The Fallacy of Electric Matches – Do They Really Make Fireworks Safer?

The Fallacy of Electric Matches – Do They Really Make Fireworks Safer?

Recently there has been a spirited discussion on the merits of using electric matches to fire homemade fireworks shells at our club shoots in order to improve safety. I belong to The Crackerjacks, a mid-Atlantic fireworks club. This use of ematches would mark a change from the club’s traditional approach of attaching a length of Visco fuse to the quickmatch on each shell and lighting with a flame, manually of course.

And while this e-match discussion is still in process as I write this, I thought this particular post from Tom Handel was on-target enough that I should repost it in its entirety here.

Tom’s fireworks background speaks for itself. And I can personally speak for Tom’s reliability as a reporter of such things. He’s a man who has spent his whole career making sure his facts were right. I’ve known him long enough to know that I can bank on what he says.

I am not anti-ematch, nor pro-fuse. And this commentary is not about the rightness or wrongness of either method of igniting something.

Rather, what Tom so eloquently points out is that the very widespread, kind-of-automatic thinking that using ematches makes fireworks ignition safer can be a very dangerous fallacy. And that anyone who relies on this belief may be actually increasing their risks rather than reducing them.

Scene of Fatal Fireworks Accident – 4 Deaths – Ocracoke, NC – July 4th, 2009
So this is not intended to start an argument on that topic, though I expect it will. And of course, all comments below are welcomed. Perhaps Tom will even answer some of them.

Nor am I making a case for using or not using ematches in any particular situation.

But I do hope that Tom’s article will get you thinking about the process of using ematches and all that entails. It is after all, not just the firing of fireworks where there’s danger. The handling of them is just as critical. The horrible photo above is the result of mishandling fireworks during ematching.

It is not as simple an issue as pressing a button vs. lighting a fuse. There is much, much more to consider. And Tom only begins to do that.

Harry Gilliam

I urge you to reprint or repost this article as you see fit using this URL:

Tom Handel’s post to the Crackerjacks Mailing List, 2/15/2012

Good Morning all,

I don’t often interject myself here, but y’all have touched on a subject near and dear to my heart – that being safety and its relationship with electrical firing. There have been many excellent points made thus far in the discussion, and I appreciate that it has been civil and directed toward problem exploration and solving. I just want to add a few thoughts to the mix for everyone’s consideration as we go forward.

But first, as I have a poor attendance record at CJ shoots in the last few years and there are many new members, I find that there are more voices in this discussion that I DON’T know (other than through the list) than that I DO know. So I beg your indulgence while I introduce myself for a moment so you’ll know where I’m coming from. Skip the next paragraph if we’re already acquainted or if you don’t care about introductions.

I’ve been a CrackerJack since 1994 (?? – or so) when James Carle and his then-significant-other introduced me to the organization by dragging me down to a Shagland shoot as their guest. A few years later I was the first Publications VP of the CrackerJacks and first editor/publisher of The Passfire, from 12/1997 through 12/1999. I’m a PGI member and have been a member of the PGI Safety Team since 1995. I served (among other duties) as PGI B-Line Shoot Boss for several years [I mention this because the PGI B-Line is a close (though not perfect) analog for the CrackerJacks "Experimental Area"]. I was First VP of the PGI for three years from 8/2004 to 8/2007. I am also a member of the Florida Pyrotechnic Arts Guild and the Western Pyrotechnic Association. I shoot shows, build fireworks (when I’m able), do pyrotechnics/explosives familiarity and safety training for law enforcement (Bomb Squads, primarily) and others, and indulge my passion for photography of fireworks. I still (so far) have all my fingers. In summary, though there are many others in the club better qualified than I am, I’ve been around a little bit and I know a little about safety. But enough about me.

I gather from what has been written in this thread that the purpose of obtaining and using electrical firing systems in the Experimental Area is to improve safety. This is a noble objective, but I suspect it reflects the widespread misunderstanding that the use of electrical firing systems inherently reduces risk/improves safety.

