The best firefighter forcible entry tools

The concepts behind forced entry have remained largely unchanged; meanwhile, the tools have gotten more refined and job-specific

Scroll down to read FDNY's Forcible Entry Reference Guide. And don't miss FireRescue1's How-to-Buy Guide to Rescue Equipment.

While conducting research for this article on forcible entry tools, I came across one of those oldies, but goodies – you know, a document that has stood the test of time because it was so good to start with.

FDNY's 173-page Forcible Entry Reference Guide is just such a document. After all, who knows more about forcing entry on every known door or lock or wall than the firefighters of FDNY?

The version I found online is dated 2006, but it is just as relevant in 2016. More than likely, it will still be a touchstone document for forcible entry in 2026 as well.

Many believe the best prying tool is the Halligan bar — designed by and named after the late Hugh Halligan, an FDNY first deputy fire commissioner.
Many believe the best prying tool is the Halligan bar — designed by and named after the late Hugh Halligan, an FDNY first deputy fire commissioner. (Photo/Chris DelBello)

Don't believe me? Here's a sample from the guide: "In the fire service, the term 'forcible entry' is defined as the act of gaining entry into a building or occupancy via a door, window or even through a wall, by the use of force. Back through the years, the fire service has been charged with this responsibility of gaining entry into secured buildings and occupancies."

Fire service manual forcible entry tools haven't changed much over the years. The basic tools still fall into four categories: pushing/pulling, prying, striking and cutting. What has changed dramatically is the number of tool options within those four categories.

Pushing/pulling tools

For many years, the primary pulling tools were the pike pole and its shorter cousin the closet hook. That was OK when most pulling involved ceilings or interior walls of plaster over wood lath — there was something there to hook and pull.

Everything changed with the introduction of drywall. Although it can be used on other materials, such as wood, plaster, sheet metal walls and ceilings, the drywall hook was created specifically to grab large sections of drywall with each pull.

Other pulling/prying tools include the arson-trash hook, the Clemens hook, the San Francisco hook, the (New York) roofman's hook and the multipurpose hook.

Prying tools

The most valuable tool award in this category belongs to the Halligan bar — designed by and named after the late Hugh Halligan, an FDNY first deputy fire commissioner.

The Halligan is a multipurpose prying tool consisting of a claw (fork), a blade (adz), and a pick, which is especially useful in quickly breaking through many types of locked doors.

The adz end can be used to break in through an outward swinging door by forcing the tool between the door and doorjamb and prying the two apart.

Other tools in this category include crowbars, flat bars, pry bars, claw tool, the Kelly tool and the pry ax.

Striking tools

A striking tool is a very basic hand tool consisting of a weighted head attached to a handle. Examples of striking tools are sledgehammers (8, 10, or 16 pounds), mauls, battering rams, picks, flat-head axes, mallets or hammers, punches and chisels.

In certain instances, a striking tool is the only tool required. However, in most forcible entry situations, the striking tool is used in conjunction with another tool, like the Halligan bar, to successfully gain entry. 

Mauls and sledgehammers have gained stature as the preferable striking tools to be used with tools such as Halligan bars or Kelly tools in lieu of a flathead ax.

Mauls and sledges are more specifically designed for striking, provide more of a striking surface and their greater head weight delivers more force with each blow.

Cutting tools

The ax is the most common manual cutting tool available and has been for many years. There are two basic types of ax configurations in use today, the pick-head and the flat-head ax.

The biggest improvement in axes over the years has been the replacement of wood with fiberglass handles.

The rescue ax is a high-tech camp ax or hatchet. This smaller ax has gained popularity because of its utility in rescue situations involving tight spots with limited operating room, such as auto extrications or trench rescues.

Combination tools

Combination tools — those that incorporate more than one of the four forcible entry functions — have become increasingly popular, especially with declining departmental budgets. These combination tools include, but are not limited to pry, combination and truckie axes.

The pry ax is a hybrid tool that merges the cutting and hammering functions of an ax (using the head) along with the prying and ramming functions of a pry bar or Halligan bar at the opposite end of the handle.

The combination ax provides cutting, prying and striking functions normally associated with flat-head and pick-head axes. Depending on the manufacturer, a combination ax provides the firefighter with multiple capabilities that can include ax, hammer, spanner wrench, windshield cutter, rappelling ring, gas and water shut-off wrenches, battery disconnect, dry wall cutter, forcible entry, hinge remover, pry bar, Stortz latch opener and hood remover.

A truckie ax is a traditional-style pick-head ax, but with a slightly smaller head and shorter handle — usually 28 inches as opposed to the more standard 32 inches found on most axes — that's designed to be carried on a truckie's belt.

The driving force regarding the manual forcible entry tools carried by your department should begin with an assessment of your response district and the firefighters who will use them. Purchase equipment designed to fit your operations — do not design operations around equipment.

Before purchasing new tools, conduct a survey of your current tools. Be sure to get input from the firefighters about which tools get used and those that don't. If a tool is not being used consistently, perhaps it's time to retire it and make room for the new stuff.

When considering a new tool, do your research. Ask the manufacturer or vendor for a demo model and try it out during company training. Check with neighboring departments for their experiences.

FDNY Forcible Entry Reference Guide: Techniques and procedures

[Read next: Halligan basics for firefighter forcible entry training]

This article, originally published Oct. 17, 2016, has been updated.

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