Ah, bang snaps, those petite paper sacks that made an audible “snap” when a younger you threw them against the sweet vintage ride your dad loved more than just about anything else. Boasting an impressive assortment of alternative names — snappers, bangers and pop-its just barely scrape the surface — these innocuous firecrackers are easily one of the most popular novelties on the market. But where’d they come from? It’s something of a mystery.
“I’ve been with the industry for 30 years,” says Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, an agency responsible for promoting the responsible regulation of fireworks in the U.S. “But I haven’t heard anyone talk about the history of this very popular novelty device.”
After asking around, Heckman eventually pointed me to John Conkling, former executive director and technical director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, retired professor of pyrotechnic chemistry and one of the world’s foremost experts in both pyrotechnics and fireworks. “If anyone knows the history of snaps, he’s your man,” she promises, adding that he’s traveled to China, the believed historical birthplace of fireworks, more than 30 times to bolster his research on the subject.
Sadly, though Conkling was able to tell me that bang snaps were first imported to the U.S. on a large scale around 1970, where they were manufactured and who exactly was making them is still unclear. “The best guess at that time was there was some factory — some company — over in Europe that was making them,” he explains.
One of the reasons tracking down the origins of bang snaps is so difficult is simply because of their massive assortment of names. But it’s also down to how incredibly simple these products are to make, meaning a huge number of people and small companies could have done it. Essentially, bang snaps are just sand, soaked in a minute amount — less than 0.1 milligrams — of explosive silver fulminate, which is then twisted into a piece of cigarette or tissue paper. When thrown or stepped on, the friction or pressure detonates this small amount of silver fulminate, hence the pleasantly weak “snap.”
Knowing just how simple these firecrackers are, you could even hypothesize that someone made a crude — well, even more crude — version of bang snaps a long, long while back. Legend holds that Chinese alchemists were creating fireworks with an explosive powder made of potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal more than 1,000 years ago, so the idea that someone could have sprinkled the stuff into some paper to create a firecracker similar to bang snaps is viable, although Conkling has heard nothing of the sort in his research.
While tracing the true origins of bang snaps is perhaps an impossible task, what we can do is trace how they became so popular. That story begins with them being about as safe as fireworks come, which is extremely important when it comes to shipping them, particularly on an international scale. “The industry did some testing with the items on the marketplace, where we dropped boxes from reasonable heights — 100-foot heights — onto a hard, pavement-type surface,” Conkling explains. “Some of the items would function, but we didn’t get any mass explosion, any fireball — anything that would pose an imminent threat to anybody around a box of these dropping. So we felt good with that, and working with the Department of Transportation, we were able to get them an approval. Since there was no fire or flame visible when these items functioned, they certainly didn’t meet a lot of the standard definitions of an explosive.”
By contrast, there have sadly been multiple instances of other kinds of fireworks exploding during transport, and deadly ones at that.
From that point, the Department of Transportation decided not to regulate bang snaps as explosives during transportation — something they do with many other kinds of more explosive fireworks — a decision Conkling says “was a significant event for the industry, because now they didn’t have to ship these with all the labels, shipping papers and notations.” In other words, since bang snaps were much easier to ship than more volatile fireworks — especially when packed with sawdust, as they often are — they required fewer regulations, meaning they pretty much flooded into the country, becoming one of the easiest fireworks for people to get their hands on.
Their relative safety has increased their popularity in other ways, too. “Virtually every state allows the sale and use of those items,” Conkling emphasizes, which is fairly unique as many other firework variations are illegal. “We’ve done everything we can think of to abuse them and get a violent output, and we haven’t been able to.”
Because of that, not only do police and fire marshals generally give them a pass, parents also feel safer allowing their children to handle bang snaps, a phenomenon that obviously keeps them popular through generations. Of course, Conkling suggests providing small kids with safety goggles to ensure that no small fragments land in their eyes, but also, yeah, keep kids away from your prized vehicles when giving them bang snaps, too.
Now, since I bet most of you are wondering, no, collecting a mass quantity of the explosive silver fulminate from a bunch of bang snaps to make a much larger explosion isn’t really possible. “The beauty is, you can’t isolate the explosive,” Conkling confirms, partly because they have such a small amount of silver fulminate, but for another reason, too. “You can’t start taking these apart and scraping the explosive to collect a large quantity. It just doesn’t work — you’ll generally set off the one you’re scraping.”
Unless, of course, you’re willing to do some serious chemistry, like the guy in the video below, but even after extracting silver fulminate from approximately 5,000 bang snaps, he only ended up with a measly morsel of the stuff.
Naturally, once this incredible level of safety was confirmed and bang snaps popularity grew, pop culture brought them to the big screen, pushing their acclaim even further. In the 1985 film The Goonies, Data uses bang snaps as booby traps, and more recently, Cartman throws bang snaps at Kyle’s feet throughout the South Park episode, “Good Times with Weapons.” Bang snaps can also be seen in the pilot of American Horror Story, where a pair of twins are frequently seen tossing the small firecrackers.
The rest is history. So next time you see some kids tossing bang snaps all over the place, remember that those things are popular because they’re one of the least explosive explosives known to man — something you can reflect on whenever you’re feeling not so great about yourself. Then tell those damn kids to get the hell away from your car.