When you’re a kid, the Fourth of July is devoted to finding a bigger, louder, awesome-r way to blow things up in a celebration of freedom. Sure, we happily played with the sparklers and the snakes and – if we were really lucky – Roman candles and bottle rockets our parents gave us. There were always whispers of more powerful holiday ordinance from the days of yore, though. M-80s. Cherry bombs. Silver salutes. The kind of fireworks that Bart Simpson could throw down a toilet and detonate the whole plumbing system. What happened to these legendarily destructive fireworks, and are they really illegal?
To answer that question, we have to go back to the early 1960s, a time when responsible fireworks supervision basically meant, “Not giving your kid a live hand grenade. (Unless they were really mature for their age.)” For most of the 20th century, the fireworks industry had been something of a free-for-all; if a company could build a firecracker, they could sell it, regardless of its destructive power. By the early sixties, certain fireworks were crammed so full of flash powder that they were perfectly capable of blowing off someone’s hand.
Congress eventually decided to intervene.
In 1966 it passed the Child Protection Act. The act covered a number of other dangerous toys and child-oriented products, but its most memorable clause banned consumer sales for cherry bombs, M-80s, and their ilk while capping the explosive power of other consumer fireworks.
How much more powerful were these now-forbidden noisemakers? Federal law now caps the flash powder content of firecrackers at 50mg per firework. Typical M-80s contained somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000mg of powder apiece, or roughly 60 times as much explosive. (This power makes sense given the M-80’s original purpose: simulating the sound of gunfire and artillery during military training missions.)
According to a 2009 Wall Street Journal story, there are still some legal M-80s floating around out there, but you can’t pick them up for your holiday festivities. Manufacturing M-80s requires a federal explosives license; they've been used by farmers to scare nuisance wildlife away from crops. The same piece points out that some amateur enthusiasts make their own dangerous equivalents, but getting into the home M-80 business comes with the risk of a 10-year stint in federal prison. (Not to mention a good chance of losing an appendage.)