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Cannonball tests his cannon

Atos Zamperla has been shot from a cannon more times than he remembers - mostly without incident.

Published March 2, 2004

GIBSONTON - At the foot of the cannon, Atos Zamperla paused for a prayer Monday afternoon, linking arms with his cousin and three friends.

"Lord, bless this man," one of them said. "Give him all the strength that you can."

Zamperla, 48, was last shot from a spring-loaded cannon two years ago at the Florida State Fair, mere days after his brother, another human cannonball, hurtled past his target and ended up in intensive care.

This time, Zamperla is trying out a new cannon, one he designed to shoot himself into the Guinness Book of World Records. He and his cousin Marco Canestelli, 45, built the cannon over the past two months in the Gibsonton yard of a circus family.

The cannon, Zamperla said, is the largest of its kind in the world. On Monday, it was pointed toward a circus net stretched out across the yard, between two trailers. Beyond the net, new boards marked a spot in a fence where last week's practice dummy shattered a section.

Zamperla is 5 feet tall, weighs 142 pounds and is a seventh-generation circus performer. His first try as a human cannonball, when he was 18, caused internal bleeding because he hadn't known what to expect. Since then, he has shot out more times than he can keep track, most of them successfully.

"When you hear the countdown," Zamperla said, "the next thing you know you're airborne - you become a bullet."

Seven years ago he had his worst landing. He overshot onto concrete, breaking both wrists, both feet and shattering his pelvis.

"I put that all behind me," he said. "I only think of success."

Monday's goal was 120 feet, just to test the new cannon. Soon the device will be on the highway headed to Las Vegas, where Zamperla will try to double Monday's goal. He'll try to break the current record of 185 feet and 10 inches, held by performer David "Cannonball' Smith.

Sometime in the next month or two, Zamperla will attempt a 225-foot shot over Las Vegas' famous Strip from the Flamingo Hilton to Caesars Palace.

The cannon, now silver and white, is to be adorned by sponsors for the record-breaking attempt.

Zamperla climbed aboard the cannon Monday and teetered out over the barrel to eye his destination.

"It's just a walk in the park," he said. "Okay, we're ready. Showtime. Load it up."

An engine roared to life and Zamperla opened a silver hatch and disappeared into a capsule inside.

Pop! He rocketed out at 80 mph with arms outstretched. Over 100 feet away, he dived directly into the center of the net.

"It was beautiful," he said after rising. "I'm back in the saddle."

- Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at 226-3321 or

[Last modified March 2, 2004, 01:44:59]

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