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Little Sure Shot: Annie Oakley

Updated on March 16, 2016

Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley circa 1880s
Annie Oakley circa 1880s

Little Sure Shot: Annie Oakley

What’s a girl to do when her father passes away and leaves nothing to help support his wife and children?

Why, she picks up his old rifle and starts shootin’, of course.

Born in Ohio on August 13, 1860, Phoebe Ann Moses was one of seven children born in the town of Cincinnati. Her father, a postman, died from pneumonia when Phoebe was six, and her mother had very little money to support her family. To help feed her siblings, Phoebe took her father’s rifle and taught herself how to shoot. Soon she was bagging wild animals to bring home to her mother, learning how to hit them with one shot through the head so that there would be more usuable meat left on the body. Often skipping school to go hunting, Phoebe soon was hunting game and selling it to local restaurants and hotels, and making a pretty penny for it too.

In 1875, a traveling sharp shooting show stopped in Cincinnati, featuring the talents of trick shot Frank Butler. Frank invited the locals to a friendly shooting contest; if they hit more targets than he did, they would win $100, which was big money in those days. Imagine his amazement when a fifteen year old girl stepped up to challenge him. Being a good natured fellow, Frank welcomed young Phoebe to the contest … and couldn’t believe it when she matched him shot for shot. Phoebe beat Frank by one shot and won the money. Frank was happy to hand it over to such a pretty and talented lady, and he became intrigued by Phoebe and her skill. One year later they were married.

Phoebe joined Frank’s show, becoming their most popular act—so popular in fact, that Frank retired from trick shooting and spent all his time managing and promoting his wife, whom he billed as “Annie Oakley” (“Oakley” likely coming from the name of a town near Cincinnati, where they lived for a time.) Frank was keen on the public’s interest, and he noticed that while the audience loved a lady trick shooter, they were sometimes put off by her frontier manners. Frank spent time refining Annie, helping her to become a little more dainty and lady-like, which won audiences over—they loved seeing such a well-mannered young woman shoot apples off her dog’s head, shoot holes through playing cards thrown in the air, snuff out candles with bullets, shoot backwards with only a mirror to guide her, and hit targets standing, running, or riding a horse at a full-speed gallop (while still riding side-saddle). Frank boasted that Annie could even shoot a target while standing on her head … but she was too polite to do that in public.

Annie Oakley Shooting Over Her Shoulder with a Handmirror

Annie Oakley Shooting Over Her Shoulder with a Handmirror
Annie Oakley Shooting Over Her Shoulder with a Handmirror

Annie’s fame soon won them the attention of Buffalo Bill Cody and he hired them to join his Wild West Show, where again Annie became the star attraction, entertaining and impressing people such as Queen Victoria (who told Annie, "You are a very, very clever little girl,") when the show toured Europe. She became very close with Lakota chief Sitting Bull, who had lost his own daughter who would have been about Annie’s age when they met. Annie was the only one who could bring Sitting Bull out of his frequent deep depressions, and he affectionately nicknamed her, "Watanya Cicilla" or “Little Sure Shot.” When Sitting Bull passed away, Annie was listed in his obituary as, “Sitting Bull’s Adopted Daughter.”

Poster for Buffalo Bill's WIld West Show

Poster for Buffalo Bill's WIld West Show
Poster for Buffalo Bill's WIld West Show

In 1894, Annie starred in a ninety second “movie” filmed by Thomas Edison, shooting glass balls that were thrown into the air. The film was shown in nickelodeons (a kind of film projector) in New York, and crowds gathered by the hundreds to view it.

Annie Oakley Shooting, 1894

Annie was a patriotic American, and when the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Annie wrote to President William McKinley to offer her services as a sniper as well placing, “a Company of fifty Lady sharpshooters at your disposal.” McKinley politely declined.

In 1892 while touring Munich, an infuriated bronco broke loose and charged Prince Luitpold, who thought that it was part of the act. Horrified, Annie raced forward and tackled the prince out of the horse’s way, saving his life. She later joked that she "was the only person alive that ever knocked a ruling sovereign down and got away with it." Shortly afterwards a story appeared in U.S. newspapers that Annie had an audience with the now vilified Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and snuffed out a cigarette he held with her gun, and she allegedly remarked that had she known that he was about to cause the Great War (World War 1), then she would have deliberately shot him in the head instead. The story wasn’t true, but Annie and her husband gleefully pretended it was.

Annie Oakley, 1922

Annie Oakley, 1922
Annie Oakley, 1922

In 1901, Annie was badly injured when the train she was riding in derailed. Her spine damaged, Annie was partially paralyzed for a time and underwent five spinal surgeries before recovering. No longer well enough to travel extensively, Annie retired from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and began starring in a variety of plays that had her playing the part of a big-hearted cowgirl who defeats evil in a courteous way, and at the age of 62 starred in a full length movie. She also taught an estimated 15,000 women how to shoot guns for exercise and defense, saying, "I would like to see every woman know how to handle guns as naturally as they know how to handle babies." Annie single-handedly made it acceptable for women to handle guns.

Though they never had children, Annie and Frank remained happily married for fifty years. On November 3, 1926, Annie Oakley passed away from pneumonia, and a broken hearted Frank Butler died eighteen days later. When Annie’s biography was being prepared, it was discovered that she had spent her entire fortune on her family and on charities.

Annie Oakley works cited:

America’s Women,

by Gail Collins

The Usborne Book of Famous Women,

by Richard Dungworth & Philippa Gregory

They Went Whistling,

by Barbara Holland

Cool Women,

by Dawn Chipman et al

“Annie Oakley,”

“Annie Oakley,”

“Annie Oakley,”


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    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 

      5 years ago from California Gold Country

      What a unique and special woman she was,especially since she mostly used her talents and fortune for good instead of personal gain.


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