Interesting Facts

The true story of Annie Oakley, legendary sharpshooter

Anne Oakley was such a good shooter that she could split a playing card help edge-on, hit dimes thrown into the air, shoot cigarette from her husband's lips, and pierce a playing card thrown into the air before it hit the ground.

According to one 1887 book based on her life called The Rifle Queen, Annie Oakley was such a brilliant sharpshooter that she single-handedly thwarted train thefts, shot bears and panthers, and killed a wolf that already had her in its clutches.

Many untrue stories were sparked by Oakley’s reputation as one of the most accomplished gunslingers of her day. (The wolf story, for example, never happened.) Some of these myths live on today thanks to the 1946 Broadway musical “Annie Get Your Gun,” whose final scene depicts Oakley losing a match intentionally to protect her future husband’s ego—when in reality she won his heart by beating him in a shoot-out.

It’s challenging to distinguish fact from fiction in regards to Oakley’s life. Oakley spent 17 years showcasing her abilities on stages all around the world as the centerpiece of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, a famed 19th-century act renowned for its romanticized portrayal of frontier life. She amazed audiences by ribbing playing cards in midair, shooting cigarettes from her husband’s lips, and—her signature trick—shooting a target behind her back while spotting it in a mirror.

The Wild West Show producers and her husband Frank Butler played a significant role in shaping Oakley’s reputation. However, some of Oakley’s own accounts as well as those of her ancestors still exist. The life of the sniper is told in this genuine account.

Early life

To begin with, Phoebe Ann Moses, who the family occasionally spelt Mozee, Mosey, or Mauzy, was the gunslinger’s actual name. She began using the stage name around the time she joined the Wild West Show in 1885.

Oakley was originally from Darke County, Ohio, not the Wild West, and she had a difficult beginning. Oakley had to work to support her family after her father passed away when she was five years old. In Bull’s-Eye: A Photobiography of Annie Oakley, published by National Geographic, Sue Macy notes that before picking up her father’s gun, Annie helped provide for the family by building traps to catch game.

The true story of Annie Oakley legendary sharpshooter 1
Oakley shoots a rifle over her shoulder using a hand mirror in a photo taken circa 1885. The trick was one of her favorites and it frequently impressed crowds. She was skilled with rifles from a young age after she first picked one up to hunt food for her family. PHOTOGRAPH VIA BETTMANN/GETTY

Even though details like the species of animal Annie killed have changed over time, Annie would frequently recount the tale of her first hunt. She was confident that she only needed to fire one shot to bring it down.

She once said, “I don’t know how I learned the skill,” according to Macy. I guess I was just born with it.

Once more tragedy occurred in 1870 with the passing of Oakley’s stepfather. Her mother struggled to support her family and sent several of her kids to live with neighbors. Oakley was taken in by a local farmer to assist care for his kids. He said she’d have time for hunting and study, but it gradually devolved into indentured slavery.

She eventually came home to her mother as an adolescent after succeeding in escaping. At that point, she began selling her kills on a regular basis to a nearby grocer and motels, making enough money to settle the mortgage on her mother’s home.

Her skill with a gun turned into a career, and in 1875 it even brought her together with fellow marksman Frank E. Butler. When Butler invited Oakley to a shooting competition, she was in Cincinnati visiting her sister at the time.

Butler’s final shot went over the line, giving Oakley the victory, but both Oakley and Butler struck every bird released from the trap. The two got hitched shortly after and started touring as a duo.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show’s leading lady

Oakley and Butler joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1885, catapulting her to celebrity all over the world. At a shooting exercise, Butler launched clay pigeons into the air, and Oakley successfully hit every one of them.

Butler and Oakley travelled the country extensively with the Wild West Show organization. Buffalo Bill, or William F. Cody, produced the outdoor spectacular of the imaginary Wild West in 1883. It featured cowboys facing off against Indians in reenactments, shooting displays, and performances showcasing roping and horseback riding. (Cody would subsequently publicly denounce some of the negatively portraying Native Americans in the show.)

Oakley rapidly established herself as the show’s star after many spectators were astounded by the mix of her accurate shooting abilities and her small stature. She also attained fame abroad in 1887 when the troupe gave a performance at London’s Golden Jubilee for Queen Victoria.

The Queen and her son Edward, the Prince of Wales, attended the performance, which had Oakley as its featured performer. Reports of the meeting, in which the prince referred to Oakley as a “wonderful little girl,” support stories that Edward invited the shooter to his box after the performance.

Before returning to the Western show in 1889, Oakley and Butler soon ventured out to do private exhibitions for European nobility. In fact, despite some rumors to the contrary, Oakley shot a cigarette out of German Prince Wilhelm’s palm, not his mouth.

When Oakley was hurt in a railroad accident in 1901, the couple eventually abandoned the Western performance. Nevertheless, she kept making appearances at exhibitions up to her official retirement at age 53.

An all-female regiment of the U.S. Army

In addition to her legendary accuracy, Oakley was well known for her charitable and voluntary efforts. In the prologue of National Geographic’s photobiography, Bessie Edwards, Oakley’s great-grandniece and cofounder of the Annie Oakley Foundation, notes that Oakley gave time and money to tuberculosis patients, orphans, and young women pursuing higher education.

More than 15,000 women are believed to have been taught to shoot over the years through free workshops thanks to Oakley’s zeal for teaching them the sport and self-defense shooting techniques.

The true story of Annie Oakley legendary sharpshooter 2
Oakley teaches women how to shoot circa 1918. She spent two hours each morning teaching free classes when she lived in Pinehurst, North Carolina, in the early 1910s. PHOTOGRAPH VIA BETTMANN/GETTY

She reportedly previously wrote, “I think every woman should learn the use of firearms,” according to Macy. “I want every woman to be able to handle [firearms] as naturally as they handle children,” she said.

Prior to the start of the Spanish American War in 1898, she wrote to President William McKinley and offered to assemble a regiment of 50 American women sharpshooters, despite the fact that at the time, women were not permitted to join the armed forces of the United States. The War Department rejected her proposition.

In a letter to the Secretary of War in 1917, Oakley once more offered to train a women’s division as the United States entered World War I. “I can guarantee a regiment of women for home protection,” she said, “every one of whom can and will shoot if necessary.”

Although the secretary declined her offer, Oakley nevertheless contributed to the war effort by providing shooting demonstrations at U.S. Army postings. She even taught her dog, Dave, to find financial gifts for the Red Cross that were hidden and wrapped in handkerchiefs for the dog to find. As a result, Dave became known as Dave the Red Cross Dog.


Soon after suffering a permanent leg injury in an automobile accident in 1922, Oakley was exploring changing directions in her career, such as becoming a cinema star or penning a memoir. However, her health quickly deteriorated. She was given a blood condition diagnosis in 1926 and passed away in Greenville, Ohio, at the age of 66. 18 days later, her husband, who had been spending the winter in North Carolina, passed away.

Despite contradictory accounts of her life, or possibly because of them, Oakley’s reputation has held up over time. With her likeness appearing in TV series, films, and musicals, her persistence and determination have inspired many people.

She reportedly responded, “Aim for the high mark and you will hit it.” “No, not the first, second, or perhaps third time. However, keep pointing and shooting because only practice will enable you to become perfect. At long last, you’ll achieve success.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x