Listen to this story:

Brought to you by Curio

The First Family of Human Cannonballing

David and Jeannie Smith gave up their day jobs for a life of daredevil stunts —with six children in tow. Five decades, thousands of cannon shots and multiple Guinness World Records later, this stupendous family business is still defying gravity and all other expectations.

The First Family of Human Cannonballing

Staring up through the barrel of his steel cocoon, all David Smith Jr. sees is a small circle of cornflower-blue sky. The angle of the 35-foot cannon is such that he is almost standing, every muscle in his body pulled taut. As the electrifying opening riff of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” kicks in, the announcer starts the countdown: “Five…four…three… 

For a split second, everything is eerily still. Then, with a loud boom and a burst of fiery sparks, David Jr. hurtles from the cannon, soaring 80 feet in the air. Like a missile, he goes from zero to 74 miles an hour in less than half a second. But he maintains pinpoint focus. At this height, there’s no room for mistakes. He hears the crowd take a collective breath. He notices a little girl sitting on her dad’s shoulders. And he sees the red landing net hovering in the distance. But to reach it, he must first fly through a hoop that is 90-feet high, about the height of a 10-story building. Oh, and the hoop is on fire.  

David Smith Jr. shoots into the air during one of his world record-setting stunts.

After doing this job for more than 25 years, David Jr.’s movements are instinctive. He straightens and stabilizes his body, checking whether he’s rotated too much or too little. These movements are as natural to him as walking. As he approaches the flaming hoop, he windmills his arms once, twice, and sails cleanly through the center before bouncing into the net with a backward somersault and landing on his feet. As the audience roars with applause, he punches the air.  

This daredevil act is business as usual for David Smith Jr., a second-generation human cannonball. His father, David Smith Sr., is a former junior high school math teacher who ran away to join a traveling circus in the 1960s. As children, David Jr. and his five siblings were raised on the road, watching their father get blasted out of a cannon almost every weekend.  

“I pretty much grew up in the circus,” says David Jr. “My backyard was different every day, always a new coliseum or fairground or state park somewhere. Now I’m carrying on my father’s flight path, so to speak.”  

 

On one of the last lingering days of summer 1969, David Smith Sr. and his wife, Jean, stood outside their rented home in Salem, Oregon, surveying the front lawn. Various pieces of furniture sat on the stubbly grass: a velour couch, a couple of lamps, a double bed, and a dark-wood dining table, piled with paperbacks and kitchenware and knickknacks they had acquired over the years.  

David and Jeannie Smith, 1970s. (Photo courtesy of David Smith Jr.)

Business at the yard sale was brisk; everything had been priced for a quick sale. The couple’s 1-year-old daughter, Rebecca, slept nearby in her stroller, oblivious to the drastic change that was about to shape the family’s way of life.  

“Are you sure we can’t take this with us?” Jean asked, touching the well-worn surface of the table. 

Her husband flashed a boyish grin. “Not unless you want to strap it to the roof rack.”  

  “I’d consider it,” Jean laughed. 

A couple weeks earlier, David had received a call from one of his old college friends, Rusty Rock. The two had trained as gymnasts in California, competing in national tournaments on the horizontal bars. Rusty had since joined a flying trapeze act in a circus that happened to be passing through Salem, and he’d invited David and his wife to a show.  

It had been a long time since David had been to the circus. In fact, as a child he’d only ever been once — and all he could remember was the back of the seat in front of him. He certainly hadn’t dreamed of joining the circus; he’d wanted to be a cowboy, like John Wayne in Stagecoach. But watching Rusty and the aerialists flipping and somersaulting through the air to a chorus of oohs and aahs, David felt the flicker of an idea. He was 27 years old, with a shock of dark curly hair, and was working as a math teacher at the local junior high school. But the students were unruly and trying to teach them felt like babysitting. His muscular arms and chest, hard-earned through years of athletics, were beginning to wane. He didn’t want to spend the next 40 years in a job he couldn’t stand. So, when Rusty told him the trapeze act needed a fourth, it seemed like kismet. 

Jean and David met at Utah State, when he was getting his master’s in education and she was an undergrad. Jean was five years younger and petite, with dark hair and a sweet smile. Jean would have been content to stay in Salem and raise a family, but she couldn’t bear to see how unhappy David was in his job. A week before the fall school semester started, he went to her and dropped a bombshell: “I want to join the circus.”   

