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Unlocking the Mystery Behind Fireworks: A Comprehensive Glossary

Unlocking the Mystery Behind Fireworks: A Comprehensive Glossary

Fireworks have long captivated audiences with their dazzling displays of light, colour, and sound. Yet, behind the spectacle lies a world of terminology as rich and varied as the fireworks themselves.

In this comprehensive glossary, we delve into the language of pyrotechnics, demystifying the terms and phrases that define this ancient art form.

From the explosive power of black powder to the graceful descent of a willow shell, each term holds its own significance in the world of fireworks. Whether you're a seasoned pyrotechnician or a curious spectator, this guide offers a wealth of knowledge to enhance your understanding and appreciation of fireworks.

Join us on a journey through the alphabet, from A to Z, as we explore the language behind the magic of fireworks.

Fireworks Glossary

Aerial - Any firework which produces an effect in the sky, as opposed to a ground-based effect.

Aerial Repeater - Same as an aerial but produces the same effect repeatedly.

Air Launching - A method of launching aerial shells that use compressed air instead of black powder lifting charge, giving a more precise launch. Computer chips built into the shell trigger the burst charge at the correct altitude.

Airbomb - A small roman candle that has a very loud bang, now banned.

Angled - An angled effect is how the firework is physically set up; what it means is that the tubes of the fireworks are pointing in different directions, to create a fan effect, as opposed to having all the shots pointed vertically as in a standard multi-shot cake.

Apogee - The point at which a projectile, such as a rocket, is at its highest point above the earth.

Assortment - Box or package of various fireworks.

Ball Rocket - Any rocket that has a ball-shaped head, common effects from these are rings.

Bang - A loud noise, in a firework it can be described as a report, signal, salute, or a maroon.

Banger - Now illegal, a small cardboard tube that simply bangs.

Barge - A Flat vessel that display fireworks are launched from for displays on water.

Barrage - A combination of several fireworks, most usually Roman candles and/or mines, designed to be fired with a single ignition. Also known as “cakes”, barrages are the most popular form of fireworks today, as they give an impressive display with minimum work.

Battery - A battery is a collection of fireworks assembled together and fused in sequence. Often used as an opener or a finale.

Bees - Effect caused by stars swarming around, any effect that resembles a swarm of bees.

Bengal - A pyrotechnic coloured flare.

Black Body Radiation - When light is given off by a normally dark object. For example, the coals of a burning fire emit orange light, caused by the burning wood charcoal.

Black Match - A fuse consisting of a loosely woven string covered with black powder. Black match burns at about 1 inch per second.

Black Powder - The main ingredient found in fireworks, also known as gunpowder.

Blue Touch Paper - At one time the fuse most commonly used for garden fireworks; however it has been replaced in recent years with the more standard, string style fuse. The phrase 'light the blue touch paper and retire' has become well known in the English language.

Bombette - Bombettes are stars that end with an explosion.

Bonfire - A great excuse for having fireworks.

Bore - The internal diameter of a firework tube, which determines the size of the effect. In general, the bigger the bore, the bigger the effect.

Bouquet - Multiple breaks of small chrysanthemums.

Break - The burst of an aerial shell causing the effects and colours.

British Pyrotechnics Association (BPA) - Trade association for the British fireworks industry.

British Standard - Prepared in 1988 for consumer fireworks. The standard sets performance, labelling and constructional requirements for consumer fireworks available to the public in the UK and also prescribes test regimes and methods for compliance. Never, ever buy fireworks that do not display the BS 7114 mark.

Brocade - the Visual effect produced in the sky, spider-like or a tail like effect, bright and glittery and often gold coloured.

Burst - Same as a break, the burst of an aerial shell causing the effects and colours.

Bursting Charge - The pyrotechnic composition in a shell or rocket; ignited by the lifting charge at the top of its ascent, exploding the firework and releasing the effects.

Cake - A generic term for any single ignition barrage.

Calibre - The same as bore size, the inside diameter of a mortar or the size of a shell. Generally, a larger calibre will give a larger effect.

Candle - A roman candle is a tube, usually cardboard, which periodically shoots out stars, comets, or other effects. Candles vary in size; generally, a larger candle will produce a larger effect.

Category 1 Fireworks - Indoor fireworks as defined by British standard 7114; part 2.

