Fireworks Glossary

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Fireworks Glossary


Aerial – Any fireworks item that shoots flaming balls into the air, such as a cake or mortar.

AHJ – Is an acronym for "the authority having jurisdiction". Generally refers to the fire marshal, local police department, local fire department, or whoever is responsible for regulating and monitoring fireworks in your area.

Ash Can – Ash can is another name for a silver salute. True ash cans became illegal in 1966. Legal ash cans today contain only 50 milligrams of flash powder.

Assortment – A collection of fireworks items, generally consisting of fountains, sparklers, rockets, and firecrackers.

ATFE (ATF) – The Federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives. The ATFE is responsible for regulating the sale, manufacturing, importation, storage, and use of professional display fireworks and explosives. The ATFE does not regulate the legal use of consumer fireworks.


Barrage – A group of items fired all at once.

Battery – A battery is a group of similar items that is constructed as a single bundle, such as a missile battery or a roman candle battery.

Black Match – Used in the manufacture of fireworks, black match is a type of fuse that is made by saturating cotton string in black powder. Unconfined, black match burns at an approximate rate of one inch per second. See also quick match.

Black Powder – Also known as gun powder, black powder is a mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulfur. It is the principal ingredient in most fireworks because it is not sensitive to shock and its burning properties are predictable and slow. Generally used as a propellant to shoot flaming balls, and in the manufacture of stars for aerial effects.

Bombette – A Bombette is an exploding star, usually ejected from a roman candle or fountain. Bombettes are limited to a maximum charge of 130 milligrams of flash powder in legal consumer fireworks.

Bottle Rocket – A small rocket that is approximately the size of a standard firecracker, one and one-half inches long, with a thin stick attached to it that is approximately 12 inches in length. Bottle rockets can contain whistle effects and may contain a report (loud bang).

Bouquet Pattern – A bouquet patter is a floral-shaped aerial pattern of stars, usually in a spherical shape (see the definition for peony).

Brocade – A spider like effect in the sky, much like fine lace. The brocade effect is generally a silver tail effect, and is brighter than the willow or tiger tail effect. Most brocade effects use glitter to produce the long brocade tails.


Cake – Sometimes referred to as "repeaters" or "multi-shot aerials", a cake is an item that has a single fuse which is used to light several tubes in sequence. Cakes can have a variety of intricate aerial effects.

Candle – Another name for roman candle (see definition below).

Cherry Bomb – A cherry bomb is a round firecracker, red in color, and approximately one-inch in diameter, with a green water proof fuse sticking out the side. The original cherry bomb contained more than one gram of flash powder and was very powerful. These were declared illegal in 1966 by the federal government.

Chlorates – A powerful form of chemical oxidizer, including potassium chlorate and barium chlorate. Because these items can form compounds that are sensitive to shock, especially when they come in contact with sulfur, they are banned from all consumer fireworks, but may be present in some professional display fireworks.

Chrysanthemum – A flower-like aerial pattern, usually resulting from a cake or mortar.

Comet – A type of star that leaves a long trail of sparks as it flies through the air.

Cone – A type of fountain in the shape of a cone.

Confetti – Paper streamers in multiple colors that are propelled by a gas cartridge or by a small pyrotechnic charge.

Consumer Fireworks – Fireworks that have been approved by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Fireworks that are approved by the CPSC must be able to withstand 350 degree temperatures for two days, must not be able to explode with mechanical shock, are limited to 500 grams of composition, and cannot contain aerial bursts that have more than 130 milligrams of flash powder. If the item has not been approved by the CPSC, it cannot be classified as consumer fireworks.

CPSC – The US Consumer Product Safety Commission, a federal agency responsible for testing and approving all consumer fireworks. The CPSC website can be found here.

Crackle Effect – A fireworks effects that sounds like hundreds of snaps or crackles, usually accompanied by an aerial gold lace visual effect.

Crossette – A type of comet that breaks into multiple comets, usually forming a cross shape.


Dahlia – A shell that produces a starfish like shape.

Day Time Effect – A type of fireworks that can be enjoyed better during the day time than the night time. Includes smoke items and parachute items.

