The amazing Annie Oakley: Meet the legendary American sharpshooter from the old West

The amazing Annie Oakley Meet the legendary American sharpshooter famous in the old West

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Annie Oakley lived only 66 years — from 1860 to 1926 — but she made a mark on this world that has lasted more than a century.

An exceptional shot from her teens, she toured the world showing off her skills. And, to be clear: Annie Oakley wasn’t just the best “female” sharpshooter, as mentioned in the vintage articles below — she was THE best.

For example, she once sent a shot right through the center of a bullseye… then someone bet she couldn’t shoot through the hole she had just made. Can you guess what happened next?

Annie Oakley – The wonderful female wing shot photographed (1892)

From the Oak Park Reporter (Cook County, Ill.) May 20, 1892

Some of her notable feats — Shooting an apple from a man’s head with only a mirror for aim — Sensation of Europe

Miss Annie Oakley, the female champion rifle, wing and trick shot, has created a sensation in England, America, France, and in other countries by her wonderful feats of shooting, and has received handsome presents from many sources.

Miss Oakley was born in Darks County, Ohio. Ever since a toddling child, she has had an inherent love for firearms and hunting.

Young Annie Oakley

At the age of ten, she, as often as ammunition was attainable, would smuggle her brother’s musket and steal into the woods where game at that time was plentiful.

Naturally, she was a good shot, and came home well supplied with game.

From the old musket, she passed to shooting a muzzle-loading shotgun, and rapidly became such a fine shot that she rarely missed a quail.

Then came a local reputation, and with improved firearms, she attracted wider notice, and for the past four years, she has been shooting before the public with great success.

Sharpshooter Annie Oakley - Little Sure Shot

The great Indian chief, Sitting Bull, after seeing her shoot at St. Paul, Minn., adopted her in the Sioux tribe, giving her the name of Muzza Caw Ah Pazzo, or Little Sure Shot.

Besides the thousands of exhibitions she has given, she has shot in twenty-three matches and tournaments, winning nineteen prizes.

In April 1884, she attempted to beat the best 1,000-ball record made at balls thrown in the air, using a 22-caliber rifle. The best record was 979, made by Dr Ruth. Miss Oakley broke 943.

February 1885, she attempted the feat of shooting 5,000 balls in one day, using three 16-gauge Parker shotguns and loading them herself. The balls were thrown from three traps at fifteen yards rise.

Out of 5,000 shot at, she broke 4,772. On the second thousand, she only missed sixteen, making the highest 1000-ball record — 984. This feat was accomplished near Cincinnati in less than nine hours.

Annie Oakley shooting, 1892

Miss Oakley is also a fine rider and understands how to manage a horse, as the following will show:

In the fall of ’84, a gentleman near Greenville, Ohio, who owned a valuable but vicious and unbroken horse, told her he would give her the horse if she could ride him in less than three days without any assistance.

She broke him to saddle, and has used him since when not engaged in her exhibitions, sometimes riding fifty miles in one day.

What makes Miss Oakley’s feats more surprising is the fact that she is small in stature and weighs only 110 pounds. She is now one of the principal attractions of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.

Annie Oakley on a horse

Miss Oakley is the greatest female trick shooter in the world. One-half of the feats that the various female shootists in Europe and America daily perform are farcical compared with the feats she accomplishes.

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She shoots glass balls thrown up in the air in rapid succession. She shoots a nail fastened into a stick three feet in height at twenty-five paces.

Miss Annie Oakley accomplishes nearly every feat any other female shooter performs.

Why women should shoot, by Annie Oakley (1894)

New York Sun (New York, NY) June 3, 1894

Annie Oakley gives from reasons and hints for practice

Miss Annie Oakley

Outdoor life with pleasure, health, readiness and precision attend this recreation — The sort of firearms to use.

There are a number of reasons, in my opinion, why every lady who has the time, the means, and the opportunity should learn the use of firearms.

Until recent years, woman has been debarred to a great extent from participating in many sports, pastimes, and recreations which in times past were looked upon as fit only for the opposite sex.

Now, however, that her right to enjoy some of these healthy diversions, especially those of an out-of-door nature, are fully recognized, I believe that such diversions should be taken advantage of to the fullest extent.

I do not wish to be understood to mean by this that woman should sacrifice home and family duties merely for outside pleasure, but that, feeling how true it is that health goes a great way toward making home life happy, no opportunity should be lost by my sex of indulging in outdoor sports, pastimes, and recreations, which are at once healthy in their tone and results and womanly in their character.

Annie Oakley shooting over her shoulder using a mirror

Under this category the use of firearms must come, for does not this practice, as a rule, bring one out into the open, where not only the fresh air may be breathed, but oftentimes the beauties of nature be also enjoyed.