Category 2 Fireworks - Garden fireworks as defined by British standard 7114; part 2. All Cat 2 fireworks have a 5 metre safety distance.

Category 3 Fireworks - Display fireworks as defined by British standard 7114; part 2. All cat 3 fireworks have a 25 metre safety distance.

Category 4 Fireworks - Fireworks defined in the British Standard as being not suitable for sale to the general public.

Catherine Wheel - The most popular name for wheels - refers to all wheels.

Choke - The narrowed part of a rocket case. It forces gasses formed by combustion to be expelled at a speed which generates the motive force to lift the rocket.

Chrysanthemum - The chrysanthemum shell emits its stars in a perfect circle and the brightness grows as the circle grows in size.

Coconut Tree - This effect is similar to a palm tree shell, an aerial effect that shoots up with a tail and then spreads out in a branch or willow style effect.

Comets - Also called comet tails, a comet is a star that leaves a glittering trail behind it.

Composition - The generic and widely used term for all pyrotechnic mixtures. More specifically composition is taken to mean the list of ingredients in a particular pyrotechnic mixture. All compositions contain at least an oxidant and a fuel, together with additional ingredients for colour/effect production, etc.

Cone - Any cone-shaped fountain.

Confetti - Paper streamers in multiple colours that are propelled by a gas cartridge or by a small pyrotechnic charge. Also refers to multi coloured stars that move quickly.

Crackle - An effect produced by many small bangs being let off at once to create a crackling sound.

Crossette - A set of stars that each split into four or five stars and leave a trail as they spread out.

Crown – A crown-like shape, normally gold in colour and often with a “jewel” a bright star at the tip which glows strongly before going out.

Dahlia - Shell that produces a starfish effect.

Dark Fire - A composition that gives very little light when it burns, often used in stars to give a winking effect.

Daylight Fireworks – Daytime fireworks to be used when it is to light for the real thing.

Daytime Fireworks - Daylight fireworks concentrate less on light and more on noise, these include coloured smoke and novelty effects such as parachutes and flags.

Deflagrate - To burn or vaporise suddenly, usually accompanied by a considerable amount of heat and large volumes of gas. When the speed of the burn or the escaping gas exceeds the speed of sound, the result is a loud boom. Deflagration is the scientific term for how fireworks explode.

Delay - A tube of slow-burning compound inserted into a fuse run to give a time delay.

Detonation - An exothermic chemical reaction in which the propagating front travels at supersonic speeds and thus an explosion always results.

Detonating Cord - A high powered explosive material encased in a plastic or cloth sleeve that burns by the propagation of a detonating shock wave (typically 5000-7000 metres/sec)

Diadem - Refers to jewel, generally determined by the colour, for example, a ruby diadem would be a red jeweled effect, an emerald diadem would be green, etc.

Display Area - Usually the area in which the rigging of the display takes place but more generally the entire area encompassing spectator area, firing area, safety area, and fallout area.

Display Firework - A large firework intended for use at large public/private displays. Any cat 3 Firework.

Double Break - Two effects from the same shell or rocket.

Double Peanut - A rocket that’s head is shaped like a peanut, produces two breaks.

Dragon Eggs - Clusters of crackling sparks in the air.

Driver - Also called a motor this provides the motive power for a wheel, either singly or in multiples.

Drizzle - Effect of falling glitter that resembles rain or showers.

Dross - Molten waste product of combustion.

Dud - Firework that did not light or produce the effect.

EIG - The Explosive Industry Group. The EIG is not a trade organisation and as such does not actively promote the firework industry. Its primary purpose is a liaison with Government on safety and legislative matters.

Electric Firing - Igniting fireworks with an electric charge.

Exothermic - A chemical reaction in which the total energy of the products is less than the total energy of the reactants. Put simply, the system loses energy, which is given off in the form of heat and light. All firework reactions are exothermic.

Explosive - Technically any material that is capable of undergoing a self-contained and self-sustained exothermic chemical reaction at a rate that is sufficient to produce substantial pressures on their surroundings thus causing physical damage. ALL fireworks are classified as explosives.

Falling Leaves - An aerial effect that consists of glowing embers that tumble slowly in the air, flickering back and forth as they fall back to the ground.

