Kamikaze pilots were a part of the Japanese Special Attack Units of military aviators who initiated suicide attacks for the Empire of Japan against Allied naval vessels in the closing stages of the Pacific campaign of World War II, designed to destroy warships more effectively than possible with conventional air attacks. About 3,800 kamikaze pilots died during the war, and more than 7,000 naval personnel were killed by kamikaze attacks. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamikaze

There is a claim that the current world record for the longest human cannonball flight is 193 ft 8.8 in (59.05 m),[4] established by David "The Bullet" Smith Jr. on the set of Lo Show dei Record, in Milan, Italy, on March 10, 2011. The distance was measured from the mouth of the cannon to the farthest point reached on the net. David was launched by an 8 m (26' 3") long cannon. It was estimated that he traveled at a speed of 120 km/h (74.6 mph), reaching a maximum altitude of 23 m (75' 6"). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_cannonball

Question (part 1)

Assume that combatants are launched from a cannon (or even a ballista) in such a way that the acceleration doesn't kill them (the precise medieval technology is not important for this question). We want them to wreak maximum havoc on the enemy.

Kamikaze pilots could of course steer themselves towards destruction - they were flying planes.

My question is, what sort of simple, medieval-type steering mechanism can the volunteers use whilst in flight to direct themselves towards a given target. What sort of accuracy and course correction can they expect?


Whether they land safely is not a major factor unless they can do more damage that way. Certainly they are not expected to survive in the long run any more than kamikaze pilots were.

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    $\begingroup$ In theory, flying human can shot some weapons at the enemy. But only in theory. In real life, war prisoners could be launched via catapults into the enemy ranks to create demoralizing effect. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Dec 27 '18 at 23:21
  • $\begingroup$ And a quote to illustrate my point: "I'll send for your baby boy...and I'll launch him into Riverrun with a catapult because you don't matter to me, Lord Edmure." $\endgroup$ – Alexander Dec 27 '18 at 23:34
  • $\begingroup$ :-) This isn't as silly as the various spoons questions from a while back... but it's close. Medieval combat via human canonball. Are you a Monty Python fan? $\endgroup$ – JBH Dec 27 '18 at 23:35
  • $\begingroup$ My bad. I'll delete my comment in a moment $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Dec 28 '18 at 1:14
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    $\begingroup$ Mandatory video: youtu.be/44goiabH1wg $\endgroup$ – Renan Dec 28 '18 at 3:29

Maybe this is not entirely silly...

One of the biggest issues to overcome is that in a low-tech setting the suicide cannonballers get no opportunity to practice steering. Which means that they need time to figure out how to steer during their one-and-only-ever "flight".

The second issue is that projectile-launching siege engines capable of launching a person (eg trebuchets) would achieve better results with a denser projectile with a more uniform aerodynamic profile rather than some numpty waving his arms and legs unpredictably in the last few seconds of his existence.

So, in order for this be even vaguely plausible we need a situation where:

  • unguided projectiles have a very low chance of hitting a target
  • flight time is long enough for the cannonballers to figure out steering
  • other ammunition types are limited in availability

As with so many other ridiculous scenarios, Randall Munroe and his audience come to the rescue with this xkcd what if question. Let us assume that the cannonballers-to-be are defending some very high and steep feature - think Masada in terms of terrain but even higher and steeper. At one point in between battles one of the defenders in a calmative drug-induced haze is thrown off a cliff in a freak trebuchet accident and is sufficiently stoned that instead of freaking out they relax and start skydiving for a few seconds, gaining increasing horizontal speed as their airspeed increases. (The ending is predictable, but much further from the base of the cliff than expected.)

The survivors who observed the flight look at each other, then cast their eyes towards the camp of their besiegers with their hated commander, which has been set up carefully outside of trebuchet range at the base of the cliff...

And so the human cannonball effort commences - the trebuchet gets each volunteer far enough out from the (very high) cliff that they can get up enough speed to steer using standard skydiving techniques in their attempts to assassinate enemy commanders. Possibly they work out the idea of primitive wingsuits (as mentioned in the xkcd what if answer) and extend their horizontal reach even further.

To summarise - within medieval technology the only practical steering method is to angle the body like a skydiver, possibly aided by a primitive wingsuit, but the cannonballer must be moving very quickly for quite some time in order for this to have a useful effect.


Give them a hang glider that folds, davinci syle. They pop out the wings mid air and angle their way to a destructive landing.


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