Of course, Jean had a few apprehensions. But she also thought the circus sounded like a lot of fun, and it would provide an opportunity to travel and experience new things. “If that’s what you really want to do,” she told her husband, “let’s do it.”   

The Smiths loaded what was left of their possessions into a car David had built himself and hitched a 16-foot trailer — borrowed from his father — to the back. Then they scooped up Rebecca and drove 900+ miles south to start their new adventure in Los Angeles. They had about $1,500 in savings and a barrel of youthful optimism. As it turned out, it was all they would need. 

Trapeze artists are either flyers or catchers: The flyers perform the aerial tricks while the catcher (often only one per trapeze troupe), swings from a separate bar, ready to catch them.  

David was too big to be a flyer, so he was recruited as a catcher. His job was to signal to the flyers exactly when to leave the trapeze board for him to be close enough to catch them. After catching a flyer by the hands or feet, he would continue to swing and return the flyer to the fly bar via some midair acrobatics. A skillful catcher is the difference between a flyer staying in the air or falling to the net. 

David learned the ropes quickly, but when it came time for his first performance, he was so nervous he could hardly speak. “I had cottonmouth so bad,” he recalls. “We’d done really well in practice,” but then during the performance, “I blew the last five tricks. It was a real humdinger of an act.” 

Undeterred, he continued to practice with Rusty every spare moment he got. Watching them from the ground, Jean grew curious. Unlike her husband, she didn’t have a background in gymnastics. But she wanted to know: What would it feel like to fly? 

The first time Jean climbed the tall, narrow ladder to the trapeze board, her arms felt like jelly. It hadn’t looked so high when she was watching, but now she was 40 feet above the ground.  

“Step on up,” said David, taking her hand. “Head up, don’t look down.”  

Jean’s head jerked back up. “What happens if I fall?”  

“Well, the net will catch you instead of me.” Her husband held her gently around the waist as she inched to the edge of the board. “But falling is the easy part. Just focus on staying in the air.”   

Jean groaned. Her palms were slick with sweat. She reached for more chalk powder. 

“You can do this, Jean,” he said, drawing the fly bar toward them. “Are you ready?” 

Jean took a deep breath and reached for the bar. “Yes,” she said. 

“On three then: One. Two. Hup!” 

She closed her eyes and jumped.  

Before long, Jean was hooked. She had never experienced anything like the trapeze: terrifying but also exhilarating. She learned how to make the trapeze swing so high she could almost touch the ceiling and how to safely fall into the net — which, in the beginning, she did often. David showed her how to hang by her knees and then leave the bar for him to catch her in midair, the two of them swinging like dolls in a paper chain.  

Jean grew stronger and leaner, developing thick calluses on her hands to match her husband’s. Rusty and his girlfriend, Patty, coached her too and the three of them began flying together, David catching each of them in turn. Soon they had a brand-new daredevil trapeze act: The Rock Smith Flyers. 

In the early 1970s some of the most successful aerial artists were leaving the ring for cushy residencies at the newly built Circus Circus Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The Rock Smith Flyers were quickly snapped up for a four-month tour of North America and Canada, billed alongside sword swallowers, lion-tamers, tightrope walkers and juggling clowns. They began to make a name for themselves after mastering the elusive triple somersault — and some noted that their elaborate dismounts from the bar were even better than their trapeze stunts.  

David and Jeannie Smith, performing as The Rock-Smith Flyers at the Shrine Circus in Nanaimo, Canada, 1977. (Image: Nanaimo Daily News)

The 1970s was a golden age of the circus, but its popularity meant the tours were long and gruelling — the bigger shows toured for 100 dates or more — and most offered two shows a day and three on weekends. For some, the circus lifestyle became too stressful. In 1975, Rusty and Patty quit the circus and decided to return to their “normal” lives. They were swiftly replaced by Greg Friel and his fiancée, Debbie, a flying trapeze duo from the renowned Ringling Bros. Circus, who helped the Rock Smith Flyers go to the next level. Despite being heavy for a flyer, the wiry and mustachioed 23-year-old Greg had learned the triple somersault as a teenager on Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach. Now he’d perfected the almost impossible three-and-a-half somersault, the red diamond of circus acts. The Rock Smith Flyers were, quite literally, at the top of their game. 

