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What’s an M-80?

I am indebted to Dr. Ken Kosanke for assisting me with the accuracy of this page. See Ken's web site for more information.

The short version of this page:

M-80s are illegal in the United States. Don't make them, buy them or use them. That's all you really need to know. Firecrackers sold to the public in the U.S. can only have 50 milligrams or less of pyrotechnic composition per firecracker. A true M-80 contains much more than 50 milligrams, and is therefore illegal. Is it really worth it, if the possible consequences (losing a finger or your hearing, losing your girlfriend because she doesn't like M-80s, paying a fine or spending time behind bars) outweigh the brief instant of “fun” you got from a loud bang? If you have a desire to "win the war" in your neighborhood by being the one who set off the loudest bang of the night, or if you feel there is some kind of status or macho glamour in possessing a "real M-80" when everyone else has ordinary firecrackers... well, all of these will wear off quickly as you are sitting for hours in a courtroom later on.

And do you really want to have it remain on your record for years, especially if you are planning to apply for jobs which require background checks? Many people who have gone down that path in the past would say the same thing to you that you are reading right now. I'm sorry if all this disappoints you, but anyone who has your best interests in mind would give you the same advice as this. Stay away from M-80s and any illegal fireworks. However, if you got to this page by typing "M-80" into a search engine, you're probably determined to get your hands on one, so you're not going to listen to this advice, even when the potential consequences are spelled out. Oh well, I tried.

The same reasoning applies to the desire to buy and use large, professional display fireworks without having the necessary license and permits. Buyers of 1.3G display fireworks in the United States must have a permit from the ATFE (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) in order to buy these large fireworks. If you don't have an ATFE permit, don't attempt to buy 1.3G fireworks such as large shells or large cakes. Even if you "know someone who is selling large shells," don't be tempted to buy them, because without the proper licenses and permits, you are only asking for years of legal troubles if you get caught with them. You can see 1.3G fireworks for free all the time anyway (at theme parks, baseball games, concerts, 4th of July displays, etc.) so, why bother to go through the time, expense and trouble of trying to get and use those fireworks yourself? Trust me, there is plenty of fun and excitement to be had with legal fireworks. So why not go my home page and start exploring the world of fireworks.

Specific information about the requirements for consumer fireworks sold in the United States is at this page of my web site. A discussion of the classifications of fireworks in the U.S. is at this page of my web site.

The long version of this page:

I recommend that you stick with legal fireworks and forget about buying or using M-80s or anything like that. There are plenty of excellent legal fireworks available today which are far more sophisticated and entertaining than the primitive, silly thrill you get from lighting an M-80. And the possible consequences of possessing or using M-80s can be devastating to your lifestyle, peace of mind, and financial health. Legal fireworks carry none of these liabilities.

There is endless confusion over the terms "M-80" and "Cherry Bomb" in the United States. I recently heard from a high school principal in Illinois about two students that were caught in his school with "M-88" and "M-90" firecrackers, but they were the legal kind sold in fireworks stores. The local law enforcement was trying to tell the principal that these were more powerful than M-80s, which is not true. The "M-88" and "M-90" fircrackers sold in stores are ordinary, legal, 50 mg. firecrackers, with only 1/50th of the amount of powder in them that a true M-80 has in it.

I also read or hear about statements comparing an M-80 to a "quarter stick of dynamite" or similar exaggerations. Wrong. To begin with, a "quarter stick" of dynamite has 35 grams of pyrotechnic content, while a true M-80 has just under 3 grams. So even if they had a same chemical composition, an M-80 would have less than 10% of the power of a quarter stick of dynamite. But the composition in dynamite (which varies widely) is a high explosive, while the chemical composition in an M-80 (so-called "flash powder") is a low explosive, at least from a scientific standpoint. So really there is no legitimate way to compare an M-80 with a quarter stick of dynamite.

Before you send me an e-mail message arguing that flash powder is a high explosive, here is further discussion of that subject. By flash powder, I mean the chemical composition inside an M-80, which is a mixture of various substances, including potassium perchlorate. The scientific community defines a high explosive as one that detonates when unconfined. A low explosive is defined as one that deflagrates - not detonates - whether confined or unconfined. The distinction between "detonate" and "deflagrate" is the key difference here. A low explosive, that deflagrates, generates pressure waves in the air that are slower than the speed of sound, while a high explosive, which detonates, generates pressure waves that are higher than the speed of sound.

