Fireworks Glossary HEADING_TITLE

The Powder Keg Fireworks Glossary

The next time you go to buy your fireworks, you can sound like a true pyro when you use fireworks lingo. Below is a list of terms that are used by those in the business to describe fireworks. If you ever want to sound like a fireworks genius, memorize a couple of these terms when you go with your friends to Powder Keg Fireworks to put together your show.

1.3G (UN0335) - This is a DOT classification for explosives that pose a flaming projectile hazard (display fireworks)

1.4G (UN0336) - This is a DOT classification for explosives that pose a limited hazard (consumer fireworks)

1.4S (UN0337) – This is a DOT classification for explosives that pose only a limited or small hazard, such as fuse.

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) – ABS is a plastic pipe used in plumbing.  ABS should NEVER be used for mortars since it can shatter into razor-sharp pieces

Aerial Bomb - old term for an aerial shell or mortar shell

Aerial Firework – a device that functions in the air, such as a shell, roman candle, rocket, or repeater

Aerial shell – spherical or cylindrical-shaped firework propelled high into the air from a mortar that bursts and ignites the contents inside. Aerial shells come in many colors and variations. An aerial shell is the most common and well-known type of firework.

Air Launching – This is a method of launching aerial shells that uses compressed air rather than a black powder lift charge.  Shells are placed into a rotating turret that rotates each tube into a firing position over an air valve.  The resulting blast of air propels the shell into the sky.  Timed computer chips built in to the shell will trigger the burst charge at the correct altitude.  

Alloy – This is a combination of two metals that shares some of the characteristics of each.  Magnalium (magnesium/aluminum), for example, is not as reactive as magnesium and not as hard to ignite as aluminum

American Pyrotechnics Association (APA) – trade association for the fireworks industry.

Ash Can – This is another name for a silver salute.

Assortment – a variety of fireworks sold in a box.  Comes in all different sizes, and usually includes aerial repeaters, fountains, spinners, rockets, and firecrackers.

Atomic Pattern - a shell burst consisting of three circles on three different planes, which resembles the orbits of electrons around a nucleus

Bag Mine – a type of mine lacking a strong casing; consists of lift charge and stars within a sealed plastic bag

Bare Match – black match without any sort of covering or protection

Barge – anchored, flat water vessel from which fireworks can be launched

Barrage – rapid-fire repetition of an aerial effect, such as a saturn missile battery

BATFE – Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives.  This is the federal agency which regulates the licensing, importation, manufacture, distribution, and storage of 1.3G display fireworks.

Battery - any group of fireworks fused together as one unit so that they will ignite all at once or in a short period of time, such as a missile battery or a roman candle battery.  

Battle in the Clouds – a shell that creates several loud reports after bursting

Bees – see Hummer

Binder – substance used to hold certain pyrotechnic compositions together, such as stars  

Black Body Radiation – when light is given off by a normally dark object.  For example, the coals of a burning fire emit orange light, caused by the burning wood charcoal.

Black Match – a common type of fuse that consists of black powder impregnated in cotton string.  It burns at about one inch per second, but can burn up to 100 feet per second if encased in a narrow paper tube (quick match)  

Black Powder (gunpowder) – most common material used in fireworks; invented by the Chinese around a millennium ago.  It is a low explosive consisting of potassium nitrate (KNO3), sulfur (S), and charcoal (mostly carbon).  Used to make sound, propel objects, make fuse, and used in other combinations to make a variety of different effects.

Black Shell (or blind shell) – a shell whose time fuse fails to ignite the bursting charge and falls back to earth without bursting.  Sometimes the shell will be ignited by the impact of its landing, particularly if it has shock-sensitive chlorate mixtures inside.  It could also be ignited by leftover sparks on the time fuse being thrust into the burst charge upon landing.

“Blown Blind” – when stars fail to ignite  

Bombette – a very small shell that is used in roman candles and even in large shells.

Bottle Rocket – a small rocket about the size of a standard firecracker, attached to a thin, 12" long stick for stabilization.  Flies up (sometimes with a whistle) and ends in a firecracker-like report

Bottom-Fused – a method of shell construction where the time fuse enters the shell at the bottom and is ignited by the lift charge.  Nearly all spherical shells, as well as most small cylindrical shells, are bottom fused.  