There are many good reasons to use electrical firing systems – particularly in a display context – but improving safety is not one of them. Fundamentally, electrical firing systems don’t eliminate risk; they TRANSFER the risk (and arguably increase it overall) in most scenarios. In a display context, they clearly reduce the risk to the shooter, while shooting, over the alternative – hand firing – by permitting remote initiation rather than up close and personal hand lighting of the display. However, the risk is not gone; it is just transferred to other parts of the process. In these other parts of the process, risk is actually increased due to the significantly increased sensitivity of matched product to unintended initiation by shock, friction, impact, induced current and static. The preparation, storage, transportation, handling, loading, and (if required) unloading of matched product are all significantly more dangerous than is the case with un-matched product. A few pertinent facts.

- In the industry, among the pro’s, the cause of a disproportionately large number of injury accidents has been traced to the unintended firing of an ematch due to mishandling of ematched product. Examples: Peoria, AZ, July ’99, New Orleans, LA, December ’99, Pomona, CA, [date unrecalled], Catawba, SC, July ’01, Ocracoke, NC, July ’09, Washington, DC, July ’09, and many more.

- The ONLY shell-related injury accident at the PGI that I can remember (I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m forgetting something) was caused by unintended firing of an ematch due to mishandling of an e-matched shell (Mason City, IA, 2005).

So, what’s all this mean for the CrackerJacks Experimental Area? Once the shell’s in the mortar, the wires are hooked up and everyone’s back behind the blast shield, life is good. But encouraging more electrical firing – unless very carefully done – will result in an increased number of sensitive devices (i.e., ematched shells and other devices) being created on site and

  • being subject to mishandling during match installation somewhere on site,
  • being subject to mishandling during transport,
  • being subject to mishandling during placement (“Ooops!”) in ready boxes,
  • being subject to mishandling during rummaging in ready boxes (“Dang, I know that shell’s in here somewhere!”),
  • being subject to mishandling during loading, and
  • being subject to mishandling during unloading in the case of misfires.

And in the case of the Experimental Area, the payoff for all this increased risk is … essentially nonexistent. Virtually no increase in safety when firing. “What??” you say. Yep. The safety benefit to the shooter isn’t even there except in the most extreme case (below). This is the Experimental Area, not a display, and there are fewer constraints on the use of (plenty of) Visco. That ematch does not afford the shooter ANY greater safety benefit than is provided by a piece of Visco long enough to allow a leisurely retreat to the safety of the barricade – AND it costs more.

Extreme case: If the shooter lit the Visco, started back up the hill in a leisurely fashion, but stepped in a gopher hole and broke his leg, and his fellow CrackerJacks were unable to drag his butt behind the blast shield before the Visco burned down, AND the shell malfunctioned, then, yes, he might have been better off with the ematch.

But there’s good news, too. Though impractical many times in a display context, for the Experimental Area there is a way to mitigate MOST of the downside potential outlined above. Specifically, require those desiring to electrically fire their shells (or other devices) in the Experimental Area to refrain from matching them until AFTER they are loaded in the mortar or otherwise ready to fire. Then, assuming no body parts over the mortar, if the match ignites prematurely while being installed or otherwise, for whatever reason, the shell handler may get a hell of a surprise, some non-life-threatening burns and lose some eyebrows, but he’ll likely survive. Contrast this to the probable consequences of the ready box going up because somebody dropped an e-matched shell in there.

Note: the risks associated with extracting an ematched misfire still remain and an appropriate protocol for this case needs to be developed also.

So that’s my $0.02 worth of food for thought.

Tom Handel


I urge you to reprint or repost this article as you see fit using this URL:

And please weigh in on this. We’d like to see what YOU have to say. Just enter your comments below. Thanks. –Harry Gilliam

23 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Ray Hamlett says:

    How can I make sure static electricity doesn’t ignite a BP project while mixing,packing or handling? Is there a way I can ground myself while handling to prevent a static discharge? Thanks!

  2. Jeff Wilson says:

    Electrical firiing is definately safer, particularly with bigger items. To say otherwise would I think be foolish. That does not mean that accidents like the back of that truck are no longer going to happen. Did the fworks in that photo already have ematches attached? Was there static in the air?

