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Annie Oakley: the greatest Shot of all time?

Annie Oakley was a legendary Shot, unparalleled performer in the ring and a darling of high society. Bill Harriman recounts the fascinating and eventful life of his all-time heroine

Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley with a gun Buffalo Bill gave her

If you asked me to say who I thought was the greatest Shot of all time, I would have no hesitation in saying Annie Oakley. Her skill and feats of accuracy have become legendary. However, she was much more than a mere exhibition shooter — she was an international superstar who was presented to the crowned heads of Europe. She was also a remarkable athlete whose high level of fitness undoubtedly contributed to the remarkable shots that she was able to make. Most of all, she was a woman ahead of her time who, as well as being virtuous and deeply feminine, also promoted self-determination to other women. In short, she was a remarkable person.

Formative years

Annie was born on 13 August 1860 in Darke County, Ohio. Her parents were Quakers and, as tenant farmers, were not well off. Both her father and stepfather died when she was still a child. Aged only 12, Annie was sent by her mother to work in the Darke County Infirmary, where she learned many domestic skills including sewing which was to stand her in good stead in her adult life. Conditions at the in rmary were dreadful and had a profound effect on Annie. The infirmary was described in a Darke County history by George W. Wolfe as: “Many persons incapable of attending to their own wants were housed in the infirmary and a shortage of rooms compelled the children to associate with those unfortunates, whose habits of life and language were not intended to exert that influence for good that should always attend the child.”

Having witnessed so much deprivation and inhumanity, Annie was always compassionate, especially to children. After a short and unhappy spell as a mother’s help, Annie ran away and rejoined her family. Her mother had remarried and they were reasonably comfortable. To help make a little money Annie started to shoot game which was sold in hotels in Cincinnati.

In a 1914 interview, she recalled: “When I first started shooting in the fields of Ohio, my gun was a single-barrelled muzzleloader and, as well as I can remember, was 16-bore. I used blackpowder, cut my own wads out of cardboard boxes, and thought I had the best gun on earth. Anyway, I managed to kill many ruffed grouse, quail and rabbits, all of which were quite plentiful in those days.”

Annie’s fame as a hunter attracted the attention of a Cincinnati hotelier called Jack Frost, who organised a live pigeon match between Annie and a young Irish trap shooter called Frank Butler. Annie won by one bird. Frank fell in love with her and married her in 1876 when she was just 16. They were to have 50 years of happiness together. Annie decided she needed a stage name and as she and Frank had met at the shooting grounds in Oakley, she became known as Annie Oakley.

In the ring

Annie and Frank gave exhibition matches together but it was soon clear that she was by far the better shot. Shrewdly giving way to his wife’s superior talent, Frank let her do the shooting and took up a supporting role by managing her. Annie first appeared in the Sells Brothers’ circus in 1883, initially as an equestrienne but later as an exhibition shooter. As well as shotguns, Annie could shoot a rifle facing behind her with the aid of a mirror, put a hole in a thrown playing card before it hit the floor and shoot another card in half through its edge with a revolver.

It was at this time that Annie first met the great Sioux chief, Sitting Bull. He was staggered by her abilities and believed that so sure an aim must have been supernaturally blessed. He christened her Watanya Cicilia, which meant “Little Sure Shot”: the name stuck.

Conditions were not good at the circus and Annie led a strike over dangerous equipment and poor living conditions. In 1884, she and Frank visited the opposition, William F. Cody’s (also known as Buffalo Bill) Wild West Show and were impressed with the acts and the care given to both performers and livestock. History does not tell us how the Butlers became involved with the Wild West Show, but by 1885 they had replaced the legendary Captain Bogardus and family as exhibition shooters. Cody conceived the show in 1882 along with his partner, the impresario Nate Salsbury. America was becoming civilised and the Old West was rapidly dwindling as railways connected the continent. A newspaper advertisement summed up the show: “A visit West in three hours to see scenes that have cost thousands their lives to view.”

Here was a chance for city dwellers to have a flavour of what frontier life was all about, complete with real Indians, cowboys, cavalry troopers, rough-riding cowgirls, settlers in log cabins, bison and, of course, the famous stagecoach that was the subject of an exciting running fight with the “savages”. Annie would skip into the ring, tripping, bowing and blowing kisses to the audience. Frank threw targets, launched glass balls and generally ran the act’s props. Annie would deliberately miss the first few targets and stamp her feet in frustration before shooting the remainder in straight shots.

