Can I “Ax” You a Question?

By Michael N. Ciampo

Probably one of the oldest tools in the fire service is the ax. It has been around so long that it’s portrayed on the side of the Maltese cross on fire department patches and insignias. It’s also carried or “married” to another fire service icon, the halligan tool, and known as the “irons.” Normally, the ax is used as a striking tool in forcible entry operations, and prior to power tools becoming so popular, it was used to cut holes through many roofs. However, are we using it to its full potential?

Carriage Bolts

As we attempted to force a homemade steel plate door at a gas leak, we found that conventional techniques were not working on the outward-opening door. We couldn’t use the power saw because of the flying spark danger, so we had to change plans. Noticing three rows of carriage bolt heads spaced evenly across the door (top, middle, and bottom) with four bolts in each line, we decided to attack the bolt heads in case they were supporting drop bars or an alternate locking device. Striking the door with the back of the ax above the bolts to create a divot or purchase point didn’t dent the solid steel door. (Remember, when attacking carriage bolts with hand tools or a saw, make a purchase point or dent so the tool or saw blade can get behind or to the side of the bolt; this prevents the tool or blade from running off the domed head of the bolt while shearing or cutting.)

Next we placed the ax blade on top or on the side (top row) of the bolt’s head and struck it with the halligan tool. The initial strike was not an overpowering blow; it was just strong enough to bite into or get behind the bolt’s head. If it was too forceful, the ax could have flown off the bolt, wasting time and energy. Originally, we were going to position the halligan’s adze there, but the ax blade was sharper and thinner. Plus, it’s longer in length, so if the tool “ran” off the bolt to either side, it had less chance of slipping out from behind the bolt.

After a few forceful blows, we sheared off the bolt heads. (Older bolts have threads right up to the head, and newer bolt construction has a “square shoulder” that is thicker than the threads and might take more blows to shear off.) Removing the heads released the locking mechanisms, and we forced the outward-swinging door.

Carriage bolts are found on security plates over locking mechanisms; a group pattern of four may indicate a slide bolt is on the opposite side. Don’t be afraid to use the irons on these types of bolts if you don’t have a saw.

Cutting Doors

You can also use an ax to cut a metal-skin door when a power saw is unavailable, the saw’s start cord snaps, or you can’t run the saw because it’s not getting enough air because of a smoke condition. There are a number of ways to create a purchase to get the blade into the material you are cutting. If you’re carrying a halligan, you can drive its point through the material and then remove it. Then insert the top third of the ax blade into the hole and begin striking the ax with the halligan. Again, make the first blow forceful enough to only bite into the material; other blows can be more forceful to cut the skin of the door.

If you are cutting a metal-skin door, cut one skin at a time. First, cut the outside skin, making your cut big enough that when you cut the inner skin the ax head will fit in the hole. If you are attempting to cut a hole to reach in and remove a drop bar, open a fox lock, or unlatch multiple locks, cut the top two diagonal lines of a triangle. Then, when the cut is about 12 to 14 inches wide, make two downward cuts at the ends of these diagonal lines. It will make driving the ax straight down easier and the cutting faster. The firefighter holding the ax can lift on the handle so the whole ax blade isn’t buried in the door to make a smoother cut.

Another method of getting a purchase is to use a chopping motion with the ax. Once you remove the blade from the door, insert the top third and begin your cuts. Always use caution when swinging the ax—especially into metal. If you don’t swing hard enough, the ax can bounce off the steel door, and the recoil could cause it to bounce back toward you.

This tactic is also good for cutting aluminum garage doors. However, it isn’t very effective on heavier-gauge roll-down gates.

Cutting Roofs

We normally use the ax blade to chop a hole in the roof. Another method that works well on peaked roofs is to use the back of the ax. You can strike the roof without worrying about the blade getting buried in the material and having to release it. The ax handle prevents you from burying the head in the roof. Cutting right next to the joist with a fluid “let the tool do the work and slide through your hands” will give you plenty of momentum to cut through asphalt roof shingles and decking.

Let me ask you, “What can the ax do for you?”

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MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladder chapter and co-authored the Ventilation chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on

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