  3. Rod Weeks says:

    I think the issue here is the various compositions used in matches are usually very sensitive, so much of the danger is due to non-electrical sources of ignition. Here’s something you might want to try. I have had good luck making “electric visco”. I strip a inch out of the middle of a foot of # 22 stranded wire(7 strand type). Then I cut all but two strands. Wrap these around the end of your visco and coat with a slurry of NC lacquer and BP meal. The NC melts the outer layer on the visco and it all hardens up into a nice flamable wad. I use a 12 volt battery to fire, and they work every time.

  4. Rich Burns says:

    I have never built any civilian pyro in my career with explosives. On the other hand, I was an ordinance handler for 22 years in the USAF (AMMO). We were always instructed to install the most sensitive piece, of the explosive train, last. In this case a simple rule to follow at your shoot site is to install the ematch after it has been set into position. Anytime you add a more sensitive component to the explosive train, the more safert concerns you have. Firing safely from a remote position is always used when detonating explosives in the service. So it stands to reason this would be acceptable with low explosives of a pyro nature. Standardization of what your range practices are for ematch is a good idea. Your range your rules.

  5. Al says:

    Electrical match is 1000 times safer than hand firing if done correctly. You have to realize that the steps for setting up a show will be very different. A 1 shell, 1 tube rule is a must! All electrical igniters stay rolled with their tails shorted together until final wiring. You have no reason to pre- hook up anything since you have to untangle and check it later any way. Safety is important. Care = safety. If people understand that fireworks should be treated with the same care as firearms.
    Smell the Smoke
    Al Eisen

    • Rodney says:

      I don’t understand why anyone would match a sheel before it is loaded into a mortar. In Ohio, where Rozzi’s is the big name, the e-match is installed after the shell is completely in the mortar. In my opinion, that is the only right way to do it. Visco plus fast match is even safer for testing, but not in a show environment, where it is slightly possible that visco will be ignited by smoldering fastmatch or other hot debris.

  6. There is nothing as good as distance when it comes to mitigating injury….in short The farther away you are from the boom, the safer you are. Ematches allow you to be far away when things go bad.

    I don’t know why anyone would transport matched product.

    Having one of the many styles of ematch ‘port’ ‘adapter’ (whatever you chose to call them) eliminates any need for ematches to be attached anywhere other than as they are being loaded in the mortar.

    It is no faster to install matches ahead of time. What is needed is a bit of teaching old dogs new tricks…..

    Being an old dog (so to speak) I had to think it through and see it for myself….

    Old trick #1: install the match at the magazine, then transport matched product. Just way to dangerous IMO. Its very likely that EVERY non display incident in recent history has involved handling/transporting matched product…and you still have to unwind/untangle wires as you load the shells.

    Old Trick #2: unpack the shells onsite, match then load. I used to do this too….bunch of people sitting in the shade. Take the shell out of the box, match it, put it in another box, then take them to the mortars, untangle them, load them, wire them….Sounds like something the government would come up with :)

    The ‘new’ trick… match the shell as it is loaded in the mortar…Time it for yourself.
    To really move things quickly work with two people, one matching and dropping one wiring in the rail/slat…..
    Think about it, the only time the stuff is matched is when it isin the mortar.

    So all you company people…why are you endangering your shooters by prematching product? Spend an extra 2 cents per shell and put ematch ports on all your product…then train them how to a new trick.

    The only caveat I would support is product (like proximate items) that is prematched in the lift during manufacture.

  7. Vince Hudkins says:

    I find it interesting that so many of the comments made so far have been about e-matches in shows, yet what Tom’s article was focusing on isn’t using e-matches in shows. Tom’s points are being made in reference to the use of e-matches in open shooting situations – and Tom’s concerns about e-matches in that particular environment are completely valid

  8. Bert says:

    Agreed that risks are merely shifted, not eliminated. Crew training is vital- And as much fun as it is to kick around the theoretical differences in risk, for the real world display operator the difference in RESULTS will be the deciding factor.

