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Fire Axes

Fire axes, both vintage and modern, are generally fitted with a spike and although they may have inherent value in their own right as collector’s pieces, they can easily be confused with the much rarer boarding axe.

Many countries in Europe and other parts of the world issued personal hatchet-sized fire axes to their fire fighters in the late 19th and most of the 20th century. In the latter part of the 20th century the practice was dropped as fire fighters were deemed to be safer with as little encumbrance as possible and both large and small axes became vehicle mounted.

There are many different types and styles but all are intended to be small personal hatchets carried on the belt, often in a leather pouch.

What in one country may seem rare may be commonplace in another. It is not unusual for common fire axes to be sold as boarding axes in other countries; it is therefore wise when considering buying a foreign axe to check the auction sites of the relevant country.

Scout Axes

Vintage scout axes have also been sold as boarding axes. These are generally rounded looking with a short spike and are essentially camp fire axes, useful for kindling wood and digging out a solitary latrine pit but also designed not to be able to do much damage to the owner or other boy scouts.

Cross hatched langets and a nail removing groove are often found and sometimes they have Scout Axe marked on them.

They are generally small around  14” (35 cm) in length and the head is only around 6” (15 cm) from blade to spike point.

Remember if you can’t see yourself using it to lever a red hot cannonball half buried in a smouldering bulkhead under battle conditions on a heaving and swaying deck then it’s probably not a boarding axe.

 A Note on Nail Removing Grooves.

There are no true boarding axes with nail removing grooves. The teeth on the American models are just that - teeth to assist in the snagging or dragging of rope.

The US did introduce a regulation pattern naval axe c.1860 (shown to the left) but this is generally regarded as a multi purpose tool rather than a boarding axe and consisted of a short handled axe with a hammer instead of a spike with two square notches cut into the blade for removing nails. Note that the notches were square.

All nails were of square cross-section until the late 1880s. There are no nail removing grooves in any boarding axe.

There are no original V notch nail removing grooves in any axe prior to 1880.

French Fire Hatchet

To the left is a late 19th/early 20th century fire axe together with its leather holster which is a direct descendant of the French Boarding Axe. This fire axe is itself a rare item.

Note the sharp factory finished lines and machined langets that reduce in breadth before entering the head and do not protrude through it. There is no belt hook and it is designed to be carried in the belt holster.

The length including the handle, which is often neatly turned with horizontal grooves like the one shown, is 15” (38 cm) long and blade to point of spike measures 7.5” (19 cm). The usable part of the spike is barely 3” (7.6 cm).

Some of these axes bear the makers name A. Giroult, a company based in Paris that was a uniform, helmet and equipment supplier to the French fire service from approximately 1870 to 1930.

British Fire Hatchet

Shown to the right is a British fireman’s axe of the late 19th and 20th century which remained in use as a personal hatchet well beyond WW II .

The head of this short handled hatchet was modelled on the early British boarding axe. It is therefore easy to mistake especially if in poor condition or even artificially aged. These axes are very common and are often marked with the manufacturers name.

Some are also seen with the broad arrow mark indicating government issue. These were most likely for use within military establishments or bases that required a fire fighting unit.

For the hatchet the length is normally around 15” (38 cm) and blade to point of spike around 7.5” (19 cm).

And just to make things harder there are also the larger style of fire axe. The one to the left is from a British railway company c.1930.

It is 35” (89 cm) long and blade to spike is 10” (25.5 cm). These are boarding axe dimensions but fortunately this one is marked L.M.S for London Midland and Scottish railways.

Parade & Presentation Fire Axes

In some European countries, especially Germany and Austria, the fire service was run on very military lines. Whether the less embellished of this type of axe was used in service is not known but these parade axes were used in ceremonies and as presentation gifts. Some are very well engraved and can fetch high prices especially those with connections to the Third Reich.

These are normally about 15” (38 cm) long and 7.5” (19 cm) edge to point.

There are many types of axe with spikes which can be confused with boarding axes. They range from ice chest hatchets, tomahawks and battle axes to camping axes, but the types most often confused are fire axes which in some part share the same function.

Not Boarding Axes

Spike axes that are often mistaken for boarding axes

Trench Axes

To the left is a 20th century German military axe which was issued to troops in the First World War. Some sources indicate one in ten troops carried the axe, instead of the normal entrenching tool. It was carried in a leather holster with combined bayonet sheath.

They are often known as trench axes. It is also thought that these were in use in the fire service and may also have been taken to war by conscripted firemen.

Sometimes these are sold in the UK as boarding axes for inflated prices but they are readily available on German auction sites for very much less.

Below is the very similar Austrian version.

Boarding axes were normally larger than hatchet sized and probably originally started off with a handle long enough to be used with two hands 24 - 28” (61 - 71 cm) and with blade to point size of at least 8” (20.5 cm).

Most personal fire hatchets are 15 - 16” (38 - 41 cm) total length and with blade to point of spike dimension of around 7.5” (19.5 cm).

Larger fire axes are of course much nearer boarding axe dimensions as is the one to the left here.

Some military axes also tend to bigger dimensions then fire hatchets and can catch out the unwary.       

Many redundant boarding axes found second lives ashore in fire brigades and also influenced the design of the next generation of fire axe.

Many early British fire brigades were originally set up by insurance companies along naval lines often with ex-naval personnel, hence the ‘Watch’ system and the use of many nautical terms that are still in use today.

Although the next generation looked similar to their ancestors they are smaller in all dimensions and are factory made, with sharp lines and well machined langets. These fire axes can be hard to distinguish from naval axes.

Wrapping it in rope does not make it a boarding axe no matter how fancy the knots.

Czech fire axe c.1930

Length: 17” (43.5 cm)

Blade - Point: 8.5” (22 cm)

European fire axe c.1950

Length: 19.5” (49.5cm)

Blade - Point: 10.5” (26 cm)

Similar types were used in Germany and Austria and others.

Unidentified European fire axe from 20th century. Note the well machined lines and solid construction, the thickness of the langets. The straight edged blade. the hatchet length handle terminating in a metal cap indicating it has probably not been shortened.

A boarding axe needs to reflect the fact that it was made at least earlier than 1860, unless it is a known later pattern.

These trench axes tend to be larger than fire hatchets and are nearer to boarding axe dimensions.

Total length around 19” (48 cm) and 9.5” (24 cm) blade to point size.