Bonfire Night: the war in the air

Fireworks have always adopted the enticing language of rockets, but recent designs up the militaria, pitching the Star Gazer and Orbiter 9 against the likes of the Scud Hunter and Cyborg Massacre

Fireworks have always adopted the enticing language of rockets, but recent designs up the militaria, pitching the Star Gazer and Orbiter 9 against the likes of the Scud Hunter and Cyborg Massacre…

Looking in the window of my local newsagents, packed with boxes of fireworks in time for tonight’s celebrations, it struck me how different Bright Star Fireworks‘ packs looked to the traditional sets of rockets, wheels, candles and fountains. There were the Desert Storm and Fire in the Hole packs (contents shown, above); the Air Assault and Armoury collections; and the Apocalypse set, which contained the Death City and End of Days fireworks. The ‘ultimate’ firework experience, no doubt.

While ‘rockets’, ‘mines’ and ‘mortars’ have been part of the pyrotechnician’s vocabulary for decades, it seems that the Shock and Awe nomenclature of modern conflict has become much more prevalent, with some manufacturers aping the design of video games to aid customers in their search for the biggest and baddest explosions.

Fireworks are an interesting product in that they have to differentiate themselves from the competition whilst sat inert in a box. The reason we buy them is, of course, for what happens after we light them. It’s an experience that’s largely impossible to convey on the box they come in, or on the cardboard tubes that house them. You buy into the potential, which is all tightly packaged up in a mixture of combustible materials.

At, Bob Weaver has recorded over 6,000 of the different fireworks that appeared on the US market since the late 90s up to the present day. Just within the ‘A’ section there are reams of rockets and shells with the prefix Artillery; there are Air Bombs, Air Defenders, Air Raids – though, as a pleasing counterpoint, there’s even one called Aaahhhh.

“Twenty to thirty years ago, most fireworks were imported from China and so had names that were made up over there,” says Weaver. “Some were very nice, such as Garden of Innumerable Flowers, Spring Greeting and Festival of Happiness, that sort of thing, and the packaging artwork had a more Chinese style to it.

“But as US importers gradually developed their own brands – still manufactured in China, but with American-style package design, there was definitely a trend towards military-inspired names and themes.” Weaver, an expert on the US fireworks market who maintains, suggests that many manufacturers are now perhaps running low on names to convey “the ‘big and bad’ concept”, with up to 500 new fireworks hitting the US market each year.

For comparison, Black Cat fireworks, the Chinese firm who now own the Standard brand which originally founded in Huddersfield, England in 1891, list the contents of their Gold Selection Box as fountains, roman candles, shot tubes, roman candle cakes, wheels, rockets and sparklers.

There’s not an assassination, a blitz, or a nuclear fallout in sight.

An old poster for Black Cat’s Rockets c.1980s

Going further back, an archive of old Standard Fireworks posters also lists some of the company’s earliest brands: there are Fire Tops, Flying Imps, the Shimmering Cascade, the Mount Vesuvius and Scarlet Runners to be had.

The language of space exploration, perhaps reaching its peak during the 1950s and 60s, is still infused in Black Cat’s selection of current rocket packs: there’s the Star Gazer, Solar Strobes, Sputnik Explorer, Mega Meteors, Mercury Rising, Orbiter 9, and Star Quest to choose from.

Some of the Standard range of fireworks from the 1950s

As an ever-so-slightly geeky child I remember being thrilled even by finding even a dead firework in the garden or on the pavement the morning after Bonfire Night. You often could still make out the colours and names on the side of the rocket.

But picking up an End of Days shell, or the remnants of a Kamikaze Killer? I think I’d have to get my dad.

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