In 1976, the Flyers were invited to compete at the inaugural Circus World Championships in London. Broadcast on live television around the world, the five-day event was described as “a veritable Circus Olympics” by a sports editor at England’s Observer newspaper. “It may sound like a gimmick,” wrote Alan Hubbard. “Nonetheless, what was happening down on a particularly muddy piece of South-West London, once the African elephants, Bengal tigers and Exploding Car had done their things, was something circus folk appear to be taking very seriously indeed.”  

The Rock Smith Flyers were up against three other flying trapeze acts from the United Kingdom, the United States and Mexico. All of them included the triple somersault in their routine, but the Flyers stole the show with their signature three-and-a-half somersault. They came away with the first-prize trophy. The four of them were ecstatic, but for Jean and David the win was extra special: While Jean was flying through the air in a rhinestone bikini, she was also two months pregnant.   

Despite the Rock Smith Flyers’ success, David had begun to experience what’s known in the trade as “Catcher’s Syndrome.”  

“If you drop your partner, it’s your fault, and if you catch him, well, he did a good trick,” David explains. “I was a little tired of being just part of the equipment.” 

David and Jeannie Smith on a hand-crafted flying saucer circus apparatus during one of their performances. (Photo courtesy of David Smith Jr.)

The Flyers had occasionally appeared on the same bill as the Zacchinis, members of a large Italian family of trapeze artists, tumblers, riders, wire walkers and human cannonballs. This last act was always the most hotly anticipated. The loud blast, white smoke and fiery sparks, not to mention the seemingly death-defying flight, was always the dramatic finale that closed out the show. And the audiences went wild for it. 

Meanwhile, Jean had given birth to their second daughter, Jennifer. The growing family spent 10 months of the year on the road with the circus, living in a 32-foot camper David had built on the back of a diesel truck flatbed. At night while his wife and children slept, he stayed up late working on the blueprints for his next act: a human cannon. Though he’d never seen the inside of the Zacchini cannons, he was a gifted — if slightly eccentric — engineer, with mathematical expertise. His circus colleagues had nicknamed him “The Professor,” a throwback to his old teaching career as well as the fact that he could build or fix almost anything. David built his first cannon on the road, lugging pieces of fiberglass, aluminum and steel from big cities to small towns all over North America and working between shows. By the time Jennifer was a year old, David was the proud owner of his first, rather clumsily named “Friel-Smith Rocket S. Cannon.”  

The big yellow cannon was, rather unusually, set on four wheels and powered by an automobile engine. Hydraulic controls raised the barrel for firing and allowed the front wheels to align precisely with the landing net. The firing mechanism of David Smith’s cannon blueprint is a closely guarded secret but — spoiler alert — human cannons don’t use gunpowder. Usually, they work by releasing compressed air; anything else is purely pyrotechnics. 

David tested the cannon by firing sandbags that weighed the same amount he did — 180 pounds. The first sandbag sailed 30 feet into the air and hit the ground with a whomp. It worked! After a few more practice runs, he climbed into the cannon himself. He safely hit his mark on the very first shot.  

Although the human cannonball act was David’s idea, his partner Greg, who was 40 pounds lighter, made more sense as the human projectile for the act — at least for now.  

As soon as the Rock Smith Flyers added the human cannonball act into their routine it became a massive hit. They began performing the explosive stunt all over North America and were propelled to new heights of stardom.   

The family’s heightened professional success didn’t stop them from continuing to grow. In May 1977, a year after they began the cannonball stunt, Jean gave birth to another child, David Jr. True to form, little David was born on the road. When Jean went into labor shortly before showtime, David Sr. drove her to the hospital — and then returned to the circus in time for his act. His son’s birth was announced by the ringmaster halfway through the show, to rapturous applause.  

David Sr. and his youngest son Russell dressed in performance attire. (Photo courtesy of David Smith Jr.)

The Smiths now had three kids and three of the most popular circus acts in North America: the Rock Smith Flyers, the Friel-Smith Human Cannonball, and Captain Circus. For this last act, David Sr. would don a superhero mask and cape to “emerge” from the ceiling via a hidden platform, then drop 10 feet and catch a rope, swinging from the rigging like a cross between Tarzan and Captain America. He had performed this act dozens, if not hundreds, of times.  

