Women’s History Month 2023

The Life And Times Of Annie Oakley

We can’t think about celebrating International Women’s Month without including Annie Oakley, the original trailblazer for women in shooting sports. She is an iconic role model, best remembered as the legendary frontwoman for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and an advocate for women to learn a sport that was primarily dominated by men.

Born Phoebe Ann Moses in rural Ohio in 1860, Oakley lived in poverty the first part of her life. After the illness and subsequent death of her father, at age 8 Annie took his rifle from the mantle and went hunting. On her first shot she hit a squirrel in the head. Though the kickback of the gun – which she said she had filled with an amount of gunpowder large enough “to kill a buffalo” – gave her a black eye and broke her nose. Oakley didn’t mind the injuries because her family was able to eat that evening. Over the years she would sell her bounty to local shopkeepers and hotel restaurants. There was never any worry about bird-shot because Annie always hit her prey in the head. 

At the age of 15 Annie, while attending a shooting gallery, her skills were noticed by a gentleman who asked her if she would like to make some money using a gun. He arranged for a shooting match between Oakley and Frank Butler, a traveling marksman who would later become her husband. She and Butler shot clay pigeons with Oakley hitting all 25 while Butler hit 24. She won the $100 purse along with Butler’s heart.

Oakley took the stage name of Annie Oakley and performed throughout the midwest with her husband as her manager. With Oakley being billed as a world champion markswoman, they approached William “Buffalo Bill” Cody to be part of his Wild West Show. After being given a three-day trial, an astounded Cody invited her to join the show full-time. 

At 5’ nothing and 110 pounds, Annie Oakley wowed the crowds with her showmanship and skill as a marksman. In his autobiographical book, This Way to the Big Show, Dexter Fellows, wrote that Annie ‘was a consummate actress, with a personality that made itself felt as soon as she entered the arena.’ During her entrance, Annie waved and blew kisses to the audience. She was an ambidextrous shot who fired rapidly and with unerring accuracy. On the rare occasions when she missed a shot, she immediately fired again. On occasion, she intentionally missed and then pretended to become petulant, stamping her feet in frustration and sometimes throwing her hat down and walking around it to change her luck. Then when she did hit the mark, the audience would roar louder than ever. She practiced constantly and did not rely on trickery; she was no sham shooting star.

When asked if women could shoot as well as men, she answered, “Sex makes no difference…it is largely a matter of determination and practice that make good marksmen and women. Individual for individual, women can shoot as well as men.” Annie’s personal mission was to teach women and girls how to shoot and, in the process, she taught thousands. She said, “I would like to see every woman know how to handle guns, as naturally as they know how to handle babies.”

Believing that women needed to learn to be proficient with firearms to defend themselves and even help fight for their country, Oakley even promoted the service of women in combat operations. On April 5, 1898 she wrote a letter to President William McKinley “offering the government the services of a company of 50 ‘lady sharpshooters’ who would provide their own arms and ammunition should the U.S. go to war with Spain.” The U.S. did go to war but Oakley’s offer was not accepted.

Annie Oakley made a place for herself and thousands of other women in the masculine world of shooting. Of her life’s passion she said, “…if there is any sport or recreation more conducive to good health and long life than shooting, I do not know what it is. Why spend the afternoon at the bridge table, sipping tea, when there always is a gun club near where you may shoot at the targets? I know from experience that the woman will be welcome guest.” 

“Aim for the high mark and you will hit it. No, not the first time, not the second time and maybe not the third. But keep on aiming and keep on shooting for only practice will make you perfect. Finally you’ll hit the bull’s-eye of success.”

~Annie Oakley 1860-1926

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