Deflagrate – To burn or vaporize suddenly, usually accompanied by a considerable amount of heat and large volumes of gas. When the speed of the burn or the escaping gas exceeds the speed of sound, the result is a loud boom. Deflagration is the scientific term for how fireworks explode.

Detonate – A characteristic of high explosives, a detonation occurs when the explosive decomposition of a substance forms an energy wave that moves rapidly though the substance at speeds that exceed the speed of sound. Technically speaking, fireworks do not detonate, but high explosives do.

Display Fireworks – Professional fireworks that are regulated by the ATFE and generally require a special license to buy, store, and use. These fireworks are commonly seen in large displays sponsored by a city or other large organization. Display Fireworks are classified as Fireworks UN0335, 1.3G Explosives by the US DOT. Consumer Fireworks are not considered to be Display Fireworks. In some parts of the country, Display Fireworks are sometimes referred to as “Commercial Fireworks,” however this usage is NOT universally accepted by all fireworks professionals and government officials.

Display Permit – A special permit that is granted by the local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to allow you to shoot fireworks legally. Some areas charge a fee for a display permit and may require a fireworks license, hazard insurance, or other documentation to obtain the permit.

DOT – DOT is an abbreviation for the US Department of Transportation. The DOT is responsible for classifying explosives in the United States. The DOT classification 1.4G is synonymous with consumer fireworks, while 1.3G is synonymous with display fireworks. The DOT imposes special requirements on businesses that transport materials with these special designations. The DOT website can be found here.


Electric Match – An electric match is a device that is used to ignite fireworks using electrical current. Approximately one inch in length and ¼ inch round, these items usually consist of a small nickel-chromium wire with a pyrogen coating. An electrical current causes the nickel-chromium wire to heat up, igniting the pyrogen and starting the fuse.

Explosive – A substance or mixture which, when submitted to shock, friction, sparks, or flame, can undergo rapid decomposition with the production of a considerable quantity of heat and large volumes of gas.


Falling Leaves – A beautiful aerial effect that consists of glowing embers that tumble slowly in the air, flickering back and forth as they fall back to earth.

Firecracker – A fireworks item containing flash powder and wrapped in paper with a fuse attached. When the fuse is lit, it burns down inside the paper until it reaches the flash powder. The deflagration of the flash powder results in a loud bang. Legal consumer firecrackers are limited to a maximum of 50 milligrams of flash powder.

Firefly – A stroboscopic tail effect that consists of many distinct bright flashes of light.

Fireworks – A device that is designed to be burned or ignited in order to yield a visible and/or audio effect.

Fish – An aerial effect that looks like a swarm of objects squirming though the air. This effect usually lasts only a few seconds. Fish are actually a type of fuse that propels itself through the air, creating a swimming effect.

Flare – A cylindrical device containing a composition that burns for several minutes. Flares are generally 12 inches or longer in length, and are commonly used to light display fireworks.

Flash Powder – A silvery chemical mixture usually consisting of potassium perchlorate and finely powdered aluminum. It is used as the explosive component of firecrackers, aerial salutes, and the reports in rockets and roman candles. Flash powder is very dangerous to manufacture.

Flitter – Similar to glitter, flitter is a type of star that contains bright flashes of light in the trail the star leaves behind.

Floral Pattern – An aerial pattern that resembles a flower with points of light that streak outward from the center of the break.

Fountain – A ground device that emits showers of sparks several feet in the air.
Fuse – An item resembling a string or wire that is used to light a fireworks device.


Glitter – A tail effect that contains flashes of light and small explosive bursts lasting several seconds.

Go Getter – A self-propelled star that "swims" in the sky link a rocket without fins.

Ground Item – Ground items are any item that is lit on the ground and does not shoot objects into the sky. This includes fountains, sparklers, snaps, snakes, pops, smoke balls, and other items.


Helicopter – A term for a device that spins very fast and lifts high into the sky, only to explode or burst into a special aerial effect. These are also called planes, sky flyers, or UFOs.

High Explosives – High explosives are extraordinarily powerful substances that can release large amounts of energy and heat. They can be detonated by a sufficiently large mechanical or explosive shock, and generally require the use of an initiator to start the detonation. Examples of high explosives include TNT, nitroglycerine, RDX and PETN. High explosives are not used in fireworks.