Then, one snowy March afternoon in Missoula, Montana, he missed the rope. Free-falling with his cape streaming behind him, Captain Circus fell 35 feet and hit the ground.  

In the hospital, doctors assessed David Sr.’s injuries: a broken pelvis, a shattered heel, internal bleeding. Captain Circus was going to be grounded for a while. He and the family returned to their “regular” home — a farmhouse with a 45-foot flying trapeze — back in Salem, Oregon, where they lived when the circus shut down for the winter.  

Though David Sr. was unperturbed by his fall, Jean was badly shaken. By now they’d been living the circus life for eight years and had seen a lot of colleagues and friends get seriously injured and even die. As she watched her husband scooting around in a wheelchair with his left ankle in a cast and his right pinned into a metal frame, Jean wondered if it might be time for them to retire.  

At the end of 1978, Jean and David Sr. announced their retirement from the circus. They lived on savings and a series of odd jobs. Once he’d recovered from his injuries, David Sr. went back into teaching. To occupy his mind, he wrote children’s books and tried his hand at a Western novel. Jean looked after the baby, typed up her husband’s manuscripts and thought about going into real estate. But the big yellow cannon was still parked in the basement, and the circus kept calling.  

The 3,000-strong audience perched anxiously on the edges of their seats. Waiting in the wings, David Sr. was a little anxious too. After three years of retirement, he was finally back — and now that his old buddy Greg Friel had quit for good, he was the one in the spotlight. As he took a deep breath and stepped into the ring, the legendary Cannonball Smith made his debut.  

Sporting a silver jumpsuit, a thick mustache and a white helmet over curly hair — which was now graying at the temples — David Sr. crossed the field toward the giant cannon. Since his accident, he walked with a slight limp; it only added to the sense of danger in his act.  

The barrel of the cannon raised to a 45-degree angle; Cannonball Smith gave the crowd a final wave and dropped inside. The ringmaster asked for silence, and the audience, recognizing the gravity of the situation, obliged. Nobody moved an inch. Then a drumroll started, its repetitive beat rippling with suspense. The ringmaster led the countdown — five, four, three, two — but Jean fired the cannon a split second before the audience expected it. Somebody shrieked, though it wasn’t clear whether they were surprised by the loud blast or simply overcome with excitement. By the time the shriek ended, Cannonball Smith had flown 115 feet in the air and landed in a giant net on the far side of the field — and the audience burst into screams of wild delight.  

David Sr.’s first performance back was perhaps more dramatic than he would have liked; the cannon shot him high enough to touch the coliseum ceiling, and he landed on the far edge of his 50-foot net, right in the danger zone. But with a whole circus tour lined up, there would be plenty of opportunities to practice. 

By 1984, Jean and David Sr. had five children, ranging in age from 6 months to 15 years. The Smith children spent their youth traveling to shows all over North America, watching their dad get shot out of a cannon. The circuses came in all sizes, from rinky-dink family shows to three-ring extravaganzas. But no matter where they went, Cannonball Smith was treated like a rock star. “It was just what my dad was,” says Jennifer. “I didn’t think it was strange until I was older.”  

Jean and David Sr. home-schooled their children, but once they’d done their homework and chores, they were free to run wild in the best playground a kid could imagine, one with elephants and tigers, trampolines and flying trapeze. While other kids their age played at arcades or hung out at the mall, the Smith clan spent their days playing on trampolines in between shows, learning to do flips and taking turns shooting their dad out of the cannon. They were encouraged to do stunts: David Sr. had even installed a trapeze bar in the trailer for them to practice on. The phrase “don’t try this at home” did not apply.  

The circus was a close-knit community of fun and fascinating people from all over the world: lion tamers, contortionists, tightrope walkers. The performers all brought their families too, so the Smith children had plenty of circus-kid friends to play with.  