Fallout - Debris such as scraps of cardboard, plastic, wood from rocket sticks, ash, and leftover tubes that fall down over the ground after the performance of an aerial firework. Fallout can be a hazard as the pieces are often still hot.

Fallout Zone - A large, clear area where fallout or dud shells are expected to fall. Must be kept clear of any firing personnel, spectators, animals, buildings, dry grass, or any flammable materials.

Fan Cake - Any barrage where some of the tubes are arranged at angles so the shots are fired at an angle, as opposed to straight-up vertically.

Finale - Usually consisting of the best, biggest and loudest fireworks, to end the show in spectacular style.

Fire - To ignite pyrotechnics, to light fireworks.

Firing Area - The actual area of firing (rather than display area)

Firing Order - The sequence in which fireworks in a display are lit.

Firing System - The mechanism used to ignite fireworks remotely, often with electronic control for precision timing and synchronization.

Fire Cracker - Firework producing a loud report.

Fire Writing - Another term for lancework, the making of letters and words from thin tubes of pyrotechnic composition.

Firework - A device that is designed to be burned or ignited in order to yield a visible and/or audio effect.

Firework Code - A government-produced set of simple rules to follow in order to be safe with fireworks.

Fish - Similar effect to bee’s except the stars swarm outward faster.

Flash Powder - An explosive composition typically containing Potassium Perchlorate and powdered aluminum that when ignited produces a bright flash of light, usually with a loud audible report.

Floral Pattern - An aerial pattern that resembles a flower with points of light that streak outward from the center of the break.

Fountain - A ground-based firework that emits showers of sparks and can also consist of audible effects such as whistle and crackle.

Fun Snaps - Same as throwdowns.

Fuse - The fuse transfers combustion from the source - a portfire or lighter - to the compound inside the firework.

Fuse Protector - A tube, closed at one end that is placed over the end of the fuse until the intended ignition to protect it from damage and accidental ignition.

Garden Firework - Any Category 2 firework with a safety distance of 5 metres. Selection boxes and fountains are usually garden fireworks.

Gamboge - An intense yellow-orange colour, named after the pigment - a gum resin from various Asian trees of the genus Garcinia, also used as an herbal remedy for constipation and indigestion!

Gerbs - These are pyrotechnic sprays, often referred to as fountains or flower- pots. They consist of a tube full of composition, sealed at one end, and with a nozzle at the other, similar to a rocket. Unlike a rocket, they are not designed to move anywhere, so all the emphasis is on making the nozzle exhaust as long as pretty as possible, with large amounts of sparks, nice colours etc. Gerb compositions in a thin tube set up in a spiral arrangement are used as wheel drivers, for spinning fireworks e.g. Catherine wheels.

Girandola - Wheel shaped firework that spins horizontally in the air then explodes.

Glitter - Small flash or spark effect.

Greek Fire - An ancient, long-burning sticky composition once used in warfare. It was put in huge pots with a burning cloth (like a Molotov cocktail) and launched from catapults at enemies.

Ground Fireworks - Any firework that works on the ground such as fountains, smoke balls, snakes, spinners, etc.

Ground Spinner - Item that spins on the ground producing sparks.

Gun Powder - See Black Powder.

Guy Fawkes - The man most famous for his part in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the very reason we have 5th of November.

Hanabi - the Japanese word for Fireworks, roughly translated as "fire flowers”.

Helicopter - Device that spins fast-flying into the air producing an aerial effect, also known as planes, UFOs, etc.

High Explosives - High explosives are extraordinarily powerful substances that can release large amounts of energy and heat. They can be detonated by a sufficiently large mechanical or explosive shock, and generally, require the use of an initiator to start the detonation. Examples of high explosives include TNT, nitroglycerine, RDX, and PETN. High explosives are not used in fireworks.

HSE - The British Health and Safety Executive - the legislative and enforcement body in the UK

Hummers - These can range from the soft sound of a hummingbird to the angry noise of swarming bees.

Hygroscopic - The property of a chemical composition that causes it to absorb and retain moisture from the air, often dissolving itself in a wet, useless lump.

Indoor Firework - Any firework that can be used indoors. An indoor firework will state this on the packaging; never use a firework indoors unless it is marked as such.

Jumping Jack - Small firecrackers that appear to jump off the ground.

