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A Guide To Fireworks

June 22, 2011

Independence day is fast approaching, and nothing is more iconic than watching fireworks on the Fourth of July. After years of ooo-ing and ahhh-ing with everyone else, I’ve finally decided that I would like to be a little bit more than an ignorant observer this year. This guide will highlight the basics of fireworks, as well as what makes them [fire]work.


Aerial fireworks are typically formed as a shell, and the shell is comprised of four different parts: the container, stars, bursting charge, and fuse. The container is pretty self-explanatory. The fuse is just what you think it is, and it’s purpose is to provide a timed delay so that the firework explodes at the correct altitude. Stars are essentially an arrangement of a sparkler-like composition, and the bursting charge is essentially a large firecracker located in the center.

Setting Them Off

The shell is placed in a mortar, which is basically a steel pipe that contains black powder. When the black powder is lit, it explodes and launches the shell. This initial explosion of black powder also lights the fuse on the shell, which in turn allows the firework to explode when it’s at the proper height.


The color of the firework depends on the metal that it contains. Here’s a basic guide of the most common elements/colors.

  • Red: Strontium (intense red) or Lithium (medium red)
  • Orange: Calcium
  • Yellow: Sodium
  • Green: Barium
  • Blue: Copper Halides
  • Indigo: Cesium
  • Violet: Potassium
  • Gold: Charcoal, iron, or lampblack
  • White: Titanium, aluminum, beryllium, or magnesium


Here is a list of the most popular firework effects, most of which you will probably already be familiar with:

 A spherical break of colored stars that burn without tail effect. The most common firework.


Similar to the peony, but the stars leave a visible trail.


A shell that contains several stars that travel a short distance, break into small stars, etc. This creates a criss-cross effect.


This firework bursts very hard, so that the stars travel straight and flat. It eventually falls slightly and burns out, thus looking like a spider.


Also called a waterfall (for obvious reasons). The horsetail features stars that travel a minimal distance before falling to the ground.


Often used in the “grand finale”, these are more about a loud ‘bang’ than their visual appeal. These are the most dangerous, and my favorite.

Hopefully this article has helped to take you from a firework novice to someone that at least understands the basics. Most importantly, enjoy the beauty of fireworks, whether they be horsetails or crossettes.

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