Fireworks Guide: Cakes & Barrages

This type of firework will usually form the bulk of any larger display.

Key information

  • Secured on the ground and fires multiple shots into the air.
  • Huge variation in running times, costs and effects depending on the specific cake.
  • Available in low noise effects for out of season or quiet displays.
  • Safety distances typically 8m up to 25m. No licence or training required to buy and use at any time of the year.
  • Cakes and barrages are also known as repeaters, candle combinations, batteries of shot tubes, link cakes, compound cakes, displays in a box, fan cakes and dump cakes depending on the specific variety (see below).
  • Guides to other types of fireworks can be found in the Firework Guides main menu.

A closer look at a typical cake

Regardless of their size and number of shots, most cakes and barrages – I’ll refer to them just as cakes for now – look similar to the diagram above:

Primary and reserve fuse: Many cakes have two fuses: a main fuse which you light and a reserve fuse which you only use if the main one fails. This is covered in more detail in the Firing Your Display section. They are shown here with their protective covers still on; you would peel these back to reveal the fuse before lighting.

Shot tubes: Each shot in a cake sits in its own tube. A 25 shot cake would therefore have 25 tubes, a 50 shot cake would have 50 tubes and so on. Each tube in a consumer firework that shoots a projectile into the air can be up to 30mm in bore size. The tubes have clay bungs in their base (which accounts for most of the firework’s weight) and an internal fuse that runs from tube to tube.

Cellophane wrap: This is just decorative. On some cakes you can see the shot tubes through the wrap. On others it might be paper with artwork on it. Either way, you do not need to remove this before firing – unless explicitly directed to on the instruction label – as it blows off with the first few shots.

Warning label and instructions: The important things you need to know about firing the cake, the firework’s classification (Category F2 or F3), the net explosive content (NEC) and so on.

Why they are called cakes and other names for this type of firework

The term “cake” was in use well before UKFR first started in 1999. I believe it could be because early fireworks of this type looked like round birthday cakes, but if you know any different please let me know.

Because “cake” is not a very descriptive term, some firework retailers refer to this type of firework as a barrage, as they produce a barrage of shots, one after the other.

Some retailers use the term repeaters, because they have more than one shot and therefore repeat effects until all the shots are fired.

Conversely, the more technical term – which will appear on the warning label – is battery of shot tubes. This is because the firework consists of shot tubes arranged in a battery.

Larger cakes which produce a longer display (e.g. one or two minutes) may be referred to as displays in a box or single ignition boxes (SIBs) by retailers, but again, these are simply different terms for the same type of firework.

Even bigger cakes which, internally, comprise of several other cakes fused together are known as compound cakes.

A wall of cakes (literally) at a firework retailer shows the huge variety of shapes and sizes - and these are just the small to medium ones!

What type of effects to expect

Cakes are perhaps the most versatile of consumer fireworks. The number of shots can range from just a few to several hundred.

The effects can range from nearly silent (though all cakes will make some noise with the ejection of each shot into the air, even if the effect itself is quiet) to very noisy. Many cakes have a mixture of different effects that change as they are firing. Many cakes also end with a salvo of several shots together – known as the finale.

Durations are similarly varied. Some cakes are deliberately fused to fire their shots quickly for higher impact, others are more drawn out to favour a longer duration. But as an example, a typical running time for a 25 shot cake is around 25 to 35 seconds.

Here is an example of a cake in action. This one is a 19 shot cake retailing for around £30 (Zeus Fireworks’ “Crown 500”). As you can see the emphasis with this firework is on high impact:

Longer duration cakes (say one or two minutes) offer the ability to use one single cake as your whole display. Larger cakes, therefore, are very well suited for New Year’s Eve or birthdays where you would want the simplicity of lighting just one firework.

For larger displays, the sheer variety of effects available in cakes makes them the first choice of firework for the majority of the budget.

How much do they cost?

Cakes start in price from under £10 for small units that may have say up to 16 shots and last 20 seconds or so. Most retailers have a large range of cakes spanning £20-£100.

From there the sky literally is the limit. Larger cakes lasting several minutes can cost around £100-£200 with larger compound cakes (see below) breaking the £200-£300 price point and going right up to £500+.