If only as a means of benefiting the health the use of firearms by woman is, therefore, well worth learning. Then again, shooting is not only a healthy recreation, but a pleasurable one, and one in which both body and mind are brought into activity — the body in wielding or handling the weapon, and the mind in exercising judgment when aiming and firing at an object.

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When learning the use of firearms, a woman learns at the same time confidence and self-possession, for these qualities, together with good eyesight, nerve, and judgment, are necessary in the handling of a gun or a revolver with anything like precision or accuracy.

And are not these qualities of use also in daily life, and, therefore, all the more worthy of cultivation? Further, every lady who has the chance should learn the use of firearms, so that she may be able to protect herself in times of danger.

Annie Oakley with Buffalo Bills Wild West show Italy 1890

It is a common remark that woman’s only weapon is her tongue, but though this might have been true half a century ago, it is not so true now, for are not many ladies nowadays accomplished shots and fencers, and proficient in exercises, a knowledge of which is likely to prove useful in time of need for self-protection?

Still, the vast majority of my sex are greatly handicapped when danger comes, and, in my opinion, at least one great means whereby she can do something to equalize matters is by learning to handle a gun or revolver — the latter, of course, being the easier to carry, and the more likely to prove useful in the greater number of instances.

And now, having given one or two reasons why a lady should learn the use of firearms, I will proceed to give a few hints as to the best method which, in my opinion, she should pursue in acquiring a knowledge of the same.

There is no royal road to shooting, just as there is no royal road to knowledge.

Some people follow one system and some another, but all have the same object in view — namely, the acquiring of a certain amount of proficiency in handling and using the weapon, be it rifle, revolver, or shotgun.

It is not in the capacity of all to become first-class shots, but by dint of hard work and perseverance, any lady should be able to learn how to use firearms with some degree of skill.

It is best to commence, I should say, by using a light 22-caliber single-shot rifle, unloaded, and practicing by pointing or aiming at a mark with it a few hundred times, care being always taken to keep the muzzle from pointing toward yourself or anyone else.

Annie Oakley Little Sure Shot cabinet card

Having learned how to handle the rifle with ease, you should commence to shoot at a good-sized mark, having some friend who is acquainted with the use of firearms always by your side to give proper instructions.

It is best to learn in this way, as you can learn much quicker than by yourself, and at the same time, you will not fall into many errors which you would be apt otherwise to do.

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Extra care is required in handling the revolver, as it is more complicated than the rifle, and, it being short, you are more apt to get the muzzle in a dangerous position. More time will also be necessary in learning how to use it.

The revolver will always be handy, when traveling, to those who care to carry it, as it gives a feeling of security against danger and attack that repays the trouble of taking it about, especially to those journeying alone.

Having become proficient in the use of the rifle and revolver, your next step should be to learn how to handle the shotgun.

For beginners, I would recommend a light 20-bore, say about five pounds, loaded light at first, or until they get familiar with the recoil. Besides, a 20-bore gun will be found large enough for all practical purposes. In fact, some of my best scores in the field and at the trap have been made with a 20-bore.

Annie Oakley card with medals

You should insist on accompanying your father or brother or intimate friends on their shooting excursions, and thus join with them in one of their healthy recreations, for if shooting is a healthy recreation for men why not also for women?

As to how to dress when out on these excursions I cannot very well tell you, except that the dress should vary with the climate and the time of year.

Personally, I have shot and fished in eleven different countries in various parts of the world, and have always made it a rule to dress warm in cold weather and cool in warm weather, being careful to keep my feet dry, and to have a light waterproof cape by me to use in case of rain.

My time is much occupied, or I might enter more fully into the subject, but I think the foregoing will give the reader some idea of the reasons why a lady should learn the use of firearms, and she should set about the acquiring of this knowledge. – Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley – Shooting animation (from video)

tumblr mn5pc84A9R1rdfgw4o1 r1 500

Earned it with her rifle

Annie Oakley, the champion woman shot of America, is an example of the thrifty woman.

Woodland Daily Democrat  – Woodland, California – August 29, 1894

She owns a $9,000 house, which she has bought with money she earned within a few years by her trusty rifle and steady aim.

Although Miss Oakley doesn’t lay any particular stress on this herself, she is one of the most graceful and strong runners among women. It is a perfect picture, and if more women could run like Annie Oakley, there wouldn’t be half so much use for doctors in this world.

1894 - Annie Oakley shooting from a horse

Annie Oakley writes the bulls-eye (1899)

The San Francisco Call (California) – May 21, 1899

Bullseye writing is common among crack shots. Annie Oakley, whom Buffalo Bill took with him to England, was especially clever at it.

