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Why Annie Oakley Was America's Sharpshooting Sweetheart

Annie Oakley
Annie Oakley was considered the leading lady of the American West. Public Domain/HowStuffWorks

In the Wild West of American lore, cowboys are the undisputed leading men. Women, most often, are to be saved, or wooed, or ignored, or left behind when it's time to hit the trail.

Annie Oakley — who was not really a Western woman and most definitely didn't need to be saved — may be the most glaring exception to that rule. The sharpshooting Oakley, born Annie Moses in 1860, was a 5-foot-nothing, 110-pound dichotomy; a crack shot who played in front of millions of people in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show but who preferred her privacy; a trailblazing woman who nonetheless believed women didn't deserve the right to vote; a person with strict sensibilities who made a fine living by hanging out with the whooping, hollering menagerie of "Buffalo Bill" Cody's famed circus-like show at the turn of the 20th century.

In many people's minds, Oakley is the leading lady of the American West. It's a pretty impressive feat to pull off, considering she was born in Ohio and never traveled much farther west than Cincinnati — until she joined Cody's show in 1885.

"She did not fit the stereotype of a woman that was in a show like the Wild West. She had morals, she had manners, she was somewhat cultured," says Brenda Arnett, a manager at the Garst Museum in Greenville, Ohio, home of the National Annie Oakley Center. "She wasn't like the wild and wooly women that were being portrayed. She was a very prim and proper Victorian lady."

Annie Oakley
Annie Oakley was known to be able to shoot the ashes off a cigarette pursed between her partner Frank Butler's lips or to shoot a ball before it hit the ground.
Public Domain

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Becoming Annie Oakley

Phoebe Ann Moses (some historians say her family name was Mosey) was born into crushing poverty in Darke County, Ohio, roughly 90 miles (145 kilometers) north of Cincinnati. She was taught to use a gun as a youngster when she learned to hunt for food. She eventually got so good with her rifle and shotgun that she sold meat to a local grocer to help her family.

But Oakley's metamorphosis into one of the finest marksmen of her time was not easy. Her father died when she was young. Oakley, the youngest of seven kids, was forced to work at a local "poor house," and later was lent out to a family who used her as unpaid labor. On at least one occasion, the wife of the family beat her and locked her out of the home. She was 10.

Oakley eventually escaped to her home and years later, in 1881, squared off against an Irishman named Frank Butler in a shooting exhibition outside Greenville, Ohio. Author Shirl Kasper, in her 1992 biography "Annie Oakley," dug up a newspaper article quoting Butler on that meeting:

I was a beaten man the moment I appeared for I was taken off guard," he would say. "Never were the birds [clay discs used in shooting shows] so hard for two shooters as they flew from us, but never did a person make more impossible shots than did that little girl. She killed 23 and I killed 21. It was her first big match — my first defeat.

I was a beaten man the moment I appeared for I was taken off guard," he would say. "Never were the birds [clay discs used in shooting shows] so hard for two shooters as they flew from us, but never did a person make more impossible shots than did that little girl. She killed 23 and I killed 21. It was her first big match — my first defeat.

Oakley would later marry Butler in a successful business partnership and marriage that lasted until their deaths some 50 years later. That first meeting sparked the idea behind Irving Berlin's musical, "Annie Get Your Gun."

Annie Oakley
One of Annie Oakley's trademark tricks was using a hand mirror to take aim at something behind her.
ullstein bild Dtl./ullstein bild via Getty Images

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Annie Oakley, Star Shooter

Shortly after Butler and Oakley met, Oakley took over for Butler's sick partner in his shooting act, which traveled the Midwest doing various circuses and variety shows. In 1885, after Cody initially turned her down for Buffalo Bill's Wild West, she talked him into another tryout. Kasper, in her book, describes one of the practices Oakley did before the tryout, designed to test her endurance, in which she tried to break 5,000 glass balls in one day with a shotgun:

She loaded her own guns and stood fifteen yards from the traps. After nine hours, she had broken 4,772 balls. In the second thousand, she hit 984 balls, which she said was a record for the time.

Blasting glass balls thrown into the air, with a shotgun, was a standard part of shooting acts in the Wild West show. (Shotguns were used because their buckshot didn't travel so far to endanger audience members.) But Oakley also had done other acts in which she'd shoot the ashes off a cigarette pursed between Butler's lips, or blast a cork out of a bottle. She'd shoot while leaning backward, and with the shotgun or rifle upside down. She'd jump over tables and grab a gun off the ground, shooting a ball before it hit the ground. She was ambidextrous, too.

One of her most famous tricks was using a hand mirror to take aim at something behind her. Always dressed immaculately in skirt, loose blouse and sombrero, Oakley (with Butler by her side loading her guns and releasing clay pigeons) soon became one of the top acts in the show, which included the dandy Buffalo Bill himself, re-creations of stagecoach robberies and buffalo hunts, and (for a brief time) real Native American chief Sitting Bull.

"In the shows, she was very outgoing, very light-hearted, whereas she was just as comfortable in private life staying home," Arnett says. "Frank loved to write poetry. And they loved art. They liked the finer things in life. She was very private, very quiet, a homebody when she wasn't on stage."

In 1894, Oakley appeared in one of Thomas Edison's first moving pictures, shooting a rifle at targets and small clay pigeons. During her career, she taught thousands of women to shoot, even offering to train women for the U.S. government before the Spanish-American War.

Annie Oakley
Aside from being a star trick shooter in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, Oakley (left) also loved to teach women how to shoot. Here she's teaching Mrs. W. Gould Brokaw (right) to shoot at flying targets.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Oakley and Butler continued to travel the world with Buffalo Bill's Wild West, finally leaving the show shortly after the turn of the century. Oakley continued with shooting exhibitions, off and on, into her 60s. She died in Greenville, Ohio, Nov. 21, 1926. Butler, her husband of 50 years, died just 18 days later. The two are buried together in Greenville.

In 1984, Oakley — who spent much of her adult life in Maryland and New Jersey — was inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas.

Originally Published: Jul 16, 2020

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