Of all the various fireworks and firecrackers that have been available over the centuries, only a couple of specific styles have become household names. The stuff of urban myths and legends, the M-80 and its slightly less powerful cousin, the cherry bomb, are sometimes considered the gold standard of consumer fireworks. However, both are illegal in the United States. But what is it about these powerful explosives that makes them seem so appealing? And why were they banned?
M-80s were designed by the United States military early in the 20th century. Their purpose was to simulate explosives and artillery fire for training exercises. If you stop and think about it, that in and of itself should be enough to convince most reasonable people that lighting them in your backyard is not the best idea. They are/were facsimiles of dangerous weapons, not toys.
The M-80 got its name from the 80 grains (roughly 5 grams) of flash powder it contained. The M stood for military, or military-issue. The original M-80s were, as you might expect, standard military-issue brown craft paper tubes with a fuse and end caps. Interestingly, on both the military-issue and later consumer M-80s, the fuse is on one side rather than the end.
After World War II, surplus M-80s were sold off as consumer fireworks. When fireworks manufacturers realized the sizeable demand, they began manufacturing them, wrapped in red paper rather than drab brown, for the consumer market. Falling into a fireworks category known as Salutes, along with cherry bombs and similar items, M-80s were known for their loud bang and bright flash, rather than any particular visual effects. However, research shows that consumer grade M-80s generally contained 3 grams of flash powder, down from the 5 grams in the military explosives.
M-80s and similar fireworks are frankly dangerous. Their chemical compositions make them inherently unstable, and they contain vast amounts of explosive powder. While any firework carries some risks, the very nature of M-80s and their ilk vastly increases the chances for serious injuries or even death.
By the mid-1960s, the consumer fireworks market was in a free for all. Manufacturers competed against each other to create the biggest, loudest, craziest fireworks, and people of all ages created their own backyard displays. However, with little oversight, the injuries kept getting worse and worse.
Meanwhile, public interest in the United States was pushing toward better protections for children from hazardous products. The Federal Hazardous Substances Labeling Act of 1960 had gone a long way in requiring warning labels on the outside packaging of goods intended for the home. But many items escaped the labeling requirements by being sold unpackaged.
In 1966, the much stronger Child Protection Act became federal law. Not only did it require warning labels on all products intended for children or household use, whether packaged or unpackaged, but it also enacted a ban on toys and other articles intended for children that were so hazardous that simple warning labels were insufficient to prevent harm.
At the time, fireworks, along with other such potentially hazardous items as chemistry sets, could be excluded if they were of a nature that they could be adequately labeled. However, a flurry of new laws based on the spirit of the Child Protection Act quickly made M-80s and similar Salutes illegal in the consumer market. Finally, in the mid-1970s, consumer grade fireworks were capped at a maximum of .772 grains, or 50 milligrams, of pyrotechnics—just 1/100 of the power of the original M-80, or 1/60 of the consumer version.
Interestingly, M-80s are still legal in some very specific cases. Those holding federal explosives licenses can legally possess them. They are most often used today by farmers attempting to ward off encroaching wildlife. Of course, launching them as fireworks, or using them in any manner other than that which is specifically permitted, is highly illegal and subject to stiff penalties.
Black Market M-80s and Look-Alike Fireworks
If you have spent any time at a major local fireworks shop, you might have come away with the impression that either M-80s are again legal, or your shop is running a huge risk. M-88, M-90, and many other designations are commonly used on legal fireworks packaging today to evoke the nostalgia associated with the M-80. However, these fireworks meet the 50 milligram regulations and are NOT genuine M-80s.
On the other hand, a black market in M-80s does exist. Ethical fireworks sellers go out of their way to avoid them, along with cherry bombs and other banned items, but they sometimes show up in unlikely places. Always pay close attention to what you are purchasing, and walk away from anything that does not clearly meet federal, state, and local laws.
Fireworks technology has come such a long way since World War II, and there are so many unusual designs to choose from, that taking a risk on black market or homemade M-80s is frankly ridiculous. Not only are they highly dangerous and illegal, but their effects pale in comparison to what today’s safer fireworks can achieve. Choose from the vast array of fireworks that are legal in your jurisdiction, and enjoy the marvels of modern technology.
At Dynamite Fireworks, we don’t only sell top-quality, name-brand fireworks. We also provide the information you need to know to use them responsibly, legally, and safely. If you have any questions or concerns, give us a call at (219) 937-4090. We look forward to becoming your one-stop shop for all your fireworks needs!