Firework Knowledge Base

Firework History

Classical fireworks originated in China more than 2000 years ago, when a simple experiment mixed saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal.

When heated and dried they formed a black, flaky powder, which the Chinese called 'huo yao' ("fire chemical"), known today as gun powder.

The Chinese were fascinated by this mysterious fire chemical and began experimenting with various materials to hold the powder. Eventually they discovered that a hollow bamboo shoot filled with the fire chemical allowed for a build up of gas pressure inside. A loud bang would be heard when the shoot was thrown onto a fire. The shoot is now known as the simple fire cracker.

The Chinese believed gun powder had mystical powers that could warn off evil spirits, and was used for weddings and other religious rituals. It was also used for warfare applications including fire arrows and 'ground rats' that scared soldiers and their horses.

Marco Polo took the knowledge from China to the Middle East and European Crusaders took it from there to England. Englishman Roger Bacon realised it was the saltpetre compound that caused the explosion but, realising its destructive potential, wrote his findings in a code which was not deciphered for hundreds of years.

It was European chemists who in 1560 mixed the ratio of saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur that is still used today. The use of fireworks for displays progressed in medieval times with steel and charcoal creating yellows and oranges. Reds, greens and blues followed in the 19th century.

Today commercial producers compete to create ever more exciting combinations of colours and effects to suit different moods and occasions.

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Firework Categories

There are four main firework category types:

Category 1: Indoor Fireworks

Category 2: Garden Fireworks

Category 3: Display Fireworks

Category 4: Larger display fireworks not available for sale to the general public

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Firework Making

This section is not a guide to making fireworks and is only meant to help readers gain a greater understanding of how fireworks work by learning how they are made. With safety in mind detailed chemical formulas are not given.

Firework making is very complex and requires great skill and care, not only so the fireworks perform correctly but also to avoid a potentially fatal accident. Makers of fireworks have to learn the science behind the fireworks - this is called Pyrotechnics.

Black powder is the main ingredient in fireworks. When it is heated a chemical reaction causes it to explode with a loud bang and a flash of light.

Another ingredient of a firework is "stars". Stars are a mixture of black powder and compounds. Compounds are a material matter made of two or more elements. Various colours and noise effects can be made by combining different elements within the compound together.

Red: Lithium or Strontium
Orange: Calcium
Yellow: Sodium
Green: Barium
Blue: Copper
Purple: Strontium & Copper
Silver: Aluminium, Titanium or Magnesium

Black powder and stars are assembled together and placed in a container with a bag of black powder attached to the bottom. A fuse is attached to the bag of black powder which runs to the top of the container. When the fuse is lit, a sequence of events takes place:

  • When the fuse sets fire to the bag of black powder this causes the initial explosion. The energy released causes the propulsion of the firework through and out of the container.
  • A second fuse (which is attached from the black bag to the centre of the firework) is lit from the initial explosion and burns slowly until the firework reaches its intended height.
  • When the second fuse burns into the black powder in the centre of the firework it causes the firework to explode and the stars to shoot off in different directions; as the elements within the stars are heated the colours become visible.
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Single Shot (Comet)

A comet or single shot firework is made up of a single mortar / cardboard tube that has a single shot of composition/star.

Thick paper is wrapped tightly round a wooden dowel by machine to create a firework tube.

Whilst the tube is kept stable by a strong sleeve one end of the tube is plugged tightly with clay to stop chemicals and burning gases escaping from one end. A small amount of black powder (which acts as the lift charge) is placed in the tube. Then a fuse is attached to the black powder and runs to the top of the container. A further tube containing a star effect is placed into the outer tube.

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Firework Types

By using different techniques, components and casings many different types of fireworks can be made:

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Roman Candle

These fireworks shoot out a brilliant shower of sparks, coloured balls, bangs and flashes in succession. They are made in the same way as a comet, however more stars of different effects are added to the tube which are separated by wadding to create a delay between the stars being fired.

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Roman Candle Battery / Barrages / Cakes

These are made from a group of roman candles fused together to give an awesome display with only a single ignition. We are proud to have one of the largest selections of the finest quality barrages.

Tubes are glued together in rows. The fuse is connected in succession to allow a single ignition to fire all the tubes in a sequence. Several rows of tubes are then glued to each other with more fuses inserted to transfer firing between rows. Finally thin card is attached to the bottom of the firework, cellophane to the top and a colourful label is added to the sides.

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Fan Barrages / Cakes

Very similar to the roman candle barrage but each row of tubes is placed at different angles. One row at a time bursts simultaneously at the same height to produce a magnificent fan of effects into the sky.