Surrounded by jaw-dropping acts, the Smith kids soon started performing in the circus themselves. By the age of 9, Rebecca was already following in her parents’ agile footsteps. She had her own solo act on the single trapeze — one of the most difficult and demanding acts around, even for an adult. Rebecca entranced audiences with daring heel catches, single toe hangs, and dizzying Russian rolls. Soon, her younger sister Jennifer joined her and their dad for a triple trapeze act. The pièce de résistance saw the three of them swinging upside down from a single trapeze; David Sr. hanging by his knees, holding Rebecca by a single foot while she held Jennifer’s foot. The trick was performed without a safety net — if something had gone wrong, the kids would no doubt have fallen headfirst.  

David Jr. at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, Ontario, 2003. (Photo courtesy of David Smith Jr.)

At 10, David Jr. joined the family business, flying on an aerial apparatus 90 feet above the ground in a double act with his sister Jennifer. They performed leaps so high they sometimes had to duck to avoid whacking their heads on the ceiling. Despite the danger involved, or because of it, the Smith children loved the thrill of performing, and they trusted their dad above all else. 

Cannonball Smith was in high demand, as, unsurprisingly, human cannonballing was a pretty unusual occupation, even then. David Sr.’s act was always the most exciting part of the show, the climactic finale that got the most fanfare and the loudest applause. After seeing their dad do his cannonball stunt hundreds of times, the Smith children were curious. What did it feel like? Was it scary? And how far would they fly?  

Rebecca, being the oldest, was the first one to try it. When she turned 16, she told her dad she wanted to give the cannon a shot. After all, she’d shot him out of it for years. David Sr. was initially opposed to the idea, telling her it was too dangerous. But after a year of begging him, her father relented. 

One wintery morning, while his children slept, David Sr. set up the cannon and landing net in front of their house in Salem. When Rebecca, still yawning, came out the front door, she took one look at the cannon and burst into tears. Despite desperately wanting to know what plummeting through the air felt like, she was terrified. Luckily, her dad knew exactly what to say to calm her down, and he began encouraging her just as he’d done with Jean on the flying trapeze almost 15 years earlier. He started by making sure Rebecca was comfortable on a trampoline, diving forward and backward to get a sense of how her body felt in the air with no strings attached. Then, for her first shot, he positioned the cannon very close to the landing net. The intense force of the cannon blast caught Rebecca by surprise. But she immediately wanted to do it again. “It’s super, super scary,” she told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1987. “But at the same time, it’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.” 

After Rebecca’s first cannon shot, David Sr. simply moved the cannon a little farther from the net each time, almost like teaching her to ride a bike.  

Within a couple of years, Rebecca was performing professionally in a 25-foot silver cannon designed and built for her by her father. With her petite frame, penchant for black clothing, and cherubic face framed by an unruly crop of dark hair, she looked like a young Winona Ryder. From circus to state fair, she was billed as the only female human cannonball in the United States, and she almost certainly was — until her sister joined the scene. 

David Jr., Kimberly and Jennifer playing around the base of the third cannon built by David Sr. (Photo courtesy of David Smith Jr.)

Six years younger than Rebecca, Jennifer was first shot from a cannon just before she turned 15. Wearing a helmet, elbow pads and waist-support belt, she slipped down the barrel and flew 21 feet. Before long, she was alternating shows with her older sister, and then spun off on her own act, performing as “Cannon Lady.” 

David Jr. was next in line. After years of asking to try the cannon, one day the 17-year-old came home from school to find it set up in the front yard. He froze. Was this for him? Then his dad emerged from behind the cannon, grinning. “Okay,” he told his son. “I’m calling your bluff.” 

David Jr. wasn’t as big as his dad. To fill the cannon so that he wouldn’t ricochet inside the shaft, he had to put on two pairs of sweatpants, a sweater and a big, puffy jacket. His father taught him the art of human cannonballing with the same technique he’d used with Rebecca and later Jennifer. He started with a short shot, so they could get a feel for it. Then, little by little, he moved the cannon farther from the net. 

“Holy hell, that hit hard!” said David Jr. after his first shot, laughing in surprise. “I knew it was going to be fast, but I didn’t know it was gonna be fast for that long.” 

He shot once more that day, flying 20 feet. Not far, but enough to make a lasting impression. A few days later, his dad took the cannon back on the road for more shows, ending his son’s cannonball practice. The next time David Jr. climbed into the barrel would be two years later, in front of an audience. From that moment on, David Jr. would be hooked for life.  