Horsetail – Named for the shape of its break, this shell features heavy long-burning tailed stars that only travel a short distance from the shell burst before free-falling to the ground. Also known as a waterfall shell, sometimes there is a glittering through the “waterfall.”


Illegal Fireworks – Illegal fireworks include any firecracker with more than 50 milligrams of flash powder, such as the original 1960’s version of the M80, cherry bomb, silver salute, or quarter stick. Consumer fireworks also may not contain any chlorates, red phosphorus, high explosives, more than 130 milligrams of flash powder in an aerial report, or more than 500 grams of total composition.

Initiator – A device containing primary explosives that is used to initiate quantities of high explosives. These are not fireworks.


Jumping Jacks – Similar in appearance to a firecracker, jumping jacks spin rapidly and emit red and green sparks.


Lance – A tube of pyrotechnic composition, usually five inches long, that burns for one minute. Lances come in various colors are used in set pieces for fireworks events. See the definition of set piece below.

Low Explosives – These are explosives that burn at a steady speed and can only be detonated under extreme circumstances (if at all). Low explosives are generally used as propellants, and are seldom used in demolition work. Examples of low explosives are black powder and fireworks.


M80 – The original M80 was a military simulator that was sold as a firecracker. M80s are red in color, one and one-half inches long, 5/8 of an inch in diameter, with a green waterproof fuse sticking out the side. It contained two grams of flash powder and was responsible for hundreds of serious injuries due to its powerful blast. These items were banned by the CPSC in 1966, and made illegal by the BATF (now ATFE) in the 1970’s. Illegal M80’s sometimes contain compositions that are sensitive to shock and can injure or kill people.

Mine – An aerial device that shoot stars into the sky in an upward spray pattern.

Missile – In fireworks, a missile is a sky rocket that does not have a stick for guidance. Instead, it may rotate to give it some stability as it lifts off, or may be shot from a tube (like Saturn Missile Batteries).

Mortar – A mortar is a paper or HDPE tube containing a shell with a long fuse. The shell has a lift charge on the bottom that helps propel it into the air. Once in the air, the shell explodes open and release stars and other effects that streak the sky with various designs. Most display fireworks are shot from mortars.

Multi-Shot Aerial – This is another name for a cake or repeater.


NFPA – An abbreviation for the National Fire Protection Association. The NFPA is responsible for setting uniform national standards for fireworks use, manufacture transportation, and storage. NFPA 1122 sets standards for Model Rocketry. NFPA 1123 sets standards for using display fireworks. NFPA 1124 sets standards for manufacturing and transporting fireworks. NFPA 1125 sets standards for manufacturing model rockets. NFPA 1126 sets standards for the use of proximate (indoor) fireworks. NFPA 1127 sets
standards for the hobby of high-power rocketry. The NFPA website is here.

Novelty – Fireworks items that are limited in their potential to harm people and property, such as snaps, snakes, poppers, and (sometimes) sparklers.


Palm Tree – An aerial effect that produces a gold or silver stem as the shell rises into the sky (known as a rising tail), followed by a brocade or willow effect that creates palm fronds. It resembles a gold or silver palm tree in the sky.

Parachute – A paper projectile that is expelled from a mortar tube either as a single-shot item, or as a multi-shot effect in a cake.

Peony – An aerial effect that looks like a spherical ball of colored lights in the sky. A very common aerial effect on most fireworks displays.

Perchlorates – A common oxidizer used in fireworks manufacture. With a few exceptions, perchlorates are preferred over chlorates because their compounds are generally less sensitive to shock.

Pistil – A ball of stars in the center of another ball of stars. Another way to describe this effect is a small peony inside a larger peony.

Planes – A term for a device that spins very fast and lifts high into the sky, only to explode or burst into a special aerial effect. These are also called helicopters, sky flyers, or UFOs.

Primary Explosives – Also known as initiators or initiating explosives, these items are stable under normal conditions, but will detonate if ignited and can be extremely sensitive to mechanical shock. These are typically used to initiate high explosives. Primary fireworks are used in fireworks.

Proximate Fireworks – The formal name for indoor fireworks. Indoor fireworks are used for concerts and public events, and their use in public shows is heavily regulated in most States.

