The Marvelous Mrs. Oakley

The Wild West

The late 1800s were remarkable for many things in the United States, but one of those things was the advent of the traveling Wild West shows.  One of the greater of those shows was run by one William Cody, known otherwise as Buffalo Bill.  Cody’s show, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, presented many entertainments, but chief among them were the trick-shot exhibitions, which did much to get small-town and city kids interested in shooting.

Chief among these trick-shot artists from 1885 on was a little slip of a girl, who none other than Sitting Bull gave the name Watanya Cicilla (Little Sure Shot).  Her name was Phoebe Ann (Annie) Butler nee Mosley, but on stage, she went by Annie Oakley, and her career in the shooting arts was nothing short of remarkable.

The Woman

Phoebe Ann Mosley (sometimes presented as Mosey, sometimes as Moses) was born in western Ohio on August 13, 1860, to an impoverished farm family.  She was the sixth of nine children born to her parents, Susan and Jacob Mosley.  When Annie was six years old her father died of pneumonia.  Susan Mosley remarried not long after Jacob’s death (the exact date is unclear) but her second husband, one Dan Brumbaugh, died shortly after that, leaving the family with nothing except another baby.

When Annie was about eight, she was sent to the Darke County Infirmary, where in exchange for a basic education, she helped take care of the orphaned and mentally ill children housed there.  The experience was evidently an unpleasant one, for in later years Annie referred to the couple who ran the Infirmary as “the wolves” and never revealed their real names.  When she returned home at age fourteen, her mother had remarried to a Joseph Shaw, but the family’s circumstances were still spare and then some.

Young Annie

The family needed income, and to help with that, young Annie turned to the only thing her late father had left her – an old muzzle-loading “Kentucky” rifle.  The Katzenberger brothers, who were grocers in nearby Greenville, Ohio, were engaged in the business of buying game from the locals for sale to hotels and restaurants in Cincinnati.  Annie took to this with a will, quickly developing into a crack shot.  Her hunting skill and marksmanship was good enough that, but the time she was fifteen, she had paid off the $200 mortgage on her family’s farm.

Word of her shooting skill eventually spread to the ears of Jack Frost, a Cincinnati hotelier who had bought a fair amount of the game Annie had brought to bag.  He invited Annie to participate in a shooting contest with a traveling trick-shooter named Frank E. Butler, and that invitation would change the course of young Annie’s life forever.

The Beginning

Butler, an Irish immigrant and experienced marksman, was a bit nonplussed when Frost presented his challenger, a teenaged girl with long curly hair.  After Butler made a side bet of a hundred dollars with Frost – a substantial sum in those days – the contest was arranged, twenty-five shots at twenty-five targets.

While many of the details of that contest, such as range, target size and so on, are not recorded, the outcome was.  Butler hit twenty-four of his twenty-five targets, while Annie turned in a perfect score of twenty-five.

This performance entranced Butler, and it seems Butler had something of a similar effect on young Annie, for the two began a romance that culminated in their marriage on August 23, 1876.  The two would remain married for the rest of their lives.

Henceforth, when Butler’s traveling marksman show took to the road, Annie accompanied him.

The Show

Frank Butler

Annie went on tour with her husband, but did not appear on stage until May 1st, 1882, when Butler’s partner in the exposition fell ill.  Annie, then twenty-two, took his place, holding targets for her husband to shoot at (!) and doing some shooting of her own.  Audiences loved the petite girl’s shooting skills, and so for the first time, Annie adopted the stage name Annie Oakley and became a primary performer in the show.

In 1884 the Butlers joined the Sells Brothers Circus, but only stayed with that group for a year before moving up to the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1885.  Now Annie Oakley hit the big time, as Bill Cody himself realized the potential in promoting a young woman as one of the show’s best exhibition shooters.

Annie therefore moved up to star billing, and her husband Frank graciously accepted the role of her manager.  The Butlers would remain with the Wild West Show for seventeen years, during which time Annie performed for Queen Victoria, King Umberto I of Italy, President Carnot of France and the German Kaiser Wilhelm II; that last royal deserves special mention, as during a personal performance he invited Annie to shoot the ashes from a cigarette he held in his mouth; Annie met the challenge with aplomb.  It was rumored that, after the outbreak of the Great War, Annie wrote to Kaiser Wilhelm asking for a second shot; the Kaiser wisely declined to reply.

In 1901, following a train accident that left her gravely injured, temporarily paralyzed and in need of multiple spinal operations, Annie was forced to leave the Wild West Show.  When she recovered, she resumed her performances on a smaller scale, including acting in a stage play called The Western Girl.  In her semi-retirement, she began training other women in marksmanship, stating “I would like to see every woman known how to handle guns as naturally as they know how to handle babies.”  It is reported that she tutored over fifteen thousand other women in the shooting arts.

The Guns

Through her career Annie Oakley used a variety of rifles and shotguns.

She was known to favor the Marlin lever-action .22 for much of her trick shooting.  Early in her career she used a Parker 12-gauge hammer double for much of her clay bird and glass-ball shooting, but regularly complained that the Parker was too long and heavy for her 5’ frame.  While on a tour in Europe she had occasion to meet London gunmaker Thomas Lancaster, who measured her and built another double to her specifications.  After that, Annie insisted on having all her guns altered to match the specifications of the Lancaster double.  The original Parker was given to her brother-in-law.  In 2012, this Parker double sold at auction in Dallas for $143,300.  The same auction also saw a Marlin .22 of Oakley’s sell for $83,650.

One of the most famous guns used by Annie, however, was an 1873 Winchester, custom-made by the Winchester company with a smooth bore.  In exhibitions, Annie used the Winchester to shoot a variety of flying and stationary targets, with custom-loaded shot cartridges firing a half-ounce of #7 birdshot.

Annie with the Parker

In 1910, Annie and her husband signed a contract with the Union Metallic Cartridge company to promote their products, receiving in return an unending supply of ammunition.  This arrangement, as far as I can determine, lasted for the rest of Annie’s life.

Throughout her career Annie Oakley was vociferously against using what she referred to as “cheap” guns, but she owned and used a variety of pieces from many manufacturers, including Parker, Remington, Winchester, Stevens, Marlin and Colt.

Any firearm of any kind found today to have once been owned by Annie Oakley, like the aforementioned Parker and Marlin, are sure to command some fancy prices on auction.

The Legacy

In 1922, Annie began planning a return to the show circuit, but it did not last long.  She attracted large crowds in a few shows and was planning a motion picture about her life, but in late 1922 she and her husband Frank Butler were severely injured in an automobile accident.  She started performing again in 1924, but she never fully recovered her health, and by 1925 she was forced to stop touring.  Annie and Frank moved back to Ohio and attended some shooting matches in that area.

Annie Oakley, or as she preferred to be known in her personal life, Mrs. Frank Butler, died on November 3rs, 1926.  Her husband followed her only three weeks later, on November 21st.  The cause of death for both was listed as natural causes.

Annie Oakley was a true American legend.  Throughout her life she advocated for marksmanship training for women, and personally oversaw the training of thousands of young women in the shooting sports.  During the Spanish-American War and later, the Great War, she advocated for a corps of women sharpshooters to enter the combat zones, which advocacy was ignored both by Presidents Roosevelt and Wilson as well as the War Department, but that disregard did not stop Annie Oakley from her continued advocacy for women learning to shoot, and to shoot well.

That is an example we would do well to remember today.  The marvelous Mrs. Oakley’s impact on the American shooting scene has few equals, male or female.

Annie, as we remember her.