    The degree of danger from accidents in shipping, handling and storage of ematched product versus that from either hand firing or ematching a show on site may or may not be a push, I don’t see how the data would be collected and organized to prove the statistical correlation of accidents to the prep and shooting method. But I know from first hand experience what we do makes for a smooth operation in the field. And I believe people who handle a process in a calm and leisurely fashion are going to be overall more detail oriented and safer…

    In our commercial display work, the crews are given pre-ematched and pre-sorted, labeled and boxed by position shells and devices along with a detailed setup and cue sheet. Ideally, none of us ematches anything but the occasional set piece in the field. Experienced crew members do the prep and sorting in a controlled environment well before the day of the show. Shrouds are never to be removed for convenience, and we make sure the shunt is in place before it goes in the case.

    This goes for the little $2,500.00 wedding display as well as the $25,000.00 city 4th of July show. I know what some other company might think of that level of prep work for the smallest shows. But I well remember having someone hand off a pile of unopened, unsorted fireworks cases to me on day of show at the field to do whatever I could with by show time, and drive away… I learned things I never want one of my employees to learn that way.

    At a test fire range or open shooting with an appropriate barrier to hide behind, hand lighting a long piece of visco is just fine, probably even safer as well as cheaper and easier. And I’ve certainly hand lit enough shows with a fusee, I just don’t care for the element of variability it brings to a commercial show where someone thinks they’ve paid us for the best show possible.

    I also don’t think you will shoot hand fired on a day where it’s rained more than not with the degree of success we are accustomed to in our all electric method..

  9. Bill Ofca says:

    Many of you know me from safety articles I have written over the years for AFN, or from the books I have written. Nothing will keep you up at night more than having a show e-matched and stored in your magazine over night and fearing the possible consequences of a thunderstorm.

    I worked at Dyno Nobel’s detonator plant for 23 years. They made millions of electric detonators (blasting caps). You get to learn a lot about bridge wire devices working in that environment. I was their supervisor of electrical engineering and electronics. I learned more about accidents with bridge wire devices from every source of energy imaginable than I could ever hope to write down is such a short article here. But there is one more hazard that you should all be aware of: Radio Frequency.

    Certain conditions need to be in place for an e-match to ignite from radio frequency. If the wire lengths of individual matches, shunted or not, are tuned to a particular radio frequency, and the output power of a transmitter is near enough, the match can and does ignite. The source could be a nearby radio broadcasting tower (AM or FM), a cell phone tower, a hand held 2-way walkie-talkie type radio, or even a cell phone. As an example, a 5 watt hand held radio transmitter can be dangerous within 5 feet of e-match leg wires.

    For a field wiring system of e-matches to be tuned, the length of wire must be capable of acting like a dipole antenna and be 1 or a multiple of half wave lengths of the radio frequency. This gets technical and is difficult to predict, but I have software that can do it. It is a rare event, but never the less a real danger. The best protection is to not use 2-way radios or cell phones around e-matches, at least no closer than 10 feet. A cell phone will transpond (transmit a signal to a cell tower) when it is ringing on an incoming call. In Canada once a cell phone laying on a trucks bench seat next to a bridge wire blasting cap started ringing on an in-coming call and set off the blasting cap injuring the driver.

    The other hazard I wanted to touch on is static electricity produced by large sheets of plastic used to cover racks for rain protection. Once the sheet is opened and placed over the racks or removed later, static charges on the sheet carry electrostatic fields that move and can induce a current into a bridge wire of an electric match. Shunting helps to prevent an initiation, but an un-shunted e-match is a definite risk.

    I wish you all only a safe experience when handling e-matches.

    Bill Ofca

  10. Jim Fackert says:

    It sure is convenient that black powder, and therefore quickmatch and visco, are resistant to ignition by friction or impact. Emathces are another story tough.
    As I see it, there are three possible ways in which an ematched shell can be initiated unintentionally….
    1) Unintentional application of electrical current through the device (via a voltage differental between wire a and wire b)
    This is nearly impossible until the firing system is connected (or at least until the leads are separated in the act of connection to teh firing system.) The leads should of course remain shorted together and insulated until the device is in the gun and ready to hook up.)
    This can happen, since electrical potential cannot be seen or detected.
    2)application of a high voltage arc through static discharge between the electrical part of the ematch and its surrounding.
    3) Ignition of the pyrogen in the ematch through impact or friction.