Bottom Shot – a multi-break shell whose last shot is a salute

Bounce – a black powder charge at the end of a fountain that creates a small explosion at the end of the device's performance

British Pyrotechnics Association (BPA) – trade association for the British fireworks industry

Branching – sparks that split up into smaller sparks, which looks similar to a branch

Break – a compartment of a shell containing effects.  Multi-break shells contain many of these compartments which result in several bursts in the sky.

Brick – many bundled packs of firecrackers which resembles a red brick  

Brocade - a spider-like shell burst pattern. Generally has silver tail effect, and is brighter than willow or tiger tail-style bursts. 

Burning - an exothermic oxidation/reduction reaction.  Fireworks typically use oxygen-rich salts such as perchlorates, chlorates, or nitrates to rapidly oxidize fuels such as metals, gums, sulfur, or charcoal.

Burst – the release of effects into the air by an aerial device  

Burst Charge – a composition placed inside of aerial shells which explodes at the shell's maximum altitude, which bursts apart the casing and ignites/propels the effects all over the sky.  Commonly made of black powder (sometimes with whistle mix), but can also be made with potassium chlorate.

Cake – a repeating aerial firework consisting of many shots, named after its usual short, cake-like appearance.  Cakes consist of one fuse attached to several tubes (sometimes hundreds) which fire in sequence, launching a variety effects into the air, including comets, crossettes, whistles, reports, mines, spinners, and flying fish.

Caliber – refers to the inside diameter of a mortar or the size of a shell

Candle – short term for roman candle

Case – a tube containing pyrotechnic composition.  Also refers to boxes containing one type of firework, which are shipped to the US from China and sold at the wholesale level to retailers.

Celebration Roll – a chain of hundreds or thousands of firecrackers (designed to be hung up) traditionally used by the Chinese during holidays 

Charging – the process of filling a tube with pyrotechnic composition and/or effects (such as stars)

Cherry Bomb – a old cherry-sized salute filled with explosive flash powder and covered in a red sawdust/glue coating.  Cherry bombs have been banned in the US since 1966.

Chlorine Donor – This is a chlorine-rich compound such as PVC (polyvinylchloride) or Parlon.  When combined with a metal within a pyrotechnic flame, certain colors can be produced.

Choke – narrow portion of a fountian/rocket tube, usually made out of clay, that is used to increase internal pressure, which therefore increases the velocity of the products being ejected to create thrust

Chrysanthemum - a dense, spherical burst of stars that retains its shape before fading.  This is the most well-known type of firework shell break.

Class B – This is an obsolete DOT classification for 1.3G display fireworks, though still commonly used amongst those in the fireworks business.

Class C – This is an obsolete DOT classification for 1.4G consumer fireworks, though still commonly used amongst those in the fireworks business.

Comet – basically a large star that emits thick showers of bright sparks on the way up

Composition – a mixture of pyrotechnic chemicals which contains a fuel, an oxidizer, and various other chemicals to produce colors and effects.

Cone – a cone-shaped fountain

Consumer Fireworks – Consume fireworks are fireworks for public use, also known by the DOT classification 1.4G or UN0336.  They are formerly known as "Class C" or "Common" fireworks.  Consumer fireworks must be tested approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).  Among other regulations, consumer fireworks cannot be sensitive to friction or shock, and can only contain 500 grams of pyrotechnic composition and no more than 130 milligrams of flash powder in aerial effects.

Continuity test – a way for pyrotechnicians to test whether an electrical circuit works.  It involves sending a small current through the igniters to see if the circuit is complete without actually igniting them.

Convolute (Parallel) Tube– paper firework tube wound in a parallel fashion. They are stronger than spiral wound tubes, but more expensive to produce. 

CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission)– The federal agency which regulates Consumer (1.4g) fireworks.  

Cracker – short term for firecracker

Crackle – clusters of small, sharp reports

Crossette – a comet that contains an internal burst charge of flash/black powder that causes it to burst into several fragments

Crossmatch – technique used to ignite time fuse in shells.  A piece of black match is threaded through a hole in the time fuse, so fire is transferred from the black match to the black powder core of the time fuse.  

