In the heart of the Wild West, where echoes of gunshots filled the air, there lived a remarkable woman whose skill with a firearm made her a legend of the frontier. This is the story of Phoebe Ann Mosey, better known as “Little Sure Shot,” Annie Oakley, the sharpshooting star who defied societal norms and became an icon of the American West despite being a female.
Photo: The Bettmann Archive
Annie was born on August 13, 1860, in rural Darke County, Ohio, and her childhood was anything but idyllic, marked by poverty and hardship. Her father died of pneumonia when she was only five years old. Because her mother couldn’t afford to feed her, she sent Annie to work for a family she later described as, “the wolves,” who ferociously abused her and worked her to the bone. Annie eventually escaped and worked as a seamstress in a poor house. It was because of these tough times that she discovered her extraordinary talent for shooting.
When Annie returned home, she taught herself how to shoot instead of going to school. She single-handedly averted family poverty by hunting game for the local market, hotels, and restaurants using her father’s old Kentucky rifle. Her adventures in market hunting earned enough money to pay off her mother’s mortgage for their home when she was only 15-years-old.
It wasn’t long before her uncanny accuracy caught the attention of traveling showman Frank Butler. The chance encounter would change Annie’s life forever. Butler, a renowned marksman of the time, was captivated by the young girl’s skills. In a twist of fate, Annie competed against him in a shooting match while he was on his sharpshooting tour, and to everyone’s surprise, she won. The defeated Butler was smitten, both by her prowess and her charm. Though Butler was ten years her senior, the encounter sparked a lifelong romance and a partnership that would take the nation by storm. Touring together, they became the Wild West’s power couple.
In 1885, Annie Oakley joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where she became the star attraction, and her husband took a step back to manage her career. Her daring feats, shooting cigarettes out of her husband’s mouth and splitting a playing card in half with one bullet, mesmerized audiences across the nation. Both Oakley and Buffalo Bill preferred to use smooth-bore rifles and 44 caliber ammunition cartridges for the show. She was also particular about the style of gun she used, opting for plain guns with open sights made by Winchester, Remington, or Parker Brothers. But don’t let her basic taste in firearms fool you. She also firmly believed that no one should waste their time with cheap guns.
Photo: Bettmann / Corbis
Annie Oakley rose to fame when women were expected to conform to traditional roles but defied these expectations with every shot. Her legacy as a trailblazer for female empowerment and an expert marksman continues to inspire generations. In 1993, she was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, memorializing a humble and compassionate soul who used her wealth to support women’s charities. Hollywood also took note and produced “Annie Get Your Gun,” a 1950s comedy loosely based on Annie’s life.
Annie Oakley in front of her tent in Europe. c1889. Library of Congress
In her later years, Annie faced personal tragedies, including a train accident that left her spine damaged and a car accident that shattered her ankles and fractured her hip. Yet, she remained resilient, overcoming adversity with the same determination that characterized her life. She dedicated her final season of life to teaching women how to shoot and was one of the biggest advocates of women using firearms for self-defense and concealed carry. No longer impressed with material possessions, Annie melted down all her competition metals and gave the profits to charity.
Annie Oakley’s impact on the American frontier and the world is immeasurable. Her legacy lives on in the history books and the hearts of those who admire her courage, skill, and unwavering spirit. The sharpshooting star of the Wild West, Annie Oakley, will forever be remembered as a pioneer who aimed high and hit the mark, both in the dusty arenas of Buffalo Bill’s show and in the archives of history.
Annie passed away from pernicious anemia in 1926.
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