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Pyrotechnics gerbs used in the entertainment industry.
Pyrotechnics gerbs used in the entertainment industry.

Pyrotechnics is the science of using materials capable of undergoing self-contained and self-sustained exothermic chemical reactions for the production of heat, light, gas, smoke and/or sound. Pyrotechnics include not only the manufacture of fireworks but items such as safety matches, oxygen candles, explosive bolts and fasteners, components of the automotive airbag and gas pressure blasting in mining, quarrying and demolition.

Individuals responsible for the safe storage, handling, and functioning of pyrotechnic devices are referred to as pyrotechnicians.


Proximate pyrotechnics

Explosions, flashes, smoke, flames, fireworks or other propellant driven effects used in the entertainment industry are referred to as pyrotechnic special effects, theatrical effects, or proximate pyrotechnics. Proximate refers to the pyrotechnic device's location relative to an audience. In the majority of jurisdictions, special training and licensing must be obtained from local authorities to legally prepare and use proximate pyrotechnics.

Rammstein uses pyrotechnics numerous times in their shows, such as this performance of Feuer Frei.
Rammstein uses pyrotechnics numerous times in their shows, such as this performance of Feuer Frei.
Pyrotechnics stunt exhibition by
Pyrotechnics stunt exhibition by "Giant Auto Rod o", Ciney, Belgium.

Many musical groups use pyrotechnics to enhance their live shows. Some of the earliest bands to use pyrotechnics were The Who, Pink Floyd, KISS and Queen, even Michael Jackson attempted using pyrotechnics in a 1984 Pepsi advertisement,[1] failing, and setting his hair on fire. German industrial metal band Rammstein are renowned for their large variety of pyrotechnics, which range from flaming costumes to face-mounted flamethrowers. Nightwish, Lordi and Green Day are also known for their vivid pyrotechnics in concert. Many professional wrestlers have also used pyrotechnics as part of their entrances to the ring.

Modern pyrotechnics are, in general, divided into categories based upon the type of effect produced or manufacturing method. The most common categories are:

  • Airburst - Hanging charges designed to burst into spheres of sparks.
  • Binary kits - Powders divided into oxidizer and fuel intended to be mixed before use.
  • Comets (meteor) - Rising shots resembling shooting stars.
  • Preloaded Comet
  • Preloaded Mine - Tubes containing a lift charge intended to project stars, sparks, confetti or streamers.
  • Preloaded Smoke Pot - Cartridges designed to release a mushroom cloud of smoke.
  • Preloaded Report (concussion tube) - Tubes designed to create a loud report.
  • Falls - Devices intended to drop like falling stars.
  • Fireballs / Mortar Hits - Containers creating mushroom clouds of flame.
  • Flame Projector - Columns shooting pillars of flame.
  • Flare (Torch) - Short, high intensity flames or various colours.
  • Flash Cotton (Sparkle String) - Cotton string impregnated with nitrocellulose.
  • Flashpaper - Sheets of nitrocellulose resembling tissue paper.
  • Flash Pot - A container for creating a bright flash and smoke.
  • Flash Tray (split mine) - A long tube creating a wide, bright flash.
  • Gerb (including fountain, whistle, and waterfall) - A fountain of sparks.
  • Lance - A small brightly colored founta in that produces few sparks.
  • Line Rockets - Whistling gerbs traveling across wires.
  • Multi-Tube Article (multi-shot plate, multiple shot repeater boards and bombardo boards; designed to function in sequence) - Multiple effects chained together.
  • Pre-Mixed Powder - Powders intended to create various effects. (Concussions, flashes, etc.)
  • Squib - A small, pre-matched device typically used to replicate bullet hits.
  • Strobe - A device intended to create bright repetitive flashes.
  • Wheel (Saxon) - Tubes that create a spinning wheel of sparks.

A basic pyrotechnic device.
A basic pyrotechnic device.
A basic theatrical effect, designed to create a jet or fountain of sparks, is referred to as a gerb. A gerb consists of a sufficiently strong and non-flammable container to hold the pyrotechnic compound. Typical pyrotechnic formulations consist either of flammable materials such as nitrocellulose and/or black powder or a mixture of a fuel and oxidizer blended in situ. A plug placed at one end of the container with a small orifice, called a choke, constricts the expulsion of the ignited pyrotechnic compound, increasing the size and aggressiveness of the jet.
Pyrotechnics are widely used in professional wrestling, including the WWE, to enhance the event.
Pyrotechnics are widely used in professional wrestling, including the WWE, to enhance the event.

Various ingredients may be added to pyrotechnic devices to provide colour, smoke, noise or sparks. Special additives and construction methods are used to modify the character of the effect produced, either to enhance or subdue the effect; for example, sandwiching layers of pyrotechnic compounds containing potassium perchlorate, sodium salicylate or sodium benzoate with layers that do not creates a fountain of sparks with an undulating whistle.

In general, such pyrotechnic devices are initiated by a remotely controlled electrical signal that causes an electric match, or e-match, to produce ignition. The remote control may be manual, via a switch console, or computer controlled according to a pre-programmed sequence and/or a sequence that tracks the live performance via stage cues.

