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What is a Human Cannonball?

A human cannonball is a daredevil performer who is launched through the air by a specially designed cannon. This act combines physics, athleticism, and sheer bravery, as the performer soars before landing safely. It's a heart-stopping spectacle rooted in circus tradition. Ever wonder about the science and history behind this thrilling performance? Join us as we explore the life of a human cannonball.
Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

A human cannonball is an act in which a person is launched from a cannon into the air. The person acts as a cannonball being launched from the breech of a traditional cannon, but in the case of a human cannonball, no gunpowder is used.

A Canadian, the Great Farini, invented a device in the late-19th century for launching human beings high into the air. It was tried a few times in the 1870s, before the first person, George Loyal, was launched from it in 1875. Two years later, in 1877, a 14-year-old acrobat, Rosa Richter, was launched from one of Farini’s cannons. She was introduced as Zazel, and was for all intents and purposes, the first human cannonball. Zazel went on to tour with P.T. Barnum, and the human cannonball act remained popular for the next two decades, until interest in it began to wane.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

Farini’s early cannon made use of rubber springs to launch human cannonballs into the air, and the distances they could reach were fairly limited. In the 1920s, however, a number of Europeans made substantial improvements on Farini’s early design. Most notably, Ildebrando Zacchini invented a new cannon which used compressed air to launch a human cannonball. This new cannon also used firecrackers and smoke to make the cannon look more like its traditional namesake, and add an extra layer of excitement to the act.

The Zacchinis joined the Ringling Brothers’ Circus and toured with them for a decade before striking out on their own. During this time they popularized the human cannonball once more, and it became a core stunt of many of the great circus acts. The Zacchinis held the record for the longest distance launched from a cannon for decades, until they were finally upstaged by David Smith Sr. in 1995, who was launched more than 180 feet (55m) in New Jersey. In 1998 David Smith Sr. and his son, David Smith Jr., both competed to break the father’s record. David Smith Sr. broke his previous record, with a launch of nearly 186 feet (56.64m), while his son traveled more than 181 feet (55.19m).

Although the human cannonball act is not nearly as dangerous as many people assume, since the people are not, of course, being launched with gunpowder, it is nonetheless incredibly dangerous. Launching a person out of an actual gunpowder cannon would have about a one-hundred percent mortality rate, but the air cannon comes fairly close over the lifetime of most human cannonballs. It is estimated that of the roughly fifty human cannonballs who have engaged extensively in the act since its conception, around thirty have died. Nearly all were killed by the cannon being poorly aimed, or heavy winds, resulting in them landing outside of the safety net, and being killed by the impact.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a human cannonball?

A human cannonball is a daredevil performer who is launched through the air from a specially designed cannon. The act is a staple of circuses and extreme stunt shows, where the performer is shot out at high speed, often over significant distances, before landing on a safety net or airbag. The stunt requires precise calculations regarding propulsion and trajectory to ensure the performer's safety.

How does the human cannonball act work?

The human cannonball act relies on a cannon-like device that uses either a spring mechanism, compressed air, or an explosive charge to propel the performer into the air. Contrary to popular belief, gunpowder is rarely used due to its unpredictability. The performer must contort their body into the cannon barrel and brace for a forceful launch, followed by a flight through the air, culminating in a carefully aimed landing.

What are the risks involved in being a human cannonball?

Being a human cannonball is extremely risky, with potential injuries ranging from fractures to fatalities. The performer experiences immense G-forces during launch and must execute a precise landing to avoid injury. Safety measures such as nets, airbags, and helmets are essential. Despite precautions, the act remains dangerous due to variables like wind conditions and the high velocity of the launch.

Has technology improved the safety of human cannonball stunts?

Technology has indeed improved the safety of human cannonball stunts. Modern cannons often use compressed air for more controlled propulsion, and advanced materials are used for both the cannon and safety equipment. Computer simulations assist in planning the trajectory and landing. However, the inherent risks cannot be entirely eliminated, making the act as thrilling for the audience as it is perilous for the performer.

Are there any notable human cannonball records?

Yes, there are several notable records in the world of human cannonballs. According to Guinness World Records, the farthest human cannonball flight was achieved by David "The Bullet" Smith Jr., who was launched a distance of 59.05 meters (193 ft 8.8 in) in 2016. These records highlight the combination of human bravery and the precision of physics that define this spectacular stunt.

(Reference: Guinness World Records, https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/103733-farthest-distance-as-a-human-cannonball)

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Discussion Comments

anon153052

Great story. My great aunt was shot out of the cannon at the New Jersey Steel Pier. She survived all of her impacts.

anon22157

another entertaining story! thanks so much!

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      Man with hands on his hips