Halligan basics for firefighter forcible entry training

Three tried-and-true forcible entry techniques using the Halligan will save time and create less damage to the structure


By Chris DelBello

Have you ever heard a chief order a crew to perform forcible entry or another crew call for forcible entry only to see your team simply kick the door in or take out the glass of an aluminum-framed commercial door? The chief or officer called for forcible entry, not vandalism, not demolition. I mean, really, if you're not going to use the tools properly (or at all), why have them on the apparatus? Why carry them all over the fireground? Let's all just carry sledgehammers!

Fortunately, the vast majority of doors you will encounter can be forced with little effort and little damage. More often than not, if you choose the proper technique for the door construction and consider the tool’s design, it’s usually faster, more efficient, less damaging – with more reliable results.

We can accomplish this by focusing on Halligan tool basics. And, yes, I am referring to the “old,” “reliable” and “proven” methods – not the “cool,” “newest” or “fad” approach you just found on a social media site. The videos that some of the traveling training groups or individual instructors post on social media rarely show the iron’s most reliable use, meaning they rarely show what should be tried first.

I see it so often on the streets in the three departments that I work for. The average firefighter who watches training videos on social media consistently chooses alternative techniques as a first choice, and when it fails, you can see the confusion in their body language and then the “What now?” thought process in their following actions. This is completely avoidable if you properly size up the door and always start with the Halligan’s most reliable technique.

Let’s get a complete understanding of the reliable methods before we move on to advanced or alternative methods.

Gap, Set, Force

Figure 1: With bevel of forks facing the door, insert fork tips between the door jamb and door’s edge, striking Halligan with axe. (Photos/Courtesy of Sandra DelBello)
Figure 1: With bevel of forks facing the door, insert fork tips between the door jamb and door’s edge, striking Halligan with axe. (Photos/Courtesy of Sandra DelBello)

While not always referred to as “Gap, Set, Force,” this has always been the traditional method and my first choice for over 30 years.

Step-by-step: Inward swinging door (door swings away from you)

  • Step 1: Size up the door. What material is the door frame made of? Do you see any additional hardware or lag bolts in the door, indicating a drop bar or some other device?
  • Step 2: With bevel of forks facing the door, insert fork tips between the door jamb and door’s edge, striking Halligan with axe (Figure 1).
  • Step 3: Slowly pull back on the adz end of Halligan while watching and feeling for fork tips to catch a bite between the door edge and door frame, while taking special care to avoid driving forks into the door frame. Verbally call for additional strikes as you manipulate the tool.
  • Step 4: When forks have gained a good position behind the door frame and door’s edge, drive forks in until you can no longer see the crotch of the forks (Figure 2). Note: To force the door now often leads to failure.
  • Step 5: Save the gap with your axe or wedge (Figure 3).
  • Step 6: Remove the Halligan (Figure 4) and rotate the forks so that the bevel now faces the door frame (Figure 5). Then re-insert the fork end while manipulating the Halligan to avoid driving the forks into the door frame. Drive forks in until the fork’s crotch is no longer visible (Figure 6). The simple act of rotating the forks prevents the forks from potentially slipping out when applying force. Some will say this is not necessary, but it is absolutely necessary if you are looking for reliability. This action also keeps the adz and spike out of the way, allowing for a full range of motion with the Halligan.
Figures 2-6 (left to right): Figure 2: When forks have gained a good position behind the door frame and door’s edge, drive forks in until you can no longer see the crotch of the forks; Figure 3: Save the gap with your axe or wedge; Figure 4: Remove the Halligan; Figure 5: Rotate the forks so that the bevel now faces the door frame; Figure 6: Force the adz and spike end of the Halligan toward the face of the door until entry is gained.
Figures 2-6 (left to right): Figure 2: When forks have gained a good position behind the door frame and door’s edge, drive forks in until you can no longer see the crotch of the forks; Figure 3: Save the gap with your axe or wedge; Figure 4: Remove the Halligan; Figure 5: Rotate the forks so that the bevel now faces the door frame; Figure 6: Force the adz and spike end of the Halligan toward the face of the door until entry is gained.
  • Step 7: Force the adz and spike end of the Halligan toward the face of the door until entry is gained (Figure 7).
  • Step 8: Maintain control of the door.
Figure 7: Force the adz and spike end of the Halligan toward the face of the door until entry is gained. 
Figure 7: Force the adz and spike end of the Halligan toward the face of the door until entry is gained. 

