Thursday, July 2, 2020


It's the time of year for smoke, bright flashes of light, and noise: no, not a pop-music festival, the 4th of July. Many states allow their residents to celebrate their Independence Day with a variety of fireworks; the selection varies by state, and Federal law limits the amount of explosives available to mere consumers, many of which can be re-purposed by a prepper with a touch of imagination. If you live in one of the more restrictive states, check the laws in your neighboring states; I happen to have two bordering states that sell fireworks year-round and buying them in the off-season drops the prices dramatically.

I'll be the first to admit that I've always enjoyed fireworks, as the pyromaniac hiding in the back corner of my psyche gets a giggle out of watching things explode. Having handled military explosives and later studying chemistry, I have a healthy respect for anything that goes “BOOM”, but I also know a bit about how they work and what they can do. Lets break the common fireworks down into a few categories and see how a prepper might adapt them to their own uses.
DISCLAIMER: Fireworks contain black powder (BP) as an active ingredient. BP is flammable when in an open container, but explosive in a closed container. Some of the additives used to produce the colors and light are unhealthy to ingest or breathe. Use of gloves and other protective gear is highly recommended, but I (and BCP by extension) cannot be held responsible for your actions. Consider all of the information that follows as “for educational and entertainment purposes only”. Never mix the contents of dissimilar types of fireworks, the combination could be spontaneously explosive and the amount of energy stored in even tiny amounts can kill or maim you. If you have any doubts, don't do it.
One of the most common and least regulated types, smoke bombs of various sizes are a slow-burning mix of black powder and something to give the smoke volume and color. The small, spherical ones last a few seconds, but the large ones that are about the size of a stick of butter can last for a minute or two. If all you can find are the small ones, they can be cracked open with a hammer or rock to extract the active ingredients. Combining the powder from several small ones and placing it in a tube of any sort will replicate one of the larger ones. Filling a beer can with the powder from a couple dozen large ones will give you something to rival a military smoke grenade.

Smoke is handy as a way to signal for help or mark your location for searchers during daylight. It can also be used to hide your location and movement if the smoke is thick enough. The high sulfur content in most smoke compounds makes the smoke unpleasant to breathe and the lack of visibility in the middle of a good cloud is disorienting, so they may have uses in crowd control.

Bright Light
Sparklers used to be common, but the nannies have decided that the glowing-hot metal rods can be dangerous (duh) so they're getting harder to find. Used individually, they burn hot enough to start a fire with damp tinder and they last long enough to be useful. They can take a bit to get started, though, and I've always used a cigarette lighter for 5 to 10 seconds depending on size and quality of the sparkler.

Strobes are a more recent product. They ones we see around here are about the size of a sugar cube and they produce an intense series of flashes of lights for 10-20 seconds. These are very useful as a night-time signal for help, and also very disorienting and almost blinding in a dark room.

Fountains and gerbs are the little cones or cylinders that produce a shower of colorful sparks when lit. These are common in the variety packs of fireworks because they're cheap and take up space. They're another handy way to start a fire if you are dealing with damp tinder.

Safety flares are not technically fireworks, but are rather pyrotechnics. The once-common road flare or “fusee” has been largely replaced by reflective triangles and flashing LEDs, but you can still find them in truck stops, on Amazon, and in forestry supply shops. They're designed to catch your attention, so use as a signal for searchers is a given. They also project a flame 6-8 inches from the end and burn for quite a while (15 minutes to 2 hours), so they could probably be used as a weapon, and they are very handy for lighting large or sustained fires, such as back-burning a field to stop a grass fire. 

The noisy fireworks are either explosions or screams. The explosions are BP, but the screamers use a specific chemical mix to produce the noise (although I have seen whistles built in to some rockets to produce noise). Remember, BP is a propellant in loose or open containers but an explosive in closed containers.

Firecrackers are being used as distractions in riots all over the world. They can mask the sounds of gunfire and will confuse the various forms of “shot-spottter” surveillance systems found in large cities which use a series of microphones connected to a computer to record and triangulate the location of gunshots, and which can be overwhelmed by increasing the number of “shots” in an area. The sudden, sharp noise also makes people instinctively look for the source, drawing their attention away from anything else that's happening.

Screamers use a mixture that burns at two speeds, low and high. When they burn, they produce gasses in low and high quantities at very high speeds, and the switching between low and high speeds produces an oscillating wave of gasses that we hear as a high-pitched scream. Very loud, these can be deafening in small spaces and the large ones will hurt your ears even in open areas. Useful as a signal, they can also be used to scare away predators.

Consumer-grade fireworks are regulated to prevent stupid people from killing themselves. Darwin is over in the corner pouting, but since many idiots exist we have to put up with laws that protect them from themselves.

Firecrackers in the USA are limited to no more than 50mg of powder, which is 0.050 grams of noise-making composition. For the reloaders out there, that is 0.77 grains of super-fine BP. (Yes, you can slice open firecrackers and extract the powder, but I can't suggest that you do. Too many lawyers, not enough rope and trees.) I have broken open duds (they didn't explode when the fuse burned down) after a safe waiting period, and the powder makes a good fire starter and catches a spark from a flint and steel very easily. It's like in the movies where someone uses a flintlock firearm to start a fire.

Illegal firecrackers come in from various places. Other countries have more lenient laws, and I've seen some impressive explosives over the years. The “cannon crackers” (Knallk√∂rper ) we used in Germany to celebrate New Year's Eve were about an inch in diameter and four inches long. You can find videos of them on the Internet, and they have an impressive amount of power. Some of the fireworks smuggled in from Mexico come close to that level, which is more than enough to take off a hand if you're stupid. I'll leave the use of actual explosives to your imagination, as I can hear the lawyers sharpening their pencils.

Stay safe this Independence Day. Let's all have the same number of fingers and eyes next Monday that we have today.

1 comment:

  1. You left out 'morter' tubes (also known as canisters), which are reloadable shell launchers. *Very* visible, and an Excellent signaling device.

    For example:


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