Survival equipment that can be operated with one hand generally provides a survivor with an advantage over those requiring two hands to operate. Of greatest concern is the possibility that an injury may leave a survivor without the use of one of their hands. In addition, it never hurts to be able to have a hand free, perhaps to hold a flashlight, help another survivor or otherwise make use of the free hand.
With the ability to start a fire being a primary survival necessity, a single-handed fire starter is an important asset. While a lighter, or even matches in many cases, can be used with one hand, when push comes to shove what you need is a reliable artificial flint style fire starter as your ultimate back-up. For a long time the Four Seasons Survival "Spark-Lite" (left in photo) was the only such product available (Retail: $6 to $7). Recently, Ultimate Survival Technologies (FKA Survival Inc.) came out with their Ultimate Survival brand "BlastMatch" (right in photo) one-hand fire starter (Retail: $20). We'll examine the two products and compare their advantages and disadvantages. With the exception that they both produce sparks with which to start a fire, there are few other similarities. They are a study in contrast and differing philosophies.
One thing they do both have in common is that they are both used by the U.S. military. They also both come with a limited lifetime guarantee from companies that, in our experience, are committed to customer service.
The Spark-Lite device, itself, is very small and light, 2 1/4 x 9/32 x 9/32 inches (58 x 7 x 7 mm), 0.02 oz. (5 gr.). As can be seen in the photo, it is not much bigger than a few small wooden matches bundled together, a design goal so that it could fit into a standard waterproof G.I. (or similar sized) match container, if desired. The serrated wheel at the top rubs on a small flint that is encased in the plastic body (available in blaze orange or OD). The flint is spring loaded to maintain contact with the wheel. In concept it is nothing more sophisticated that the sparking mechanism used in cigarette lighters for years, just repackaged into a convenient and durable form factor, and making a lot more sparks.
Despite the small size, the manufacturer claims upwards of 1,000 lights from the unit. In our experience, we have used one Spark-Lite to light at least a hundred fires and demonstrations over the past few years, so from a survival perspective, you're not going to run out of spark.
The sparks generated are not a huge shower like you might get from a large artificial flint and steel, though certainly up to the task provided good tinder is available. That brings us to the second part of the Spark-Lite, the Spark-Lite "Fire-Tabs." The Spark-Lite comes packaged in a flip-top plastic container (available in blaze orange or OD) just a bit bigger than a small box of matches, 2 1/2 x 1 1/16 x 11/16 inches (64 x 42 x 18 mm). Inside are also included eight "Fire-Tab" tinders. Total weight for the complete kit is only 2/3 oz (19 gr.). This tinder, approximately 1 1/8 x 3/8 x 3/8 inches (30 x 10 x 10 mm), is fibrous bound cotton impregnated with a combination of beeswax, petroleum and silicone. It is waterproof and catches fire readily, burning with a moderate flame for an average of 2 minutes. The tinder can be sliced in half and will still be adequate for most fire starting requirements. It is also available separately in bagged packages of ten ($2.50).
For best results, illustrated in the enclosed instructions, you should pull it apart, using your fingers or by snaring it on a stick or rock or using your teeth, to expose the fine inner fibers, providing a less dense medium which aids in catching the sparks and in burning hotter. For packing in minimum space, such as in small personal pocket-size survival kits, the tinder can be compressed quite a bit, rolled or flattened, with only minor deterioration in effectiveness, though it requires a bit more care to fluff it up before use and it's difficult to get it quite as fluffed-up as if it had not been compressed.
As can be seen in the animated GIF, operation is simple and obvious, hold the body with a couple fingers and stroke the sparking wheel with the thumb or index finger, whichever is easier. With heavy mittens on this can be somewhat difficult due to the small size of the Spark-Lite. Using the included tinder, we have never failed to light it on the first or second stroke. Results with natural or improvised tinder have been almost as good, though care must be taken that the tinder is fine enough in some cases. In years of using this tool we've never failed to get a fire going, no matter the weather or conditions.
If there is one thing we'd like to see, it would be some manner of lanyard attachment, both for the whole kit and the Spark-Lite itself. Never hurts to be able to secure something as important as your fire starter. You can always drill a hole in the case and the body of the fire starter if desired.
