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How a Human Cannonball Works


Big Names of the Big Guns
David "The Bullet" Smith Jr. waves farewell to the Earth as he launches skyward. Smith currently holds the world record for the longest horizontal blast.
David "The Bullet" Smith Jr. waves farewell to the Earth as he launches skyward. Smith currently holds the world record for the longest horizontal blast.
Courtesy David "The Bullet" Smith Jr.

Bruises, broken bones and battered heads are a given when you make your living as a human cannonball, a stuntman or woman who generally wears only a helmet and a few pads for protection. Even scarier, more than 30 of these performers have died as a result of their stunt [source: Seattle Times]. But the danger hasn't stopped people from doing it thousands of times over.

Perhaps the most enduring celebrities of human cannonballing are the members of the Zacchini family, who performed their explosive exploits from the 1920s to the 1990s at events all over the world. There were seven brothers in the family; five of them would eventually take to the cannon.

The family often worked under contract with the Ringling Circus, which encouraged evermore daring stunts. Brothers Hugo and Victor sometimes executed a double-barreled version, in which two of them were shot simultaneously from the same cannon. Another brother, Mario, took things to an even greater extreme. He went so far as to be hurled all the way over two Ferris wheels before finding the net.

Jon Weiss is another long-lived human bullet. He began his career in 1987 and has been blasted more than 5,000 times, making him one of the most experienced cannonballers ever. At one point, he was performing the feat once a day, six days per week, for 50 weeks a year.

The Smith family, however, currently owns the most street cred for cannonballing. David "Cannonball" Smith Sr. has spent much of his life as a human cannonball. He held the world record for the longest distance until March 2011, when his son, David "The Bullet" Smith Jr., bested his father's record by flying 193 feet (59 meters).

Pros know that height, not distance, is what leaves audience members slack-jawed. Smith Sr. still holds the record for the highest shot, in which he soared over two Ferris wheels at a height of 201 feet (61.2 meters).

The biggest names in cannonballing get famous, in part, by surviving long enough for fans to recognize them. They are safety-conscious professionals who understand the dangerous appeal of the stunt, but aren't willing to sacrifice their lives to the glory of the big gun.

In other words, they appreciate carefulness. They know that throwing caution, literally, to the wind, is a bad idea if you're a human cannonball. Next, you'll get a better idea of exactly the kind of price cannonballers pay when things go wrong.