Monday, December 26, 2011

REVIEW: Horseshoe Mountain Firestarters- an excellent firesteel alternative

For bushcrafters and outdoorsmen, carrying a firesteel has one major disadvantage- tinder. With a firesteel, one either has to carry tinder with them or have expert knowledge of local tinder-bearing trees and vegetation in order to start a fire quickly.  If out trekking in winter, this can be an even harder proposition and potentially life threatening. If someone is not carrying tinder (or their tinder gets wet) and gets injured in a place where tinder is unavailable, getting a survival fire going quickly might be next to impossible and could cost them their life.

This is where magnesium firestarters have the advantage over firesteels. With a magnesium device, tinder is always available by scraping the magnesium bar to create fine shavings. These shavings are then easily ignited with the attached flint to produce a flame. Since magnesium burns at a scorching 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit, it will easily ignite fine kindling or feather sticks.

That said, magnesium firestarters haven't always enjoyed the greatest reputation, mainly because earlier versions employed a harder form of magnesium which made it difficult to scrape and had weaker flints that didn't always throw enough sparks to light the shavings easily. I can't speak for all brands, but the magnesium in the Horseshoe Mountain starters is soft and easy to scrape and the attached flints are actually small firesteels, capable of igniting tinder without even using the magnesium shavings.

Another criticism of magnesium starters is that the small shavings get blown away by the wind too easily. Having used magnesium firestarters for many years, I've never had a problem with this because when it's windy, all I do is dig a small pit in the ground with a stick and then scrape the shavings into it. This prevents the wind from blowing away the fine shavings and allows a fire to be built. I believe the advantages of modern magnesium firestarters greatly outweigh any disadvantages compared to that of a firesteel. 

The Firestarters

Based in the mountains of central Utah, family-owned Horseshoe Mountain Firestarters began in 1997 by making magnesium firestarters in their garage as gifts to local Boy Scouts. Eventually word got out about their handy little devices and demand grew, leading local stores and eventually Sportsman's Warehouse to start carrying their line of firestarters. For the review, I tested out three of their models:

(From left to right) 1) Keyring Model 2) Camper 3) Backpacker

Though all three were tested and used to make fire, I wanted to focus on the Keyring model for the review. I've already had extensive experience with the Camper model which I've owned one for almost 2 years, and the Backpacker is just a smaller version of the Keyring model along with a smaller flint. The Keyring model also has the largest flint and is a great size for throwing in your pocket for emergencies.

Here's a size comparison of the three models next to a Light My Fire Scout model firesteel:


The Camper model will generally fit into Army-sized firesteel loops as shown on the author's bushcraft sheath:


For the test, I split a dead Douglas Fir branch into kindling and created feather sticks with it along with three fire boards to scrape the magnesium onto. These pieces were all split with a branch as a wooden baton and a small knife, so this can be done fairly easy.

A pile of shavings slightly bigger than a quarter was easily scraped off with the supplied hacksaw blade. If you ever use a magnesium starter, always make sure to have your pile no less than quarter-sized or else the flame won't burn long enough or get big enough to get your fire started.

A small rock was then placed on the fire boards to elevate the feather sticks above the shavings and then the feather sticks were piled as close to the magnesium as possible:

Sorry, no action shot as I was striking the flint (my body was completely blocking this area from camera view!). Here's the magnesium a few seconds after ignition:



A big plus for me is that these are quality US made products at a very reasonable price (the three models tested here range from $8-$11). Aside from the good experience I've had with the Camper model that I've owned for a while, owner Jeff Carver says that he's only had one complaint over the years. A customer had a flint break away from one of the magnesium starters (which he promptly replaced), but as luck would have it, found out later that the guy's son had been beating on it with a hammer.  

I can't independently verify this claim, but I can say that my own experience with the test models along with my own Camper model has been very good, enough so that I would put my faith in their products to save my life if needed. 

One negative to note is the nylon carrying case that comes with the Keyring model. It is cheaply made and fell apart within days of testing. I sewed mine back together but we'll see how long it lasts. The device is easily carried without the case because of the attached keyring, but I do recommend that Horseshoe switch to a decent cordura or leather case for durability. The Backpacker and Camper model don't come with a case, so this doesn't affect them obviously. Even with this issue, I think they are great firestarters and well worth the price.

About the author
Jason Schwartz is the founder and senior editor of Rocky Mountain Bushcraft. He is a former Red Cross certified Wilderness & Remote First Aid Instructor, and has taught bushcraft and wilderness survival techniques to the Boy Scouts of America, interned with the US Forest Service, and studied wilderness survival, forestry and wildland firefighting at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, Colorado. Jason has also written for magazines such as The New Pioneer and Backpacker, including writing the "Tinder Finder" portion of Backpacker's "Complete Guide to Fire," which won a 2015 National Magazine Award (NMA). Email him at rockymountainbushcraft @ (without spaces)


  1. Interesting. I've seen a similar model over at How are the magnesium and firesteel rods attached? Via a type of glue? How sturdy is the attachment?


    1. Crco- yes, I believe they use an epoxy resin. Mine have been tough as nails so far.

  2. Just bought the camper.
    I hope it is well built, I like the handle.

    1. Great, let me know how it works for you after you get it.