Kamuro - A Japanese reference to long hair, a long-burning hanging shell looking like an umbrella or "bowl haircut".

Lance - A lance is a thin tube containing pyrotechnic composition. These are most commonly used in large numbers to make writing and pictures at fireworks shows.

Lance Work - The use of Lances to make words, phrases, or pictures at firework displays.

Lift Charge - The charge used to propel a shell or rocket into the air.

Line Rocket - A rocket designed to travel along a wire or rope. Similar to a pigeon.

Low Explosive - An explosive that burns or deflagrates on ignition rather than detonates. Almost all pyrotechnic compositions are low explosives.

Machine - popular in the 19th century, a “machine” was actually a structure built to conceal the fireworks themselves from the spectators, so that all they could see were the effects in the sky. They were often lavish and beautiful and resembled temples or churches, sometimes costing a lot more than the fireworks and often stood for many years after the fireworks display.

Maroon - A firework that produces a single loud report, often used to announce the start or end of a display. An aerial maroon is a shell, and a signal maroon a rocket.

Mine - Usually starting with a small fountain that helps to build the anticipation for the main effect; the mine will give a sudden eruption at ground level, shooting into the air and normally accompanied by a loud bang. The effect is that of a shower of stars moving upward in an inverted cone.

Misfire - When a firework goes off incorrectly or fails to finish.

Missile - Tube with fins on it that shoots into the sky producing report and whistles.

Mortar - A reloadable tube, sealed at one end for firing shells and mines.

Mortar Rack - Rack containing multiple mortar tubes.

Multi-break - Shell with numerous compartments, each one bursting separately.

Multi-shot - Any firework with more than one shot.

Muzzle Break - When the shell explodes immediately after leaving the tube or mortar sending the effects all over the ground.

Novelties - Small fireworks usually for indoor use, such as throwdowns, party poppers, snakes, etc.

Operator - The person with overall responsibility for the operation and safety of a fireworks display.

Orange Book - The United Nations book on the Classification and Testing of Dangerous Goods.

Palm Tree - Aerial effect that takes the shape of a palm tree. Shoots up with a tail then has a willow or branch effect.

Parachute - Day or night time firework that shoots a projectile that explodes into a parachute that flows to the ground. Some can have sparks following them.

Party Popper - Small canister containing confetti that shoots out when the string is pulled.

Pearl - Star that burns with just one colour.

Pen Lid - A pen lid cake is a general term used for any firework that has the small plastic caps like the ones on EPIC Fireworks’ “Firesnake”. Generally, a pen lid cake has small effects like whistles, snaps, and crackles.

Peony - Stars that fly outward then start to descend, the most common effect.

Pigeon - A rocket that flies back and forth along a line; usually emitting sparks and effects.

Pin Wheel - A type of Catherine Wheel.

Pistil - Tentacle type break that flies out in different directions with a small number of limbs but thick coverage.

Plane - Device that spins fast-flying into the air producing an aerial effect, also known as helicopters, UFOs, etc. Not available in the UK.

Popcorn - A loud silver spherical shaped display with a crackling effect that breaks in huge numbers all at once to fill the display with a sky full of crackling brightness.

Portfire - A long thin tube that burns with a bright flame, generally reliable and windproof, used to ignite other fireworks.

Projectile - A fired, thrown, or otherwise propelled object, such as a bullet, that has no capacity for self-propulsion.

Propellant - A composition used, typically, in a rocket motor to provide the force. More generally, any composition used to propel a firework into the air.

Pyro - From the Greek word for "fire", used by itself as a nickname for fireworks.

Pyromaniac - Officially someone with an unhealthy liking for starting fires but more generally, someone who loves fireworks.

Pyrotechnic - A firework.

Pyrotechnic Composition - The specific combination of chemicals used to create the visual and auditory effects in fireworks, including oxidizers, fuels, colorants, and binders.

Pyrotechnician - Someone who lights or builds fireworks.

Quickened - The speeding up of times between shots in a multi-shot cake.

Quickmatch - Also known as an Instantaneous Fuse. Quick match is basically black match that is encased in a loose-fitting paper or plastic sheath to make it burn extremely rapidly. Quick match is used for aerial shells and for simultaneous ignition of a number of pyrotechnic devices, such as lances in a ground display piece.

