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Beginner’s Guide on Fire Pistons and How To Use Them

Man warming his hands at a fire
Having options for fire building increases your chances of survival

Fire was first discovered in the Early Stone Age, approximately 400,000 years ago. It has been an essential part of human survival ever since.

Of all the survival skills that young Cub Scouts and Eagle Scouts are taught, quickly building fires is possibly the most important of the lot. It lets you cook food, purify water, and stay warm through the night. Most importantly, fire acts as a deterrent to predators and keeps curious creatures that could pose a threat at bay.

An amazing device known as the “fire piston” was invented by Southeast Asians around 100-500 AD. These are ancient fire starters that continue to be used by travelers and wanderers across the world. They are great backup fire-starting tools that can get your fire started in no time.

We’ve covered everything you need to know about this fascinating device below.

What Are Fire Pistons?

Also known as a fire syringe, or slam rod fire starter, a fire piston is a simple device that is used to kindle a fire.

Asian fire pistons were originally made from bamboo, wood, metal, ivory, bone, and horn. They were designed with a flared end that was used to hold the tinder. Modern fire pistons continue to use a design similar to the ancient Asian fire pistons.

European fire pistons were said to have been discovered via air guns. It is unclear whether they were influenced by Asian fire pistons or not.

Let’s look at their components.

Fire pistons consist of two pieces of equipment — a hollow cylinder and a piston rod. They can be used to ignite any type of suitable tinder.

The hollow cylinder has a circular seal on one end while the piston rod has an airtight rubber O-ring that together helps form a compression seal for the hollow compression chamber.

The piston must fit snugly into the cylinder to form an air-tight tube, otherwise, the fire piston will not work. It is lubricated with petroleum jelly or grease.

The end of the piston has a small cavity that is meant to accommodate tinder. The tinder is ignited when the piston rod is quickly thrust into the cylinder.

These fascinating devices are found in different sizes, the most popular of which measure:

  • 3 to 6-inch deep cylinder with a 0.25-inch diameter bore
  • 10 to 14-inch deep cylinder with a 0.5-inch diameter bore

Now that you know what a fire piston consists of, let’s look at how it works.

Fire Piston
Fire Piston

How a Fire Piston Works

A fire piston is a simple device that works based on Boyle’s Law, which is the same law that is applied to the inner workings of diesel engines.

The rapid compression pressure of gas in the compression chamber causes its pressure and temperature to increase when the piston is thrust inside at a fast pace. The rise in air temperature inside the cylinder causes the tinder to ignite.

The tinder can be basic, easily-combustible materials such as a piece of char cloth, or birch shavings.

The compression ratio in the fire piston’s compression chamber is about 25:1.

The fire piston’s small cylinder radius enables you to single-handedly slam the piston rod inside igniting a piece of tinder inside it.

An entire fire piston kit can easily fit into a small travel-sized pouch as its cylinder volume is only big enough for a small amount of tinder that can be used to light up a larger fire.

How To Use a Fire Piston

A fire piston is a simple device that is fairly easy to use:

  1. Load the end of the fire piston with a bundle of tinder material. Flammable materials include cotton balls, char cloth, dry leaves, birch tree bark, etc.
  2. Then, use petroleum jelly to lubricate the O-ring gasket as this will help create an airtight O-ring seal.
  3. Support the cylinder on a solid surface and quickly compress the piston into the cylinder using your hands, or hammer it down with a rock.
  4. When the tinder is lit, quickly extract the now burning tinder from the cylinder and transfer it to a larger kindling material that will help you light your fire.

Tips For Building A Fire

Circle of rocks for a fire
Prepare your site for fire

Understanding the basic principles of building a fire will go a long way in survival situations.

When building fires, selecting the right site is of utmost importance. Here’s what to look for:

  • A windproof spot
  • Placed suitably close to your shelter, but not too close to be a hazard
  • There should be no flammable items or natural materials nearby that could cause an uncontrollable spread
  • Encircle the area around the fire with stones, or consider digging a trench

Before building a fire, make sure you have a ready supply of wood or fuel at hand.

How To Build Your Own Fire Piston

Though store-bought pistons are a great way to save time and effort, it’s good to know how to build your own in case you need to make one in an emergency situation.

Building a fire piston is fairly simple and doesn’t require too many materials. You can probably find all the required supplies in your garage — including the cotton tinder.

You can use a copper cylinder that is capped at one end. Then, use something similar to an acrylic tube as the piston dowel. Just ensure that it fits snugly into the copper cylinder.

The seal created by the tight fit is crucial as a loose fit won’t result in adequate compression to light the tinder.

Once you have a tight seal, drill a hole at one end of the dowel rod. This is where the tinder will go.

Attach a handle or knob on the other end for an easy grip. Score a line that will hold the O-ring in place. You can also wrap some jute twine around to make an airtight seal or a handle.

Once done, all you have to do is lubricate the O-ring and you’re good to go!

Make sure to store your fire piston in a waterproof fire steel pouch to keep it secure for future use.

A man is trying to make a fire in the forest
It’s great to have a fire piston on hand when the lighter fluid runs out

A Favorite Among Many

Fire pistons enable you to get a fire started with very little effort and without matches or lighters. Though modern technology has made rapid advancements, this ancient device remains a go-to for anyone who needs to light a fire.

They are compact, lightweight, and only require a small amount of tinder.

Fire pistons are a favorite among backpackers, hikers, travelers, and campers — basically, anyone who likes going off the grid a lot. If you’re a survivalist or an outdoorsman, you’ll surely get a lot of use from having one around.

Go here for more information about Campfires and Survival fires.