Using a Star Gun


Two separate events have led me to explore this subject.

Harry emailed me and said that Skylighter had received a shipment of functional, but ugly, star testing guns. He said that he was willing to make folks a great deal on them if I could find a way to illustrate the need for them and how to put them to good use.

I said that I could easily do that, and that I had in mind a bonus, creative way to put them to use.

Additionally, a fellow pyro on was recently mentioning that he was having problems with some stars he had made. He related that he had ignited some of them while they were sitting on the ground, and although they had burnt all the way through, there was not much effect from them and they had left a large ash on the ground ounce they had gone out.

So, all of that came together, and this little article is the result.

Why is a Star Gun Necessary?

Well, technically it's not.

I've lit and thrown many stars to test-burn them in the air, and usually could do so without burning my fingers if I licked them first. Sometimes I'd grab the leather glove, but then sometimes I was too lazy for that move.

I have made Super Bottle-Rockets using Steve Majdali's tooling, available in the ads in the back of the PGI Bulletin. Taping a test-star atop one of these nifty little rockets is a great way to get the star way up in the air where it is ignited. But, making a rocket to test each star can become a bit too much work.

Way back when, I got the bright idea of getting a slingshot, taping a piece of visco fuse to a star, loading it all into the slingshot, firing up the visco, pulling back on the rubbers, waiting until the star just ignited, and letting 'er fly. I just knew I'd invented a new useful pyro device. Even called it my "Kentucky star gun."

I posted my "unique" invention on a pyro discussion list, and a well known fireworker responded that he'd been doing just that for years, and that he had some good welder's gloves (which covered the arm in addition to the hand), which he could sell me, and which were handy for that operation.

Darn. I'd reinvented the wheel once again. That happens a lot in hobbyist fireworking.

But, with all these devices, the idea is to test-burn a star or comet flying through the air at some distance from us.

Often color stars don't show their true colors if we are too close to them while they are burning. They'll look quite different at a distance of 100 feet. And they burn differently when flying through the air than they sitting still.

For instance, willow stars and glitter stars won't create their unique effects at all if they are just sitting on the ground burning. But put them up flying through the air, and we can begin to appreciate their effects and visualize what hundreds of them flying out of a shell-burst will look like.

And, honestly, a slingshot or hand-tossing will not get the star very far from me nor very high in the air. They will often burn me. If half of my attention is on not getting burnt. I won't really focus on noticing how the star performs.

Enter the tried and true star gun.

Star Gun and Accessories
Star Gun and Accessories

Using a Star Gun

My star gun has 5 tubes on it: 3/8-inch, 1/2-inch, 5/8-inch, 7/8-inch, and 1 1/8-inch inside diameters.

Using FFg or FFFg sporting grade black powder, I use lift powder loads as follows:

3/8-inch Shallow 1/8 teaspoonful
1/2-inch Flat 1/8 teaspoonful
5/8-inch Heaping 1/8 teaspoonful
7/8-inch Flat 1/4 teaspoonful
1 1/8-inch Heaping 1/4 teaspoonful

To test a star, I determine which of the tubes will be a close fit for the star, while still allowing it to freely fall to the bottom of the tube. Occasionally it is necessary to persuade the star to get to the tube bottom with a thin wood dowel.

I insert 3 or 4 inches of Visco fuse into the tube's fuse hole, drop the correct amount of lift powder into the tube through a funnel, and insert the star.

Fire up the Visco, retreat, and prepare to observe the test star in flight.

Heck, single one-inch comets fired out of the large tube can be a little show all in themselves if it's a night when I simply must "smell the smoke" from something.

A Special Little Project Using the Star Gun

OK, that's using a star gun for what God intended it to be used for, but now let's get creative.

I got to thinking that a star gun could be used to create a small 5 shot repeater cake device, progressing from the smaller tubes up to the largest of them, and making an increasingly impressive little display in the process.

Stars in ever-increasing sizes could easily be rigged up to create such a cake.

But I have a complete assortment of Skylighter special effects fuses: falling leaves and flying fish in various effects and colors. Why not play with these a bit to see what would make the most fun and impressive little show?

I'll test these fuses one at a time to see which of them I like best, and which light best when shot, unprimed, out of the star gun.

First I insert the 4-inch piece of Visco fuse, and then dump the correct amount of black powder into the tube. Then I tip the star gun over, keeping the mouths of the tubes slightly higher than their fused ends.

I'm thinking that about 3 seconds of burn time for the special-effects fuse will be a good display duration. The burn time is shown on the Skylighter label for each fuse. In this case I'm testing red-crackling flying-fish fuse, which burns at about 1.9 seconds per inch, so I mark the bundle of fuse at 1.5 inches with a Sharpie.

Star Gun, Loaded with Visco Fuse and Black Powder, and with Flying Fish Fuse Inserted
Star Gun, Loaded with Visco Fuse and Black Powder, and with Flying Fish Fuse Inserted

Then I cut the flying-fish fuse with my anvil-cutters, and push the fuse into the tube with a wooden dowel.

Cutting Flying-Fish Fuse and Inserting It into Tube with Dowel
Cutting Flying-Fish Fuse and Inserting It into Tube with Dowel

With this particular fuse, ignition was very good as all the fuse lit when it came out of the star gun. The display was very nice, and the fuse burned out just before it came back down to the ground.

Warning: I do not reload the star gun in my pyro shop or anywhere else where I am around pyrotechnic devices. The star gun may still have a glowing ember in it and I don't want flaming black powder to be ejected from it, along with a star or fish-fuse inside my shop. I treat the star gun as if it could go off at any time once it has been fired once.

The rest of the special effects fuses worked as follows:

The falling leaves fuses really don't work well in this little device. They burn too long and come back to the ground before creating their signature effect.

All of the flying fish fuses worked well, but one-inch lengths worked better than the one-and-a-half inch pieces. The shorter lengths ensured that they burnt in the air rather than on the ground.

Fusing the star-gun to make it a "repeater"

The first thing I did was plan a route that the fuse would take. Then I drilled the bottoms of the star-gun tubes to allow the fuse to pass through them on that route. The center tube fuse-hole was left as-is.

The first time I constructed the repeating cake, I used fast visco fuse as shown in the photo below.

Star Gun Cake Fused with Fast-Visco Fuse
Star Gun Cake Fused with Fast-Visco Fuse

This configuration burned a little too quickly for my tastes, and there was not much delay between the last two shots because of the short length of fuse in that section.

So, I constructed the cake again using Chinese Visco fuse, as shown here.

Star Gun Cake Fused with Chinese Visco Fuse
Star Gun Cake Fused with Chinese Visco Fuse

This configuration burned much more to my liking, and the extra fuse between the final two shots lengthened the delay between them.

Star Gun Flying Fish Fuse Cake

Stay Green and Have Fun!

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