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What is a Pulaski?

By Cassie L. Damewood
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Pulaski is a unique hand tool that has been used by wildland firefighters and forest services since 1913. It is a combination of an axe and a mattock, a hand tool that has a broad, chisel-like blade similar to a grub hoe, perpendicular to the 36-inch (91.44 cm) wood or fiberglass handle. This combination of two heads on one handle makes the tool perfect for alternately digging and chopping, an action common in creating firebreaks. The mattock side of the tool can also be finely honed to make it sharp enough to cut notches in wood for small timber projects.

Besides being favored by firefighters, the tool is also popular with hikers and gardeners. Hikers use it to build new trails and clear debris and obstructions from existing trails. Gardeners find the tool handy for small excavating tasks, as its dual head construction makes it ideal for digging in hard soil or root-bound areas. While it used to be difficult to find outside the firefighting arena, the Pulaski is now readily available at many hardware stores and home improvement centers.

The origin of the tool is controversial. Its creation is generally attributed to Ed Pulaski, a ranger with the Unites States Forest Service. It was recorded that he invented the hand tool a year after a rescue incident where none of the existing tools proved adequate for firefighting.

As the story goes, he was directing a fire crew of 45 in extinguishing a small fire near Wallace, Idaho, in 1910. A blow-up suddenly put the men in danger, and they sheltered in a cave as the fire blew by them. Due to Pulaski's composure and resourcefulness, only five men perished.

Unfortunately, a third of Wallace burned to the ground, and Pulaski suffered extensive, permanent damage to his eyes. He reportedly invented the Pulaski shortly thereafter, although he never patented it. He was allegedly never compensated for his eye injuries and supposedly died a resentful and angry man in 1931.

The handy tool was widely used by forest services starting in 1913. In 1920, based on its practicality and popularity, the United States Forest Service contracted for the Pulaski to be manufactured in mass quantities by a commercial tool company. The Collins Tool Company reportedly made and distributed a similar tool in 1876.

The Pulaski is now available for purchase at many retail locations as well as online. It comes in a variety of weights and with different handle lengths to accommodate a wide range of needs and applications. This tool is still best known for its firefighting applications.

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