    It is my impression that #1 and #2 are rare occurances, but #3 is much too common.
    Many ematches contain chemicals in the pyrogen that make them very impact sensitive.
    I guess this is done so that the ematch can be set off with minimal current, but with modern firing systems able to deliver high currents, it makes no sense to me that supersensitive ematches are used at all in pyro. There is no advantage, and the disadvantage is great.

    I think that a widespread changeover to ematches that either have no pyrogen, so the hot, even vaporized bridge wire ignites quickmatch or fuse directly, or at least to ematches that use very insensitive pyrogens, would increase the safety of pre-ematched shells considerably.

    has this been considered possibly as a new safety initiative? does anyone make impact insensitive ematches?

    Education about the impact sensitivity of many ematches should be more widespread as well. In my early days at pyro I was not aware of this, and I would push back the little plastic cup before installing ematches in quickmatch, thinking that the pyrogen needed to be in close proximity to the black match for reliable ignition. I feel fortunate that that practice did not cause any accidents, and that I learned quickly that it was a “bad idea”.

    • -does anyone make impact insensitive ematches?-

      In during 15 years I use handmade ematches based on BP and NC and they works perfectly. I have access to ugual ematches but I need “soundless ignition” for several stage effects. This ematches is impact insensitive and need for start 1A instead 500mA for china’s ematches.

      sorry my english and safe fireWORKS for all

  11. Up here in the Great White North, e-matches are only allowed to be attached once the shells are loaded in their mortars. Of course, they still have to be attached in a way such that they can be safely removed if the shell fails to fire for some reason.

    With the advent of igniters which don’t contain any composition (Fred Wade’s Solar Flare for example), then the rules change a bit as these can be legally applied prior to display set-up.


  12. Chip Luck says:

    Personally, I agree anything that can be done to make our hobby/job made SAFER is better. However, migrating from hand lighting, to a full E-matched show is a little different. A little story:

    I once loaded/sorted product for a large established company’s show – all the shells were already E-matched when we opened the show boxes for sorting and writing cues on ‘em so we could load quick on site, size went up to 8″. We made sure all were still shunted (some were NOT!), and noticed the all the SHROUDS were also pulled back. I though, damn – never been doing that before. Anyway, we drove 200+ miles to the show venue, and I kept thinking about having a ‘live’ and ready to fire product in the back and possibly with shells banging around from transport (although we did a inspection/re-pack). At the site it was 98% chance of thunder storms and sure enough I got left setting in a truck with E-matched product, and lightning hitting all over the place. We looked at each other and figured if the truck took a direct lightning hit, we would not know it! Never shot for that company again, but I believe they quit shipping E-match’ed product soon after.

    If you E-match, I would just say like others – do it on site, watch your shunts, and learn how to properly cut quick match and keep the darn shroud on it! I’ve hand lit 12 incher’s with chicken wick, but that previous show/experience scared the tar out of me. Excellent discussion here. Stay green.

  13. J Larry Mattingly says:

    With 50 years of display experience behind me I totally agree with Tom about the dangers of using e-matches. However I would suggest we should also list some reasonable safety points and proceedures to reduce the potential of accidental ignition and thus causing injuries, and/or fire and/or explosion damage.

    While some experienced pyro operators are reluctant to teach safety and establish proceedures for working with or around hazardous materials because of the potential of lawsuit when someone claims they were injured following the proceedure or safety advice, I believe it is a far worse risk in not providing proceedures and safety tips.

    I have spent the last 25 years teaching pyrotechnics and explosives safety to not only our display and SPFX operators, but local, state, and federal fire officials, law enforcement, bomb techs, and others who may get involved with these materials.

