A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How do "human cannonballs" survive?

June 21, 1991

Dear Cecil:

When I was a small boy I attended a circus that featured a "human cannonball." This amazing fellow was shot out of a large cannon and flew about thirty yards into a giant net. How did they do this without blowing the poor guy to pieces? It seems to me if this was legitimate the only thing emerging from the barrel of the cannon would be ten thousand human cannonball pieces.

Cecil replies:

That's what you wish would happen, you savage. Happily, the art of human ballistics today has reached such a pitch of perfection that it's no more dangerous than, oh, shaving with a chainsaw. Which is to say it's still pretty easy to get yourself injured or killed.

Human cannonballs aren't blasted from the cannon with gunpowder. They're propelled by a catapult. The flash, loud noise and smoke are supplied by firecrackers and such.

The first human cannonball was a young woman named Zazel, who made her maiden voyage, so to speak, on April 2, 1877 at the Westminster Aquarium, which I presume is in London. Zazel employed "elastic springs," but human cannoneers soon graduated to more potent technology. The propellant of choice today is compressed air. The human projectile climbs into a hollow topless cylinder that slides inside the cannon barrel. Having been lowered to the bottom of the barrel, the cylinder is blasted forward by compressed air at 150-200 pounds per square inch. The cylinder stops at the cannon's mouth. Its occupant doesn't.

Being shot from a cannon, like jumping out of an airplane, isn't that strenuous; it's the sudden stop at the end that's a bitch. Elvin Bale, the "Human Space Shuttle," was experimenting with air bags to break his fall while on tour in 1986. He overshot the airbags and crashed into a wall, seriously injuring himself. On another occasion two members of the Zacchini family, long famous for its cannonballing exploits, were launched simultaneously from opposite ends of the circus. They collided in mid-air; one Zacchini broke her back.

Historian A.H. Coxe says of 50 human cannonballs more than 30 have been killed, mostly by falling outside the net. Even if you avoid mishaps, many human cannonballs black out in flight, which makes me wonder about long-term brain damage. (OK, I lied when I said it wasn't strenuous. Sue me.) Of course you might figure anybody who lets himself get shot from a cannon is a couple eggs short of a dozen to start with. If you must have heavy-caliber kicks, I say join the Marines. At least they let you shoot back.

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