David Sr. was now in his early 50s — past the point when most daredevil performers would have retired. But he had tried that once, and it wasn’t for him. Instead, he built himself a bigger cannon and, in 1995, smashed the world record for the longest flight by a human cannonball. Thousands gathered to watch on the final day of the Bentley Brothers Circus in New Jersey as Cannonball Smith flew 180 feet across a big top tent, breaking the 175-foot record set 45 years earlier by the great Emanuel Zacchini. 

“That was monumental for us as a family,” recalls David Jr. “That was a huge achievement. We saw where hard work and determination could take you.”  

After finishing high school, David Jr. worked a series of odd jobs, like painting beach houses in North Carolina, and traveled around the country seeing his favorite bands in concert. Then, in the summer of 1996, when he was 19, he got a call from his father. 

David Sr. was in Wisconsin, performing with one of the smaller circuses. He’d pulled a muscle in his back driving a stake into the ground and could no longer do his act. At least, that’s the story. “I’m still not sure if I believe him,” David Jr. laughs. “He might have been roping me into it in a low-pressure kind of way.” 

David Sr. asked his son to come to Madison to fill in for him. David Jr. didn’t hesitate: He packed up his things and drove halfway across the country. Two days later, he was at the business end of a cannon.  

As the ringmaster introduced the human cannonball act at the end of the show, David Jr. felt his ears redden. He ran into the ring and did an awkward lap around the landing net, trying his best to look cool. In reality, he was sweating with nerves — and the shiny, Lycra show-suit, borrowed from his dad, didn’t help matters. His father, who by that time had been Cannonball Smith for almost 20 years, was the undisputed King of Cannonballs — a world record holder and a legend in the business. Meanwhile, David Jr. couldn’t even fill out his father’s suit, which was bunched up around the ankles. But he was determined to give it his best shot. 

“You’ll do great,” his father said, patting him firmly on the back. “Be tough, be ready.  You’re going to be fine.”  

David Jr. sat on the end of the barrel as it slowly rose. He waved to the crowd with a confidence he didn’t feel, then glanced at his father, who gave him a nod of approval. And with that, he slipped inside the barrel.  

Half a second later, David Jr. launched out of the cannon, flew 85 feet, and landed safely in the net, laughing with exhilaration and relief. The crowd cheered as his dad helped him down, and he tried to remember how to take a proper bow. There wasn’t the roar of applause Cannonball Smith typically received — not even close — but it didn’t matter. His father was smiling, and David Jr. knew he’d made him proud.  

Over the next three months, David Jr. continued filling in for his father, doing two or three shows a day. Together, they perfected his act, stretching the distance he was shot out to 110 feet.  

After that three-month run of rinky-dink outdoor shows, David Jr. got his big break: The renowned Royal Hanneford Circus, which was, and still is, one of the oldest touring circuses in the world. Tommy Hanneford was the show’s legendary impresario, a larger-than-life man in his 60s who wore tinted aviator glasses and silvery sideburns. Once known as “the funniest man on horseback,” Hanneford had performed in the circus since he was 5 years old and played the ringmaster in the 1986 movie Barnum alongside Burt Lancaster. 

The sold-out show was in St. Louis, Missouri, and it was David Jr.’s biggest crowd by far. It featured five rings with juggling clowns, flying acrobats, live-wire acts, and elephant and camel rides for kids. That day, the huge coliseum was packed with people, illuminated by colored spotlights that danced across the arena in time to thumping pop music. The air was heavy with the scent of hot dogs, cotton candy and anticipation. 

From behind the ringside curtain, David Jr. watched the other acts, taking note of which performances got the biggest reactions. Then the ringmaster announced the final act of the evening: the human cannonball. 

David Jr. and his father had set the cannon to fire over the flying trapeze: an added element of danger to increase the “wow” factor. As the countdown began, children put down their Cracker Jack boxes and plugged their fingers into their ears, anticipating a loud bang. They were not disappointed.   

KA-BOOM! The cannon shot was higher than David Jr. was used to, and as he sailed over the trapeze rigging just inches from the ceiling, he was surprised at how dark it got up there. But before he knew it, he was plunging back to earth, back to the bright lights and the red landing net with his father standing beside it, an enormous grin on his face. David Jr. had done it — 115 feet, his farthest shot yet. 

