What Is Firing Order?

Jeremy Laukkonen

The term "firing order" refers to the specific sequence in which the cylinders of an internal combustion engine are ignited. This sequence is designed to result in the balanced operation of an engine, so it is not necessarily a linear progression. Cylinder number one is often ignited first, though after that the sequence is dictated by the engine design. The order that the cylinders are fired is important for diagnostic purposes, and it is also essential information if spark plug wires are to be arranged properly. Wiring a distributor cap sequentially instead of according to firing order will typically result in an engine that misfires badly or does not run at all.

Firing order determines the sequence in which cylinders in an internal combustion engine are ignited.
Firing order determines the sequence in which cylinders in an internal combustion engine are ignited.

When an internal combustion engine has multiple cylinders, each one is referred to by a number. The numbering sequence differs from one manufacturer to another, though cylinder number one is typically at the front of an engine or the end that has the crank pulley. In straight engines, the numbering sequence is linear. Cylinder number one in V type engines and other designs with two cylinder heads is usually also located closest to the front end of the engine. Certain engines have all even numbers in one head and all odd numbers in the other, though some are numbered in a linear manner.

Reading the firing order from a diagnostic codes scanner can be more complicated than one might think.
Reading the firing order from a diagnostic codes scanner can be more complicated than one might think.

The firing order refers to the sequence in which the cylinders are ignited rather than their numerical values. Cylinder number one is typically also number one in the firing sequence, though the second one in the series could be any other cylinder. The order that the cylinders are fired in is determined when the engine is designed, and any attempt to change it will result in a misfire to some degree. This is due to the fact that an incorrect firing order results in spark plugs not receiving spark on the power stroke.

Unless a diagram is available, both the cylinder numbers and the firing order must be known to properly install spark plug wires. The firing sequence must also be known in order to perform many types of diagnostics. An automotive oscilloscope that reveals the firing pattern for each cylinder will sometimes show them in the order that they are fired rather than sequentially, so it is important to be able to translate such a display into useful information. Without knowing the firing order, it would be hard to discern which cylinder corresponded to a bad pattern on the scope readout.

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Discussion Comments


@Charred - Even knowing the numbers is not enough to properly set up the spark plugs. You have to set up them up according to the sequence as displayed in the firing order diagram, and as explained, that is not always linear. In other words, it’s not necessarily 1,2,3,4, etc.

It depends on what type of engine you have. With the diagram I really don’t think that you could go wrong by doing it yourself, but without the diagram, I wouldn’t attempt it even if you fancied yourself as an expert mechanic. Even they need to follow directions.


If you just want to change your plugs, and you're worried about messing something up, the safest way to do it is to just do one at a time. Disconnect one spark plug wire, replace that spark plug, hook it back up, and so on.

Takes longer, but that way you can be sure the job gets done right.


I’m not very smart about cars. Some things I can do myself like changing the oil and stuff like that.

I thought about tackling harder tasks like changing the spark plugs; however after reading this I can see that perhaps I should leave that to the experts. I didn’t realize that the spark plugs have to be put in according to the firing order of the engine.

Had I installed them without such knowledge in advance it might have created a problem. Even though the cylinders are numbered I am more inclined to leave this task up to the mechanics. The last thing I need is misfiring or backfiring on my engine.

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