Important Note

This document covers what worked for me. My experience in dealing with bureaucracies has been that repeatability is not in any way assured - too much depends on who you actually deal with. I encourage you to get legal if you are going to building fireworks, and hope that this page can help.

Getting Legal

So you're an aspiring or active pyro enthusiast, and you've started having bad dreams about having your door busted down by twenty or thirty of your city, state and BATF agents. You want to get legal. This document is the step-by-step process one pyro went through to get legal. So let's look at how one becomes legal.

I should state up front that the following are the activities which I had in mind when going to get legal:

If what you are looking for is advice on how you can legally become immune to your state or localities ban on fireworks, that is just not going to happen. We're talking about serious, discreet hobby manufacture of pyrotechnics here. OK?

The information in this article reflects the experience of one person and may contain inadvertant factual inaccuracies. It is based on the author's understanding of US and New York State regulations, and will be completely irrelevant to citizens of other countries, and only partially relevant to inhabitants of other states. I sincerely hope that others will be inspired to document in an accessible fashion the arcana of getting legal in their country or state.

For each of the required forms, I have provided links to annotated scans of the actual form. You can use these as a guide in filling out your own forms. If you discover any errors, please let me know, so that I can correct them!

Eligibility

There are several requirements for getting legal that you won't be able to get around. You must be at least 21 years old, you must have an approved place to store your explosive materials, and you can't be a criminal, a loony, or a druggie. If you can't meet these requirements, you're out of luck.

The first requirement I can't help you with - you'll just have to wait or get your parent to become licensed. The second requirement means that you either have to own yourself or have access to an approved and licensed magazine. Since this is required at the Federal level, you'll have to deal with this anywhere in the US. The third requirement means you must not be (quoting directly from federal form ATF F 5400.13, and yes, they really spelled punishable that way :-) ):

  1. Charged by information or under indictment in any court for a crime punisable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year
  2. A fugitive from justice
  3. Been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year
  4. Been adjudicated as a mental defective or been committed to any mental institution
  5. An unlawful user of or addicted to marihuana or any depressant, stimulant or narcotic drug

Magazines

If you know someone who owns an approved magazine, and who will let you store your explosives in their magazine, you may be able to meet the storage requirement that way. I did not attempt to do that, so I cannot say if it would work. I built my own magazine, and will describe that process.

The Orange Book

The first step is to get a copy of the "Orange Book", also known as "ATF - Explosives Law and Regulations", publication ATF P 5400.7 of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. It may be difficult to get a genuine copy, since the budget cuts in Washington seem to preclude printing enough of them. Fortunately, it is available on the web at the BATF site. Thanks Tom!! There are reported to be a few problems with the on-line version that Tom has not had a chance to ferret out, so be careful if you use this as your only copy. If you want a paper copy, and can't get one from BATF, the book has been privately printed and is available for $12.95 plus shipping from SkyLighter.

The Orange Book describes several types of magazines:

The most recent revision to the Orange Book is also 1990, so even if you get one, there have been changes since then that can be very difficult to know about (sigh). Recent interpretations and changes have for instance, re-defined flash powder in some instances (loose powder and bulk salutes - I'm not even going to try to define what they mean by "bulk salutes") as a high explosive. My advice if you are planning to make and store salutes at all is to go for a Type 1 or 2 magazine, and avoid possible problems with interpretation on what you are storing an a Type 4.

The Orange Book has at least three differnet parts you should read when planning the construction of your magazine. First is the text description on pages 37-43. Second is the tabular description on pages 49-52. And third is the section on ATF Explosives Rulings and Procedures on pges 61-67.

The Orange Book also contains the infamous "tables of distances", which specify minimum separations between magazines and various other things such as roads, railways, inhabited buildings, etc. etc. The upshot of all of this is that you must own a reasonably large piece of land if you want to have your own magazine.

Once you have decided what kind of magazine to build, and have worked out where you are going to put it, you need to actually buy or construct one. Read over the Orange Book requrements many times, because you won't know until after it is all done whether your design will pass. I designed mine to be a Type 2 magazine, but was ready to shift to a Type 4 if the inspector didn't like some little detail.

Mine is a 2' x 2' x 3' box welded up from 1/4" steel plate and lined with plywood. It has two padlocks for security.

Local Requirements

The town I live in has no specific rules pertaining to pyro. If I've got the State and the Feds happy, they are happy. However, I suspect that my town may be in the very small minority.

One particular problem that will quite probably crop up for you is that since you are legally establishing an explosives manufacturing operation, you may need approval from your local zoning board. I know one person who had to go through this, and got a variance stating that he could do his thing as long as the noises he made were no louder than the "typical gun-shots heard in his area". The area has quite a bit of hunting and target shooting, but that will restrict him from testing those heavy bottom shots!

