The Zacchini family and the bullet man

Cannon men are seen less and less. Theirs was the craziest of acrobatic performances, the most daring, the most original. Their show fully expressed the desire to go beyond all human limits, the desire to defeat the force of gravity and with it fear, the dream of flying high, far and at great speed, like Daedalus and Icarus prisoners of a labyrinthine reality and perhaps monstrous.

It all started from Rossa Matilda Richter, aka Zazelwho, in 1877, at the age of seventeen, performed the number of the “Cannon woman” at the Royal Aquarium in London.

Zazel slipped into a cannon and was fired into the air up to thirty meters. The launch was accompanied with a little gunpowder, to simulate the explosion of the guns of the battlefields. The effect on the audience was shocking and her success led Zazel to travel with the Barnum Circus.

The one used by Richter was not a real cannon, but a spring device designed by the Great Farini which George Loyal had then hidden in a howitzer, throwing himself towards his wife, Ella Zuila, who grabbed him dangling from a trapeze. It was there Zacchini family to perfect everything.

Under the guidance of the progenitor Ildebrando Zacchini, Italian acrobat from Malta, Edmondo, Ugo, Bruno, Vittorio, Mario, Iolanda, Olga, Emanuele and Teobaldo, his son, specialized in every circus art, traveling from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Their fortunes, however, changed when, in 1922, the year in which Zazel died, they included in the performances of the family business, the Circus Olympiathe number of the gun.

The credit went to Edmondo who got himself shot by a structured howitzer with a spring mechanism in a show that took place that year in Cairo. This time he broke his leg and ended up hospitalized in a clinic. It was there, in the hospital bed, that he improved the device.

It is said that, spurred on by his father, he drew inspiration from projects of the Italian army related to the experimentation of launches of soldiers on the battlefields, using compressed air and cushioning their landing with parachutes. The technique, which proved to be impractical for military uses, proved to be perfect for the circus activity of the Zacchini who took the number of Zazel and rethought it with various tricks.

When Edmondo was able to return to perform, the result of his studies and improvements was great. People had the impression that those guys were real bullets, “human cannonballs”, subject to amazing and dangerous flights. Compressed air fired the acrobat at a hundred and forty kilometers per hour, much farther and faster than the Grande Farini’s machine. Were they human bullets or were they using the cannon as a flying machine? The audience watched them with their noses up, crossing the sky like comets. That number amazed more than any other, amazed, surprised and ended up being the main attraction of the family circus. Without realizing it, the spectators were dragged beyond the ordinary, into an incredible experience. Thanks to this attraction, in 1928, the Zacchinis joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, becoming famous in the States and gradually introducing novelties and experiments to their show. For example, in 1934, Ugo and Vittorio began to be shot together at the same time by two cannons fixed on opposite sides of the tent. They were later thrown together by the same howitzer.

Several of their emulators, such as Martin Bardo, Gaston Richard and Harry Ackenhausen, perished in the enterprise and the Zacchini also ran some risks. Those who were launched often suffered various injuries, even bone fractures, but, carefully weighing the number in every aspect, starting with that sort of artillery piece that represented its hinge, Edmondo and Ugo, who had both studied mechanical engineering , they managed to improve its safety. The operation of the launching device was progressively regulated by meticulous calculations. The mechanism was managed with increasing skill and the landing became less risky, however the exhibition was not without its dangers. Preparation, prudence, exercise, commitment and sacrifices made it something sensational, but they were never enough to guarantee the Zacchini’s safety.


Popular Science magazine, in 1933, wrote: “Ugo Zacchini, the” Human Cannonball “, is another artist who has calculated the effect of each movement of his body in the air, calculating the various forces as a mathematician studies the flight of a bullet. Since 1922 this circus-fired comet has been launched from the mouth of a cannon, traveling 145 feet through the air in a net. He has calculated that he can guide his body six feet to the right or left or he can shorten or lengthen his nine-foot flight by controlling his position during the three seconds he is quickly thrown into the air. He also calculated the exact change in gun height that is needed when it reaches a city like Denver where the atmospheric pressure is lower than sea level. Shot at the same angle and with the same force in such thin air, it would have passed the net. When it is necessary to change the distance between the muzzle and the safety net, test shots are always fired with a dummy exactly the size and weight of the performer. Despite being in the air for just six seconds during the two daily performances, it took him and his brother practically eight hours a day to examine the gun’s mechanism, maintain and inspect it, to make sure it is in perfect condition. Unless Zacchini hits the net on his shoulders at the end of his arc in the air, he is likely to injure his spine. His younger brother, Victoriano, sustained a back injury while being thrown nearly 200 feet in Coney Island, New York last summer. Ugo’s older brother Edmundo broke his legs five times as he perfected the cannon mechanism. So far about twenty men have been killed in an attempt to emulate the daring undertaking of the Zacchini brothers. The act of the cannon is risky, which gives it great attractive power. Ugo now contemplates an even more spectacular variation. He plans to be shot through a hole in the tent roof, descend through another hole in the canvas after crossing the top of the tent, and take the bow from the safety net where he lands! The stunt can be performed and should appeal to the public, who, while they don’t really want anyone killed, enjoy seeing some other human being take great risks. ‘

With the outbreak of the Second World War and the men involved in the conflict, it was the girls who continued the shows, becoming more famous than the brothers and then giving life to two different representations. In 1965 there were five Zacchini shows performing in the United States and the public flocked enthusiastically to see those artists now dressed as astronauts.

Time took away the last members of the family and consigned everything to history.

The Zacchini family and the bullet man