How Fireworks Work

Aerial Fireworks
Aerial fireworks are the large, colorful fireworks you might see in a Fourth of July show.
Aerial fireworks are the large, colorful fireworks you might see in a Fourth of July show.

An aerial firework is normally formed as a shell that consists of four parts:

  • Container - Usually pasted paper and string formed into a cylinder
  • Stars - Spheres, cubes or cylinders of a sparkler-like composition
  • Bursting charge - Firecracker-like charge at the center of the shell
  • Fuse - Provides a time delay so the shell explodes at the right altitude

Located just below the shell is a small cylinder that contains the lifting charge.

The shell is launched from a mortar. The mortar might be a short, steel pipe with a lifting charge of black powder that explodes in the pipe to launch the shell. When the lifting charge fires to launch the shell, it lights the shell's fuse. The shell's fuse burns while the shell rises to its correct altitude, and then ignites the bursting charge so it explodes.

A simple shell used in an aerial fireworks display. The blue balls are the stars, and the gray is black powder. The powder is packed into the center tube, which is the bursting charge. It is also sprinkled between the stars to help ignite them.

Simple shells consist of a paper tube filled with stars and black powder. Stars come in all shapes and sizes, but you can imagine a simple star as something like sparkler compound formed into a ball the size of a pea or a dime. The stars are poured into the tube and then surrounded by black powder. When the fuse burns into the shell, it ignites the bursting charge, causing the shell to explode. The explosion ignites the outside of the stars, which begin to burn with bright showers of sparks. Since the explosion throws the stars in all directions, you get the huge sphere of sparkling light that is so familiar at fireworks displays.

Multibreak Shells

More complicated shells burst in two or three phases. Shells like this are called multibreak shells. They may contain stars of different colors and compositions to create softer or brighter light, more or less sparks, etc. Some shells contain explosives designed to crackle in the sky, or whistles that explode outward with the stars.

Multibreak shells may consist of a shell filled with other shells, or they may have multiple sections without using additional shells. The sections of a multibreak shell are ignited by different fuses. The bursting of one section ignites the next. The shells must be assembled in such a way that each section explodes in sequence to produce a distinct separate effect. The explosives that break the sections apart are called break charges.

Next, we'll look at how fireworks explode in various patterns during a display.

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