The detailed instructions provided in the case include illustrations depicting fluffing up the tinder and operation of the Spark-Lite, along with detailed text instructions. The instructions are easy to read and understand. A minimum of fire starting hints are provided. Printed only on one side, it's a shame they didn't take advantage of all the blank space on the other side to provide more fire starting hints.
The BlastMatch is much larger and heavier than the Spark-Lite, 4 x 1 3/8 x 7/8 inches (102 x 34 x 22 mm), 2 3/4 oz. (78 gr). It long oval shaped molded plastic body incorporates a 2 1/2 inch (65 mm) long by 1/2 inch (13 mm) diameter rod of commercially prepared flint that is spring loaded. When the cap is released the spring forces the flint rod out, exposing 1 7/8 inches (48 mm) outside of the case. The cap is retained by side rails and pivots around to the "bottom" of the case where it is out of the way. The molded side catch for the cap incorporates a carbide scraper. The body includes a lanyard slot.
Operation of the BlastMatch is straightforward. An instruction sheet is included inside the box within which it is packaged for sale, but there are no illustrations, the printing is so tiny you virtually need a magnifying glass to read it, and the sheet does not store in the device. Normal procedure is to hold the fire starter next to the tinder with the tip of the flint rod on a hard object such as a stone or piece of wood. While applying pressure to the side catch with your thumb, push down on the body, forcing the scraper inside the catch to scrape down the flint, producing an abundance of sparks, as seen in the animated GIF.
When we first tested the BlastMatch (the ones pictured in all these photos) we took note of a minor problem with early production units. Because there was no rod stop, it was natural to shove the body all the way down until it hit whatever you were pushing against. This occasionally ended up breaking the end piece of the catch and the cap would then no longer stay closed. While this had no adverse effect on its functioning as a fire starter, it would be annoying and could make storage somewhat of a problem afterwards.
Survival Inc. subsequently redesigned the body so that there is a stop to prevent the case from contacting the surface on the down stroke and they also beefed up the catch, just to make sure it would better withstand any abuse. These changes have solved the problems we encountered.
If there is no firm surface available to use, or if you need to light a fire from a greater distance, such as if using gasoline or similar highly flammable materials to start the fire, it is also possible to operate the device by holding the catch down with your thumb and forcing the flint up into the case with your index finger. While this works, it virtually always results in minor discomfort or burns from the sparks hitting the end of the index finger if protection, such as a glove, is not used. If both hands are available, you can always resort to using a knife edge on the flint as you would do with a conventional piece of commercial flint. The bulk and operating mode of the BlastMatch make it relatively easier to use while wearing heavy mittens.
The BlastMatch is aptly named and the massive shower of sparks makes this a very effective fire starter, no question about it. We had no problem lighting fires with a variety of natural and improvised tinder. We also tested the manufacturer's commercially prepared tinder which they market as "WetFire Fire Starting Tinder," sold in a box of ten ($6) This tinder was developed originally for use with the Strike Force fire starter which was also designed and produced by Survival Inc. and then marketed by Gerber for a while. In that design the rather bulky body of the fire starter had room to store a piece of the tinder. Not so the case with the BlastMatch, tinder must be carried separately.
The tinder, which is essentially the same material found in larger cubes sold as a fire starter for charcoal barbecue grills, is packaged in small clear lightweight molded plastic containers, 1 3/16 x 5/8 x 5/8 inches (32 x 15 x 15 mm), with a larger lip. The "top" is peeled off the lip to get at the tinder, though occasionally the whole plastic film encased piece comes out and the thin airtight protective casing must be ripped or cut open, not a big deal. This tinder deteriorates with exposure to air, so the airtight packaging is necessary and care must be taken when packing that it is not punctured.
