Annie Oakley Sharpshooting Sweetheart  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Cowan's Auctions.

When Annie Oakley first met Buffalo Bill Cody in 1884 the legendary Wild West was all but gone.  Borders between settled and unsettled land were vanishing and the prairie was full of farms.

I would like to see every woman know how to handle [firearms] as naturally as they know how to handle babies.
— Annie Oakley

For people living back east the Wild West remained a storybook adventure tale.  They loved to read novels and see plays about cowboys and Indians.  Buffalo Bill (William Frederick Cody) realized the possibilities and was never one to pass up an opportunity to make money.  The scout-hunter turned actor took to the stage like butter to popcorn.            

Annie Oakley, on the other hand, was America’s sharpshooter sweetheart.  She made it look natural for a lady to be great with a gun.  Annie was one of the best shots in 19th century and was already making her living with her gun. 

“Many shooting acts were stage trickery, with candles snuffed out, matches lit, and apples split by hidden devices rather than carefully aimed bullets…(All) shooting acts walked a line between trickery and authentic skill,” said historian Louis S. Warren.

But Annie was a crack shot and claimed she never cheated. 

Buffalo Bill decided to give Annie a chance to try out for his Wild West Show in the spring of 1885.  He was also wary.  Annie would have to use shotguns weighing 10 pounds in the show and she only weighed 110 pounds.

On a Monday morning Annie showed up for target practice at a baseball field in Louisville, Ky., where the show was appearing.  Annie loaded her gun as clay pigeons were launched skyward from a mechanical launcher. 

She decimated clay pigeon after clay pigeon right out of the air with a heavy shotgun switching from right to left hand with no problem.  She got the job.  It was the beginning of a relationship between Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley that lasted for almost 20 years.

Annie’s favorite gun in 1885 was a Parker Model 1883, G Grade, 16-gauge double barrel hammer shotgun.  Her favorite handgun at the time was a Stevens-Lord No. 36 single shot pistol.

Despite her skill with a gun Annie insisted on maintaining her ladylike image.  She didn’t wear makeup.  She turned away from skimpy outfits and anything that would have allowed her to straddle a horse and make it easier to shoot.  Annie stuck to riding horses sidesaddle and clothes that covered her legs and climbed all the way up to her neck.

The sharpshooter wanted to be judged for her shooting skills not her costumes.

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

Annie didn’t talk politics and she didn’t support the suffragist movement.  When Annie wasn’t performing the sharpshooter was often in her tent knitting.  Even after she became a superstar she made her own dresses.

On June 23, Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati, Ohio, featured a selection of vintage Annie Oakley cabinet card photos in its American History Including the Civil War auction.  In most of Annie’s photos her body turns away from the camera, looking out past it.  She’s loading a gun or reading a book.  This is how she chose to be remembered or perhaps the way the photographer instructed her to pose.

Annie Oakley

Cabinet Card Photograph; by Stacy; Annie showing off her medals; facsimile signature;  $1,116.

Cabinet Card Photograph; by Baker’s Art Gallery; Annie’s half-length portrait; facsimile signature;   $1,880.

Cabinet Card Photograph; by Elliott & Fry; Annie showing off her guns;  $3,055.

Cabinet Card Photograph; by Sims; previously unknown studio portrait of Annie firing her Stevens pistol;  $8,813.      

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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