Cut Stars – cubical stars cut from damp pyrotechnic composition with a knife

Dahlia - a burst pattern similar to a peony, but with larger and fewer stars.

Dark Fire (dark prime) – a composition that emits almost no light as it burns, which can be applied between different color layers of stars.  The star will burn one color, "burn out", then unexpectedly ignite again in a different color.

Daylight Shell – a shell designed to be fired during the day, which contains effects such as reports, smoke, and whistles

Delay – a pyrotechnic composition that is used for timing between the ignition of firework elements, such as in a roman candle

Department of Transportation (DOT) – United States agency that regulates the classification and transportation of fireworks and other explosives.  The DOT created the 1.4G classification for consumer fireworks.

Decomposition – a chemical reaction in which a compound or mixture is converted into a more stable form, usually accompanied by the production of heat

Deflagration - a rapid decomposition reaction which is accompanied by the evolution of light, heat, and large volumes of heated gas.  The rapidly expanding gas produces sound waves in the air, which humans perceive as an explosion.  Fireworks and other low explosives function by deflagration.

Detonation – an exothermic chemical reaction in which the explosive decomposition of a substance forms an energy wave that propagates through the substance at supersonic speeds.  High explosives such as TNT and dynamite detonate, fireworks do not.

Detonator – a small explosive used to set off high explosives.  Not to be confused with firework electric igniters.

Display Fireworks – fireworks for professional use, also known by the DOT classification 1.3G or UN0335.  Formerly known as "Class B" fireworks

Dragon Eggs – clusters of crackling sparks in the air

Drivers – thrust-producing fountains used to propel devices such as rats and wheels

Dross – molten waste product of combustion

Dud – a firework that fails to ignite  

Electrical ignition – the ignition of a fireworks display by electrical means

Electric Igniter (electric matches) – device used for the electrical ignition of fireworks.  An electric igniter consists of two lead wires connected to each other by a small filament of nickel-chromium (nichrome) wire coated with pyrogen.  When current passes through the igniter, the nichrome filament heats up and ignites the pyrogen, which in turn lights the fuse.  Electric igniters are often incorrectly called Squibs. Squibs are electrical caps that detonate in order to set off high explosives which are often used in movie stunts.    

Exothermic - a chemical reaction in which the total energy of the products is less than the total energy of the reactants.  In other words, the system loses energy, which is given off in the form of heat and light.  Firework reactions are exothermic.

Explosive - a substance that has the potential to undergo rapid chemical decomposition, producing light, heat, and large volumes of gas.

Fallout – debris such as scraps of cardboard, plastic, wood from rocket fins/sticks, ash, and leftover tubes that rain down over the ground after the performance of an aerial firework.  Fallout can be a hazard to people and dry materials since the pieces are usually still hot or smoldering.  

Fallout zone – a large, clear area where fallout or dud shells are expected to fall.  The fallout zone must be clear of any firing personnel, spectators, animals, buildings, dry grass, gasoline canisters, or any other flammable materials. 

Finale – the last portion of a firework display.  During a finale, the largest, loudest, and most exotic fireworks are ignited in huge quantities and in a short amount of time, creating an intense and beautiful display

Fish - a type of aerial effect that looks like a swarm of glowing objects flying around randomly.  The effect is created using small chunks of fast-burning fuse that actually propel themselves through the air when lit.

Firecracker - a small rolled paper tube containing flash powder, typically braided by their fuses into long strings.  When the fuse is lit, the flame travels to the inside of the firecracker and ignites the powder, causing it to explode.  In the United States, firecrackers can only contain 50 mg of flash powder.

Firework – a device that functions by combustion to create visible and audible effects for the purpose of entertainment.  In the United States, fireworks are divided into two groups: those that can be bought by the public (Consumer Fireworks) and those that can only be used by professionals (Display/Professional Fireworks)

Firing current – the amount of current required to ignite an electrical igniter

Flare – a long tube containing a pyrotechnic composition which burns slowly with a bright, colored flame.  Used mainly to warn motorists of a roadway obstruction or broken down car.  Flares are also used to ignite fireworks.

