Hawk Tool Geneology

IOWA-AMERICAN HERITAGE. Given Iowa-American Firefighting Equipment’s relatively short life, it is surprising how widely distributed their products were. Their forcible entry tools, for example (Halligans, Hayward Claws, San Francisco bars, etc.), show up all along the West Coast, from California to Washington.  And, we’ve run across their well-known 8-pound pick-head axes in places as widely separated as Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Atlanta, Georgia, and Indianapolis, Indiana. There is even an example of their equally popular 8-pound flathead axe– one found in the devastation of the World Trade Center– on display in the 9/11 Memorial in New York.

Iowa-American (IA-AM) started as one of many producers of common fire service hand tools, primarily those used by the Fire Department of New York– the New York pike pole, the Halligan hook and Halligan bar, plus the previously mentioned flat-head axe. They also offered refined versions of other popular East Coast hooks, including the so-called Universal hook and Sheetrock (or Drywall) hook. Perhaps most notably, they started producing several unique, “signature” tools for individual departments, like Boston’s  “Rake,” San Francisco’s ultra-light hook, and a derivation of the defunct Chicago Fire Insurance Patrol’s “Patrol Bar,” making them accessible to the fire service at large. However, in spite of their broad range of offerings, as they launched an aggressive marketing campaign, it became clear, that Iowa-American had virtually no original, unique new products of its own design.

THE FIRE SAFETY GROUP. During this same period of time period– the early 1980’s– the Fire Safety Group (FSG), an ad hoc group of Iowa firefighters, was delivering a variety of two-day weekend courses aimed at a renewed awareness and expanded application of traditional municipal hook and ladder or “truck company” methods to suburban and rural fire operations (see background on the Fire Safety Group at the Hook + Ladder University website). IA-AM supported the group by providing some of its tools for use in FSG’s courses.  And, in return, FSG instructors provided regular feedback and recommendations concerning those and other IA-AM products.

ORIGINS OF THE HAWK TOOL. Having made extensive use of IA-AM’s version of the Halligan hook in field training and in emergency operations, MalvenWorks founder Fred Malven experienced the tool’s numerous virtues as an overhaul tool. But, he also noted its limitations in performing certain other closely-related “support operations” functions. Having had previous interest, formal training, and experience in product design, he took on development of a tool that addressed these more broadly-based functions, as well. This was the beginning of what was to become the Hawk Tool. Its design followed a fairly normal, step-by-step, phased product development process. Over a period of three years, the project produced a nearly continuous stream of sketches, working drawings, wood study models and working prototypes. The prototypes were intended to be building blocks, steps toward the development of a single new tool. They were never intended for sale. But, with the success of a series of glossy catalogs, Martin Vitale, Iowa-American’s owner, was anxious to get new tools on the market. Consequently, virtually every time a newly revised prototype was prepared for field evaluation, a fair number of them were produced, added to the company’s catalog, and sold, side-by-side with previous prototypes and the company’s other hooks.

Although this rush to market incomplete designs was irritating and frustrating, at this point in time, the move has netted some fortunate outcomes from a historical archival standpoint. First, due to the success of the firm’s catalog marketing, each of the various prototypes enjoyed a surprising volume and geographical distribution of sales. So, there is a good physical record of each phase of the design process. And, since many of them are still in day-to-day use, the effectiveness of early design intentions can be studied through the experience of current users.

As designers and long-time, regular users of the Hawk Tool, we’ve always been interested in finding and documenting early examples of the tool, and even earlier examples of prototypes. And, whenever available, we’ve really relished accounts of user experiences with the tools– good, bad, indifferent; exciting or mundane. Only recently did it occur to us that some of our customers might also be interested in the history of their tools. So, in this section, we will gradually put together an account of significant steps in the development of our tools, starting with influences on the Hawk Tool.

OVERVIEW OF HAWK TOOL DEVELOPMENT. But, first, at the risk of sapping all of the fun of discovery out of the process, we’ll begin with a brief summary of Hawk Tool design process. It began with the goal of creating a multi-purpose “support operations” tool combined some of the best attributes of other tools we’d used. Because of its popularity (and its availability, due to our collaboration with Iowa-American Fire Equipment) much of the early work (especially phases I & II) involved modification of the highly successful Halligan HOOK. Readers will need to remember that this discussion revolves around FDNY Chief Hugh Halligan’s hook design, not his even more famous Halligan BAR.

In general, the design process progressed in five phases:

  • Phase I added width and a sharper, keener edge to the Halligan Hook’s “bottom” (i.e., downward-pointed) blade.
  • Phase II further flattened the downward blade, “corrected” the Halligan’s unnecessarily blunt point, and added some length and angle to the Halligan’s rear-facing “adze.”
  • Phase III (the first significant departure from the Halligan) introduced the first of three distinctive features of the Hawk Tool, the so-called “cross-cut” blades– one downwardly-rounded, longitudinal edge intersecting at 90° with the original downward-pointing, transverse blade.
  • Phase IV introduced the tool’s most distinctive feature   But, for now, suffice it to say that the evolution of the tool can be distilled down to five steps or phases before it reached (much later) its current configuration. The most significant end-products of each phase are summarized below.
MW Vintage Hawk Tools Phases
The early influence of Chief Halligan’s hook on the Hawk design process is clearly visible in the Phase I and II prototypes. Only at Phase III did the tool take on a character of its own. Inspired by Prince Georges County (MD) firefighter Richie Clemens’ Clemens Hook, the new design focused on surpassing the Halligan’s performance, especially in terms of 1) “chopping” ability, 2) ability to penetrate walls, ceilings, and floors, and 3) overall versatility (especially the multi-functionality of its working edges). NOTE: The Phase V Hawk was the final (“finished?”) design offered by Iowa-American for series production. The design underwent significant revisions before being reintroduced as part of the Aazel Corporation’s line, in late 2011, and might be considered a Phase VI Hawk Tool.

In future posts, we will identify and discuss some of our interesting encounters with the Hawk’s ancestors.

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