She would stand a few paces from a target and perforate the outer rim with shot so neatly that her name would appear quite distinctly designed by a series of clear-cut holes.

On one occasion when Annie Oakley was practicing at a target, she sent a shot right through the center of the bullseye. Someone standing by offered to wager her that she would not send a shot through the hole she had thus made.

Shouldering her rifle, she fired four shots with great deliberation, and it was found that three of these must have actually passed through the hole, slightly enlarging it, and the fourth had gone an eighth of an inch off the mark.

Five successive shots hitting within an area of half a square inch of the bullseye was certainly a very creditable performance.

Annie Oakley: Little Miss Sure Shot (1893)

From The Art of Wing Shooting: A Practical Treatise on the Use of the Shot-Gun, By William Bruce Leffingwell (1895)

No woman has ever reached the degree of perfection with firearms that Annie Oakley has. She stands peerless as the greatest shot in the world of her sex, and I know no better way to show her successes and accomplishments than to reproduce here what I wrote of her while the World’s Fair was in progress:

Annie Oakley at the Wild West Congress, World’s Fair, Chicago

Sitting, as I did, in the grandstand at the Wild West Congress of the rough riders of the world, and noting the flashing colors of the costumes of the many people who represented different nations, I marveled at that unique display and watched the last rider as he made his exit.

Then a vision appeared; a woman’s form passed gracefully into the arena, hundreds of hands clapped their applause, and Annie Oakley, dressed in a tan-colored suit, smiled and bowed and modestly tipped her broad hat to admiring thousands.

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She stood in the presence of that assemblage the empress of her art — the most skillful exponent of expert marksmanship of her sex in the world. The rapidity of her shooting, and her wonderful accuracy in hitting the objects fired at, astonished and captivated all. Round after round of applause greeted every shot.

Young Annie Oakley

Then the audience were stilled by the announcement that she would break eleven balls thrown into the air, using five different guns in accomplishing the feat, and that this would all be done in ten seconds.

The 12,000 people sat with bated breath; the crack of a gun broke the stillness; this was followed by repeated reports with astonishing rapidity and regularity, and in the time announced, the last ball was flying into a thousand fragments, her smoking gun lay upon the table.

She, the most expert shot of her sex in the world, stood for an instant bowing her appreciative thanks for this recognition of her skill, and then she fled to the exit like a frightened deer, pursued by the applause and cheers, and encouraged by waving hats and handkerchiefs of those who paid tribute to such wonderful skill.

While Miss Oakley has shown such marvelous work with the shotgun, she is equally at home with a rifle or revolver, and whether in the exhibition of fancy shots with a rifle at small objects thrown into the air, at stationary targets, or in the field, she can successfully compete with any man.

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Annie Oakley with medals

Oakley’s skill with a revolver

As a revolver shot she has few equals. If she has any superiors, it is because she is so occupied with her professional duties that she can not find time for practice.

I saw evidence of her skill with a revolver, where she had, just prior to my coming, tested a beautiful Smith & Wesson 44-caliber, and at eleven paces she had put four out of five balls into the center of the ace of hearts.

Many of her sex are experts when firing at hearts, but I question if there is another woman in this fair land who can pierce the heart aimed at four times out of five, especially if they will keep twelve paces away from the object of their aim. The revolver used by Miss Oakley is a beautiful one, gold-mounted, highly chased, with pearl handle.

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Annie Oakley formal portrait

Many fine guns

Shooting as much as she does, it is necessary that she have a great many guns. The inference is that she uses guns of one particular make. This is not so. She is exceedingly impartial in this respect.

I was permitted to examine many of the fine guns used by Miss Oakley in exhibition shooting, and noticed among them one Charles Lancaster ejector, one Charles Lancaster nonejector, a Cashmore hammerless, a magnificent Smith ejector with a gold figure of herself inlaid, a Parker hammerless, a Scott Monte Carlo, a Scott ejector of highest quality, and an exquisite little Francotte ejector with Whitworth barrels. The value of the guns mentioned is $2,500.

The rifles shown were Lancaster oval-bore .360 double-barrel, Holland hammerless .32-caliber double-barrel, a magnificent Marlin repeater, and a couple of handsome Winchesters.

She also showed me two single-barreled pistols made by the celebrated maker, Gastinne Renette of Paris. These pistols have 14-inch barrels, and are made expressly for pigeon shooting.

With them, Miss Oakley has scored nine out of ten pigeons from two traps, using one-half ounce of shot. She shoots binocularly.