Flash Powder - an energetic explosive mixture consisting of an oxidizer (usually potassium perchlorate) and a finely powdered metallic fuel (usually aluminum), used to create firecrackers and reports for shells.  Flash powder can be set off by both friction and static, and is very hazardous to manufacture.

Flitter - a type of tail effect consisting of bright flashes of light left behind by a star

Flowerpot – when a shell explodes prematurely in the mortar, spraying the effects into the air like a mine

Fountain – firework that produces upward showers of sparks.  Also called gerbs  

Fuel – ingredient in pyrotechnic compositions that burns extremely rapidly in the presence of an oxidizer.  Common fuels are red gum, sulfur, aluminum, and charcoal

Fuse – device used to transfer fire to a firework, or different parts of a firework

Gabe Mort (italian: "dead head") - a large sack of flash powder typically suspended from a gallows-type frame at the height of a man's head; explodes to create a deafening blast and earth-shaking concussion.

Garden Firework – in the U.K., a small consumer firework designed to be used in small, confined outdoor areas.

Girandola – It is a spinning horizontal wheel that lifts off and flies up into the sky, where it usually ends with a report or burst of stars and effects.

Gerb – see fountain

Glitter – a tail effect consisting of bright flashes of light and small explosive bursts. 

Go-getter - a self-propelled star that flies around randomly in the air.

Greek Fire – an ancient, long-burning sticky composition once used in combat.  It was put in huge pots with a burning cloth (like a Molotov cocktail) and launched from catapults at enemies. 

Green Man – A nickname for a pyrotechnician in the 1600s who would wear green leaves and mud to both protect himself from sparks and hide himself from the crowd while igniting fireworks.  It is also the symbol of the Pyrotechnics Guild International.

Green Mix (green powder) – essentially a raw mixture of black powder ingredients that haven't been properly combined with heat to create real black powder.  Green powder is greenish, oily mixture that can burn at a variety of speeds (even that of real black powder), depending on how intimately the ingredients are mixed.  It is also called polverone or pulverone.

Ground Firework – a consumer firework that functions at ground level, such as fountains, novelties, snaps, snakes, sparklers, and smoke items

Gun – term for mortar

Gunpowder – see Black Powder

Hangfire – when a fuse unexpectedly begins burning at an extremely slow rate (or appears to go out).  Hangfires can last anywhere from a few seconds to around half an hour, and the fuse can suddenly resume burning at its normal rate at any time.

HDPE – High Density Polyethylene: strong plastic pipe commonly used for mortars.

Helicopter – a spinner with wings that flies into the air.  It is properly called a tourbillion.  

High explosive – It is an extremely powerful explosive capable of detonating, such as TNT or dynamite.  High explosives are not used in the fireworks industry.

Hummer – a small tube filled with pyrotechnic composition and plugged at both ends, with an angled hole in the side.  Upon ignition, the device spins around very rapidly.  At one point during each revolution, the hole (which is producing the sound) is pointed towards the observer, who perceives it as a "humming" sound.

Hygroscopic – the property of a chemical composition that causes it to absorb and retain moisture from the air, often dissolving itself in a wet, useless mess.

Igniter – short term for Electric Igniter

Illegal Explosives - any salute that contains more than 50 mg of flash powder, such as M-80s, Cherry Bombs, and Silver Salutes.  They are not fireworks.  Illegal explosives are extremely dangerous, and have caused many injuries.

Jeweled rats – rats that carry effects on the outside, such as stars  

Jumping Jacks - small tubes fused together in packs, which look identical to firecrackers.  When lit, they spin around on the ground with red and green flames.

Kraft paper – brown paper commonly used in fireworks construction for things such as tubes and quick match pipe.

Ladyfinger – tiny firecrackers

Lance – a small tube of pyrotechnic composition that burns with a steady, colorful, flare-like flame for about one minute.  Lances are attached to frameworks in patterns and fused together to create set pieces

Lancework – see Set Piece

Leader – the fuse that transfers fire from the day fuse/electrical igniter/flare to the lift charge of the shell.

Lift Charge – charge beneath a shell (usually attached to the bottom of it) consisting of black powder used to propel the device into the sky

M-80 – a small, powerful explosive created by the military (supposedly that's what the M is for) for use as a grenade/gunfire simulator, and later sold as a large firecracker.  Once very popular in the U.S., but was banned by the CPSC as part of the Child Protection Act in 1966 due to the thousands of serious injuries they caused.  They were often classified as a "firework", especially by the anti-fireworks media, even though it is NOT a firework.

