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Primitive Fire Starting Methods

by Survival Dispatch Staff

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • Primitive fire skills form the foundation upon which modern survival skills are built.
  • Man has used Every Day Carry (EDC) since the dawn of time.
  • Use of fire predates clothing by a million years.
  • Some primitive fire skills like flint and steel, char cloth, and burning lenses are easy! Give them a try.
  • Modern man would be foolish to cast aside a heuristic tradition like fire by friction.

Definition of Primitive:

So what is your definition of primitive fire starting? For the purposes of this article, we’re going to define primitive as not a store-bought item designed or intended to start fires.

I will also add that it won’t make me have to re-title the article to Field Expedient Fire Starting.

Items That Are Out:

  • Matches: Sulphur based matches have been sold commercially in China since the 1200’s. Chlorate based matches have been around since 1805, although they were expensive and a health hazard so they didn’t catch on. What we could probably consider modern friction matches were refined in a series of small breakthroughs over the next several decades.
  • Lighters: Come on.
  • Ferrocerium or Ferro Rods: It is understandable that they are often erroneously called flints since they are sometimes sold as such. Ferrocerium burns as hot as 5430 °F and is a metal alloy, where flint is a mineral. They were invented by the noted Austrian chemist Carl von Welsbach in 1903.
  • Batteries: While they technically fit the definition, I’m going to leave them out because including them would make it necessary to re-title the article Field Expedient Fire Starting.
  • Potassium Permanganate and Glycerin: I’m going to leave this is out for the same reason as batteries.
  • Gunpowder, Ammunition, Fuzes, Pyrotechnic Signaling Gear: Same as the two above.
  • Fire Piston: To my knowledge, not readily improvised from nature and a bit of a stretch to imagine having supplies on me to make one.
  • Batteries: Modern batteries aren’t ancient or natural.

Items That Are In:

  • Geological: When the extraordinarily well preserved glacial mummy known as Otzi the Iceman was found mostly encased in a glacier in the Italian Alps in 1991, he was found to be carrying a serious Copper Age fire kit:
  • Tinder Fungus (Fomes fomentarius)
  • A dozen species of Plants
  • Flint Knife
  • Iron Pyrite
  • Copper Bladed Hand Axe

5,000 years ago in the European Copper Age, it would appear that Otzi considered fire by friction to be just as time consuming as we do today. Instead of the expected friction fire set, Otzi was sporting a fire kit in his EDC that included the ancient equivalent of flint and steel! Kind of makes a guy wonder just how many times we have reinvented the same technology and taken credit for it.

Otzi’s geological fire starting system used the sharp edge of flint or chert to strike iron pyrite just like future Europeans would later strike carbon steel. This produces tiny flakes of iron which are rapidly oxidized or sparks. Likely catching them in dried and/or charred tinder fungus that he was carrying, in a very similar fashion to how we catch sparks today in char cloth or char. Once a spark is caught in char, a little air flow will cause it to smolder.

Flint is a mineral and chert is a sedimentary rock. They are both very hard and can be found in an array of colors. A way to tell them apart in the field is that when a piece is flaked off, flint has a weathered crust that is typically light and dull compared to the darker shinier rock. This characteristic isn’t nearly as pronounced in chert as it is in flint.

Otzi’s spark would have been smaller but it’s cool that he was using essentially the same technology. The next time someone poses the question, “can flint and steel be replicated from natural materials?” you can confidently respond in the affirmative. Cite Otzi as an example and explain that essentially the same technology has been used for at least 5,000 years. So yes, you can find a reasonable facsimile of flint and steel in nature. You just need to keep your eyes peeled for a little flint or chert and iron pyrite.

Flint and Steel

The mechanism by which flint and steel is used to start a fire is nearly identical to the geological method described above. The difference is mostly in the materials rather than the process. Specifically, the carbon steel fire striker replaced the mineral iron pyrite and 100% cotton char cloth replaced tinder fungus.

Today most people make char cloth in a small metal tin with a tight fitting lid. A hole is punched in the top of the tin to allow moisture to escape from the char material when placed on a bed of coals to heat it. The hole can be punched with an awl, nail, or heavy sail needle. The box starves the char material of oxygen as it burns, turning it black as it’s charred in a process called pyrolysis. This is much the same way mounds are used to deprive charcoal of oxygen. It turns the coal into a hotter, cleaner, longer-burning, and more compact fuel source.