Although more expensive cakes often last longer, this is not always the case, since regardless of cost, individual cakes might be fused to fire quickly (for impact) or slowly (for duration). Watch the video clips most retailers provide to gauge individual cakes and get an idea of duration and effects.

It is also worth remembering that longer durations often mean more spread out effects which lessen the firework’s impact. So although durations of 30 to 60 seconds might not sound a long time, this is the “sweet spot” for cakes to balance duration and impact.

For more than a few minutes of display time you will need to buy several cakes or look at larger compound cakes.

Fan cakes

Some cakes have angled tubes. These are usually known as fan cakes. The shots from these are fired up into the air at slight angles to the vertical, producing a fanned effect.

Where the shots are fired in salvos (for example 10 at a time) the resulting effects can be sky-filling and stunning, making this type of firework ideal for high impact displays or as part of your finale.

Fan cakes look stunning, as you can see here with this Category F3 consumer fan cake. Note the firer for scale!

Some fanned cakes fire their shots one at a time in a left to right or right to left pattern (sometimes referred to as Z firing or a wiper effect) which can be very pretty to watch. This can be particularly effective for low noise effects such as falling leaves, which can be spread out across the sky.

It is important to only use fan cakes if there are no overhead obstructions to either side of the cake, such as trees or power lines. You should also be careful to orientate them when setting up as directed on the label; there will be a correct side to face spectators so they see the full fan (otherwise, a fanned effect seen from the side is not a fan!). I’ll cover this more in my setting up fireworks guides.

Compound and linked cakes

There is a legal limit to the amount of gunpowder that a single consumer cake can contain (500g for F2 fireworks and 1kg for F3 fireworks). However a quirk in the regulations means that it is perfectly legal for manufacturers to chain several individual cakes together to make what is effectively a much bigger cake, up to a 2kg total powder content with F2 and 4kg with F3.

These are known as compound cakes and are also sometimes called link cakes, as the individual cakes are linked by a fuse. A photo of the internals of a 100 shot compound are shown below. As you can see it is in fact 4 x 25 shot cakes fused together and mounted on a board. You wouldn’t normally see this fusing and board as the cake will be housed in an outer box allowing access to just the main and reserve fuses on the top (shown here with their orange fuse covers on).

An example compound cake showing four individual 25 shot cakes linked by a fuse to give an overall effect of 100 shots.

With compound cakes you still only have one fuse to light. The individual cakes (usually two, three or four) are linked by a fuse internally so that when one cake ends, the other starts, often after a slight pause. You should also see a secondary reserve fuse on these, which you would only use if the main fuse failed. 

Compound cakes have become very popular in recent years despite the occasionally eye-watering price tags. Whether a compound cake is better than buying individual separate cakes is a moot point. You’ll pay a slight premium for the extra packaging required to manufacture them but there is the convenience of only having one fuse to light. So I would suggest it is down to personal preference as to whether this type of cake is suitable for your display. Retailer video clips will of course, as always, be your guide here.

And be careful lifting them. No really, some can weigh 30kg or more!

Dump cakes

A new type of cake to emerge in recent years, dump cakes are simply cakes where all the shots are fused to fire simultaneously.

These are actually an evolution of a type of firework called a mine, where the entire powder content of the firework is intentionally fired in one hit. Dump cakes are one of the highest impact cakes. Firing 25 shots (as an example) all in one hit, in a second or so, for £25+ might seem crazy, but if you want a jaw-dropping effect this is the way to go. I love them!

Cake slices

Another item quite new to the market – at least for consumers – is the cake slice or fan slice. This specialist version of a cake is usually just one single row of tubes, say for example 10 shots, which all fire together or from left to right, to give a very quick but spectacular effect lasting just a few seconds.

The short duration and high price point makes these more suitable for advanced hobbyists and those electrically firing, rather than the general public.

An example cake slice with 10 shots that all fire at once to give a fanned effect.

1.3G, 1.4G and pyromesh

Once you start shopping for cakes – particularly at specialist firework shops – you’ll quickly run into the terms 1.3G, 1.4G and pyromesh.

