Sharpshooter Annie Oakley Aimed at the High Mark

“Aim at a high mark and you will hit it. No, not the first time, nor the second, and maybe not the third. But keep on aiming and keep on shooting, for only practice will make you perfect. Finally you’ll hit the bull’s eye of success.” These wise words from Annie Oakley are as inspiring as she was herself. Annie Oakley is one of the most remembered female icons from the 19th century. Though she started with humble beginnings, her accomplishments and experiences paint a colorful history.  

Born August 13, 1860 in Darke County, Ohio, Annie got her start in shooting at a very young age. By age eight she began using a cap and ball Kentucky rifle that had belonged to her father. She not only shot game for her family to eat but was proficient enough that she sold surplus game to a local storekeeper.

At age 15, Annie performed in her first professional shooting match with a man named Frank Butler. The match was set up by her brother-in-law with Butler, who was a guest visiting his hotel. They each shot at 50 targets; Butler missed the final target and Annie scored a perfect 50. Roughly a year later in 1876, Annie and Frank were married.

Annie Oakley shooting over her shoulder as she appeared at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Annie Oakley Photo File, UW American Heritage Center.

Annie Oakley’s real name was Phoebe Ann Moses. Her sisters didn’t like the name, so they called her Annie. While visiting her sister and brother-in-law near Cincinnati, she spotted a section of the Ohio River called Hyde Park and Oakley. Susan M. Pajak wrote, “Phoebe Ann, who was called Annie by the family, very much liked the sound of ‘Oakley.’”[1]

When Frank’s show partner fell ill, Annie joined his show and began using the name “Annie Oakley.” She quickly became the star as her shooting ability outshone her husband’s.  As they traveled from town to town performing for local crowds, Frank would also set up matches between Annie and local champions. Annie almost always won, with Frank betting on her success. Soon Annie and Frank started joining wild west shows and circuses to display their talents. Although they had their start in small shows, they eventually joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in March 1884, where Annie soon became a celebrity.

E.B. Mann, in his article “Shooting’s Skirted Starlet” wrote, “When she became the protégé of Buffalo Bill Cody and Sitting Bull, when she shot before the crowned heads of Europe, when she was internationally famous and her name a byword in the language, these local triumphs would seem picayune and hardly more than amusing.”[2]

As her career progressed, her skills became world-renowned and she became known as “Little Miss Sure Shot.” Annie performed not only throughout the United States, but also toured in several European countries displaying her marksmanship for royalty such as Queen Victoria of England, the Sultan of Turkey, and the Grand Duke Michael of Russia to name a few.  

Annie Oakley shown on a tour through Italy. Annie Oakley Photo File, UW American Heritage Center.
Annie Oakley’s dressing room trunk she used on tour for seventeen years. Annie Oakley Photo File, UW American Heritage Center.

Even after two separate injuries that would have been crippling for most, Annie continued to beat the odds, shooting and performing well into her fifties. From 1915 to 1922, Annie managed the Pinehurst Gun Club in Pinehurst, North Carolina, and taught people of all ages how to shoot.

Photo taken in Annie’s later years when she taught shooting to children and adults as an employee of resort hotels in Pinehurst, N.C. Annie Oakley Photo File, UW American Heritage Center.

As a noted female icon, Annie was portrayed in multiple movies, television series, novels, and even a Broadway musical commemorating her life and career success.

One famous actress who played Annie Oakley was Barbara Stanwyck in the 1935 film Annie Oakley. The movie is based on the events of Annie’s life, although it takes liberties with details, especially with regard to Annie’s love-life.  

Cropped screenshot of Barbara Stanwyck from the trailer for the film Annie Oakley. Public domain image.

Annie Oakley is one of the most well-known women in American history, widely remembered for excelling in a male-dominated sport. A pioneer in her field, she was made famous by her own skills and determination to succeed. It can certainly be said that Annie Oakley aimed at a high mark and hit it.

[1] Susan M. Pajak, “Remembering One of America’s Heroines – Annie Oakley,” Pennsylvania Magazine (1996): 49.

[2] E.B. Mann, “Shooting’s Skirted Starlet,” GUNS Magazine (1966): 8.

– Post contributed by AHC Archives Aide Sarah Kesterson.


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