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Different Types of Fireworks and How to Tell Them Apart Before You Light the Fuse


Fireworks are a traditional form of celebration in America, but there are so many types of fireworks the choice can be overwhelming. However, if you know the basic types of fireworks and what they do, you can find the right types of fireworks for your show. One way to differentiate between the types of fireworks is to read the warning label, as different types of fireworks will have different warnings. Below you’ll find the types of fireworks explained, as well as how to tell them apart.


Firecrackers are the most basic of the various types of fireworks. Basically, they are cylinders filled with gunpowder. You light a fuse and stand back, and they explode. You can buy them individually, in small packs, in large bricks, or in long strings–we had a 16,000 firecracker string at the store where I worked which would take about 15 minutes to go off. There are different sized firecrackers, but the biggest kinds (M-80’s, cherry bombs, etc) are basically quarter sticks of dynamites and are illegal in most states.

Firecrackers will say simply “Warning: Explosive” somewhere on them.


There are several types of fireworks that can fall under the category rocket. At the most basic level, they are cylinders filled with gunpowder tied to a stick that shoot into the air after you light them. The smallest rockets are tiny bottle rockets. Bottle rockets are among the most popular types of fireworks. You can buy bottle rockets that just shoot into the air and explode, whistle and explode, or whistle three times and explode. Rockets come in many sizes. Some have colorful explosions without much noise, some just make noise, some have color and noise. Generally, bigger rockets will fly higher and provide a more pronounced bang and more colorful explosion. To shoot rockets, put the stick into some loose substance like sand or into a tube facing seventy-five degrees. Light the fuse and stand back.

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Usually the warning label on a rocket will read “flammable rocket” and if they have a loud bang, you’ll also find “with report.”


Fountains are one of the types of fireworks best suited for young children. They send out a shower of colorful sparks with very little noise. Size and color vary with fountains–they are usually cylindrical and generally the bigger the package, the longer it will last and the higher it will go. Fountains are one of the types of fireworks that people either love or hate, so either way make sure you can tell them apart from other types of fireworks, especially cakes which can be very similar in size and shape.

If the warning label says “emits showers of sparks” you are holding a fountain. If it also says “shoots flaming balls” then you will have a fountain effect as well as colorful bursts similar to rockets.


The types of fireworks classified as artillery always includes a reloadable tube with any number and variety of launchable of shells. To use artillery, you must load the shell into the tube with the wick hanging out, then light the wick and get away. They therefore take a little more work than cakes or fountains, but they usually will shoot higher with better effects. The tubes vary in size, and generally the bigger the tube is, the higher the shells will go. The shells almost always explode with color and a bang. Shells also might have one, two, three or four breaks. Each break will cause an additional explosions. A one break shell will only have one explosion while a three break shell will have three. The more breaks a shell has, the less height it can get so that four break shells don’t get very high at all, and can be quite dangerous. You can tell how many breaks a shell has by the number of spherical lumps in the shell.

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The types of fireworks considered artillery will usually say “shoots flaming balls” with the additional “with reports” if there are loud bangs. These are the same warnings as cakes, but with artillery you will be able to see separate tubes and shells, whereas cakes are all loaded together.


Cakes are one of the types of fireworks that are the most exciting to watch. Though they vary in size, they all include a single fuse which ignites a preset routine of shells, fountains, and rockets. Bigger cakes work well as a grand finale while smaller cakes can be used to build anticipation or provide shorter, self-contained shows. Square and rectangular cakes shoot straight up while fan-shaped cakes provide slightly greater sky coverage. The two things to look for with cakes are weight and number of shots. Generally, the heavier a cake the more powder/shells it holds and the bigger and better the show. More shots in a cake means you’ll get a longer show while less shots means you’ll get a short, but very intense show. A 119-shot cake will usually work well as its own show while a 9-shot cake will work better as a grand finale of a longer performance. If a cake doesn’t list a number of shots, you can tell by running a finger along the top of the cake and counting the number of tubes below the wrapping. It’s hard to go wrong with “maximum load” cakes (usually 500 grams of powder) while smaller cakes can be hit or miss–ask attendants for their favorites.

The types of fireworks considered cakes will say “shoots flaming balls” with the added “with reports” if they also have loud bangs. Cakes will include a number of tubes wrapped up with only a single fuse, which differentiates them from other types of fireworks that also say “shoots flaming balls.”

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Roman Candles

Basically, these types of fireworks are small cakes in a tube. You stick one of these tubes in the ground or in some other sturdy object and it will shoot out colorful explosions. Roman candles vary in number of balls, and the number of balls is the same as the number of colorful explosions you’ll get.

Look for the “shoots flaming balls” label on a tube without shells to find roman candles. Loud roman candles will also say “with report.”


These types of fireworks include a wide variety of odd objects. Some popular novelties include sparkler, ash snakes, snappers, planes that spin into the air and shoot sparks, tanks that roll across the ground shooting sparks, and lanterns that spin and expand as they shoot sparks. These can be big or small and fun varies on type of novelty and personal preference.

Warning labels vary on novelty items, although “emits showers of sparks” is popular.