Seems like a lot of steps, right? Really, it should be a smooth transition other than removing and flipping the forks.

This method will not let you down. It is reliable, it is proven, and it can be accomplished with two firefighters or one firefighter.

Step-by-step: Outward-swinging door (door swings toward you)

  • Step 1: Size up the door. What material is the door made of? What is the door frame made of? Do you see any additional hardware or lag bolts, indicating a drop bar or some other device?
  • Step 2: Insert the adz between the door and door frame.
  • Step 3: Drive the adz in until it hits the door jamb or you feel it is at the appropriate depth (Figure 8). Avoid driving the adz into the door jamb. Note: Marking your adz would eliminate any guess work.
  • Step 4: Begin pulling back on the fork end to manipulate the adz to pass through the door and door jamb while still driving the adz forward. Drive the entire blade of the adz in until it is no longer visible (Figure 9).
  • Step 5: At this point, you can pry up and down using the adz to enlarge the gap or crush the door, if necessary, advancing a wedge or axe in the gap to save gains while you steadily manipulate the Halligan to enlarge the gap until you are ready to force the door. The goal is to drive the entire length of the adz between the door edge and door frame. (On wood-frame doors and steel-frame doors that are not installed into masonry type walls, you will have little problem getting a good gap. For steel-frame doors encased in masonry walls, you will have no choice but to crush the door.)
  • Step 6: Pull the fork end away from the door, applying leverage to the adz and forcing the door (Figure 10).
  • Step 7: Maintain control of the door.
Figures 8-10 (left to right): Figure 8: Drive the adz in until it hits the door jamb or you feel it is at the appropriate depth; Figure 9: Drive the entire blade of the adz in until it is no longer visible; Figure 10: Pull the fork end away from the door, applying leverage to the adz and forcing the door.
Figures 8-10 (left to right): Figure 8: Drive the adz in until it hits the door jamb or you feel it is at the appropriate depth; Figure 9: Drive the entire blade of the adz in until it is no longer visible; Figure 10: Pull the fork end away from the door, applying leverage to the adz and forcing the door.

Note: For safety sake, kneel! When a two-person team is being utilized, it is imperative that the firefighter swinging the axe takes a kneeling position (Figure 11). This is a safety factor for the firefighter holding the Halligan. Assuming the kneeling position creates a downward swinging motion if the striking surface is missed. If the firefighters are both standing, a missed swing will result in the firefighter holding the Halligan being struck and injured. This rather important step is often overlooked. I’m not sure if it is laziness or complete disregard for the other member’s safety.

Figure 11: When a two-person team is being utilized, it is imperative that the firefighter swinging the axe takes a kneeling position.
Figure 11: When a two-person team is being utilized, it is imperative that the firefighter swinging the axe takes a kneeling position.

Using a wedge for forcible entry

The wedge is highly under-utilized and misunderstood. The wedge is the simplest tool for creating a desired gap in the door. Look carefully at the fork and adz end of any Halligan. Do not be surprised when you see that it resembles a wedge.

If you have a wedge that is designed to get you the desired gap before reaching the door jamb to open an outward-swinging door (swings toward you), all you need is the wedge and a Halligan. The design and rise of a wedge are critical to the efficiency of this option.