Magnalium – a mixture of aluminum and magnesium; the most common alloy used in fireworks.  Not as reactive as magnesium, and not as hard to ignite as aluminum

Maroon – British term for a salute 

Matching – the process of connecting multiple fireworks or portions of fireworks with quick match.

Mine (star mine) – a firework similar to a shell that explodes in a mortar, igniting effects such as stars and launching them in a fan-shaped pattern into the air.  Not to be confused with military land mines.

Misfire – whenever the fuse of a shell burns into the device, but it fails to fire - the potentially "live" shell is left in the mortar.  It could be due to a hangfire.

Missile - a type of rocket that uses fins rather than a stick for guidance.

Mortar – tube from which aerial fireworks such as shells and mines are ejected. Mortars can be made from cardboard, high density polyethylene, or fiberglass. They can NOT be made from PVC.

Mortar Rack – a wooden or metal frame that contains many mortars 

Multi-break – shell with numerous compartments, each one bursting separately.

Muzzle break – when a shell bursts immediately after leaving the mortar, scattering its effects all over the ground.

Nosing paper – thin paper wrapped around and extending off of the nozzle of a pyrotechnic device, used to hold the fuse in place and prevent sparks from prematurely igniting the device.

Novelty - a small firework shaped like a animal, vehicle, or structure.  Novelties emit small sprays of sparks, crackle, and whistle, and often move around on little wheels.

Orange Book – nickname for the booklet titled ATF – Explosives Law and Regulations

Palm tree – a comet shell that burns with a thick tail of sparks on the way up then breaks several spreading "branches" of sparks.

Parallel burning – sequence where a piece of burning material ignites the piece next to it, which in turn ignites the piece next to that (such as fuse).

Parallel matching – ignition sequence where one fuse is connected to and simultaneously ignites multiple pyrotechnics devices (such as shells and set pieces).

Pattern shell – A shell that breaks in a perfect spherical pattern.

Pearl – single color star, launched from the ground.

Peony – loosely symmetrical break of stars without trails that fly outward and then begin to droop downward.

PGI – Pyrotechnics Guild International

Pigeon – device that consists of many rats, designed to fly back and forth, and even spin.  

Pinwheel – see Wheel

Pipe – loose paper tubing fitted over black match to make quick match.

Portfires – see Flare  

Prime – a composition such as black powder that is relatively easy to ignite that is mixed with water and a binder to form slurry, then applied onto fuse or stars composed of something that is more difficult to ignite. 

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) – A plastic pipe that should NEVER be used for mortars since it can shatter into razor sharp pieces. It is basically the same as ABS.  

Pulverone – see Green Mix

Pumped stars – stars produced by compressing star composition out of a cylindrical tube like a syringe, and cutting them off at a specific length.  

Punk – a stick of compressed sawdust that burns extremely slow, used for igniting consumer fireworks.

Pyro – from the Greek word for "fire" it used by itself as nickname for a fireworks enthusiast. 

Pyrotechnician – someone who builds or shoots fireworks.

Quick match – extremely rapidly burning fuse used to ignite multiple fireworks at virtually the same instant.  

Rack – a wooden frame used to hold mortars, or a device used for launching rockets.

Ramming Rod – a rod made of non-sparking material (wood, brass, or aluminum) used to compress pyrotechnic compositions within a tube, for example, to make fountains.

Rat – rocket constrained to fly along a line; often emitting sparks and effects.

Repeater – firework which fires multiple aerial effects into the sky.

Report – an explosion. This generally used to describe an aerial explosion such as the pop of a bottle rocket.  

Ring shell - a burst that produces a symmetrical ring of stars

Rising Effect – things such as whistles, stars, crackles etc. that are released by a shell during its ascent.

Rocket – a firework that is propelled by a rocket engine into the air and releases its effects.  Rockets are almost never used anymore in public fireworks displays.

Roman candle – It is a tube-shaped device that fires a series of stars into the air.

