When I was 15, my parents launched a side gig selling fireworks. I helped my dad erect what looked like a carnival tent in the spare lot next to our single-pump gas station in Missouri, and for a few weeks around the Fourth of July, the whole family traded shifts at the counter inside it. We sold mortars, fountains, cakes, firecrackers, rockets, spinners, sparklers, and cardboard chickens that spit out fireball eggs. And we made pretty good money doing it.
I was the family watchdog. It was my job to sleep in the tent every night so I could thwart any would-be firework bandits. But only one bandit ever came in, and he or she made off with a couple big-ticket items while I slept soundly. I wasn’t very good at the job, clearly. But I was cheap. I worked for $10 a night—plus free fireworks.
It’s been nearly 20 years since my parents went into the fireworks biz, and they’re still at it. I’m no longer around to protect the family’s explosives, but that’s probably for the best. Now my parents sleep in a camper next to the inventory.
The public appetite for controlled pyrotechnics has remained so high over the past two decades, it’s still worthwhile for them to set up a tent, work it nonstop, and then take it down every year.
I recently called my dad to get a refresher in fireworks, then I gave Jason Rickey, a fellow Missourian who runs two year-round stands and five seasonal tents, a ring.
Here’s what the experts can tell you about getting the most out of your own aerial display.
Know Your Budget Before You Go In
If you have $200 to spend, say so. Then ask: “What can you do for me with that budget?” Although discounts are steepest after the holiday (more on that below), it’s common during the lead-up to the Fourth for sellers to knock 10 or 15 percent off purchases as low as $100. Why? Because the markup on fireworks is generally 200 to 300 percent, which is extremely high for a competitive market. So while the seller’s going to profit off you either way, he or she can build a stronger business by grabbing your loyalty in the process. Sellers want to be sure you remember them next year, when presumably you’ll have another $200 to spend.
Skip the Curated Variety Packs
“Most packages are ripoffs,” says Rickey. “You can usually buy the individual items cheaper by piecing them together yourself.” Plus, those shrink-wrapped grab bags tend to be filled with product from years past. The gunpowder won’t go bad, but if there was any moisture in the storage facility, you’re more likely to have duds.
If Money’s Tight, Go With a Ground Display
Ballin’ on a budget? That doesn’t mean you can’t have a full night of pyrotechnic fun. You just have to swap out the stratosphere-piercing projectiles for things that allocate their gunpowder more responsibly, with ground-level shows. Nothing exemplifies this better than fountains, the fireworks that spray sparks straight from the top of their cone- and tube-shaped bodies. Fountains are dirt cheap and they maximize your display time. “The average cake”—big boxes that blast multiple shots into the sky—“lasts for 25-30 seconds,” Rickey says. “But the average fountain goes off for a couple minutes.” One fountain Rickey points to for value is the Cracklin’ Crawfish. It costs $1 and sprays a kaleidoscope of color for three minutes. “Plus, it burns down to nothing, so there’s no trash to pick up.”
There are, of course, other bargains to be had. A pack of bottle rockets costs a few bucks and can last an hour or more, and smoke bombs—especially the big ones shaped like sticks of dynamite–can put on surprisingly impressive displays. “We have a six-minute Smokeout that’s pretty awesome,” Rickey says.
Now, say you still want a grand finale. Cakes are the quintessential show-stoppers, and the biggest ones you can buy come packed with 500 grams of gunpowder. That’s what most people want. But that 500-gram behemoth might cost you $90; so, instead, go with a 200- or 300-gram cake. It won’t shoot quite as high, and the explosions won’t be as big. But it’ll probably cost you a mere $15 to $25. Overall, it’s a better value.
Ask for Recommendations
As crazy as it sounds, serious consumers come in with actual notepads, filled with handwritten names and descriptions of the fireworks they’ve blown up over the years. Odds are, you’re not that dedicated. But you can still upstage the zealots by asking your friendly firework expert for recommendations. Last year, for instance, Rickey told his inquisitive shoppers to try the new mega-size mortar shells. “They only made 4-inch shells in the past, and the max load was 60 grams,” Rickey says. “But [now] they’re five inches, and the load is undetermined.” That means more altitude, more color, more boom. These fireworks guys know their stuff, and they want you to know it, too.
Ask for More Recommendations *Wink, Wink*
Look, fireworks are a regulated industry, and we all respect the rules—got it? But hey, sometimes big explosives just show up. Heavy artillery, you know? The kind of stuff that can’t be sold legally. Nobody’s saying you can just waltz in and buy a quarter stick of dynamite or commercial-grade mortars. But nobody’s saying you can’t, either. “I have some fireworks that I won’t tell you about,” Rickey says. “There’s always a back room.”
Consider Stocking Up at the End of the Season
After the holiday weekend, vendors do everything they can to clear out old stock. Typically that means they mark prices down 30 to 50 percent. So a thrifty man might start planning next year’s display as soon as this year’s ends. Just be sure to store your discounted fireworks somewhere dry. A moist basement can ruin your stock.
Stay Safe, and Have Fun
The colorful packaging on your newly purchased explosive might obscure the fact that it’s literally a package of gunpowder. According to a report from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, fireworks led to roughly 9,100 emergency room visits last year, and 5,600 of those visits occurred in a month-long period around the Fourth of July. In that same stretch of time, 64 percent of those injured by fireworks were men. It’s also worth noting that fireworks killed at least five people last year. Always use fireworks as directed, use common sense, and take the lighter away from anybody who looks unsteady on their feet.