David Jr, right, Kimberly Smith, center, and a colleague, David Finanger, left, doing a pyramid pose in front of the Eiffel Tower. Two days earlier, David Jr. and Finanger had finished a performing tour in England. (Photo courtesy of David Smith Jr.)

As he somersaulted down from the net and ran to the center ring to take the slightly less awkward bow he’d been working on, the applause was deafening. With the spotlights in his eyes, he couldn’t see much. Suddenly, there was Tommy Hanneford himself, emerging from his dressing room and striding into the center ring with arms outstretched. He wore a suit jacket, shirt and tie — and no pants. As the audience dissolved into laughter, Tommy enveloped David Jr. in an enormous bear hug. “You did a great job, kid,” he said in his gruff voice. “That was the best cannon shot I ever saw.” 

The memory of it still makes David Jr. laugh to this day. “He must have been in the process of getting dressed,” he laughs. “He came out in just his boxer shorts and penny loafers. 

“Still, that was probably my first professional recognition. The first time I considered myself a bona fide cannonball. I’ll never forget that moment.” From then on, David Jr. was known as “The Bullet.”

Two years later, in 1998, Cannonball Smith and The Bullet went head-to-head to break the Guinness World Record for the longest distance traveled by a human cannonball. David Sr. was still building cannons, tweaking and improving on his original design in pursuit of higher and more powerful shots. Shooting out of his third design, Cannonball Smith flew an impressive 185 feet and 10 inches — over half the length of a football field — beating his son by about five feet and securing the new world record.  

The father and son weren’t the only Smiths who were cannonballing professionally in the 1990s. For several years, Rebecca and Jennifer had been performing their own human cannonball act. They often traveled together, alternating duties between stops on the circuit, using a cannon built, of course, by their father. The Smith’s third daughter, 16-year-old Kimberly, was also cannonballing regularly. 

A year later, Stephanie — the youngest and most daredevilish of all the Smith kids — would do her first cannonball shot at the tender age of 14. Like her sisters, she had a gymnast’s physique — 5-foot-2 and 125 pounds — with girl-next-door looks and her father’s big brown eyes. She’d been pestering him to let her learn the family business for a long time. One by one, she’d watched her older siblings step into the ring, and all she wanted to do was join them. 

Being shot from a cannon was nothing like Stephanie had expected. She thought it would be scary the first time, like a roller coaster ride, but that then she would get over her nerves. But her second shot was even scarier than the first, because she knew what to expect. “It terrified me,” remembers Stephanie. “And I did not want to get back in there.”  

Despite her fear, Stephanie went full-fledged into the family business and began performing around the world as “Lady Cannon.” 

Stephanie Smith at the Melbourne Show in Australia, 2005. (Image: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, via Wikimedia)

She’d been cannonballing professionally for three years when she was billed to headline the 2006 Royal Adelaide Show in Australia. The Show, as it’s known — is a 10-day annual event, similar to state fairs in the United States. There are livestock competitions, carnival rides, fireworks and monster truck shows. It takes place in early September and attracts around half a million people.  

Stephanie was scheduled to do two cannonball shots a day. She still got scared, but that was part of the thrill. Besides, up until this point, the worst injury she’d had was a broken ankle or two. She wasn’t worried.  

On Opening Day, the air was warm and dry with a gentle breeze: perfect weather for a cannonball shot. Stephanie strapped a helmet over her long blonde hair and climbed onto the cannon, which was painted electric blue with red and white stars. Like the rest of the cannons in her family, it had been built by her father.  

As the 35-foot cannon rose to a 50-degree firing angle, Stephanie clambered to the top. She wore sateen pants and a long-sleeved crop top with a scattering of stars on the chest, both the same bright blue as the cannon. She sat on the lip and waved to the crowd, who whooped in anticipation. Stephanie squinted, shading her eyes from the sun with her hand. Somewhere out there were her husband and their 3-year-old son. After her act, she thought, they might all go get hot dogs. Then she flashed a final dazzling smile and lowered herself into the barrel.  

The crowd began the countdown: “Ten, nine, eight …” Stephanie felt the familiar butterflies in the pit of her stomach. “… Seven, six, five …” She braced herself for the launch, making her entire body rigid. “… Four, three, two …BOOM!  

