Time and time again I am asked the same questions regarding the purchase and use of professional fireworks. So many people out there have been lighting fuses on the 4th of July for a long while now and the fireworks bought at the corner store have just lost their appeal. The largest fireworks you can buy as an average consumer are way too expensive for very little pay off. How is it exactly that you can go about buying and shooting the massive fireworks you see used in professional displays? Though the process may seem overwhelming at first glance, with some determination and willingness to learn you will find that once the process is completed it took much less than first imagined.
Even if you find that this process is too intensive for it to be worth the outcome in your situation, if you are at all interested in fireworks you should still look into joining a fireworks club as I suggest later in this article.
Unfortunately you will not be able to purchase any non-consumer grade fireworks in your current situation. To buy the shells you’re looking for requires some paperwork from the ATF. The thing to best suit your needs as a hobbyist simply wanting to spice up your displays is a User of Explosives Permit. That will allow you to buy commercial fireworks of whatever size and shape you desire. A User Permit is not incredibly difficult to obtain, but you do need to do quite a bit of homework to learn the ins and outs of the permitting process, what the permit will allow, and under what conditions. For a User Permit the most important thing you will need is proper storage, which can either be a magazine on your own property, or contingency storage – a magazine owned by someone else who will grant you the rights to store fireworks there. The latter is your most inexpensive and least complicated option, and most commercial fireworks retailers will allow you contingency storage – though it is usually only good for use with fireworks purchased from that specific retailer. To comply with the law, all commercial fireworks must be kept in a magazine if they are not to be used for more than a 24 hour period. Proper storage, whether your own or contingency, must be listed on your permit application when it is turned in or the application will be declined.
Here is a link to a PDF of the Orange Book, which contains the current Federal regulations concerning explosives and commercial fireworks (This should be read cover to cover several times to get a grasp of all the applicable federal laws): http://www.accelix.com/atf/atf-orange-book.pdf
Here is the application paperwork for explosives licenses and permits: http://atf.gov/forms/download/atf-f-5400-13.pdf
Notice that a FD-258 fingerprint card must accompany the application, which can be obtained through the local Sheriffs Office.
Though I do not wish to add any more to what may seem like an overwhelming amount of red tape and paperwork, you must also check into your State law and your your local Township codes to discover what things beyond the Federal regulations might apply to those wishing to use commercial fireworks in your area. There are some cases where there are no aditional requirements whatsoever, and others where you may need an additional insurance policy or a State license. Many States will require you to complete a Pyrotechnics Guild International Shooter Certification course, which is not very difficult, and you really should go through even if it is not required so you obtain the information and proper safety practices. It would also be a great environment to get any of your questions answered regarding local regulation and any other things you’re not completely clear on. Classes are held several times a year at pyrotechnic clubs across the country.
Here is a good source to find the laws regarding fireworks that apply in your State: http://www.pyroesq.com/
Lastly, what I would consider to be the most important step to take if you wish to learn more about fireworks, licensing, how they are made and how to build them yourself, or even if you just want to watch them more often, you need to join a pyrotechnic club. There is no better place to find people that are dealing and have dealt with the same red tape you are, and no better place to go to learn directly from firsthand experience regarding displays and building pyrotechnics. Clubs are also great places to find people in your area that might be willing to grant you contingency storage.
The Pyrotechnics Guild International is the largest pyrotechnic club in the country. They hold a week long convention every year in rotating locations, mostly in the northern States. It is the largest gathering of fireworks enthusiasts in the world, and an awesome experience. All the smaller clubs come together at the convention to shoot shows and compete with their handmade items. I highly recommend joining.
In the short term it is likely more important that you join a local club that has shoots more frequently. There are various clubs all over the country, spaced in such a way that there are few areas in which you would have to drive more than an hour or two to reach at least one club’s shoot locations. On the chance you should have to drive further, it is still very likely that other members are coming from or have knowledge of your area and will be able to provide advice. You should contact several clubs that are in your part of the country to find out where they meet and what their shoots consist of. Most clubs will allow you to attend shoots before you are a member so you can decide if it is something you would like to be a part of.
Here is the PGI website: http://www.pgi.org/
Here is a list of localized clubs in the US that are open to new members: http://www.pgi.org/links/clubs.php