Round star – spherical stars most commonly used in fireworks.  Round stars are created by putting a type of small "core", such as lead bird shot or pasta, inside of a bowl and adding star composition and a solvent mixture while the bowl is swirled around.  The star composition accumulates on the cores like snow does when you roll a snowball.

Saltpeter – an old term for potassium nitrate (KNO3), a common oxidizer used in fireworks.

Salute –loud report without stars or colors.

Safe and Sane – consumer fireworks that do not explode or contain aerial effects.  This grade includes fountains, novelties, smoke devices, sparklers and snaps.

Safety cap – paper cap placed over bare end of quick match fuse to prevent premature ignition.

Safety fuse – see visco fuse

Series circuit – the most effective way of connecting electrical igniters.  They are arranged in a series (one after another), which makes them more reliable and easier to test for continuity.

Series matching – ignition sequence where devices are fused to ignite one after another, like a chain of dominos.  

Set Piece – a large number of lances mounted on a frame in a pattern (shapes, letters) and fused together for instantaneous ignition.

Shell – short term for Aerial Shell

Shell of Shells – a large shell that contains smaller shells as well as stars, and upon bursting ignite the smaller shells and create secondary bursts. 

Short circuit – It is an ignition failure caused when an electrical circuit is accidentally completed in the wrong place such as bare wires shunting the electricity away from the igniter.

Shot – refers to the number of effects in a fireworks device, such as 10-shot roman candle or a 25-shot aerial repeater.

Side spit – sparks and flame that shoot out from a fuse as it burns.

Silver Salute - an illegal explosive similar to an M-80 (but slightly longer) with a silver tube.

Smoke – a dispersion of fine solid particles in air, typically in the 10-5-10-9 meter range.  Smokes are typically produced by the incomplete burning of an organic substance (black carbon smoke) or the vaporization of a volatile ingredient which condenses in air.

Smoke Item - a firework that generates smoke as a primary effect, including smoke balls and smoke canisters.  

Snake - a small black pellet that, when lit, burns slowly to produce a long column of brittle ash that resembles a snake coming out of the ground.

Spark – a tiny, light-emitting particle ejected from a burning composition.

Sparkler – a wire coated in a pyrotechnic composition that gives off sparks while burning.  Though they seem harmless and are considered "safe", they cause more injuries than any other firework.

Spindle – a spike-shaped piece of metal used for forming the cone-shaped combustion chamber inside of a rocket.  The increased surface area provides maximum thrust.  

Spiral-wound tube – It is a type of tube created by winding multiple strips of thin paper at an angle (like a toilet paper tube).

Star – small pellet that emits light and sparks as it burns.

Star gun – small roman candle-like device used for testing stars.

Star pump – syringe-like container through which star composition is pushed out of and cut into individual stars.

Sticky match – quick match type fuse consisting of a trail of black power between two pieces of tape stuck against each other.

Strobe – bright stars that each flash repeatedly.  Also refers to a consumer fireworks device that emits a series of extremely bright flashes.

Time fuse – thick, slow burning fused used for time delays in aerial shells.

Titanium report – loud explosion in the air with white sparks.  

Top-fused – a method of shell construction where the time fuse enters the shell at the top and is ignited by the leader fuse.

Tourbillion – see helicopter  

Volley – an intense barrage of shells or rockets.

Visco – a slow-burning fuse (usually green) used to make fireworks.  

Waterfall – a long series of fountains suspended upside-down, usually from a bridge, that when ignited produce long-lasting white/blue sparks that resemble a waterfall.

Wheel – device that spins rapidly using drivers, emitting sparks, whistles, and other effects.

Whirlwind – tube that spins in the air giving off showers of sparks.

Whistle – high-pitched shriek caused by air rushing through a partly hollow tube.  

Whistle Mix - a composition that uses potassium/sodium benzoate as a fuel.  Such a composition exhibits "vibration burning", which causes the characteristic whistling sound.  Whistle mix can be used for whistling devices (such as Piccolo Petes or shell inserts), or as part of the burst charge in small shells.

Weeping Willow - a downward break of charcoal-rich stars that resembles the drooping branches of a willow tree.  The stars give off thick trails of orange sparks which hang in the air for a long time

Willow – falling trails of sparks