NEVER point or throw fireworks at another person.

- National Council on Fireworks Safety

Around the ninth century AD, the Chinese discovered how to make gunpowder. Not long afterwards, someone packed a charge of gunpowder into a wooden tube and attached it to a thin, long stick. This new invention was quickly adapted for entertainment and warfare, and the basic design of these simple rockets has gone unchanged for a millennium. In the early 20th century, a miniaturized version of the ancient Chinese design surfaced and was dubbed the bottle rocket, a small, fast firework that was ideally launched at an angle from a glass bottle. Like the Chinese warriors of 900 years before, it didn't take long for teenage boys everywhere to realize that bottle rockets were much more fun when launched at other people. Other boys that were fired upon with bottle rockets were quick to retaliate, and the bottle rocket war was born.

In its base form, a bottle rocket war involves a large group of people and a large number of bottle rockets. Said people fire said bottle rockets at one another until one of several things happens. Some bottle rocket wars are called off due to injury, but end more often when both sides run out of ammunition. Occasionally a real winner emerges, but it's rare for one side to surrender to the other before first running out of fireworks. Like a real war, there are no set rules in a bottle rocket war. There are usually two distinct sides or teams, but this isn't to say that a bottle rocket free for all isn't fun. Being in two groups makes the whole experience a bit more competitive, which is odd considering how rarely a bottle rocket war has a clear victor.

A bottle rocket isn't exactly the most dangerous firework you can shoot at someone, but protecting your eyes and brain is a pretty good idea. Most pundits see goggles and helmets as more safety precautions to dodge, but it can actually be part of the fun. Picking out goofy eyewear and headgear adds a new dimension to the festivities and makes it easy to distinguish who is who in the fog of war. Firefighter helmets are especially good because of the chin strap and pull-down Plexiglas face shield. Military helmets are also popular, along with a pair of army surplus dust goggles to complete the ensemble. Avoid scuba goggles, as they distort and restrict the wearer's field of vision. Sacrificing your peripheral vision for eye protection is a good choice in many situations, one of which is not a bottle rocket war.

Although the bottle rocket is the primary weapon in any bottle rocket war, smoke bombs, roman candles, Saturn missiles, and even mortars (the firework kind, not the Howitzer kind) can find their way into the fray. However, a large area and tolerant neighbors are needed for these larger fireworks, especially the mortars. Smoke bombs are not normally used as weapons, but are used to distract the opposing force and conceal troop movements, not unlike the M18 smoke grenades used by the U.S. Army today. Saturn missiles, small plastic rockets that emit a high-pitched scream before exploding, are sold in batteries as small as 12 but as large as 700 (!) and are most effective when placed on the ground and angled towards an enemy. Despite their history of exploding prematurely, Roman candles are most often held in the user's hand when fired. (Despite their harmless appearance and lack of noise, most burns sustained during a bottle rocket war are caused by the Roman candle's large, slow-burning projectiles.) When fired from a tube, mortar shells have a range of 100 yards or better, but some bottle rocket warriors forgo the tube and use the shells as hand grenades. A word to the wise: that green, plastic-coated fuse burns down really fast.

Accurately aiming a bottle rocket is like trying to throw a potato chip; it can't be done. Most experienced bottle rocket warriors will carry a tube of some sort to launch and aim the bottle rockets. Cardboard shipping tubes and metal or PVC pipes with a stopper in one end still won't give you deadly accuracy, but you will have a little more control over the bottle rockets' flight path. Using some kind of launcher also makes it easy to launch large numbers of bottle rockets by twisting their fuses together. (6 or 7 bottle rockets is largest number that can be easily twisted together, but I once managed to fire an entire pack of 12 simultaneously.) Other volatile fireworks that are not safe to hold in one's hand, such as Roman candles and larger rockets, are much safer when launched from a tube. Several tubes can be taped or strapped together to make bottle rocket miniguns or artillery, and especially large tubes make excellent bazookas.

Whether or not the police care about bottle rocket wars pretty much depends on where you live. Many large cities have gone as far as to pass ordinances that specifically ban bottle rockets in an effort to reduce fireworks-related injuries. In smaller towns, police officers are usually limited to giving a verbal warning to bottle rocket warriors, although they are well within their rights to confiscate fireworks from anyone they think might be a problem. In cities where a hard line approach is taken, the fireworks are confiscated and a fine is meted out to anyone caught shooting a bottle rocket at another person. In extreme cases, arrests have been made for assault and disorderly conduct.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the bottle rocket war is that it is not a tradition passed down from generation from generation, nor is it the kind of game that kids read about in books or hear about from friends. Rather, it is something that nearly every youth discovers for themselves, as if they were born with the instinct to lob small explosives at others. As long as there have been rockets, they have been used in combat. As long as there are cheap fireworks, adolescent boys, and balmy July evenings, there will be bottle rocket wars.