Punk – A punk is a bamboo stick with a brown coating that burns slowly. These look identical to incense sticks, but do not have a distinctive aromatic effect like incense does. Punks are generally used to light consumer fireworks. Another way to light fireworks is with an instant-on propane torch or a road flare. Because fuses are known to spit fire occasionally, lighting fireworks with matches is strongly discouraged.

Pyrotechnics – Fireworks are classified as pyrotechnics.


Quarter Stick – The original quarter sticks were similar to M80’s, but were larger in size and contained 10 grams or more of flash powder. Quarter sticks were silver in color, four inches long, one inch in diameter, with a four inch green waterproof fuse sticking out the side. These items were so powerful that they could dismember and kill people who misused them. Quarter sticks were banned by the CPSC in 1966, and made illegal by the BATF (now ATFE) in the 1970’s. Illegal quarter sticks can contain compositions that are extremely sensitive to shock and can injure or kill without warning. The ATFE imprisons people that are caught with illegal quarter sticks.

Quick Match – Quick match is a type of fuse that is used to light professional display fireworks. It consists of black match that is wrapped loosely in a paper pipe, approximately 3/8 on an inch in diameter. While black match burns at a rate of one inch per second in the open air, quick match burns at a rate of approximately sixty feet per second (very fast). See the definition of black match (above) for more information.


Reloadable Aerial – A reloadable aerial is an aerial mortar that includes one or more mortar tubes and several reloadable aerial shells. The shells are placed inside the mortar tube, a long quick-burning fuse is lit, and the item is fired into the sky. These items are consumer versions of the mortar-based fireworks used in professional display fireworks.

Repeater – Sometimes referred to as “cakes” or “multi-shot aerials”, a repeater is a cluster of aerial tubes with a single fuse. The name “cake” was attributed to these because the cluster of tubes looks similar to a cake in size and shape. Once the fuse is lit, each of the tubes is fired in sequence.

Report – A report is another name for a bang. Items with reports explode with a bang. This term is most often used with rockets and cakes.

Ring Shell – A shell that produces a ring as its aerial pattern. See also Saturn shell.

Rising Tail – A rising tail is a gold or silver tail effect that is created when a shell is shot into the sky, similar to the trunk of a tree. Commonly used with palm tree shells.

Rocket – A rocket is a tube-like pyrotechnic device made out of a paper tube that propels itself into the air in order to fly. There are many different kinds of rockets, including sky rockets, bottle rockets, and missiles. Please refer to these items for more information on rockets.

Roman Candle – A paper tube filled with composition that shoots flaming balls out one end of the tube. Most roman candles have five or more balls. Roman candles should never be held in your hand. Instead, they should be planted securely in the ground and pointed away from people and flammable objects. A good way to shoot roman candles is to get a five gallon pail and fill it with kitty litter. The roman candles can be easily inserted into the bucket of kitty litter and fired safely.


Safe and Sane – This is a term for fireworks that do not have aerial effects or explode. Items that are classified as Safe and Sane include sparklers, snaps, smoke balls, fountains, snakes, and (in some cases) wheels. Items that are not classified as Safe and Sane include firecrackers, rockets, and cakes. Some States restrict legal fireworks to Safe and Sane items only.

Salute – A salute is an item that explodes. This term is most frequently used in regard to aerial items, although some people refer to firecrackers as "ground salutes". When a salute explodes, it is referred to as a “report”.

Saturn Shell – A shell that produces a ring around an inside ball of stars. The Saturn shell is a combination of a peony with a ring around it.

Serpent – Another name for a tourbillion. A serpent is a type of star that spins in the sky and gives off large quantities of gold, silver, or white light. These are generally constructed as a small paper tube with holes on each end that allow it to spin.

Set Piece – A ground item consisting of many colored lances that is used to draw a picture. Common examples of set pieces include American Flags, the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty, God Bless America, and many other types of signs. Set pieces are expensive and time consuming to build. It is not unusual for a single set piece to cost several thousand dollars.

Shell – A shell is an aerial item that is fired into the sky. It generally consists of a fuse, a lift bag, and a paper ball filled with stars and burst media. The fuse lights the lift bag on the bottom of the shell propelling it into the sky. At the same time, an internal time fuse is triggered and at the right time the paper shell bursts with all of its stars lit. The type of stars contained inside the shell determines the effect the shell produces in the sky.