Display pyrotechnics

The 2008-09 Melbourne NYE fireworks, as seen from Alexandra Gardens.

Display pyrotechnics, also known as commercial fireworks, are pyrotechnic devices intended for use outdoors, where the audience can be further away, and smoke and fallout is less of a concern. Generally the effects, though often similar to proximate pyrotechnics, are of a larger size and more vigorous in nature. It will typically take an entire day to set up a professional fireworks display. The size of these fireworks can range from 50 mm (2") to over 600 mm (24") diameter depending on the type of effect and available distance from the audience. In most jurisdictions, special fireworks training and licensing must be obtained from local authorities to legally prepare and use display pyrotechnics.

Consumer pyrotechnics

Consumer pyrotechnics are devices readily available for purchase to the general public with little or no special licensing or training. These items are considered relatively low hazard devices but, like all pyrotechnics, can still be hazardous and should be stored, handled and used appropriately. Some of the most common examples of consumer pyrotechnics encountered include recreational fireworks (including whistling and sparking types), model rocket motors, highway and marine distress flares, sparklers and caps for toy guns. Pyrotechnics are also indirectly involved in other consumer products such as powder actuated nail guns, ammunition for firearms, and modern fireplaces. Some types, including bird scarers, shell crackers, whistle crackers and flares, may be designed to be fired from a 12-gauge pistol or rifle.


Pyrotechnics are dangerous and must be handled and used properly. Recently, several high profile incidents involving pyrotechnics have re-enforced the need to respect these explosives at all times. Proximate pyrotechnics is an area of expertise that requires additional training beyond that of other professional pyrotechnics areas and the use of devices specifically manufactured for indoor, close proximity use.

Homemade devices

Homemade flashpots built without any safety mechanisms
Homemade flashpots built without any safety mechanisms
A common low-budget pyrotechnic flash pot is built using modified screw-in electric fuses in a common light fixture. Homemade devices commonly fail to include the appropriate safety features and can provide numerous hazards, including:

  • The firing circuit using direct unisolated AC line voltage, which is a shock hazard to the operator and bystanders.
  • The use of high-current fuses as ignitors can cause large main circuit breakers and building-wide and street level fuses to trip, due to the sudden inrush of hundreds of amperes through a dead-shorted circuit
  • With a home-made device, there is usually no indication of whether the source is powered. Screwing a powder-loaded fuse into an unknowingly powered socket will result in immediate ignition of the pyrotechnics, injuring the operator.

Proper commercial flash pots include safety features such as warning pilot lamps, preignition grounding, and safing circuits. They also use isolated and low-voltage power sources, and have keyed power connections to help prevent accidental ignition.

Pyrotechnic incidents

My Chemical Romance performing live with pyrotechnics, on the stage

Pyrotechnics are dangerous substances that must always be treated with the utmost respect and with the proper training. Due to the hazardous nature of these materials, precautions must always be taken to ensure the safety of all individuals in the vicinity of pyrotechnics. Despite all precautions, accidents and errors occur from time to time, which may result in property damage, injury and in severe cases loss of life. These incidents may be the result of poorly manufactured product, unexpected or unforeseen events, or in many cases, the result of operator error.

Some of the more widely publicized incidents involving pyrotechnics in recent history include:

In 2003, improper use of pyrotechnics caused a fire in a Rhode Island nightclub called The Station. The Station nightclub fire was started when the fireworks the band Great White were using accidentally ignited inflammable soundproofing foam. The pyrotechnics in question were not appropriate. The foam caused combustion to spread rapidly and the resulting fire led to 100 deaths, apparently because their quick escape was blocked by ineffective exit doors. While the type of foam used and the lack of a sprinkler system were important factors in the fire,[2] the Great White fire could likely have been prevented had those involved paid attention to standard safety practices around the use of pyrotechnics.[3]

A similar pyrotechnic-induced fire in 2004 destroyed the Republica Cromagnon nightclub in Buenos Aires, Argentina, killing 194 people.

In May 2000, a small fire led to two massive explosions at the SE Fireworks Depot in Enschede, Holland, leaving 23 people dead, 947 people injured, and an estimated 2,000 homes damaged or destroyed.

In March 2008, a pyrotechnic rocket fell off its cable and landed in the crowd at WWE Wrestlemania 24 leading to a big investigation.

In February 2010, a pyrotechnic flame engulfed WWE wrestler Mark Calaway; he was seen with multiple burns throughout the show.

External links


  • Natural Resources Canada (2003), "Pyrotechnics Special Effects Manual. Edition 2" Minister of Public Works an Government Services Canada
  • NFPA (2006), "NFPA 160; Standard for Flame Effects Before an Audience" NFPA International
  • NFPA (2006), "NFPA 1123; Code for Fireworks Display" NFPA International
  • NFPA (2006), "NFPA 1126; Standard for the Use of Pyrotechnics before a Proximate Audience." NFPA International

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