Little Miss Sure Shot was not only a talented athlete but an inspiration and role model for lady guns, as BASC’s Bill Harriman explains
Annie Oakley was a woman ahead of her time. An international superstar and remarkable athlete, Little Miss Sure Shot paved the way for lady guns and still inspires today. BASC’s Bill Harriman pays tribute to a sporting hero.
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Annie Oakley is my hero, her feats of marksmanship legendary. However, she was so much more than just a crack shot. She was an international superstar and a remarkable athlete. Most of all, she was a woman ahead of her time, not only virtuous and deeply feminine but someone who promoted self-determination in others. In short, she was a remarkable person.
Phoebe Ann Mosey was born of Quaker parents on 13 August 1860 in Ohio. Her folks were not well off and both her father and stepfather died when she was still a child. After a spell of domestic drudgery, Oakley ran away back to her family. Her mother had remarried and they were now reasonably comfortable. To help make ends meet, Oakley started to shoot game, which was sold to hotels in Cincinnati. In a 1914 interview, she recalled that: “When I first started shooting in the fields of Ohio my gun was a single-barrelled muzzle-loader and as well as I can remember was 16-bore. I used black powder, 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.”
Oakley’s fame as a hunter attracted the attention of Cincinnati hotelier Jack Frost, who organised a live-pigeon match between Oakley and a young Irish trap shooter named Frank Butler. Oakley won by one bird; Butler fell in love with her and married her in 1876 when she was just 16. Oakley decided she needed a stage name and as she and Frank had met at the shooting grounds in Oakley, she styled herself “Annie Oakley”.
It was at this time that Oakley 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” or “Little Sure Shot”. The name stuck.
The Butlers joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. By now, the Old West was disappearing as railways connected the continent. A newspaper advertisement read: “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 get a taste of frontier life, complete with real Indians, cowboys, Cavalry troopers, rough-riding cowgirls, settlers in log cabins, bison and the famous stagecoach, which was the subject of a running fight with the savages.
The Wild West Show was a resounding success, inspiring Cody to take it to Europe. In 1887, they were summoned to a Royal Command Performance at Windsor. Oakley was presented to HM Queen Victoria, who remarked: “You are a very, very, clever little girl.” Oakley also gave shooting lessons for ladies at Charles Lancaster’s shooting school, conferring respectability on women’s shooting in Britain.
Oakley was an avid game-shot and countrywoman who loved to relax outdoors with rod and gun. During her stay, she was the guest of several sporting estates, including that of Richard Clark near Shrewsbury.
The Wild West Show toured Europe and Oakley once shot a cigarette from the German Kaiser’s lips without even grazing the spike on his Imperial Majesty’s helmet. Returning to the US, the Butlers were now part of an expanded Wild West Show. This was a fantastic extravaganza that dealt in nostalgia as, by this time, nothing remained of the real Wild West.
In 1922, Oakley 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, demonstrating that disabled people are not disadvantaged in shooting sports. She died of pernicious anaemia on 3 November 1926 and her memory is honoured by a marker on Route 27, north of Greenville, Ohio.
In her professional life, Oakley used many guns by American makers, including Winchester, Stevens, Remington, Colt and Marlin. One of her Parker Bros shotguns made $143,000 when it was sold in 2012. A smooth-bored Winchester rifle designed to fire fine birdshot made £84,000 in 1993. She also favoured English guns and had examples from Charles Lancaster, Pryse & Cashmore and WC Scott.
Today, free tickets to events are still known as “Annie Oakleys”, from the small hole punched in them. This is said to remind people of the bullet holes she shot in the original freebies to the Wild West Show.
ANNIE OAKLEY’S TOP TIP: “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.” Sound advice, which I have always found inspirational.