The Pulaski is a specialized axe designed for fighting forest fires and making firebreaks. The two-sided head combines a chopping axe with an adze hoe (mattock) capable of digging earth and cutting through roots. It was created by US Forest Service Ranger Ed Pulaski following a large fire in 1910.
While materials and production methods have changed over the last 100 years, the design and importance of the Pulaski has not. It remains an essential tool for fighting wildfires around the world.
The Design of the Pulaski
A Pulaski has a 3.5-4lb head that fits on a straight 36” handle with a double-bit eye. The axe portion resembles a Dayton pattern, with a chopping bit capable of felling or limbing large and small trees.
The hoe on the back of the Pulaski has a strong, flat cutting edge to allow it to break through ground debris and cut through roots. This is what makes it an adze hoe or grub hoe (also sometimes called a mattock).
The hoe flairs out to 3-4 inches to be useful for digging trenches and moving earth – but Pulaskis are still used in combination with shovels.
While many companies make Pulaskis, the US Forest Service maintains design specs that must be met in order to be used by rangers. You can buy USFS-approved models from some makers (more on that further down).
What is a Super Pulaski?
A Super Pulaski has an enlarged mattock and is tailored to digging and clearing low-level vegetation when creating firebreaks in areas with fewer trees and less deadwood. Some manufacturers even reduce the size of the chopping bit.
How Pulaskis are Used to Fight Fires
Pulaskis are used for defense and containment of forest fires, as well as for putting out small fires and neutralizing lingering hot spots.
Pulaskis are Used for Firebreaks and to Stop Fire Spreading
One of the first steps in fighting a forest fire of any size is to ensure it doesn’t spread while you try and put it out. When it’s a large fire this is done with a firebreak.
Firebreaks or “Fire-lines” are defensive lines created to stop an active fire from spreading beyond a specific point. They are created by removing all the potential fuel (dead trees, logs, and brush), and digging up the earth in front of an advancing fire.
The cleared line also needs to be wide enough to prevent sparks from blowing across. Depending on the scenario this could be small as 5-10ft or wide as 100ft.
The axe portion of the Pulaski can fall trees, chop logs, clear brush, and help move logs. The hoe can be used to dig up the earth, leaving little to burn at ground level and preventing spread if any small bits of remaining vegetation do catch.
They can also be used for felling trees within the burn zone to stop the flames from climbing and spreading through the canopy – limiting the range sparks can be carried in the wind.
First Responders and Smokechasers use Pulaskis
Pulaskis are more than just a defensive tool for fighting fires and are widely used within the burn zone.
Pulaski’s have been used since their creation by first responders as a tool used to fight small fires before they get out of control. It can be quickly used to clear immediate fuel and dig up the earth to slow or extinguish ground fires.
By the 1920s the Pulaski was already a key part of the Forest Service’s “Smokechaser” kit.
Traditionally, A smokechaser was a Forest Ranger who looked for smoke on the horizon to catch small fires before they had a chance to grow. Once smoke was spotted, they would report it and proceed on their own to try and contain the fire.
Fires were often well off the path, so a smokechaser could only bring what could be carried into the forest.
Smokechaser is still a term often used for the first responders to forest fires.
Once a fire has been contained the Pulaski is used to break apart burning logs, trees, and stumps to reveal the internal embers, so they can be put out with water or dirt.
A smoldering stump can continue to burn internally for days, reigniting a fire at any moment if not properly dismantled.
Born From the Ashes of “The Big Burn”
The Pulaski tool was invented by US Forest Ranger Ed Pulaski whose actions during “The Big Burn” in 1910 saved the lives of 35 men and made him a hero. In the immediate years after, Pulaski set out to invent a tool that could better fight fires and save future lives.
The summer of 1910 the western US was in a severe drought, which lead to an extreme wild-fire season. At the peak, a firestorm burned more than three million acres and killed at least 78 firefighters in just 36 hours
Pulaski and his team of forty men were working to control a large forest fire in Coeur d’Alene National Forest in northern Idaho. They had made progress, but the wind suddenly picked up, and the situation became dire. The fire fighters were deep in the forest miles from any roads or clearings and their lives were at risk.
Pulaski remembered that there was an abandoned mine shaft nearby and quickly led his team there. He instructed them to grab their blankets as they ran through their camp. Once they reached the mine shaft, Pulaski positioned himself at the entrance and used blankets to block the fire and heat from entering. He repeatedly replaced the blankets as they caught fire, eventually using his bare hands to them up up.
After twenty minutes, the worst of the fire had passed. While five of the men died from suffocation, the remaining 35 survived thanks to Pulaski’s quick thinking and bravery. Pulaski himself was blinded and had serious burns on his face and arms. It took him three months to regain some of his sight.
Within a year or two of the event Pulaski had developed his tool, and it was quickly adopted by the forest service and in mass production by major manufacturers.
Choosing a Modern Pulaski
Because the Pulaski is still such an essential tool for fighting fires, lots of manufacturers still make them today – but you have a few things to consider.
Council Tool is the Industry Standard Pulaski
Council Tool is a large axe manufacturer in the US, which produces both USFS spec and non-spec Pulaskis. They are the Industry standard for Pulaskis and their entire axe line has a great reputation (I have many). Plus they are made in the USA.
The standard version would be my go-to, you can see it on amazon, but they are stocked everywhere.
This is just a hobby, so if you use amazon – clicking my links helps the site. Thanks!
Do you need a Pulaski that meets USFS specs (NFES)?
Unless you are with an agency or team that responds to wildfires regularly, you likely don’t need the USFS spec Pulaski. As long as you get it from a reputable maker, a “normal” one will do.
The main difference between the NFES and Standard Council Tool Pulaskis is the steel type. The standard uses 1060 steel, while the NFES uses a harder 1080. The harder higher-carbon steel has better edge retention during hard use.
Having used many other Council Tool axes, the 1060 steel is still very good with fine edge retention.
There are a couple of other minor differences like the NFES uses a PVC wedge to attach the head rather than aluminum – but that won’t impact use in the field.
Wood vs Composite handled Pulaskis
Most Pulaskis come with a wood handle. Pulaskis also are swung in much shorter strokes than a typical chopping or splitting axe, so overstrikes are not really a concern.
A composite handle might be considered if you plan to just store the Pulaski as an emergency tool in an uninsulated shed or garage where it will be exposed to temperature changes, and humidity, and be used infrequently. Under these conditions, a wood handle might come loose.
Council Tool also makes a 40″ model with a composite handle.
Pulaski Handle Length
Some companies make short Pulaski’s, and I have no idea why.
Pulaski’s should be a minimum of 36″ long. They are used for digging in the dirt or fighting fire, and in both cases you want enough length to work comfortably and safely.
Longer 40″+ Pulaskis also exist to provide more reach and are better for fire-break/groundwork. At this length, a composite handle may make sense as you will be less accurate in chopping and more likely to hit wood or debris with your handle.
- USFS Pulaski Specs
- US Forest Service
- PBS – The Big Burn
- Canada Lumberman & Woodworker Vol. 32, No.5 – March 1912
About the author:
I’m just a guy who likes axes – as a tool, the craft of restoring them, and the history. I got tired of only finding crap websites, so I set out to build a reliable one myself.
Jim B. – Owner, Creator