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Z Fan Barrages / Z Cakes

These are made in the same way as a fan barrage however they are fused together so that each tube fires from left to right then right to left.

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The traditional rocket is a small aerial firework with its own means of propulsion (black powder). At its intended height, it is usual for a variety of effects (stars, bangs, crackles, etc.) to be emitted. Rockets have a long stick attached to the mortar (casing) for stabilisation and to ensure the flight follows a predictable course.

A tube of black powder is attached to the bottom of a small aerial shell, a fuse is attached which runs from the outside of the tube into the black powder. A second fuse is attached to the aerial shell. The rocket is then enclosed in a plastic casing and a colourful label is added to the sides. The long stick is attached to the casing and a cover for the fuse is added.

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Fountains are ground fireworks that shoot out dazzling coloured, silver or gold sparks. As fountains do not usually contain loud reports, they are a great choice for young children or for adding extra colour and dazzling effects to any display

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Tubular Fountains

A fountain is made by firstly attaching a tube to a base. The tube is plugged tightly with clay to stop chemicals and burning gases escaping from one end. The tube is then filled with a composition mixed together with different elements that make lots of sparks.

The neck of the tube is then filled with a clay plug with a hole in it (the choke). A fuse is pushed through the hole and out of the top of the tube. The fountain is then wrapped in thin cardboard and a colourful label is added.

The wider the hole in the choke, the wider the spread of sparks. The thinner the hole in the choke, the higher the sparks fly.

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Cone Fountains

These are made in the same way as the tubular fountains except the composition is placed inside a cone shaped container. As the cone fountain burns, the higher the shower of sparks becomes. This is due to pressure building up inside as the spread of composition becomes wider.

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Catherine Wheels (Pin Wheels)

These are set pieces that revolve in different kaleidoscope colour combinations. There are many different shapes and sizes available; however the basic principle of is that it has one or more tubular fountain attached to a central hub. When lit the powder composition explodes within the fountain and the pressure turns the wheel, causing a rotating shower of sparks. Some Catherine wheels may even switch directions.

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A mine is a charge pre-loaded in a mortar tube that throws stars and flaming balls to a great height sometimes preceded/followed by a shower of sparks.

A mine is made by firstly attached a tube to a base. The tube is plugged tightly with clay to stop chemicals and burning gases escaping from one end. A small amount of black powder, which acts as the lift charge, is placed in the tube. The tube is then filled with lots of stars of different effects and is plugged with a cardboard disc. A fuse enters through a hole in the tube through to the black powder. The mine is then wrapped in thin cardboard and colourful labels are placed on them.

When lit the fuse burns through to the black powder which engulfs the stars, igniting them as it shoots the stars up and out of the tube in a V shaped pattern. The wider the mortar a wider spread of stars is gained.

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This is a graphic or text made from hundreds of individual small fountains/Gerbs mounted and fused together to light simultaneously at quick speed.

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Fire Writing

Almost any size or complex graphic or text can be written in flames. It is made by using paper rope dipped in an accelerant such as paraffin. The rope is then shaped and mounted on a template of the graphic. When set alight it will burn for approximately 5-15 minutes.

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Aerial Firework Shells (Category 4)

An aerial shell is a cylindrical or spherical container containing a time fuse, burst charge, stars and black powder to propel it. Shells are most commonly 50 mm to 150 mm diameter and are fired from mortar tubes.

On firing, the black powder (Lift Charge) propels the shell up and out of the mortar tube into the air. This ignites a time fuse within the shell and when it reaches is intended height the burst charge within the shell explodes, dispersing the stars.

A shell is made by placing many stars of different colours and / or effects inside two halves of a case. A ball of black powder (Burst Charge) is placed in the centre of the case

Both halves of the case are carefully put together and a time fuse is placed through a hole in the casing and into a tube containing the lift charge. A fuse is placed through a hole in the tube containing the lift charge and wrapped around to the top of the shell where a string loop holds it in place.

The entire shell is wrapped in paper, glued and left to dry.

There are many different firework effects available. Stars are placed in different succession and in different sizes, some aerial shells even have smaller shells inside them which have their own fuses. The smaller shells explode a few seconds after the initial explosion causing explosions of smaller bursts.

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Firework Effects

To come...

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Health & Safety

Health and Safety is paramount when organising your display. Fireworks are a source of great fun and entertainment, and are perfectly safe if handled correctly. Pyrotex Fireworx offer the sale of Fireworks Safety Packs which include safety goggles and port fires. Listed below are some tips on ensuring your display is safe.

