My wife Margaret was clipping coupons as we were leafing through the papers over a lazy Sunday breakfast. She passed me a dissected section and, to attract my attention,  tapped her scissors’ point on a short article she thought might be of interest to me. It was about a Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus Xtreme acrobat who was about to take her 500th flight as a human cannonball.  It was illustrated by a full color frontal photo of petite and comely Gemma Kirby emerging in full flight from the muzzle of a cannon.

I don’t know what really attracted my attention. It was either Kirby, in a form fitting sequin trimmed costume, or the muzzle of the gun which reminded me of a Saturday afternoon spent in the Garde Theater watching The Pride and the Passion, an action movie from my youth. It starred another entertainment beauty, Sophia Loren, along with Cary Grant and, oddly enough, Frank Sinatra. The plot revolved about a band of Peninsula War Spanish partisans dragging a humongous cannon across the Iberian landscape to batter the French stronghold at Avila.

I was not unfamiliar with the concept of the human cannonball. The Old Man was a rabid circus and carnival fan as a result of some romantic misadventures of his misspent youth during the Great Depression. Annually, in the early 1950s, The Old Man took my brother and me to the Clyde Beatty-Coleman Brothers Circus at Caulkins Park, just a block or two from our house. Steve and I were willing accomplices for The Old Man’s nostalgic trip back in time as we were both students at Waller School, just across the street from the park. For days had been breaking the points off of our pencils so we could go to the sharpener by the window and sneak a peek at the roustabouts and elephants erecting the canvas Big Top as we ground yet another yellow Mongol Number 2 into oblivion.

It was during one of these sojourns that I recall seeing my first human cannon ball. The big gun was mounted on the back of truck and parked on the long axis of the tent. After some preliminary acrobatics a small man slid feet first into the barrel and disappeared from sight. A clown appeared with a huge match and applied it to a fuse at the breech. The cannon roared and amid an enormous cloud of “black powder” smoke, which added a Mephistophelian odor of burning brimstone to the musky smell of canvas, sawdust, and animal droppings that already filled the tent, the man shot out. He flew across the length of the tent, did a quick midair somersault, and landed on his back in a net to the roar and applause of the delighted crowd.

Kirby won’t reveal the exact workings of the cannon, preferring to refer to it as circus magic. However, the mechanics of shooting a human cannonball are actually not that complicated, or far removed from the typical shooting match activity. The exception is the fact that no powder is used to propel the human cannon ball as it serves only as a dramatic theatrical effect.

Essentially a circus cannon is nothing more than a piston powered by compressed air to hurl the human projectile out of a tube. The platform rests at the back of the barrel and is pushed forward with a pressure approaching 6,000 pounds per square inch. The piston abruptly stops at the top of the barrel and inertia takes over. The human cannonball travels somewhere around 200 feet at about 70 miles per hour in a   parabolic arc which can reach 75 feet above ground level. The human cannonball is subjected to G forces nine times normal gravity at the start of the three second flight.

Let us put shooting a human cannonball into the context of the preparation and execution of a rifle competition.

Well before the audience fills the stands the cannon crew sets up the target and cannon and tests the system by shooting dummies, which approximate the human cannonball’s size, shape, and weight at the net. Numerous factors have to be taken into account such as wind speed, the cannonball’s weight, distance, humidity and temperature. Great care is taken in calculating the barrel angle. They adjust the windage and elevation of the barrel until the dummy hits the center of the target repeatedly.  This reminds one of a combination of ammunition testing and sighter shots.


“A successful human cannonball keeps his eyes open to find the net.” That smacks of follow through and shot calling.


“A human cannon ball has to keep their weight consistent, with a pound or two, as any remarkable change in weight will require recalibration of the cannon.” In other words, do not change lots of ammunition in the middle of a string.


Kirby comments, “I can never do this act half-awake or not unprepared or not warmed up.” This speaks to maintaining concentration and awareness of conditions from first shot to last.

Finally Kirby says that ‘Being detail-oriented and being a creature of habit is really essential in this line of work. Consistency is key.” Now doesn’t that sum up a successful shooting sports athlete?

It seems that no matter what the projectile, be it a 22 caliber 40 grain ball, a 5.56mm 77 grain full metal jacket, a 308 caliber 168 grain hollow point boat tail, or a 115 pound 25 year old acrobat, the same basic marksmanship skills and procedures are required to hit the center of the target.  

About Hap Rocketto

Hap Rocketto is a Distinguished Rifleman with service and smallbore rifle, member of The Presidents Hundred, and the National Guard’s Chief’s 50. He is a National Smallbore Record holder, a member of the 1600 Club and the Connecticut Shooters’ Hall Of Fame. He was the 2002 Intermediate Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion, the 2012 Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion a member of the 2007 and 2012 National Four Position Indoor Championship team, coach and captain of the US Drew Cup Team, and adjutant of the United States 2009 Roberts and 2013 Pershing Teams. Rocketto is very active in coaching juniors. He is, along with his brother Steve, a cofounder of the Corporal Digby Hand Schützenverein. A historian of the shooting sports, his work appears in Shooting Sports USA, the late Precision Shooting Magazine, The Outdoor Message, the American Rifleman, the Civilian Marksmanship Program’s website, and most recently, the apogee of his literary career,
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