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Her shotguns weigh about six pounds each, the right barrels being bored modified, and the left full choke. Her load for targets is 2 drams of nitro powder and one ounce of shot.

For live pigeons, she uses three drams of powder, but the shot charge is unchanged; an ounce of shot is used on all occasions and for all kinds of game.

Miss Oakley has demonstrated time and again the wonderful efficacy of the loads she uses. With her, the scoring at no time is the result of a scratch or an accident. The center of the charge strikes the object fired at.

Many remarkable shots

That her position is correct is shown by the remarkable scores she has made.

Using one ounce of shot, she was offered a purse of $200 if she could kill forty out of fifty selected birds, Hurlingham rules. This event was shot at Gloucester, N. J., July 30, 1888, and she won by scoring forty-nine out of the fifty.

And again, on October 5th of the same year, at Trenton, N. J., in a match against Miles Johnson, at the State Fair, and in the presence of 31,000 people, she again scored forty-nine out of fifty, defeating Johnson, who killed forty-three, and a purse of $300 was awarded her.

Annie Oakley Cabinet Card 1880s

The challenge and rewards of greatness

Were I to write of her successes in her chosen profession, enumerating the remarkable scores she has made, this article would partake of an advertisement, which Miss Oakley would not approve of, and I am sure I have no intention of intruding. “Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

This is equally applicable to women. Annie Oakley was not born great. The little house which nestled in the forest in Ohio, the place where she was born, where she spent her childhood days, and where the woods and streams were ever beckoning her to visit them, were the inspirations which in later years aided her to achieve greatness, and having achieved that greatness the sequence was natural, for then greatness was thrust upon her.

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She has traveled nearly throughout the world; and this modest and deserving woman, who is loved most by those who know her best, has had greater honors conferred on her than has any other American woman.

Antique Annie Oakley photos

She is not a champion shot as the world recognizes champions. She does not desire that title; she has no ambition to vanquish rivals, and when new stars appear ambitious to excel her she ever has a kindly word for them. Her skill is a gift, enlarged and cultivated by assiduous practice until nearly perfection has been attained.

Her life is a living example of the nobility of pure womanhood, and an example for American women to join their husbands and brothers in pursuit of game and fishes.

I can conceive of nothing more charming than a huntress, skilled as is the sterner sex in the habits and resorts of game, clothed in a pretty suit which would have made their goddess Diana envious, enjoying the delights of nature which can best be found in forest and on stream.

Heads less equally-balanced than that of Annie Oakley would have long since been turned by the unsought honors which she has received, but she is of a retiring nature, and when she modestly complied with my request and showed me the jewels and mementos which princes, potentates, and nobility had presented her with, there was not in her words or actions aught that would lead one to think she felt she was entitled to them, but rather that those who honored her with jewels and curios of rarest worth were unusually kind and generous.

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Annie Oakley, husband Frank Butler and their dog Dave c1920
Older Annie Oakley, husband Frank Butler, and their dog Dave (c1920)
Annie Oakley plays William Tell with her dog: Dave the dog knows she’s a good shot

Article fom the New-York Tribune (New York City) March 04, 1917

Mrs Frank Butler’s thoroughbred English Setter, Dave, doesn’t know that his mistress is Annie Oakley, because she quit giving shooting exhibitions before she got him. He just knows she is a dear little white-haired woman who is the best shot at quail he has ever hunted with.

And to prove that he is the best dog in Pinehurst, and not the least speck gun-shy. He doesn’t care how many times she plays William Tell with him and shoots an apple off his head with a .22 caliber rifle.

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Annie Oakley and her dog - 1917

Annie Oakley and her dog - 1920
Trapshooting is at its best in winter at balmy Pinehurst – Annie Oakley, noted expert, giving an exhibition before a large gallery of winter resort visitors (New York Sun – January 11, 1920)

Mrs Butler would laugh if it were suggested that she might miss the apple, for it is no more difficult to hit it than to hit a pumpkin two feet in diameter at 25 yards, at which distance a good shot can hit a bullseye smaller than an apple every time.

Recently, on her fiftieth birthday, she broke 98 out of 100 clay birds in a regulation trap shoot. The best of the men professionals are glad to do that well, and generally don’t.

Annie Oakley 1922 - With the gun given to her by Buffalo BIll
Annie Oakley 1922 – With the gun given to her by Buffalo Bill

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. I am the last person to get caught up in leftist group-talk, but calling Annie Oakley the best shot of her sex when she was the best shot of both sexes is wrong.

    1. Thanks for commenting, and you are absolutely correct! These articles were written in the 1890s — reprinted here with the text as originally published — and that’s how they called it back then. Your point still stands, though, so I will add an article intro to the post to make that clear.

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