Today I practiced making fire, this time using a Doan magnesium fire starter. This is a piece of USGI gear consisting of rectangular bar of magnesium, to which a ferrocerrium rod is glued on one of the long sides. It also has a hole towards one end through which a beaded chain is threaded, and which can be used to secure it to your kit or to keep a striker handy.
The magnesium fire starters are waterproof and don't burn when solid. To use, you scrape the exposed long side of the bar to make a pile of magnesium shavings, which do burn. Once you've got a good pile, which takes some work, you flip the bar over and use a striker to scrape sparks off the ferrocerium rod into the pile. This will then flare up and light your secondary tinder and kindling.
A hacksaw blade snapped in half works fairly well for making the magnesium shavings and for making sparks. However, I used the reamer on my Victorinox Farmer Swiss Army Knife. It's easier to hold and works well.
While the magnesium shavings burn very hot, they don't burn for very long. Thus, it's critical that you make a big enough pile and have enough dry tinder, twigs, and kindling to keep the fire burning once the magnesium shavings burn out in short order.
My secondary tinder was wood shavings sliced off one of the firewood logs I picked up last weekend at Lowe's. The logs were my fuel, as well. They were supposed to be seasoned but still had a fair moisture content, as I discovered once I got the fire going.
I first created a pile of wood shavings then made a small pile of magnesium shavings next to and surrounded by the wood. The magnesium shavings lit after a few strikes from the ferrocerium but I was unable to get a sustained fire going.
Since my daughters were outside with my and wanted to get one with roasting some hot dogs, I switched over to a Bic lighter. However, I wasn't able to get a sustained fire going until I broke out a Coughlin's tinder wad (a wax impregnated cotton ball) and placed it among the coals left over from the burning wood shavings. That and blowing on the fire finally got it going.
Once the fire was going I saw and heard moisture bubbling out the end of the firewood, so it wasn't seasoned enough. It burned with a lot of smoke, too.
I'm not real impressed with the magnesium fire starter. It takes too long and requires too much effort to create a pile of shavings for your stage one tinder. Also, the shavings are so lightweight that the slightest bit of wind blows them around. Finally, the striker rod on the one side of the bar is thin compared to a Swedish Fire Steel, so it throws fewer sparks.
If I was stuck in the wilderness, would I take a Doan magnesium fire starter over a primitive fire starting method, such as a fire drill? You bet. It's easily pocketable, light, and does contain both a spark source and tinder in one waterproof package. However, I think there are better alternatives. For example, a ferrocerium rod (e.g., Swedish Fire Steel) and a 35mm film canister filled with cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly take up little additional room but work much better. The PJ cotton balls burn hot AND long enough to get your secondary tinder going. Of course, one could carry the Doan fire starter and the PJ cotton balls, using the Doan's ferrocerium rod to ignite them.
I was also reminded of the utility of a large knife, machete, or axe when making woods shavings or splitting kindling from large pieces of wood. Today I relied on my Mora Swedish Army Knife, (#760MG) which is a great small fixed blade. They are inexpensive, take and retain a sharp edge, and have comfortable handles. However, they are short and light which means it takes significantly more effort to make a pile of wood shavings or split logs. If I'd been able to split more kindling the fire would have gotten going a lot more easily. This could be critical in a survival situation where you need a fire RFN, such as if you need to dry off in cold weather.
Once again, I'm glad I tried this out in my back yard, instead of out in the woods in a serious situation.