The audiences were entranced by her sweetness and gentle nature. Her sewing skills meant she could make all her own costumes, which were always modest and practical. For all that, she loved fashionable clothes and there is a picture of her taken outside her tent in 1889 showing her wearing an haute couture Parisian gown. She renewed her acquaintance with Sitting Bull when the great chief joined the line-up.

The Wild West Show was a resounding success in America, inspiring Cody and Salsbury to take it to Europe, where Annie once shot a cigarette from the German Kaiser’s lips without so much as grazing the spike on his helmet. In 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, the show was summoned to a Royal Command Performance at Windsor. Annie was presented to Queen Victoria who remarked: “You are a very, very clever little girl.”

She was also presented to Edward, Prince of Wales, whom she knew to be a philanderer. Instead of shaking his hand first as protocol demanded, she took that of his wife, Princess Alexandra. Edward knew he had been bested by Annie and rather admired her for it, never bearing a grudge.

Shooting lessons for ladies

Annie also gave shooting lessons for ladies at Charles Lancaster’s shooting school. The Russian Grand Duke Michael, youngest son of Emperor Alexander III, asked if he could shoot a match against Annie. She agreed and promptly gave him a good thrashing. Public opinion was secretly pleased with this humiliation, as he was rather arrogant and not well liked.

Not all of Annie’s time in England was spent performing. She was an avid game Shot and countrywoman who loved nothing more than to relax outdoors with rod and gun, and was the guest of several sporting estates. Frank capitalised further on his wife’s success by becoming a representative for the United Metallic Cartridge Company and Remington guns.

Returning to the US, the Butlers were now part of an expanded Wild West Show, which had all the old favourites reinforced by real gauchos, a mounted cowboy band and cavalry soldiers from many nations. It was a fantastic extravaganza that dealt in nostalgia because by this time, nothing remained of the real wild west.

In 1901, the Wild West Train was involved in a collision with another train and Annie was badly injured when she was thrown out of bed against a trunk. She was hospitalised for several months and it was thought unlikely that she would ever perform again. The Butlers left the show and went into match shooting, and took part in a play called The Western Girl. Two years later, the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst published an article in the Chicago Examiner that claimed Annie had stolen a pair of trousers to buy drugs and had been jailed. Annie sued Hearst and 46 other newspapers that had syndicated the story. When the case came to court in 1906, she was awarded $27,500 in damages, which earned Hearst the nickname of “Gloomy Bill”. She was also successful in her actions against the other journals.

In 1911, the Butlers joined the Young Buffalo West Show, similar to the original but smaller. Annie and Frank then joined the staff of the Carolina Hotel in Pinehurst, North Carolina. He ran the skeet range, while she gave lessons and exhibitions. During World War I, the Butlers entertained the troops and raised money for the Red Cross. They were assisted by Dave, the Red Cross dog, who allowed an apple to be shot off his head by Annie. When Cody died in 1917, Annie remembered their partnership with a great depth of feeling. “He was the kindest, simplest, most loyal man I ever knew. He was the staunchest friend… He called me ‘Missie’, a name I have been known by my intimate friends ever since… He had hundred of imitators but was quite inimitable.”

In 1922, Annie was injured in a car accident and had to wear a leg brace for the rest of her life. That did not stop her shooting and she still gave exhibitions. There is no better example of the fact that disabled people are not at any disadvantage in shooting sports than this. Annie died of pernicious anaemia on 3 November 1926 aged 66 and Frank followed her some three weeks later. Her memory is honoured by a marker on Route 27, north of Greenville, Ohio.

A little lady with a big presence

During her professional life, Annie used many guns by Winchester, Stevens, Remington, Colt and Marlin. One of her Parker Bros shotguns made $143,000 when it was sold in 2012. A smoothbored  Winchester rifle designed to fire shot fetched £84,000 in 1993. She also favoured English guns and had examples from Charles Lancaster, Pryse and Cashmore and W. C. Scott.

Free tickets to any performance are known as “Annie Oakleys” from the small hole punched in them that is said to remind people of the bullet holes she shot in the original free tickets to the Wild West Show. In 1950, the musical Annie Get Your Gun portrayed her life. Her family were appalled as the title role was played by big, brassy Ethel Merman, who bore no resemblance whatsoever to the demure Annie.

She has long been my heroine and I have always tried to live by her advice: “Aim at a high mark and you’ll hit it. No, not the first time, nor the second time. Maybe not the third. But keep on aiming and keep on shooting, for only practice will make you perfect.”