Rack - A wooden frame used to hold mortars, or for launching rockets.

Rain - Long-lasting stars from a barrage or rocket that fall all the way to the ground.

Reloadable Aerial - A reloadable tube, sealed at one end for firing shells and mines.

Repeater - Same as cake or aerial repeater, the same effect over and over.

Report - The technical term for a bang.

Ring - A circular pattern or “ring” effect.

Rising effect - A tail or whistle, etc. that starts as it leaves its base.

Rocket - An aerial device attached to a guiding stick and propelled into the air by a motor.

Rocket Rack - A frame, normally made of wood, designed to hold multiple rockets ready for ignition, saving time during a display.

Rocket Volley - A group of rockets, usually small, with a quick fuse. They are packed loosely in one box and just one fuse is ignited. This ignites all the rockets simultaneously so that all ascend in a second to create a sky filling display.

Roman Candle - Often called just 'candles'; a roman candle is a tube, usually cardboard, which periodically shoots out stars, comets, or other effects. Candles vary in size; generally, the larger candle will produce the larger effect.

Safety Cap - A tube, closed at one end that is placed over the end of the fuse until the intended ignition to protect it from damage and accidental ignition.

Safety Distance - The minimum distance between the fireworks and the spectators. Each firework states the safety distance on the label.

Safety Fuse - Used to delay the time of firing for the lighter to get away.

Salute - An effect usually produced with flash powder - a single loud report and flash.

Salvo - A rapid firing sequence of effects.

Saltpetre - The old term for potassium nitrate (KNO3), a common oxidizer used in fireworks.

Saturn Shell - A ring that forms around another ring or ball.

Selection Box - A box that has a selection of different fireworks.

Serpents - Snake like wriggling that tails rise erratically into the air, often used with an accompanying sound effect, usually a screech.

Sequence - Usually refers to the pattern of firing of a section of a display.

Set Piece - A combination firework which can be an assembly of wheels or fountains to form a pattern, or small fireworks called lances which are grouped together to depict an image, or to spell out words. e.g. “goodnight”, “will u marry me”, etc.

Shell - The shell is a sphere or cylinder of paper-mâché or plastic which contains stars and a bursting charge, together with a fuse. It is fired into the air from a tube using a lift charge.

Shell Diameter - The diameter of the spherical or cylindrical casing of a firework shell, which determines the size and spread of its burst.

Shot - Number of tubes in an aerial firework. For example, a 19 shot barrage will have 19 individual tubes fused together.

Showers - Sparks projecting and falling back to the ground continuously, normally only found in wheels, novelty items, and fountains.

Single Ignition Barrage - A combination of several fireworks, most usually Roman candles and/or mines, designed to be fired with a single ignition. Also known as “cakes”, SIB’s are the most popular form of fireworks today, as they give an impressive display with minimum work.

Site Assessment - In the interests of health and safety a site assessment is carried out by professional display companies prior to a display. This is a site assessment.

Site Plan - Sketch or map of the fireworks display site.

Smoke Ball - Small ball that produces coloured smoke. Sometimes known as smoke pellets, smoke grenades or smoke bombs.

Snake - A small black pellet that, when lit, burns slowly to produce a long column of brittle ash that resembles a snake coming out of the ground.

Snaps - Another name for throw downs, little paper packets of powder which create a small bang when thrown against a hard surface.

Sparkler - A wire coated with pyrotechnic composition that gives off small bright sparks when lit; very popular with children (but must never be given to children under 5).

Spider - A shell that breaks in an upward direction with relatively few, long-burning stars, resembling a spider with lots of legs.

Spider Web - Similar to a spider, but this usually means a brocade-like effect.

Stars - Glowing balls of fire and coloured light, used in Roman candles and the bursts of mines and rockets. They can change colour in flight.

Strobe - Effect consisting of a cluster of slowly descending bright lights which twinkle on and off, also called blinking.

Tails - The comet-like tails left behind a star.

Taper - Normally found inside selection boxes or packs of rockets, a taper is a long thin coil of cardboard which, when lit, has a glowing red tip and is used for lighting fireworks, not as reliable as a portfire.

Theatrical Pyrotechnics - Pyrotechnic devices for professional use in the entertainment industry, such as on the stage or in films.

Throwdowns - Same as fun snaps, little paper packets of powder which, when thrown against a hard surface, create a small bang.