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The law & fireworks

Fireworks must not be sold to, or be in possession of, anyone under the age of 18. Pyrotex Fireworx abides by this law and has the right to refuse sale.

It is an offence to throw or set off fireworks in any highway, street, thoroughfare or public place.

There is a ban on shop sales of fireworks louder than 120 decibels.

You can buy fireworks all year round; however check that the company you are buying from has an all year round licence.

Although you can purchase fireworks all year round, it is illegal to let fireworks off before 7pm and after 11pm at night with the exception of New Years Eve, Chinese New Year and Diwali when the latest time is 1am and November 5th which is midnight.

You can only buy Category 1,2 and 3 fireworks Category 4 fireworks cannot be sold to the general public and are for professional use only.

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Organising a display at home


Plan your display well in advance. Think about who will operate the display.

Locate any bonfire away from trees or other buildings such as garden sheds or fences to avoid sparks setting them alight. Do not use petrol or paraffin to light your bonfire.

Consider whether the site is suitable and check that you have enough space for your display, including a bonfire if you are having one. Most small sized garden fireworks only require a minimum of 5 metres distance from the audience whereas larger display fireworks require a minimum of 25 metres.

You might consider contacting your neighbours to let them know when and at what time you will be firing your show.

On the day

Read the instructions on your fireworks in advance so you know what you need to do.

Have a bucket of water handy in case of an emergency. You can also put any used sparklers in it.

Have a torch so you can safely read the instructions on the firework. Light fireworks at arm's length, using a taper or port fire.

Always follow the Firework Safety Code:

  • Only buy fireworks that meet the British and European Standards and are
      marked with BS7114
  • Don't drink alcohol if setting off fireworks
  • Keep fireworks in a closed box
  • Follow the instructions on each firework
  • Light at arm's length, using a taper.
  • Stand well back
  • Never go near a firework that has been lit. Even if it hasn't gone off, it could still explode.
  • Never put fireworks in your pocket or throw them.
  • Always supervise children around fireworks.
  • Light sparklers one at a time and wear gloves.
  • Never give sparklers to a child under five.
  • Keep pets indoors.

The morning after:

Carefully check and clear the garden for fireworks, including any misfires i.e. those that should have gone off but didn't.

Dispose of fireworks safely

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Organising a public firework display


Plan your display well in advance. Think about who will operate the display, remember that certain types of fireworks may only be used by professional firework display operators - in untrained hands these fireworks can be lethal.

If the display is to be provided by a professional firework display operator make sure that you are clear on who does what especially in the event of an emergency.

Consider whether the site is suitable and check that you have enough space for your display, including a bonfire if you are having one. Is there enough space for the fireworks to land well away from spectators? Remember to check in daylight for overhead power lines and other obstructions. What is the direction of the prevailing wind? What would happen if it changed?

Plan and mark out the areas for spectators, firing fireworks (and a safety zone around it) as well as an area where the fireworks will fall (Refer to our Ideal firing layout drawing below).

Think about how people will get into and out of the site. Keep pedestrian and vehicle routes apart if possible. Mark exit routes clearly and ensure they are well lit. Ensure emergency vehicles can get access to the site.

Appoint enough stewards/marshals. Make sure they understand what they are to do on the night and what they should do in the event of an emergency.

Signpost the first aid facilities.

Think about what you would do if things go wrong. Make sure there is someone who will be responsible for calling the emergency services.

Contact the emergency services and local authority giving them the details and dates of the show. If your site is near an airport you may need to contact them.

Ensure you have a suitable place to store the fireworks. Your firework supplier or local authority should be able to advise you.

If you plan on selling alcohol the bar should be placed well away from the display site.

On the day

Recheck the site, weather conditions and wind direction

Don't let anyone into the zone where the fireworks will fall and anyone other than the display operator or firing team into the firing zone or the safety zone around it

Discourage spectators from bringing drink onto the site

Don't let spectators bring their own fireworks onto the site

If you are also having a bonfire, then you should ensure the following:

  • Check the structure is sound and does not have small children or animals inside it before
     lighting it
  • Do not use petrol or paraffin to light the fire
  • Only have one person responsible for lighting the fire. That person, and any helpers, should
     wear suitable clothing e.g. a substantial outer garment made of wool or other low-flammable
  • Make sure that the person lighting the fire and any helpers know what to do in the event of
     a burn injury or clothing catching fire

Never attempt to relight fireworks. Keep well clear of fireworks that have failed to go off

Always follow the Firework Safety Code.

The morning after:

Carefully check and clear the site. Dispose of fireworks safely. They should never be burnt in a confined space (e.g. a boiler) Dispose of fireworks safely

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