Cue up the John Philip Sousa, fire up the grill, and put the American flag on every surface. It’s almost the Fourth of July, so you may be feeling a lot of strong impulses, like the one to set off a bunch of explosives in your own backyard. Go forth, but don’t send yourself to the hospital. That wouldn’t be a good way to celebrate Independence Day.
Doing your own little fireworks show is a lot of fun—it’s a very American and appropriate desire to want to blow up everything in sight. Just don’t blow yourself up while you’re at it! And stick to the legal explosives: the fireworks you can freely buy, depending on where you are. The American Pyrotechnics Association provides a good resource on what the laws are in each state here.
There are a couple of things you should probably look into before getting started, because fireworks regulations differ depending where you are. First, find out when and where your state sells fireworks. For example: In New Jersey, recreational fireworks are banned completely. In Vermont, you can only light off the littlest fireworks, like sparklers. Down in Texas, the state where I personally have blown the most stuff up, you can only buy fireworks for the two weeks leading up to the Fourth of July, and during the last 10 days of the year. From there, you can set them off pretty much wherever, provided you’re outside city limits and there isn’t a burn ban in the area you’re in.
That brings me to where you set these fireworks off, because there are rules about that, too! For example, if you’re anywhere in California, you probably shouldn’t set off fireworks at all, what with Mad Max-level drought going on in the region. In Texas, it’s always been a crapshoot year-to-year as to whether or not you’ll be able to go pyro-crazy on the Fourth. (More often than not, it’s too dry.) You don’t hear this much about these kind of warnings these days, but if you’re unsure, check local newspapers, as they’ll usually have information on these kinds of things. Bottom line: If someone official tells you not to set off fireworks, listen. There’s probably a good reason, like they don’t want you to start a forest fire. And if that doesn’t faze you, consider that you could end up fined for doing something illegal, or worse, put people in danger. So be a good citizen, in pyrotechnics as in everything else.
If you’re lucky enough to be celebrating America’s birthday in a state where recreational fireworks are legal —you can set off at least some fireworks in every state except New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Delaware— then congratulations! On to the fun! Fire is fun. The fireworks you can buy (Class C fireworks, better known as consumer fireworks) are your smokers, sparklers, rockets, artillery shells, Black Cats, and things that fall somewhere within those categories.
The kinds of fireworks you see the most are firecrackers, which are more commonly known as Black Cats. These come in big bricks or packages of little tubes of gunpowder tied together on a single fuse. You can separate them to spread out the fun (or light them off all at once, if you’re feeling particularly annoying). One time, when we were kids, my brother purposely set off a Black Cat in my hand; I survived, and he was for some reason not punished, because justice does not exist. But I would not recommend setting one off in your own hand. Light it, and toss it far, far away from you. Trust me: These suckers explode in a matter of seconds.
If this is your first foray into this realm, the easiest (and probably least threatening) entry point are the ground displays. These are the kinds of mini-fire shows that stay on the ground after you light them, emitting sparks and big fountains of colorful light and gunpowder. Once again, the idea here is to light the thing and run away, unless you have a thing for getting sparked in the face. (This may seem obvious to you as you read this, but it will likely be less obvious in the moment, when you are far more likely to be drunk, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to repeat it now.)
The same policy applies to aerials, the other major basic-fireworks category. Naturally, this entails anything that shoots up into the sky, and that you will want to run away from: artillery shells, bottle rockets, rocket-rockets, etc. Now, while it’s okay to do the ground shows in your backyard or on your driveway (provided you’re following the rules), you need to have more room to do the aerials: Don’t even bother buying them unless you’re going to be spending your holiday somewhere where you have access to a field or an open body of water, because the shell has to land somewhere. Say you’re at a lake with a bunch of piers or docks around: You’ll have to be careful, because if that shell lands on the cover of a fiberglass boat, that thing will go up in flames in an instant.
Also, keep in mind that if you’re expecting your private show to look like the display your town puts on every year, you might be delusional: If you’re looking for an arsenal-packed display, go watch the professionals put on a show.
Remember also that there’s no test-run at a fireworks stand: You buy what you buy and hope for the best. It’s actually even more fun to not know what kind of explosives you’re going to get when you light them. If you have questions, ask whoever’s working there to give you a rundown of the different types of aerials, black cats, sparklers, and ground displays; that way, you’ll have a general sense of what things stay on the ground and which launch into the air, at least. You should probably make note of which kinds need to be stuck into the ground and shot off from a bottle (an empty wine bottle or beer bottle works, and will probably be available), and which kinds you can simply hold in your hand. Because you’ll need your hands later!
If you’re totally clueless and daunted by the idea of buying fireworks, I’d recommend opting for a little starter package that includes all kinds of different fireworks, from sparklers to artillery shells to those little tanks that have a fuse on the back and move on the ground for like six inches before exploding. If you don’t buy one of those, it’s also a good idea to go into the transaction having somewhat of a budget, because it’s easy to go overboard. Trust me. Fire rules.
All of which is to say: Have fun, be safe, run away after you light the fuse, don’t be an idiot, and have a happy Fourth of July!
Illustration by Jim Cooke
Adequate Man is Deadspin’s new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.