New York State Requrements

You need to get an application package for License to Deal In or Manufacture Explosives. This package can be obtained from:

New York State Department of Labor
Division of Safety and Health
License and Certificate Unit
Room 801
One Main Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
(718)797-7658

This package details a number of requirements, including:

Fingerprints
A fingerprint card is part of the packet, and unless you have already been fingerprinted (usually for a pistol permit) you have to take this the your local State Police office and get fingerprinted. There is no charge for this, but the Department of Labor will ding you $50 (see fees, below) to search the database unless you already have a pistol permit.
Medical Waiver
This is NYS form DOSH-882 authorizing the release of your medical records. You have to submit two copies, and they must be notarized.
Child Support Certification
This is NYS form GO 1 certifying that you are not in arrears on child support payments. You have to submit one notarized copy. This is the newest addition to the process - aren't bureaucracies wonderful?
Photographs
You need three passport sized photos taken within thirty days of when you submit your application. If you already have a pistol permit you only need two - one goes with the fingerprint card.
Certificate of Insurance
You have to visit or write to the Enforcement office of your regional Workman's Compensation Board, and get an exemption certificate (assuming here that you are doing this as a hobby, not a business). The form you'll need is a C-105.21 form. After filling out the form, you need to submit it to the enforcement office. They will approve it and send it back. I have been told that you have to appear in person, but I have also just sent it to them and got it back signed with no problems.

The regional offices are:

Explosives Storage Information
This is NYS form DOSH-51, and must be filled out in duplicate. This one asks for things like "List by type and amount, all explosives you intend to purchase and/or store in N.Y. State for the next 12 months". Uh, well, I really don't know....
Fees
There is an annual fee for your license of $100.00, and if you don't have a pistol permit, another $50.00 for a search of the Division of Criminal Justice Services fingerprint records. You need this in the form of a certified check or money order made out to the Commissioner of Labor.
Application
And last, but not least, is the application form itself, NYS form DOSH-860. This is pretty simple, but it has to be filled out in triplicate (two for them, one for you) and the original copy has to be notarized.

After you've assembled all of this stuff, you send it in and wait. While you wait, you can work on getting your magazine built to Orange Book specs. You should also try to get hold of the NYS specifications to make sure you're in synch with them, but they are pretty close to the Federal specs. One difference is that the state code requires that an indoor magazine be painted either vermillion (aka bright red) or silver with the word "EXPLOSIVES" on the top in a contrasting paint in letters no less than 3" high.

At some point after you submit the application, you will be contacted by the Dept. of Labor to schedule an appointment to inspect your magazine and do your personal interview. At that time you will also get to fill out a DOSH-50 form, titled Application for Explosives Magazine Certificate, and write another check for $20.00 or $40.00, depending on how much you want to be able to store. The $20.00 fee is for a magazine storing 0-200 lbs, the $40.00 fee is for 200-10,000 lbs.. There are higher classes if you plan to store more than 5 tons....

You are also required to notify your local police and fire authorities of the existance and location of your magazine. Although this requirement will make some folks cringe, it can actually work in your favor. If they know that you are a licensed explosives manufacturer, they will know that they can ignore reports of your test shots.

About nine months after you get your license, you'll get a letter notifying you that it is going to expire soon, accompanied by the same packet of materials you got when you started out down this trail. You will search vainly through it for the license renewal form. You won't find it. There is no such thing. You have to do it all over again - every year. The only difference is that you don't have to submit a new fingerprint card and pay the $50. search fee on a renewal. You can't figure that out from the documents they send you, but I got a letter assuring me that I didn't need to (of course this was after I had already done it - sigh).

There is some light at the end of this tunnel - legislation is pending to have the license renewal made a 3-year rather than a 1-year process.

Federal (BATF) Requirements

Depending on what your state requires, getting the BATF license may be the easy part. The regulations are pretty explicit that once you file your application, they are required to grant you the license unless they can cite chapter and verse of the regulations as to why not.

First, you need to get the appropriate forms from the ATF. Write to them at:

ATF Distribution Center
P.O. Box 5950
Springfield, VA 22150-5950
and request the following documents:
  1. ATF-F5400.13/16 - Application for License or Permit, Explosives
  2. ATF-F5400.4 - Explosives Transaction Record
  3. ATF-F5400.5 - Report of Theft or Loss - Explosive Materials
You'll want one copy of the application, and several copies of each of the others.

You need to fill out the application form ATF-F5400.13/16, both front and back (be sure to remember to reverse the carbon paper before doing the back!). In the instructions, it says to call (800)366-5423 if you have any questions, but that number is out of service. Try (404)679-5040. Budget cutting - now you have to use your dime.

One of the not-so-obvious areas on the BATF application is what license and/or permit you need. The answer, to the best of my knowledge is:

Adding up the fees for these two, you will need to fatten Uncle Sam's wallet to the tune of $70.00. If you intend to sell anything, you'll need more licenses, and have to pay more fees.

Questions 16 and/or 17 ask for descriptions of your magazine. I did this on a separate piece of paper, and had the Orange Book open in front of me, using close paraphrases of their wording every step of the way.

Five or six weeks after filing your application, you should receive a call from your local ATF agent to schedule a visit for your interview and magazine inspection. You should take some of that time to go over the Orange Book again, especially making sure that you fully understand the the record-keeping requirements. My local agent was very nice, and I actually enjoyed the interview process. My magazine inspection was also a pleasant experience, and the magazine was approved as a type 2 indoor magazine. After that, you sit back and wait until your licenses and permits arrive - this will take several more weeks.

My status

I am now licensed by the BATF as a manufacturer of low explosives and a user of high explosives. I am licensed by New York State to manufacture and deal in explosives. I'm legal, and let me tell you, it is a great feeling!


This page last updated June 15, 1998