In April 2000, the UK Firework Review "away team" consisting of myself (Pyro Pete) and my stunt-double Pete B, were guests of HFM Pyrotechnics for a huge display at Ellesmere College. In this "digitally remastered" update for 2004, we feature for the first time some stunning video clips of the display and of course, the sixteen inch shell itself in action.


To create a finale fitting to the occasion, HFM obtained one of the largest aerial shells available for UK use - a whopping sixteen inches in diameter. Just to prove a point, this would be preceded by no less than two twelve inch shells!

Of course, we could not turn down the chance of seeing this kind of pyro in action so despite the four hour drive, we literally jumped at the opportunity, with Pete B so excited he was standing at the end of my drive at 6.15am with a big grin on his face before I had even shut the front door!

Four hours and a greasy Little Chef fry-up later, we arrived at HFM HQ "just in time" to help Mike load the vans with a huge amount of fireworks. This was, from the number of boxes and large mortar tubes, going to be quite a spectacle. The highlight of the show, a sixteen inch Vulcan aerial shell, was so big we could hardly lift it. Needless to say the mortar tube required to fire this was wide enough to stand in. As Pete B pointed out, there was probably more powder in that one shell than in the whole of our cat 3 displays!

Last minute preparations were made which included Mike forcing us to wear HFM T-shirts but as it turned out they weren't half as bad as the red overalls the rest of his team had to wear (sorry Mike had to get that one in!). Jumping eagerly back into the car we then tailed the team to Ellesmere College, a stunning setting for a display.


It's difficult to picture what a twelve and sixteen inch shell looks like, so we'll help you out a bit:

On the left is the twelve inch - remember this is one single shell - it's bigger than most complete category three cakes! On the right, the incredible sixteen inch finale shell, it's not only very big, it's also very heavy! Again, it's a single shell, the lifting charge on the bottom needs to be big enough to lift this thing about 1000ft in the air. The orange string is part of the shell, this is to help you lower it into the mortar tube. The comet tail is created by the nodules on top, which emit sparks as it ascends.

Now take a look at this picture:

The shell on the left is the sixteen inch one again, so you can take a closer look. On the right for comparison is a two inch aerial shell, the smallest single shell most professionals would consider using.

Now it's time for some maths: The two inch shell is an incredible 69% bigger in diameter than the largest diameter shell allowed in a category three cake or candle available to the general public. Now take another look at the big shell again. If a twenty five shot cake was constructed using these shells, it would be nearly 8ft x 8ft big including launch tubes!


It was like summer when we arrived, and I have (or rather had!) a tan to prove it, and working with Mike's team was a pleasure and they really made us feel at home and part of the team. We would be classed as "trainees" which of course for safety reasons would mean we would be put with an experienced member of the team and work under close supervision, between taking pictures and video.

The firing site was split into two main areas, on two levels. The higher level was on the playing field in view of the building and spectator area and most of the fireworks would be set up here, I would estimate it was perhaps 100m or more from the audience (a sign of how big most of the fireworks were going to be). A few hundred metres behind this, and down a 10m slope was the second firing area which was used just for the big shells. This was an ideal venue in this respect because this area was shielded by a huge bank in addition to being a large distance to the audience.

The first job of course is unloading the vans, so we mucked in to get all the pyro and numerous support items out and ready.

The fireworks were duly set out, rack upon rack of mortar tubes and huge 1000 shot cakes, although there were a few familiar faces in there. Blockbuster candles were a notable cat 3 candle Mike was using for the simple reason they are very good used in multiples. These were arranged in fans and other candle bundles were situated around a big metal arc Mike had built. The idea with this arc was to fire a huge number of very small bore candles at the same time, and it worked very well as you will see.

With this number of fireworks in the display a firing order and plan was needed, and this consisted of the fireworks being arranged in lines, attached by quick match fuse (the professionals use this to enable multiple fireworks to be started at the same time). Thus, the firer merely needed to light the fuse at the end of each line.

In addition to two huge arrays of aerial shells, heavy duty noise was going to be created by seven sinister looking foil-coated (as all the fusing and waterproofing had been done already) dustbin sized contraptions containing nothing less than seven titanium salutes in each one. Ouch!

- Click on any thumbnail to view a bigger picture -

Unloading the van, here Pete B (our own Carol Smilie) models next to some very big mortar tubes including the unmistakable 16 inch tube.

General view of the main site looking towards the distant college (where the spectators would be situated).

The large metal arc, used to fan out candle bundles to great effect. You can see a video clip of this in action later in this feature. The arc was built in sections to allow easy transport.