    I would be willing to work with Tom or other experienced operators in this reguard.

    J Larry Mattingly
    VP Entertainment Fireworks
    Director of Training

  14. As an e-match guy I sat here wondering how to pick this apart. Tom is 100% correct. I love e match but as Tom said what happens when the “other” guy hasn’t a clue about them, and a shell gets tossed into a ready box, or stepped on. With that said, I own a Computer firing system. All of my shows are manual step fired or choreographed. There is no way hand firing could ever compete with computer fired show. In a crew setting of 4-8 people it is a lot easier than a well attended club shoot to train of the proper handling of e-match. The picture of the destroyed truck, I believe one the victims was e-matching on a lawn chair inside a loaded truck. Scary to think about….In a club manufacturing setting I think Tom is right. Keep the e-matches out. Save the e-matches for the display area only. As well as for the people who know of their dangers.


    Pro E-Match

  15. Les says:

    The PGI shooters course goes into length about risk transference with e-firing, and that it moves the risk from hand firing the shells to setting up the racks, etc. If you take the training, you’ll be better prepared to deal with ematch. NOTHING is truly safe in Pyrotechnics… but following established safe practices goes a LOOOOONNG way. I’m starting to use a small wireless system, with home-built matches, for some things. Visco is still easier to use, less expensive, safer in the long run, and generally more of a “sure thing”. If you’re using Talon igniters for e-firing, there’s no Pyrogen involved and they’re possibly safer…and you’re just lighting visco (they CAN ignite bare match too)… but they are also expensive. You pays your money and you makes your choice. I’m a CJ member, and I’m not feeling strongly one way or the other… I’d like to be able to use my small system in the experimental area, but I’m not going to pitch a fit if I can’t. AND YES, it should be a RULE that e-matching only takes place once the shell is in the gun in the experimental area at CrackerJacks, starting with an ematch that’s shunted closed.

  16. Gary Moore says:

    As with anything pyrotechnic, there is no such thing as safe! Just to a point lesser degrees of danger,if that is possible. One thing that should be done is to shunt the wires, a bridge across them to prevent stray electricity from setting them off as we do with detonators in explosives in the Military.

    Gary Moore , Former- EOD professional.

  17. Hi Harry , Tom Handel

    Can I have the permission to post this on my facebook pyro page which is in Maltese. Ok, I will do the translation to Maltese as not all my Maltese friends knows english. It is a interesting post , which I have been emphasising about the e-match safety as the trend in Malta going that way meaning using ematch,especially for pyro shows.
    I will appreciate it.
    Thanks Harry and Tom
    Regards , Paul from over the big pond.

    • Harry says:

      Of course, Paul. That’s what it’s here for. Anyone else who would like to use this article, please feel free.

      • Thank you Harry & Tom for sharing. I appreciate it. Hope Larry Mattingly while attending the ISF in Malta will get the message through with his paper regarding ematching to us Maltese pyros. We have enough safety problems in our pyro factories while manufacturing . In Malta more and more shows are getting done with ematching and wish we will not have another safety issue on our hands, we have enough.
        Thanks & Regards

  18. thunderboy says:

    I use to use fuse for all my shells. Now i use e-match mainly for my safety, after 30 years of useing fuse and standing right next to the tubes with a torch, and setting off shell after shell in a display up to 300 shot in 15 minutes, was sometimes a little scary.
    Now with e-match i’m a good distance. The shells i was doing were 1.75 class c and now i do my own(as in make) 3-4-6 inch shell much more powerfull.
    To me safety first in making, setting up, and shooting.
    It is all just common sence, think before you do and be safe.

  19. Frank Rhodes says:

    I’m with Tom. E-match can be very sensitive. If you pull the shroud off an e-match, hold on to the wire and bang the head against something hard, as often as not, it will go off. I’m a big fan of e-matching on-site when the product is in the tube, or in the case of e-matching into the lift, as the product is being put in the tube.

    At MPAG we’ve shot 8′s and 10′s with long chicken fuse on them. I don’t see any advantage in e-matching unless “timing” is an issue.

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