Annie Oakley Resurfaces Again by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Brian Lebel.

Sixty glass balls soared into the air as Annie Oakley raised her shotgun and shattered each one into a dozen pieces. Next she looked into a mirror at a target behind her, placed a shotgun on her shoulder and smashed the small silver disk behind her. 

“I almost dropped dead when a little slim girl in short dresses stepped out to the mark with me.”
— Frank Butler, Sharpshooter

If that wasn’t enough she finished up by shooting the ashes off a cigarette being held in a person’s mouth. Firing right handed, left handed, both hands at the same time, she rarely missed.  

The public had never seen anything like her. Under the guidance of Wild West promoters like Buffalo Bill Annie became a larger-than-life legend, introduced as the foremost female sharpshooter in the world.    

Annie learned to shoot as an eight-year-old to help put food on the table for her struggling family.

“My mother…was perfectly horrified when I began shooting and tried to keep me in school, but I would run away and go quail shooting in the woods or trim my dresses with wreaths of wildflowers,” Annie said. Years later she earned enough money with her gun to pay the $200 mortgage off on her mother’s home. 

Annie was 15 when she met sharpshooter Frank Butler on Thanksgiving Day in 1875. He made his living giving shooting exhibitions and was certain he could outshoot and outsmart the youngster standing in front of him.

“I almost dropped dead when a little slim girl in short dresses stepped out to the mark with me,” Butler said.

He not only lost the $30 prize money that day, he also lost his heart. Their marriage lasted 50 years.

The couple traveled from city to city with their exhibitions as their reputations grew. When Buffalo Bill met Annie for the first time he thought she looked too small to have the kind of strength to be a featured attraction.

He changed his mind when he saw her shoot. For the next 17 years she traveled with the show off-and-on and played to packed stands. Butler realized early on who the “star” of their team was and became Annie’s manager.

“She outclassed me,” he said. 

Annie was skilled with pistols and rifles but for safety reasons used shotguns in her Wild West shows. The small pellets making up shotgun cartridges traveled about 60 yards, rifle bullets traveled as far as 1,000 yards. When she did use a rifle shopkeepers complained of broken windows eight blocks away.

As the 19th century ended Annie performed in as many as 130 towns or more in one season and decided to retire from the Wild West circuit. She and Butler continued to give shooting lessons and perform exhibitions.  

Annie was a big believer in women learning to use a gun. 

“I would like to see every woman know how to handle (firearms) as naturally as they know how to handle babies,” she said.

She spent two hours every morning giving free shooting lessons to women and estimated she taught 15,000 women to shoot.

On June 11-12, Brian Lebel featured his Old West auction. In the sale were two important Annie Oakley items. 

Annie Oakley

Classic Travel Trunk; from Annie’s personal collection; descended through family; stenciled on top, “Annie Oakley/Hotel”; $19,550.

Personal Shotgun; 20 Gauge Parker Brothers Shotgun; manufactured by Parker to Annie’s specifications; $195,500.

Other Cowgirl Items:

Cowgirl Outfit; vintage; including two-tone vest and skirt with studded accents; with green cowgirl shirt; $590.

Riding Skirts; vintage; double rows of fringe; leather; $2,360.

Photo; Calamity Jane; vintage; boudoir size image; $7,080.


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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