A view across the firing site (left to right) along one line of fireworks. Here we have four very large cakes, all linked by quick match fuse which means the firer will light one end and all four fireworks will start together. Much easier than walking between them!

Another line of fireworks this time two fans of Blockbusters with some more waiting to be added. If you follow the fuse you will see it goes between each individual candle too, ensuring they all fire together.

One of the large shell racks (45 six inchers if I remember correctly) and in the foreground, the noise makers - seven titanium salute barrages!!!

A rather large rack of shells

And for good measure, here's some more!!

Unfortunately at this point the sun decided to go in and be replaced by dull, low cloud and a biting wind. I switched from the stills camera to the camcorder to record some more setting up, luckily by filming I was not required to carry any more heavy boxes!

A rack of rockets called "flight rockets" were prepared - now these are interesting because you don't see many rockets used professionally. Unlike our cat 3 counterparts, these have unlabelled plastic heads (making them basic and therefore cheap) and an instant fuse, allowing a whole rack to be fused up for rapid fire - a professional would not want to fire these one at a time. If you ever wondered how the professionals multiple fire rockets, this is it.

Stills from the video showing the flight rockets being set up and waterproofed.

Flight rockets : Getting the flight rockets ready and covering them with a waterproof cover. Notice the single length of fuse that runs along all of the rockets. 3.2Mb Windows Media clip.

Now it was time for the really hard slog, getting the big bore shell tubes prepared. These would be fired electrically for safety reasons with the tubes being mostly buried in the ground. In a professional display, you have a choice of firing by hand, or by electronic means, or both. Mike elected to do both, so we and his team could get our hands dirty with some live firing on the night, a fact we greatly appreciated. So the big bore items would be sent up at the press of a button but the rest of the display would be fired the old fashioned way. As with any display, the more time you spend setting up, the less you have to do in the display itself so although it was hard work it would pay off in the end.

Burying twelve and sixteen inch mortar tubes is easier said than done - when was the last time YOU dug a six foot hole? A JCB had been called in to do the hard part, then an "enthusiastic volunteer" was chosen to get covered in mud doing the final touches - at which point I made sure I was busy with the camera, of course.

The following few minutes were unintentionally hilarious because quite honestly no-one really wanted to get in a six foot long hole, so the honours fell to Mike's apprentice who became the "enthusiastic volunteer". Not sure about the volunteer part of it but I have to say he remained enthusiastic despite the piss taking. So, we all stood around the trench watching him dig away.

At this point we realised that the groundsman who had dug the trench had also taken away all the earth, and this was needed to fill the hole in again around the tubes, so Mike had to spend a few minutes chasing this up to get our mud back.

The hole was finally ready save for a wooden base to support the possible recoil pressure from the tube. The apprentice was sent off to find a suitable piece of timber, the one he found was too big, so his next job was to break this in half with a spade, heheh...

How many pyrotechnicians does it take to dig a hole and break a plank of wood in half? Well quite a few actually although most of these were required to stand and make suggestions to the apprentice. The fourth image shows that even with Mike's weight behind it, the plank just won't break. Finally, success, and the tubes are buried.

Trainee runs amok with spade : This is a long download with no fireworks in it, but worth it for the entertainment factor of watching some poor sod slogging away in a hole while we all take the piss. 4Mb Windows Media clip.

The safety precautions that need to be taken with this size of firework are incredible. You can't see it in the picture below, but the tube was several hundred metres away from the spectator line, and situated in a dip that acted as a natural barrier - you could not see the tube from the audience.

Then came the moment we had been waiting for, the unpacking of the mother of all shells, the 16 inch, and loading it into the tube. Mike had a great surprise for us - he'd coloured the shell black and written "BOMB" on it, very funny, but it did look great and called for a round of photographs as we took turns to pose next to this beast of a shell.

The sixteen and then the twelve inch shells unpacked, followed by a photo session. The shells are finally loaded and the long wait until the display begins...

16 inch photo call : Unpacking, fondling (and in one case almost licking) the sixteen inch, followed by some macho poses to show the grandchildren when we're old farts "Look son, I had more explosives in my arms than was used to topple Saddam Hussain". 7Mb Windows Media clip.


After what seemed like ages, we were ready to start the display's opening. This would be a lone shell fired every ten minutes in the last half hour run-up to the display, to let the partygoers know the display was getting ready. One of these lone shells was a six or eight inch maroon and the shockwave could be felt against your body, so I'm sure most of Ellesmere was also watching by the time the display started.

