- Historic Sites
They Were All Sure Shots
To a wide-eyed public Buffalo Billpresented a group of matchless marksmen —and one unforgettable girl—whose prowess with a rifle was wonderful to see
April 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 3
The little girl from Ohio who had forced the great Carver to his utmost effort was to become—because of the incongruity of her calling with her size, personality, and beauty—the most spectacular marksman of them all. She was, of course, Annie Oakley, since immortalized in American folklore. She was born Phoebe Anna Oakley Mozee on August 13, 1860, in a crossroads settlement of Darke County, Ohio, fifth of the seven children of a poverty-ridden family. Too young and too tiny for heavy chores, Annie did her bit by bagging squirrels, rabbits, and quail for the larder. By the time she was ten, she had become such a proficient shot that she was killing more game than the family could use and selling the surplus in the market.
At an age when most girls were playing with dolls, Annie’s only toy was a battered old shotgun, and when she found that her skill, which up to then she had taken for granted, caused experienced male hunters to whistle in admiration, she began to indulge in a little trick shooting whenever she realized that she was being watched.
She performed these slums for her own amusement and to bring some slight recognition into an affection-starved life, but it was not long before she discovered that she could turn her skill to profit.
Annie entered all of the local shooting contests, which were a feature of every country fair, supplementing the family food supply with sides of beef and turkeys acquired as prizes. Inevitably, the farmers and backwoodsmen against whom she competed would coax her into shooting at thrown pennies and stones, marveling at her skill and passing a hat to pay her. Before she was twelve, she had become a local legend.
In 1875, Frank E. Butler, a touring exhibition shooter, arrived in Cincinnati with his show and issued his standard challenge to all local marksmen to shoot against him for a cash prize. Fifteen-year-old Annie, who had gone to the city to visit a sister, stepped up to accept the challenge, and when the last glass ball had been shattered, Butler found himself the loser, 25-24. This was the start of the famous courtship upon which Irving Berlin based his rollicking Annie Get Your Gun . Within one year they were married.
Under Butler’s shrewd tutelage, Annie developed a spectacular act which outshadowed even that of her husband. The typical exhibition shooter of the day, like Carver or Butler, was a superb physical specimen of manhood to whom acts of shooting skill seemed natural. Annie, by contrast, was a frail little thing weighing no more than a hundred pounds, round-eyed, darkly beautiful, and looking for all the world like a shy schoolgirl. Yet she handled firearms with the authority and adroitness of an Indian fighter.
After a few years on the road, the Butlers in 1885 were signed as a team with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, and Annie’s fame really soared. She had developed a full repertory of shooting stunts—breaking glass balls from horseback, clipping the ashes from cigars clenched in the teeth of trusting spectators, snapping pennies from between her husband’s fingers, and drawing designs with bullets. One of her stunts involved putting twenty-five rapid-fire shots into the centers of playing cards, which were distributed as souvenirs to spectators. Complimentary tickets to all shows in those days were punched, and from their fancied resemblance to Annie’s targets came to be called “Annie Oakleys.”
Not all of her shooting was of the exhibition type. She accepted all challenges wherever she went, taking on professionals as well as amateurs and beating everyone. Johnny Baker, himself one of the best exhibition shooters, tried to outshoot her for seventeen years in the Wild West Show, but never succeeded.
When Cody took his show to Europe in 1887, Annie soon found herself a world celebrity. The British in particular fell in love with her; Queen Victoria asked that she be presented and, after seeing her in a command performance, awarded her a handsome medal. Annie shot before the Royal Gun Club, where Edward, Prince of Wales, talked the visiting Grand Duke Michael of Russia, an avid shooter, into challenging her. She beat the royal Russian handily, 47 to 36. In Germany she shot a cigarette from the lips of a doting Prince Wilhelm of Hohenzollern. She returned home one of the best-known women in the world, loaded with medals and jewels presented to her by kings, queens, emperors, and dukes.