In the scientific community, according to Dr. Ken Kosanke, flash powder has not been shown scientifically to detonate when unconfined. It deflagrates when unconfined. So the prevailing opinion in the scientific community is that flash powder is a low explosive. However, the U.S. federal government is also in the business of classifying materials into different explosives categories. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATFE) is one of the agencies involved in this. They have chosen to classify flash powder as a high explosive, in spite of the scientific community's opinion that flash powder does not fit the definition of a high explosive. So there you have it. Flash powder is not a high explosive from a scientific standpoint, but it is from a legal standpoint - in the U.S. anyway.

Real "M-80s" and real "cherry bombs" are illegal in the United States. They have been illegal in the U.S. since the year 1966. The reason they are illegal is because the U.S. Congress passed a law in 1966, called the "Child Protection Act" which specifically made them illegal. It is illegal to sell, possess or use them anywhere within the United States jurisdiction. The punishment for selling, possessing, or using actual M-80s or "cherry bombs" within the U.S. can be severe. The potential "fun" or "entertainment value" that you might think you would get from using one of these devices is definitely not worth the risk of substantial fines or even imprisonment.

Just forget about buying M-80s or any other illegal devices, even if you do encounter them for sale somewhere. Some people assume that they are legal, just because "you can get them" in such-and-such a place or whatever. The fact that they do exist, and that someone will sell you them, does NOT make them legal, and it does not make them safe, either. I sometimes get e-mail from people telling me that some fireworks dealer somewhere, or some fireworks stand somewhere, sold them M-80s or other large firecrackers. Dealers or stand operators who sell legal fireworks are potentially putting themselves at great legal and financial risk by selling illegal devices such as M-80s. And those people should know better! I have heard stories about legal fireworks dealers who got caught selling illegal items such as M-80s or larger firecrackers, and the legal consequences for them were devastating. It's not worth it.

Another reason you should stay away from them is because these are totally unregulated, and they are made with no concern for your safety - they are made only to make a fast buck for someone. Not to mention that possessing them and using them is a crime and can get you in big trouble! You can tell illegal devices because they usually have no labeling at all, and often have a homemade look. Stick with legal fireworks, with the printed labels, and you'll have just as much fun, trust me. There is a whole world of legal fireworks out there for you to enjoy; they may not be legal where you live now, but you can always travel to a city or state where they are legal in order to have your fun and enjoyment, with no worries.

OK, now that I've hammered on that to the point that you probably don't want to read any more of this, here is the nitty-gritty explanation of "M-80" and "cherry bomb":

copyright1A true, bonafide M-80 is a firecracker designed for military use as a "gunfire simulator." One specification calls for a tube that is 1.5 inches long, 9/16th of an inch in diameter, with a fuse coming out the side rather than the end, and containing 45 grains of a specific pyrotechnic composition. (A "grain" is a unit of weight measurement equal to 64.799 milligrams.) So a true M-80 contains about 2,916 milligrams, or just under 3 grams of a spedific type of pyrotechnic composition. I don't know what the significance of "M-80" means, although the "M" probably stands for "military," I don't know what the "80" means. People have sent me their own explanations of how the "M-80" was named but none of these explanations were definitive. One customer who works at Edgewood CB Center (formerly Edgewood Arsenal) which is one of the locations where military explosives are developed recently sent me an e-mail message on the subject. He has access to the original drawings, and according to him, the 80 was a purely arbitrary designation. So that answer satisfies me.

copyright2A true Cherry Bomb is a relatively spherical firecracker, typically 3/4 inch in diameter, with an outer coating of sawdust bound with sodium silicate and dyed red. These are not as powerful as a true M-80. Both M-80s and "Cherry Bombs" are illegal in the United States, so don't buy them even if you encounter them. You are breaking the law if you sell, possess or use these in the United States. Some countries, such as Germany, Mexico and the Phillippines, may allow large firecrackers similar to these to be sold, but in the United States today, any firecracker sold to the public cannot contain more than 50 milligrams (.05 grams) of pyrotechnic composition per cracker. No matter what the shape, size or design of a firecracker, if it has more than 50 milligrams of powder in it, it's illegal in the United States.