Mike was kind enough to let me and Pete B fire at least one item (under supervision). My job was to light some strobes at the front, after which I had to run a few hundred metres to my filming point in time to catch the opening (easier said than done). Pete B was stationed by the 50,000 hanging crackers, and if you come across him in our forum he has his own stories to tell about his exploits with those ;-)

So with camera rolling and some very merry guests just behind me, the strobes signalled the start of an amazing display. I must at this point apologise for the rather odd sounding woman in the video clips, I don't know whether she'd had a G&T too many or was simply overwhelmed by the fireworks, heheh...

Coloured stars and pretty effects eased the audience into things nice and gently, followed by a sequence of fanned blockbusters and then some bigger bore crackling comets. Now we moved back down to the ground with a number of professional gerbs. These are like conic fountains, but a lot bigger and cylindrical in shape. The plume is much higher and they burn a bit more consistently, but to look at they resemble huge fountains. Three very pretty purple shells with persistent comet trails exploded overhead (video clip 1 below).

Now we had some gorgeous coloured stars (mad woman provides sound track here) which led into one of the "artistic highlights" for me, the huge metal arc adorned with candle bundles. This worked extremely well even at the large distance involved (this would be stunning at 30-50m and as the candles used were cat 3 there is no reason why it could not be reproduced in your displays). In this case a curtain of ruby stars lit up the whole field. Time for some noise now with a variety of big cakes and some mines, topped with fans of shells (video clip 2 below).

The pace continued with more cakes, including crackling and fish effects, leading to a pair of screeching serpent cakes (the video clip shows how well the quick match fuse works in these cases). The flight rockets were up next, although the gold willow (which looked amazing to the eye) does not show on the video you can hear the unmistakable whoosh of the launches (video clip 4 below).

Some more cakes continued the action including a pair of Poisonous Spiders (a rather nice cat 4 cakes that has swirling silver serpents exploding into coloured stars), these gave way to some serious shell salvos as the two shell racks were employed to fill the sky up. Just when you thought the sound level could not get any higher, the titanium salute barrages kicked in, blinding flashes and massive bangs rocking the college (I enjoyed that bit) (video clip 5 below).

And now, ladies and gentlemen, what you have been waiting for. The finale. Oh yes. Not just any finale. First of all the sky was torn apart by a barrage of very large shells. Just as these died down, BOOM! the huge launch thud of something very big. From behind the tree line two big comets soared upwards - the 12 inch shells - exploding in perfect unison. Massive coloured spheres with a pink core. The audience was delirious thinking that was the end... but then BOOOOOM! A massive bang, and this was it, the 16 inch.

Like most of the crew, half of the overwhelming feeling of joy for me at this point was because it had safely launched. And up it went in an eerie silence. You will have seen the normal delay between launch and detonation of mid-sized shells well download the video below and check this out. It just went up.. and up... and up... It exploded into a dense sphere of gold with the bang not reaching us until many seconds later (it must have reached 1000ft+).

The resulting effect was the best shell I think I have ever seen. Despite the height and distance it filled the sky with gold glitter before exploding into further purple stars. The hang time was similarly impressive, and the audience's applause at the end said it all. STUNNING.

Still images from the video clips which you can download below.

Series of still grabs from the video showing the two 12 inch shells frame by frame.

Series of still grabs from the video showing 16 inch shell frame by frame.

See many more clips from this display in the UKFR YouTube Channel

Display clip 1 : Strobes and coloured stars, candle fans, gerbs and three shells. 6.3Mb Windows Media clip.
Display clip 2 : Coloured stars, fanned candle bundles, assorted cakes and shells. 7.1Mb Windows Media clip.
Display clip 3 : Clip of just the excellent candle bundle fan on the metal arc. 1.85Mb Windows Media clip.
Display clip 4 : Mines, cakes, screeching serpents and flight rockets. 6.5Mb Windows Media clip.
Display clip 5 : Cakes, main shell barrages and titanium salute sequence. 6Mb Windows Media clip.
SIXTEEN INCH SHELL CLIP! : 2 x 12 inch shells followed by 1 x 16 inch shell. Perhaps the most amazing cat 4 shells you will see. 3Mb Windows Media clip.
12 inch replay : Slow motion rendering of the two 12 inch shells (no audio). 1.5Mb Windows Media clip.
16 inch replay : Slow motion rendering of the 16 inch shell (no audio). 4Mb Windows Media clip.


With thanks to Mike and the HFM Pyrotechnics team for their hospitality and for this unique opportunity to witness some massive pyro - and share it with UKFR readers.

With thanks to Luvagoodbang (Julian) for his work converting the analogue source tape to digital, which has made the new video clips possible.

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This feature and its contents are ©2000-2004 UK Firework Review. All rights reserved.