Titanium Salute - Loud explosion with white sparks.

Tourbillion - Star that spins in the sky with large gold, white and silver light.

Trajectory - The path of a projected object. Under normal conditions, the trajectory of a projectile is a parabola. The wind can have a major effect on this.

Trunk - The rising effect seen on willow shells, and increasingly on other shells.

Tube - The part of a barrage that contains the effect or another name for a mortar that holds aerial shells.

Two Level - More common in barrages, two-level simply means there are two height levels of effects from the same firework.

UN Carton - Regulations state that fireworks must be transported in cartons designed and marked specifically for this purpose. These are known as UN cartons as each one has a unique UN classification depending on its contents.

UN Classification - The assignment of a packaged firework into one of the UN's 5 classes for fireworks.

UN Number - A four-digit number assigned to any hazardous goods after classification in its transport packaging according the methods prescribed in the orange book. For fireworks the relevant numbers are 0333 (1.1G), 0334 (1.2G), 0335 (1.3G), 0336 (1.4G) and 0337 (1.4S).

V Firing Cake - A fan cake which fires to the left and to the right at the same time, creating a “V” shape effect

Visco - Safety fuse.

Volley - A term usually applied to a mass firing or rockets.

W-Firing Cake - A fan cake that fires to the left, centre, and to the right at the same time, creating a “W” shape effect.

Water Firework - The generic term for any firework fired on the surface of water to maximise the visual effect of its reflections.

Waterfall - These are usually mounted horizontally in banks, placed above the ground. When ignited, the effect is like a waterfall of sparks.

Wave - A nice effect that seems to “wave” across the sky, sometimes called the Mexican wave.

Wax Torch - Large candles that burn for some time; popular for creating extra lighting in gardens and grounds.

Wheel - Round shape that spins creating a circular effect of flames or sparks.

Whistle - The basic whistle needs no explanation, although variations include the screamer and the screecher.

Willow - Aerial effect of falling sparks, with a slow descent that represents the weeping willow tree.

X-Firing Cake - A fan cake that fires shots left to right across each other.

YouTube - A great place to watch videos of fireworks.

Z-Firing - A fan barrage that fires in a “z” pattern.

Safety Tips for Handling Fireworks

Now that you know all of the firework lingo, here's how to enjoy them safely.

  1. Read the Instructions: Always carefully read and follow the instructions on each firework item before use.

  2. Designated Firer: Assign a responsible adult to handle and light the fireworks. This person should not consume alcohol or be under the influence of any substances.

  3. Safety Distance: Ensure there is enough space between the firing area and spectators. Follow the recommended safety distance stated on each firework label.

  4. Secure Launch Site: Place fireworks on a flat, stable surface away from flammable materials, buildings, and dry grass. Use a suitable firing base or rack to stabilise rockets and mortars.

  5. Lighting Procedure: Use a portfire or a handheld lighter with a long handle to ignite the fireworks. Never use matches or lighters with short handles. Light the firework at arm's length, and then retire to a safe distance immediately.

  6. Protective Gear: Wear safety goggles and gloves when handling fireworks to protect your eyes and hands from sparks and debris.

  7. Supervise Children: Keep children and pets at a safe distance from the firing area. Only allow adults to handle fireworks, and never let children pick up or light fireworks themselves.

  8. One at a Time: Only light one firework at a time, and never attempt to relight a dud or malfunctioning firework.

  9. Dispose Properly: After use, fully extinguish spent fireworks with water before disposing of them in a designated waste container.

  10. Emergency Preparedness: Keep a bucket of water, a fire extinguisher, and a first aid kit nearby in case of accidents or emergencies.

Shop Everything You Need For A Great Firework Display

Here at Epic Fireworks we stock the largest range of market-beating fireworks you can buy in the UK and all at unbeatable prices. So whether you're looking for rockets, barrages, loud fireworks, quiet fireworks, mines, fountains or anything else, we've got you covered.

Plus, our expert team have curated ready-made DIY display packs, taking the guesswork out of how to put on a great fireworks show for your friends and family.

Shop the full display pack range today

A photo of one of the Epic Fireworks New Year's DIY Display packs, showing the wide range of barrages, mines, fountains and rockets included as well as the safety equipment.

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