Up until 1966, large firecrackers such as M-80s and cherry bombs were legal in the United States, and anyone could buy them and shoot them off. If you look through old fireworks catalogs from the 1930s, '40s and '50s, you will see these and even larger firecrackers advertised, all of them perfectly legal at that time. But it all ended in 1966. The Child Protection Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1966, specifically banned these devices. In 1976, the federal regulations were rewritten specifying a limit of 50 milligrams of pyrotechnic composition for any firecracker sold to the public in the United States, and that limit is still in effect today. It doesn't matter what they look like or what they are shaped like - ground firecrackers can only contain 50 milligrams of pyrotechnic content per cracker. (Aerial "reports," which are contained within aerial devices such as rockets and shells, can contain up to 129.6 milligrams of composition per report.)

The legitimate fireworks market today includes some "novelty" firecrackers called "M-60", "M-70", "M-88", "M-90" and so on. These are not M-80s, they are regular 50 milligram firecrackers made to look like M-80s or "Silver Salutes," another old type of firecracker now banned. These novelty firecrackers are legal to sell to the public, in states that allow firecrackers, because they contain no more than 50 milligrams of pyrotechnic content. They are nowhere near as poweful as a true M-80 or a true cherry bomb. The names used for these ("M-60", "M-70", "M-88", "M-90" and so on) are basically meaningless marketing gimmicks.

Further complicating and confusing the matter is that there are brands of legal firecrackers, sold in strings, actually called "M-80 Brand" and "Cherry Bomb Brand". These are also legal firecrackers, containing only 50 milligrams of powder per cracker. People may buy these thinking they are actual M-80s, but they are nowhere near as powerful as a true M-80. It's a sorry and sad marketing ploy that these names are even used on legal fireworks, and that some legitimate fireworks dealers will list these and sell these without necessarily explaining that they are legal firecrackers, and the only relation they have to "real" M-80s or cherry bombs is in the name.

Unfortunately, the decision to ban actual M-80s and cherry bombs has resulted in a black market for the "real things." I don't know where they are made, but it is not in the legitimate fireworks industry. They are only sold on an "underground" basis, in other words, no legitimate fireworks dealer carries them, or at least should carry them! Any legitimate fireworks dealer who does offer them should not be in the fireworks business. They cause a substantial percentage, if not the majority, of the injuries associated with "fireworks" each year.

It is unfair to the legitimate fireworks industry that statistics on injuries caused by these illegal, banned devices are often lumped in together with statistics on injuries related to legal fireworks, thus making legitimate, legal fireworks seem far more dangerous than they actually are. This is a tactic used by anti-fireworks activists in an attempt to influence public laws and regulations over legal fireworks. It is nothing for them to make an argument against the sales of fireworks to the public by quoting injury statistics that include injuries for illegal devices as well. Typically when quoting such statistics, they do not make the distinction between legal and illegal devices or bother to separate out the inury rates for illegal ones from legal ones, because that would greatly weaken their argument against allowing legal fireworks to be sold.

I get e-mail every so often saying something like, "where can i buy m80 blockbuster half sticks or 3/4 of a stick can i make homemade ones ? If so how would i be able to create it homemade" to use an actual example of an e-mail message. My answer is always the same: forget about making them, forget about buying them, forget about using them. Don't be tempted to buy illegal devices such as actual M-80s or cherry bombs. They are unregulated and dangerous. And forget about making them. That is only asking for trouble. Only buy legal fireworks from legitimate fireworks dealers. I myself have never lit an M-80 or even held one in my hand, although I have seen and heard them going off, but certainly I know enough to stay away from them. I have heard other people's miserable stories of what problems they ran into by possessing or using them. Learn from their mistakes - stay away from M-80s, Cherry Bombs, or anything else that is not legal.

For another page all about M-80s, click this.

Copyright © Bob Weaver. All rights reserved.

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