The majority of cakes fall into the hazard classification for storage and transport purposes of 1.4G, which determines how many fireworks both retailers and end consumers can store (which is quite a lot for 1.4G consumer fireworks). However some cakes may contain a more potent form of gunpowder called “flash powder” and if this is over a certain limit, the firework falls into the more hazardous classification of 1.3G. As a result, less are allowed to be stored by the retailer and they can be trickier to send by mail order.

Retailers will often push 1.3G cakes as “more powerful” or that they contain “1.3G effects” as a selling point. Whilst 1.3G cakes are going to be a little more potent than 1.4G cakes, do not think that 1.4G ones are under-powered, they are not. Use the firework’s video clip to determine if you like the effects and power rather than its classification.

You can read an awful lot more advice on this topic in my 1.3G or 1.4G article (strong coffee required!).

To complicate matters further, manufacturers have the option of encasing a 1.3G cake in special wire mesh packaging known as pyromesh. This allows a 1.3G firework to be classified as 1.4G making them easier to store in bigger numbers. However, this somewhat frustrating packaging is pushed on to the end customer to have to remove – and dispose of – themselves. Again, I have a whole article just on this topic: That Pesky Pyromesh.

Cakes and barrages FAQ

Most cakes need to be secured on the ground so they cannot fall over.

Each one is different. High impact cakes can last as little as a few seconds. Displays in a box can last several minutes. An average is around 20-40 seconds.

All cakes not designed as low noise usually bang when the effect is dispersed. Louder ones include salute cakes, bigger bore cakes, 1.3G cakes and dump cakes.

Yes. Most good retailers now carry an extensive range of low noise cakes and barrages with the emphasis on pretty rather than loud.

No - as cakes and barrages need to fire a lift charge for each shot (to launch the effect in the air) it's impossible to have a completely silent barrage. However that sound won't travel far and the main effects in low noise fireworks won't bang.

It's complicated. To get a spectacular effect you need a big burst charge to spread it as far as possible. Low noise fireworks then tend to be effects that dissolve or gently break up, or don't burst at all. Generally the choice is spectacular (and loud) or more laid back (and quiet), but not both.

Unless specifically told to on the instruction label, you should not remove any packaging other than the fuse cover as it will blow off by itself when the shots start firing.

Yes, there are lots of bigger fireworks suitable as a display on their own. Look for larger barrages and compound cakes. Expect to pay at least £100 or more with an expectation of up to a couple of minutes run time.

You need between 8m and 15m distance to spectators for F2 fireworks and 25m for F3 fireworks. 

Many larger cakes and barrages have an additional fuse known as a reserve fuse. You only light this if the main one fails (after waiting at least 10-15 minutes to ensure the main fuse has definitely failed). Never light both fuses together.

Although spectacular, rockets only last a few seconds each, so my advice is to always focus the bulk of your budget on cakes and barrages. This will ensure you have a good running time and a variety of effects. Then add rockets as required, along with fountains, wheels and other fireworks.

Roman candles are usually single tubes with multiple shots stacked vertically inside. Cakes are usually multiple tubes with single shots in each one. Cakes have the advantage of varied pacing and multiple shots at the same time which would be impossible in a roman candle configuration.

Compound cakes are fireworks that contain a number (usually up to four)  cakes inside, which are connected by an internal fuse. You light one main fuse as normal and the firework then fires each cake in turn. This allows for some pretty huge fireworks - some weigh over 30kg - which can provide a complete show in themselves.

Fan cakes are fireworks which have slightly angled shot tubes, ejecting effects to the left, right and middle. Some fan cakes fire a complete bank of shots together (which is spectacular), some fire left to right like a wiper (also known as a Z pattern) and some have a mix of both.

Dump cakes are fireworks where all of the shot tubes are connected by an instantaneous fuse so that they all fire together. This results in some of the most spectacular effects you can find in consumer fireworks, at the expense of very short durations, usually just a few seconds.

Further information and next steps

If you are following the Beginner’s Guides then you can click here to return to that page. Alternatively you can click here to see the main menu of each firework type in this section if you want to read more (or click on the menu at the top of this page to access all of my guides).

If you’re ready to buy fireworks for your display then the Buying Fireworks section will guide you further.