Today we’re veering off of the shooting topic to talk about fire. Or, more specifically, a specific tool for building a fire. This article is specifically a review of my Douglass Field S lighter by Tokyo Pipe Co, but I want to touch on other reasons that a nonsmoker like me would carry a lighter like this every day. So let’s get on with a bit of background.
Combustion is a core component of Dave Canterbury’s “7-C’s” of survival, and If you’ve been following for a while then you know I’m a big fan of basic survival skills like firemarking. I even have a Marksman Challenge dedicated to it. But that challenge is definitely geared towards the DIY route with a ferro rod or friction methods.
There’s another far easier and more obvious method, and that’s with an actual lighter. When I interviewed SERE instructor Mike Moore about what kinds of items he would always have in a survival kit, he specifically mentioned always having at least two ways to start a fire, and the first one was a lighter.
Now, I hope that’s not news to anyone. However, I see a lot of discussions out there about carrying around the cheap BIC lighters that you can buy in bulk at practically any gas station or grocery store in the country. To be fair, those are certainly a good thing to keep around for day to day use and will probably work well for most survival situations as well. But that’s not what Mike suggested. Instead, he told me that I should have a Zippo. So why is that?
Well, there were two major reasons. First was the fuel.
Butane vs. Lighter Fluid
One of the key shortcomings that Mike mentioned to me was the chemical characteristics of butane as a combustion fuel. As a clean combustion fuel, it works really well for a lot of applications ranging from small lighters to larger camping stoves. Most people enjoying the outdoors will probably never see an issue.
At least until it goes below freezing.
As it turns out, butane stops vaporizing right around 31 degrees Fahrenheit. Mike mentioned that at sufficiently cold temperatures, he’s seen the liquid contents of those cheap lighters turn into gel. You can see how this would be a problem for something carried in a pack or something in the winter.
On the other hand, lighter fluid is a petroleum distillate that continues vaporizing well into the negatives.
While you can overcome the cold temperature problems with butane by keeping the lighter up against your body or under a jacket, it’s definitely more convenient to know that your combustion tool will work at just about any temperature.
The other reason Mike suggested I carry a Zippo was that it could be used for multiple purposes. If it was a polished model, then it could serve as an improvised signal mirror. You could also remove the flint and wheel for use as a sparking device even if the fuel ran out.
In all, the classic Zippo serves a lot of uses, and good survival kits include a lot of multipurpose items.
The Problem with Zippos
Of course, these points are all well and good but I have to speak to the biggest issue I’ve had with Zippos over the years: evaporation. No matter what I’ve tried over the years, I can’t get a zippo to hold on to its fuel supply for more than a few weeks. I’ve tried a lot of tricks from bicycle tubing to installing it in a different polymer case pictured above that sealed it up (this one had a side effect of eliminating the multipurpose benefit for signaling).
While these tricks work to a degree, the fuel still evaporates inside of a month. You just cannot seal a Zippo up well enough to avoid it.
So I eventually found an alternative.
Enter the Douglass Field Lighter
I’m going to start off by saying that this is a bit of a luxury purchase. I can’t think of many circumstances where anyone would justify a $100 lighter, especially when they don’t smoke. So let’s just get that out of the way. It’s an expensive item for what it is, but since it was a gift from my wife (who always seems to be the one buying things like this from me when I don’t want to), I’ll take it.
When you first hold the Douglass Field S, it just exudes coolness. Its shape is reminiscent of the classic trench lighters of WWI, where soldiers recycled spent brass casings into lighters. There are also elements of the IMCO lighter that served a European contemporary to the Zippo, but it is far more refined. There are two main parts to the body: the fuel and wick housing and the sparker.
The housing for fuel and wick is just under 3” tall and .6” wide. The knurled bottom unscrews to reveal the fill port stuffed with fabric. The bottom of the Douglass also has a secondary sealed container for reserve fluid. Everything is sealed with multiple o-rings to both keep water out and keep vapors in.
The top of the wick housing has cross-drilled holes to aerate the flame and protect it from the wind. The wick itself sits inside of this area and out of the way. In practice, this does help keep the flame going, but I also feel like it forces the flame to sit much lower in the lighter and that makes it a bit more awkward than a Zippo for sticking up into things like my charcoal chimney.
The spark housing rides attached to the main body and is 2.8” tall and .3” in diameter. The flint rides inside of a sprung tube with a knurled adjustment knob on the bottom. The interesting part is on the top, where a flip-up cover hinges on the sparker and either completely encapsulates the wick with another sealed o-ring, or lifts away to expose it. The motion of pressing on the hinged door both reveals the wick and works the sparker at the same time.
I’ve found the motion takes some finesse to learn. A ball detent holds the cap firmly in place and takes some effort to overcome while also providing the right amount of pressure to roll the sparker.
When in storage, the sparker housing has a threaded component that buts up against the hinged door and seals it tight.
Why all of the o-rings? Let’s put it this way: the longest I have ever gotten one of my Zippos to hold onto its fuel was three weeks before it evaporated enough to no longer ignite. On the other hand, my wife bought me the Douglass Field S in November 2019. I filled it around the 21st of that month and never opened the fuel compartment again. As of December 2020 it is still lighting up every time.
So, all of that to say that with minor usage, the Douglass Field S holds on to its fuel supply for at least a year when you close it up all of the way. That’s quite an improvement.
Appearance and Machining
My Douglass Field S is polished shiny chrome all around. They also come in a matte color or brass, but I went with the shiny one per Mike Moore’s suggestion about field lighters. The machining is extremely clean and nothing about this item feels cheap or poorly made.
The caps on both top and bottom are engraved with Douglass branding, and the bottom also includes some directions about the fuel door and another engraving announcing the country of manufacture as Japan.
Every lighter is also individually serialized.
All of the threads are clean and have never hung up, scratched, or otherwise made me think there was an issue. So, in all, you are definitely getting a nicely machined piece of gear that’s sure to start a conversation.
The Final Word
I like this lighter, of course. But for nearly $100 you would really hope so. Would I suggest that everyone go out and buy one from Urban EDC Supply or Blade HQ? No, not really, unless you were really into gadgetry like I am or just wanted “the best” of something.
If you’re in the market for a new EDC lighter, my first impulse is to simply say get the classic Zippo and top it off with fluid every few weeks. If you want to get a bit fancier, then Douglass has the slightly more inexpensive Field L and Neo 3 models which provide a lot of the same functionality without the emphasis on sealing the device from water intrusion or vapor loss.
But, if you just really need to buy the best EDC lighter on the market, then the Douglass Field S is your model. I’m pretty sure this is the last lighter I’m every going to buy.