of the magnesium block while pushing the blade across the corner. This seems to create shavings of a proper size for ignition. You can also use the broken end of the hacksaw blade to remove shavings from the block. This is the recommended method by many who use the tool, including Cody Lundin in
98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive. The shavings should be directed into something to catch them, then carefully placed as a mass in the center of your tinder bundle. The tinder bundle in this case does not need to be as loosley bundled as with the metal match alone- the magnesium shavings will do their job either way. Next strike the metal match and ignite the mass of magnesium shavings and you have the beginning of your fire. Using magnesium shavings insures that your bundle of tinder will ignite. This method is especially useful if your tinder is damp. The
magnesium firestarting tool
is available at REI for about 5 dollars.
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Page 1: Primitive Skills- Living Comfortably Off the Land
Page 2: Primitive Skills- Learning the Basics, Water
Page 3: Primitive Skills- Shelter
Page 4: Primitive Skills- Fire
Page 5: Primitive Skills- Food
Page 6: Primitive Skills- Navigation
Page 7: Primitive Skills- Primitive Weapons
Page 8: Primitive Skills- Fishing
Page 9: Primitive Skills- Flintknapping
Desert and Wilderness Survival and the Survival Kit Page