The solid, waterproof tinder is most effective when at least a small amount is scraped or shaved into a small pile before lighting, though it will work fine if just roughed up a bit and will usually light right off even if not prepped at all, though sometimes it was hesitant to do so the first time. It catches fire readily, from any source, and burns with a high flame. A whole cube burns for approximately 4 minutes, about half of that with maximum output, the remainder at considerably reduced levels. If the whole cube is not required, usually the case, the rest will keep for 30-60 days exposed to the atmosphere when fresh, though this period diminishes as the tinder ages in long term storage over a period of years. With the exception of the need to be stored in an airtight package, it is superb tinder, easy to use with a high flame and long lasting.
This is a classic case of two products with a common purpose whose basic design, and the philosophy behind them, lends them to slightly different uses and markets. Both are excellent fire starters, neither is perfect. The ideal single-handed fire starter would be the size of the Spark-Lite with the spark producing capability of the BlastMatch. We're not going to hold our breath.
The experienced outdoors person will not have any trouble operating either fire starter. We like the better instructions included with the Spark-Lite, which would be a boon to the inexperienced, though as noted, there is room for improvement. Anyone who would need the instructions for either of these fire starters will likely need all the help they can get. Illustrations accompanying any textual instructions are always an advantage for the novice.
The instructions provided with the BlastMatch are barely adequate and in need of much improvement, both with regards to legibility and content. While there is no way to package the instructions within the BlastMatch itself, they could at least do a much better job with the ones provided. In a survival kit they could be attached to the body with tape or rubber bands, or the BlastMatch left packaged in its box with the instruction sheet.
Comparing the tinders, the WetFire is, by a significant margin, the most effective, but the Fire-Tab is no slouch, being perfectly adequate in our experience. Obviously, the packaging and storage requirements of the WetFire come into play in some circumstances, whereas the Fire-Tab is more accommodating of storage, both in terms of space and abuse. Of course, the Fire-Tab comes with the Spark-Lite and stores in the small case while the WetFire must be purchased and stored/carried separately, a potential drawback from a personal carry standpoint. The Fire-Tab also holds the edge in price at about one third the cost, though the WetFire isn't likely to bankrupt anyone ($2.50 vs $6). Again, like the fire starters themselves, two good products performing the same function, but fulfilling slightly different needs.
The Spark-Lite is very small and very lightweight and a complete one-handed fire starting kit, including tinder, in one small package. Individually, the Spark-Lite and tinder can be packaged into other small packages, such as a personal pocket-size survival kit, providing maximum capability in minimum space and weight. If minimum size or weight is a concern for you, this is your choice. Its disadvantage is that is requires a bit more care and finesse if you should happen to run out of prepared tinder or don't have any, in an effort to make do with the bare minimum, just the Spark-Lite itself.
The BlastMatch is, simply put, a more effective fire starter for general purpose use. It is somewhat bulky and heavy, which is a disadvantage for some. On the other hand, for many it doesn't matter and the massive sparking capability of the BlastMatch might be a real advantage in some circumstances. It certainly requires less finesse to use with natural or found tinder simply because it generates such a tremendous avalanche of sparks. It is hard to imagine the sort of feeble capabilities that a person would have to possess (though such people no doubt exist) to not be able to get a fire started using the BlastMatch.
Finally, we come to the matter of value. For only $6 to $7, the Spark-Lite kit is a bargain. The BlastMatch, at $20 with no tinder, is hardly that sort of bargain, but it isn't expensive and provides decent value for what you get, if it suits your purposes. Compared to the cost of a simple bar of 1/2 inch diameter man-made flint, the added functionality is well worth it.
The bottom line is that both the Spark-Lite and BlastMatch work quite well and do exactly what they are designed to do. Both are well made and that's a welcome feature when considering survival equipment upon which your life may someday depend. All you have to do is pick the one that best suits your needs and requirements.
Ranger Rick's "Dog Tag Fire Starter" (left) is another one-handed fire starter introduced in 2002. It is similar in concept to the Spark-Lite. It is a bit more compact in some respects and was originally designed to be worn on a necklace. It also requires some minor assembly before it's ready for use.
Click here for an expanded evaluation of Ranger Rick's Dog Tag Fire Starter
Click here for information on other fire starters.
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Publisher and Editor: Doug Ritter
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Originally published 1997 Revision: 09 June 1, 2002
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