On fireworks


— 3:41 PM on July 6, 2009

In the past few years, my brother and I have arrived at a place where we have the resources and venue to purchase and use, well, real fireworks, of the sort that aren't legal in an urban or suburban setting.

These days, with Safety Nazis on the prowl with ever-increasing assertiveness, you might be thinking I'm talking about sparklers or snakes. Such a mistake could be forgiven.

But I am not, and I'm not talking about ladyfingers and bottle rockets, either. I'm talking about the sort of fireworks that, used improperly, could blow your foot off or set the house on fire. You know, the fun ones.

We've been able to buy and detonate an increasing number of such devices because, for the past couple of years, we've had access to a house in the country, where no one particularly cares what sort of fire-related things—fireworks, firearms, brush fires, fire whiskey, various combinations of the preceding elements—one does for amusement.

During this span of time, we've begun to develop an understanding of what sort of fireworks we tend to enjoy and, quite literally, how to get the most bang for your buck. After this year's multi-hour extravaganza of flame and smoke, once the kids were down to bed, my brother and I sat outside on his front porch, beer in hand, considering the good and the bad of our most recent efforts. Some of this knowledge is a culmination of a life-long trajectory of blowing stuff up in mid-summer for my brother and me, but keep in mind that we are still relative newcomers to the higher-budget, higher-payload adult versions of these things. Make of this info what you will; perhaps you'll find it useful should you find yourself in possession of some rural land and a few hundred bucks to spare around the Fourth of July.

Much of what we've learned simply involves types of fireworks—which ones are a sham, and which ones are good and worthy. Here's what I think of each:

Kiddie stuff — Sparklers, snakes, tanks, flowers, party poppers, snaps, and the like. A necessary evil, but handled with an economy of time and money by buying a "kiddie pack" at the country store. 12 bucks, five seconds, and you can move on to inspecting the more important things.

Oh, and I suppose I should have mentioned: If you are buying your fireworks at a suburban tent run by the local Boy Scout troop, you're doing it wrong. Find a semi-rural store in a real building that's open all year round. These places sell to the fund-raising crowd, pre-markup, and they will sell to you, as well. A bit of a drive will be worth it.

Fountains — Although technically not considered kiddie fireworks, these devices do not explode. I've looked into it, and this behavior is apparently by design. As a result, during this firework's moments of action, your mother may take the opportunity to turn to your wife and tell her a story of some sort, perhaps about when you were a baby. Fortunately, armed with this knowledge, you may avoid this class of firework entirely.

Rockets and parachutes — My two absolute favorite sorts of fireworks since childhood have fallen sharply out of favor with me in recent years. Fireworks parachutes have maybe a 30% chance of actually opening properly with current quality control standards, which is a heck of a buzzkill. Worse, the gunpowder used in fireworks turns out to be a lousy rocket propellant. You'll get a larger payload up to higher altitudes with an artillery-style mortar shell any time.

Instead, to get your rocket-and-parachute fix, go pick up a model rocket kit from the local hobby store, along with some extra motors. If you have the room to detonate real fireworks, you probably have the room to launch a model rocket. Even the cheap ones will reach ten times the altitude of a skyrocket, and if you fold it right, the parachute will deploy correctly over 90% of the time. Larger model rockets require FAA clearance for launch, which pretty much says it all. A vastly superior alternative.

Spinners — A large spinner, when nailed to a utility pole, can produce a spectacular display for a few minutes that will surely please a crowd. Yet even large spinners can be relatively cheap. What's more, the incredibly strong sense of grass-fire danger more than makes up for the fact that most spinners don't actually detonate.

Bees — Helicopter-style bees, when placed on a flat surface, spin around and lift off into the air, scattering showers of sparks wherever they fly, sometimes to considerable altitudes. Oftentimes, as they begin to burn out, a partially-powered bee will suddenly careen off in a random direction, say toward a toddler, a fireworks stash, or a propane tank. Thrilling for all involved.

And cheap thrills! We got a pack of six large bees for $3.75 this year. Given the chance, I'd take that deal over again several times next year.

"Homemade" — A key component of any country fireworks display is at least one firework not sanctioned by any government body, something large and menacing, about which grown men speak only in hushed tones. There are two keys here. One is finding a source for such a device, preferably through a friend of one's cousin's in-laws or some such, who can ensure quality and who probably has never heard the words "plausible deniability," yet understands the concept perfectly. The other key is escalation: each year's "special feature" must outdo the last, hopefully via a larger force, and most optimally in surprising fashion.

I'm not saying we had such a special feature in this year's display, but if we had, I suppose it would have created a breathtakingly powerful blast, coupled with a 3'x6' white flash, that penetrated the sheet of plywood on which it sat and created a crater underneath. Had that happened, I might have giggled uncontrollably for two minutes or more in the aftermath.

Cakes — A fireworks display in a box, or cardboard cylinder, or a little house made to look like a gazebo, cakes are typically not cheap. They are, however, often very good values. Even medium-sized ones can burn for a few minutes and incorporate a dazzling amount of variety. Each year, we buy a larger, heavier, and more expensive cake to use as our grand finale, and each year, we are pleased with the outcome. When presented with a choice between multiple cakes of the same basic size and price, we have taken to lifting them up to determine which is heaviest, since it likely includes the most powder.

In addition to a large cake finale, we had several medium-sized cakes and even a few small ones this year, and we enjoyed them all. One goal for future years is to incorporate more cakes by saving on rockets and small stuff. Cakes are to be preferred to fountains in all cases, regardless of size.

Mortars — Artillery-style mortar-shell fireworks have become the heart of our annual fireworks extravaganza. These are typically smaller versions of the sort of fireworks used in commercial or municipal displays. The payload is launched out of a tube, and it then detonates in the sky in some colorful, round pattern. The right kind will get you arrested in most suburban settings, but where there's room, these will let you pretty well replicate the experience of a professional display on your own terms.

Mortars generally fire a single shot skyward, which may then detonate one to three times. Large cakes are often multi-shot mortars launched in sequence, but they tend to cost more for each shot. We understand that mortars are the most cost-effective way to get the job done, but we are still learning which ones are best. This year, we took dual tracks: the low road and the high road.

The low road consisted of a six-shot box of Black Cat-brand fireworks for $3.50, special deal. We took this deal four times, giving us 24 medium-sized, single-shot shells. As expected, these shells weren't the largest, didn't travel the highest, and weren't the most spectacular of displays, but for the money, they were a fantastic supplement to our larger selections.

The high road consisted of a fairly pricey box of artillery-style mortars with one to three detonations per shell. Our selection was from the Shogun brand and had the words "Commercial grade" emblazoned on the box in large letters—certain proof that they were not, you know, really commercial grade. Still, they were large, menacing, and recommended by the folks at the fireworks shop.

And I have to say, for sheer power, they did not disappoint. Both the launch detonation and the subsequent explosions had a concussive power beyond anything we'd used before.

Unfortunately, for all of that, they didn't reach great heights before exploding, and those detonations didn't yield much that was particularly creative or memorable compared to, uh, whatever brand it was we used last year or, crucially, whatever brand the surrounding neighbors had chosen. We would have gladly traded some of the pop for more sizzle. Next year, we'll probably try a few different brands of mortars, if we have the means. We know this is the way to go, but the path holds perils we did not anticipate.

Of course, if you have suggestions for a brand we should try our a source we should investigate, feel free to let us know by posting the comments below. With your help, we'll have loads of fun, one blown-off finger at a time.

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