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How Do Human Cannons Work

How Do Human Cannons Work? The Mystery At The Circus 

So, if you are wondering how do human cannons work, you are in the right place. The circus is a fantastic place full of excitement and wonder, but the human cannonball act seems to have always stood out.

It is still rare and an exquisite part of any show. But where did this risky and exciting trick come from, and how is it performed? 

We have the answer to this question and more to help you know the inner workings of one of the deadliest tricks to be performed in front of audiences. Read on to find out more details; 

How Do Human Cannons Work? 

The inner workings of the human cannon have changed since its inception, and fans have always been curious to learn how it works. 

You might have seen an explosion during the launch and wondered how the human cannonball survived the blast. Let’s find out;

Let’s get something out of the way before going further: The human cannonball is not propelled by explosives like a real canon. The explosion is often added to excite and thrill the crowd, but it has nothing to do with the launch.

With that out of the way, the human cannonball is a trick where a professional cannonball goes into a special cylinder that resembles a cannon and is fired at high speed. The human cannonball will land horizontally on a cushioned surface like a net.

Some outdoor shows use a body of water since it is easier to aim at. The trick has advanced, using compressed air to propel the human cannonball. The human cannonball will climb into the cannon chamber with a compressed air cylinder at the bottom.

When the cylinder fires, it releases the compressed air, which pushes the sled forward at between 3000 and 6000 pounds of pressure. The sled will stop at the muzzle, but inertia will keep the human cannonball rising.

They can go as far or high as 200 feet at about 65 miles per hour toward a safe landing spot. Performers for this trick must consider many factors like wind speed and direction, body weight, obstacles, the net, distance, temperature, and humidity.

They also need the perfect calculations for the right barrel angle to ensure the performer lands on the net. Body weight is significant since it determines how far the compressed air can propel a performer.

Lighter people are easier to launch and catch, so heavier people generally pursue other careers in the circus. Being a human cannonball is a dangerous sport with a high accident rate, most of which are fatal. 

Dangers Of Human Cannons

Watching a human get fired out of a giant cannon can be one of the coolest things ever. When they land on that safety net and get off to wave at the crowd, their joy is unmatched. The only problem is they don’t always make it out safely.

Human cannons have no shortage of performances that took a dark turn. Many calculations refine the process and increase safety, but sometimes, things go wrong, leaving the human cannonball in great danger.

Rossa Matilda was a 14-year-old pioneer cannonball, and she broke her back when she missed her target performing for PT Barnum. Elvin Bale overshot his target in June of 1987, and he hit the ground, paralyzing both his legs.

The dummy used in the tests was heavier because it was wet, so the cannon put too much power on him, and he went further than expected. These are a few people who got into cannonball accidents and survived; others were not as lucky. 

Matt Cranch was performing the human cannonball for the first time in 2011 in front of an audience of 200 people. 

He was shot about 40 feet into the air, but his netting collapsed on the way down. He landed head fast and died on the spot.

The human cannonball is a beloved trick by fans because of how rare it is, but this rarity is for a reason. There are about 50 people who have attempted this risky stunt since its inception, and of these, about 30 have died.

This means that more than half of the performers die doing this trick because of the poorly aimed canon or heavy winds that change their trajectory. 

A million things could go wrong, and the tiniest mistake could mean death when you are going at 60 miles per hour.

For this reason, most performers choose to stay away from the human cannonball stunt and stick to safer options like taming lions and tigers. Modern technology has made it safer, with fewer accidents, but that door is always open.

Origin Of Human Canon

The human cannonball is a beloved spectacle, and it always draws in a large crowd, but when did it start? Understanding the origin of this gravity-defying performance can help you see the performer’s motivation and embrace the art. Let’s jump into the history books; 

The human cannonball was first showcased to the public in the late 19th century. An Englishman called George Farini developed a mechanism called the “projector” in 1871, and it would be the basis of what became human cannons.

The projector was made out of Indian rubber and heavy springs with a platform on top of them. It looked nothing like a cannon, but it shot whatever was on the platform forward when it was released. Farini must have seen its potential and wanted to maximize it.

Farini applied for a patent and received one for his contraption in June of 1871, but he was not ready for live performances yet. It took two years before the projector made it to the American public, and it is unclear whether the English had already witnessed it.

Farini debuted his invention at the popular Broadway theatre Niblo’s Garden in New York. Farini was a large man, so he could not be the person to fly through the air that day. He trained Lulu, a slim young man dressed in women’s clothes, to perform. 

When everything was ready, George released the latch holding the spring, and it sent Lulu thirty feet into the air. He didn’t come down to a landing net; instead, he grabbed the trapeze bars hanging from the ceiling.

This was the first-ever performance of that kind in America, and the crowd went wild. George and Lulu became a welcome spectacle and started traveling with their circus. By 1875, Lulu was already a famous trapeze artist, but their new act would eclipse his former career.

This was still the human cannonball in a primitive form, and there are conflicting reports about who did the first cannonball act. Some reports favor The Australian Marvels( Ella and George Loyal), while others suggest it was Rossa Matilda Richter. suggests that the Australians started doing the act in 1872 in Sydney. The performance involved George being shot out of a large cylinder and Ella hanging from a trapeze bar and catching him. 

Others claim that Zazel was the first to do the stunt at the Royal Aquarium in London in 1877 in front of a live audience. Zazel would later be recruited to join PT Barnum’s show, and if the dates were accurate, she was the second one to do the trick.

Regardless of who did it, the human cannonball thrilled the audience with danger, excitement, and the bravery of the performers. 

There were more accidents at the start as more people tried to capitalize on the hype, but the trick was perfected, and it became relatively safer.

The best circuses at the time adopted the show and made it a staple, and the crowds responded to it. Newer technology ushered in the use of compressed air, which gave more precision and predictable throws.

Some shows now use gunpowder or small amounts of harmless explosives to add to the flare and make the show even more entertaining. The biggest human cannonballing names are those of the Smith family, Mainly David Smith and David Smith Jr. 

This father and son have created a reputation in the cannonballing world with the nicknames Cannonball and The Bullet. David Sr. held the world record for the longest human cannonball flight until his son broke it in 2011.

The human cannon is a classic and will continue to be popular as long as the circus exists.


This article has answered all the questions regarding how human cannons work and the event’s fans have a better understanding of its origin. 

Human cannonballs have been a staple for many circuses, and their popularity is still growing despite the risks.

Technological advancements have made it safer, but there have been casualties of human error as recently as 2011. 

This event is thrilling, but the performers must also take every measure to ensure their safety for their sake and the stunts.

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