Silver Salute – A silver salute is an M80 firecracker with a silver colored paper tube. The words “do not hold in hand” are generally written on the tube. See the item titled M80 for more information on these devices.

Single Shot Aerial – A single shot aerial is a mortar tube with a shell already installed in it. These items generally have a fuse sticking out the side of the mortar at the base of the tube. While these are single-shot, one time use items only, these items can produce some spectacular effects.

Sky Flyer – A term for a device that spins very fast and lifts high into the sky, only to explode or burst into a special aerial effect. These are also called planes, helicopters, or UFOs.

Sky Rocket – A sky rocket is a pyrotechnic device made out of a paper tube that propels itself into the air in order to fly. Sky rockets generally have a stick to add stability to the flight of the rocket. Firework rockets that do not have sticks are referred to as missiles.

Smoke Item – Any item that produces a smoke effects, including smoke balls and aerial items that produce smoke instead of light or noise. Smoke items are generally used during the daytime.

Snakes – Snakes are hard pellets that are lit and produce a long carbon snake. The items are popular with kids; however the pellets can be poisonous and should not be accessible to young children.

Snaps – Snaps are paper balls that are filled with a cap composition that goes BANG when they are thrown at something. Snaps are generally safe for most kids to use.

Sparkler – A stick with a coating of pyrotechnic composition that creates sparks when lit. While sparklers are generally considered safe, they are responsible for over eighty percent of the injuries due to fireworks each year. This is because people throw the hot sparkler wires on the ground and other people step on them. If you use sparklers, please make sure you have a bucket of water handy to place the used sparkler wires in when the sparkler burns out.

Spinner – A spinner is a type of star that spins in the sky and gives off large quantities of white light. Another name for spinner is tourbillion.

Squib – A type of fireworks slang for an electric match (see definition of electric match above). True squibs are actually blasting caps (initiators) used in the explosive industry to set off high explosives. This term crept into fireworks jargon by individuals that did not understand the differences between an electric match and a blasting cap. True squibs are not used for fireworks.

Star – A small pellet of composition that produces a pyrotechnic effect. Stars are used in aerial shells, rockets, roman candles, cakes, and fountains to produce streaks or light, pulses, long golden tails, and other aerial effects. A single shell could contain several hundred stars.

Strobe – A strobe is a blinking effect. When used in a shell with hundreds of strobe stars, the strobe effect looks like shimmering water in the sky. Strobes can be a variety of colors, including white, green, blue, and orange.


Tail – A burning trail that follows a star in the sky. Most comets have tails, and so do willow and brocade effects.

Titanium Salute – An aerial salute that produces white sparks along with a loud report. Titanium is frequently used in fireworks to produce bright silver-white sparks.

Tourbillion – Another name for a serpent. A tourbillion is a type of star that spins in the sky and gives off large quantities of gold, silver, or white light. These are generally constructed as a small paper tube with holes on each end that allow it to spin.

Tube – A tube is another name for a mortar (see definition for mortar above).


UFO – A term for a device that spins very fast and lifts high into the sky, only to explode or burst into a special aerial effect. These are also called helicopters, planes, or sky flyers.


Visco – Visco is a type of rugged water proof fuse that is used to light fireworks. Most visco fuse is green in color, but is available in almost any color. Because visco fuse is know to spit fire when it is lit, you should never light visco directly with a match or anything that would put your fingers in close proximity to the fuse. Instead, visco should be lit with a propane torch, a road flare, or a long punk (see definition for punk above).


Wheel – A wheel is a stationary device that spins and creates a circular ring of fire and sparks. These are generally nailed to a pole or a tree before they are lit. You should always be careful to make sure the area is free from flammable debris before you light a wheel as the sparks can carry ten feet or more.

Whistle – Whistles are generally small paper tubes filled with a composition that makes a sharp howling sound. Whistles can be found in rockets, fountains, cakes

Wholesale Fireworks – Fireworks that are sold by the case. You can generally save twenty percent of more by purchasing fireworks by the case.

Willow – An aerial effect that looks like a giant gold willow tree in the sky. A true willow effect has delicate golden trails that hang in the sky ten seconds or more.

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