Here’s how it’s done: Using the Halligan as a striking tool, simply drive the wedge between the door and the door frame until a desired gap is achieved (Figure 12). Then insert the adz end of the Halligan into the gap. You can increase the size of your gap up to 2 inches, if the door and door frame allow, by cranking up or down on the fork end of Halligan and advancing the wedge deeper into the door as you increase gap with the adz (Figure 13). When the desired gap is achieved and the entire length of the adz is in the gap, with an outward-pulling motion on the fork end, force the door open (Figure 9).

Figures 12 (left): Using the Halligan as a striking tool, simply drive the wedge between the door and the door frame until a desired gap is achieved; Figure 13 (right): You can increase the size of your gap up to 2 inches, if the door and door frame allow, by cranking up or down on the fork end of Halligan and advancing the wedge deeper into the door as you increase gap with the adz.
Figures 12 (left): Using the Halligan as a striking tool, simply drive the wedge between the door and the door frame until a desired gap is achieved; Figure 13 (right): You can increase the size of your gap up to 2 inches, if the door and door frame allow, by cranking up or down on the fork end of Halligan and advancing the wedge deeper into the door as you increase gap with the adz.

These three options – Gap, Set, Force and the wedge – are your most reliable and proven methods that are also less damaging and save time.

Want to waste some time? Useless techniques for forcible entry

This may upset some folks, but it is just my opinion after 31 years of observation. I find absolutely no real significant benefits in performing the following methods for forcible entry – and I’ll explain why.

“Baseball bat swing”: This method should not be your first choice when forcing a door. The leverage really isn’t there when compared to the more reliable Gap, Set, Force method. Also, if successful, the damage created by this technique is equal to a good “donkey kick,” so why not just kick it in? You are wasting time and usually more energy.

“Softening the door”: Striking and beating on a door that has any flex at all is pointless and causes additional unnecessary damage to the door. On a steel door, results will vary based on the door’s quality. The better option is to modify your forks so that they can slip into any door easily.

“Adz on inward swinging door”: This is probably one of the most time-consuming methods I have ever observed, and the damage it causes to the door, if it is successful, is equal to a good donkey kick. This method results in a high failure rate, as most of the time the adz slips out. It also has a high failure rate with wood-frame doors, as the door jamb you are using for leverage will break. You are now forced to revert to the more reliable and traditional Gap, Set, Force method.

Do you see the pattern yet? A lot of time being wasted on trying an unreliable method first, then being forced to revert back to the tool’s most reliable method. As an officer, I am always looking for reliability over what’s cool. I am also looking for professional results, meaning as little damage as possible.

It’s inevitable that someone reading this will say those are good methods for a firefighter operating alone. I disagree, particularly if your Halligan keeps slipping out and it requires multiple attempts to prove your point. Also, if the door is wrecked beyond ability to close it back, the method has failed. I have performed and have seen many videos of a lone firefighter performing the traditional method with an axe and Halligan and with a wedge and Halligan.

Incident conditions and forcible entry

How we force a door depends on fire conditions. If the structure is heavily involved, some damage to the door is acceptable, but we still need to consider door control and flow paths as well as the effects that the lack of both can have on fire conditions.

How we force a 100-year-old door for a welfare check involving a grandma is another story. Minimal damage in this instance is secondary only to gaining entry. If you cannot help grandma without destroying her home, you should reconsider your forcible entry methods and skills.

In sum: Forcible entry considerations

To conclude this discussion of forcible entry basics using a Halligan, let’s summarize the key factors to consider with forcible entry operations:

  • Type of door
  • Type of door frame
  • Additional hardware observed from the exterior of the door
  • Fire conditions
  • The reliability of the method selected

And for the love of the fire service, always try before you pry!


About the author

Chris DelBello is a 31-year veteran of the fire service. He currently holds the rank of senior captain with the Houston Fire Department, working in the Midtown District. He is also the district training officer, which encompasses all the stations in downtown and midtown. He holds a Training Officer I certification.

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