The cannon launched Stephanie into the air at close to 60 miles an hour. The crowd followed with their eyes as Lady Cannon flew 115 feet across the main arena in the brilliant-blue afternoon sky. 

Within seconds, though, it became clear that something was wrong.  

According to witnesses, Stephanie — coming in to land on her back — overshot the landing airbag and clipped the end of it with her legs before bouncing off and hitting the ground with a sickening thud.  

“I remember hitting the ground, and I could not move my legs,” recalls Stephanie. “My first thought was that I might be paralyzed.” 

Still, she managed to wave to her audience as she was stretchered into an ambulance. 

That day, Stephanie broke a vertebra in four places and suffered internal bleeding. After undergoing spinal surgery, she spent more than three weeks recovering in an Australian hospital. Then she had to learn to walk again, a slow and painful process. 

Fortunately, Stephanie fully recovered from her accident, despite some lingering nerve damage to her hip and legs. But her daredevil days were over.  

Stephanie’s injury didn’t discourage her siblings from continuing to fly. Although human cannonball careers tend to be quite short-lived, the Smith family continued to stick with it for decades.  

David Sr. and his handmade cannon, still performing
in his 60s. (Photo courtesy of David
Smith Jr.)

The original Cannonball Smith, David Sr., continued to shock and delight crowds all over the country well into his 70s — flying through rings of fire, across national borders, and, famously, over two Ferris wheels. Miraculously, since David Sr. shot out of his first homemade cannon almost 50 years ago, he’s hit his mark every single time — more than 9,000 times in a row. And he’s never so much as broken a bone.  

But all success comes with sacrifice. David Sr.’s dangerous lifestyle took a toll on his marriage, and he and Jean eventually split up. Now the infamous human cannonball lives in Cache Valley, Utah, with his second wife, Marie, who also took up the cannonball act for a couple of years.  

Rebecca was a human cannonball for 28 years before giving it up to run a dog trick circus act with her husband. Jennifer was the “Cannon Lady” for 25 years and now runs monster truck and motocross shows. The cannon was never really Kimberly’s first choice, and she went on to become an internationally renowned trapeze artist instead. The Smiths’ youngest son, Russell, did his first cannonball shot live on a Discovery Channel documentary at age 17, but he ultimately decided to pursue his other passion — which he also shares with his father — and went on to study applied mathematics and physics at college. 

Today, David Jr. is the only Smith cannonball still in action. At 5 feet 10 inches tall, with a slim, athletic build — which is surely useful in his line of work — he has a youthful face that belies his 45 years of age. Human cannonballing is also profoundly different now, as circuses have fallen out of favor with the public, seen by many as passé or cruel because of their treatment of animals.  

“When I was a kid, circuses were huge,” says David Jr. “Our parents were like rock stars, they had full tours, big paychecks. But a lot of live entertainment was replaced by technology. Just like that, our whole world changed.”  

Now David Jr. tends to perform his act at baseball and basketball games, rock concerts and video game launches. “I have a completely different career than my father had,” he says. “Even though we’re doing the exact same stunt. Our careers have been in essentially different industries.”  

The next generation of the Smiths, Stephanie’s children, David. Jr.’s children, plus a couple friends, on top of a cannon made by David Sr. (Photo courtesy of David Smith Jr.)

Despite the changing world, The Bullet has found immense success: He holds six Guinness World Records, including the highest cannon shot and the farthest cannon shot, and he has broken his own world record four times. Over his 26-year career, he has performed a staggering 8,000 cannon shots in 15 different countries. (He keeps one cannon on a boat, at the ready for overseas shows.) He has also found success on TikTok, where #circus has 7 billion views and #humancannonball has 22 million views. David Jr. recently did a show in Marietta, Georgia, where a teenager in the audience took a seven-second TikTok video of his cannonball stunt, and it went viral. In three days, 15 million people had seen The Bullet shoot out of a cannon and land gracefully in a net. 

When David Jr. tours his act around the United States, he takes his own children with him. Just like his father, he’s teaching them “a hell of a work ethic” on the road. Who knows, maybe someday soon they will be shooting out of a cannon at 70 miles per hour, carrying on the fast-flying family legacy.