Although metal tins are typically used today, any material that withstands the heat and seals out air can be substituted. A small clay or ceramic pot will do the job, as will soil with a high enough clay content and a straw. Cut the cotton cloth, creating stacks of squares or rectangles approximately 1” x 1” or the desired size. Place the stacks in the tin, close the lid then set it on the coals with a pair of tongs constructed from a green branch. Once the tin is placed on the coals, a jet of moisture will begin to shoot out of the hole in the lid of the tin as it’s removed from the cloth and it chars.

You don’t have to use cotton cloth. It gets so much use today because it’s inexpensive, abundant, and the fabric sheets are compact. It enables enough char cloths to light dozens of fires to fit in a small tin but many natural tinder materials or fibers can be turned to char. Some of the more commonly used materials are cattail down, various plant piths, and varieties of true and common tinder fungi.

Give char cloth a try if you haven’t yet. It’s a very important tinder to understand, especially since it works even in high humidity which can be challenging.

Burning Glass

The burning mirror or fire lens has been around at least since 424 BC, and possibly much longer. They were quite common and didn’t decline in popularity until reliable modern chemical matches were adopted. You may have seen them built into tinder boxes and snuff boxes from the 1800’s. As long as you have strong sunlight and bone dry tinder, starting a fire with a good lens isn’t difficult.

I carry a credit card FormFactor 4x Fresnel lens in my wallet and a quality 1 ¾” 4x glass lens in my Survival/Self-Recovery Kit. I’ve been lighting fires with lenses since elementary school, as I’m sure most people have done at least a time or two. If you haven’t, be sure to give it a try. The lens is used to focus sunlight into a precise point that becomes hot.

Lenses can be formed from ice, water in vases, and even condoms. If you polish the concave bottom of a soda can to a mirror finish, it can be used as a burning mirror. It seems to be a popular trick to polish the can with a bit of chocolate bar … just in case you happen to haul soda and chocolate everywhere you go. Just place the tinder precisely at the focal point and let the sun heat it up.


Fire by friction encompasses a broad range of techniques and are by no means comprehensive. Every culture likely had some type of variation such as the fire saw and fire cord. Some variations use multiple people to get the work done faster. All friction fire techniques involve identifying bone dry spindles or ploughs and baseboards of the most effective species. This should be done long before the sun goes down as it requires a little planning and elbow grease. Check out my One Match Fire article for some fire making tips.

Here are some of the primary categories of methods to try:

Fire Ploughs:Used in the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia with old bamboo. A lot of work but good technique and tinder will save you some effort. Carve a groove in your plough board to form the track for the plough stick, to which it should be mated. A woodcarving chisel will save you a lot of work.

I carry a couple of wood carving blades that I swap into a SolKoa GRIPS-S handle as needed. Holding the baseboard stationary and the plow at an angle to the board, exert downward pressure and plough through the track. As you do, it creates a great friction and heat that will form embers which are pushed into your tinder bundle at the end of the track. Once you catch an ember, give it a little gentle air with a bellows, bellows tube, fan, or by blowing on it to make it glow until the tinder catches.

Hand Drills: You can make a basic hand drill or a thumb loop hand drill. I’m sure every culture on every continent must have been familiar with the hand drill. It’s called a hand drill because the process eventually creates a hole in the hearth board. A byproduct of the process is build up of very fine sawdust in the notch which is essentially char. Once the char in the hole reaches a certain temperature it begins to smolder, which tells you there’s an ember.

The ember is very gently placed in the tinder bundle, then you can now use your bellows, fan, or breath to delicately stoke the ember to ignite the tinder. There are numerous excellent hearth board/spindle combinations. In general, lower density materials will require less pressure and work to achieve ignition. Talking to the primitive crowd in your area to see what works will save you a lot of work. Although it’s always fine to experiment on your own as well as there are benefits to doing so.

Bow Drills:A bow drill works just like a hand drill. It uses a fire bow with its string looped around the spindle to spin it faster with less work. There’s also a bearing block to regulate the downward pressure applied to the spindle.

Pump Drills:The pump drill uses a disc shaped weight to increase the mass and momentum of the spindle with a pump to achieve greater rpm with less work. A horizontal pump board travels up and down the spindle, parallel to the hearth board, as it’s pumped. The spindle passes through a hole in the center of the pump board.

Cordage is run from the ends of the pump board to the top of the spindle so that it wraps around in a helix. This happens as the board is pushed toward the ground so that it spins the spindle as the cordage unwinds. The rotational momentum of the spindle then causes the cord to rewrap and drawing the pump handle back upward. The process repeats as the pump board is pumped over and over again, achieving high rpm.

Final Thoughts

Don’t be put off by a fire starting method just because it’s considered primitive. Many of our modern techniques are based off methods that have been used for thousands of years. It’s good to have the skills to start a fire even if you don’t have the tools commonly used these days.

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