Legend has it that Annie Oakley was such a skilled sharpshooter that she singlehandedly foiled train robberies, shot bears and panthers, and killed a wolf that already had her in its grip—or so claimed one 1887 novel based on her life titled The Rifle Queen.
Oakley’s fame as one of the most skilled gunslingers of her lifetime inspired many tall tales. (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 difficult to separate fact from fiction about Oakley’s life. As the star attraction of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show—a popular 19th-century act known for its romanticized portrayal of frontier life—Oakley showcased her talents on stages across the world for 17 years. She astounded audiences by shooting cigarettes from her husband’s lips, riddling playing cards in mid-air, and—her go-to trick—shooting a target behind her back while spotting it from a mirror.
Oakley’s reputation was largely crafted by her husband Frank Butler and the promoters of the Wild West Show. But some of Oakley’s own accounts of her life, and those of her descendants, still remain. Here’s the true story of the sharpshooter’s life.
For starters, Oakley wasn’t the gunslinger’s real name: Born on August 13, 1860, as Phoebe Ann Moses—which the family sometimes spelled Mozee, Mosey, or Mauzy—she started using the stage name around the time she joined the Wild West Show in 1885.
Instead of the Wild West, Oakley was originally from Darke County, Ohio, and she had a rough start. After her father passed away when she was five years old, Oakley had to help provide for her family. Sue Macy writes in National Geographic’s Bull’s-Eye: A Photobiography of Annie Oakley that Annie helped feed the family by making traps to catch game before taking up her father’s rifle.
Annie would tell the story of her first hunt many times, and even though details like what type of animal she killed changed over the years, she was certain she brought it down with a single shot.
“I don’t know how I acquired the skill,” she once said, according to Macy. “I suppose I was born with it.”
Tragedy struck again when Oakley’s stepfather died in 1870. Struggling to make ends meet, her mother sent some of her children to live with neighbors. A local farmer took Oakley into his home to help care for his children. Despite his promise that she’d have time for school and hunting, however, it quickly turned into indentured servitude.
She managed to escape and ultimately returned home to her mother as a teen. That’s when she started to regularly sell her kills to the local grocer and hotels, earning enough to pay off the mortgage on her mother’s house.
Her mastery of shooting became her career and even led her to meet her husband, fellow sharpshooter Frank E. Butler, in 1875. Oakley was visiting her sister in Cincinnati when she was invited to a shooting match with Butler.
Both Oakley and Butler hit every pigeon released from the trap, until Butler’s final shot fell beyond the boundary line, awarding Oakley the win. Soon after, the two were married and began performing together.
The star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show
In 1885, Oakley and Butler joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which would launch her to international fame. Oakley earned her spot in the company by hitting every clay pigeon Butler had launched in the air during a shooting practice.
Butler and Oakley traveled all over the U.S. with the Wild West Show company. The show, created in 1883 by Buffalo Bill, or William F. Cody, was an outdoor extravaganza of the fictionalized Wild West, including reenactments of cowboys battling Indians, shooting expositions, and skits showing off roping and horse riding. (Cody would later publicly renounce some of the show’s harmful depictions of Native Americans.)
Oakley quickly became the show’s main attraction since many audience members were stunned by the combination of her sharpshooting skills paired with her petite frame. And she gained international renown in 1887 when the company performed at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in London.
Oakley was billed as a headliner of the show, which the Queen and her son, Edward, the Prince of Wales, attended. Tales of Edward inviting the shooter to his box after the show have been corroborated by reports of the encounter, in which the prince described Oakley as a “wonderful little girl.”
Oakley and Butler soon branched out to give private exhibitions to European royalty before rejoining the Western show in 1889. Oakley even shot a cigarette out of German Prince Wilhelm’s hand—although not his mouth as some legends have it.
The couple finally left the Western show when Oakley was injured in a 1901 train accident. However, she continued to appear at exhibitions until she officially retired at 53.
An all-female regiment of the U.S. Army
Beyond her iconic sharpshooting, Oakley was known for her volunteer and philanthropic work. Bessie Edwards, Oakley’s great grand-niece and cofounder of the Annie Oakley Foundation, writes in the foreword of National Geographic’s photobiography that Oakley donated time and money to tuberculosis patients, orphans, and young women seeking higher education.
Oakley was also passionate about teaching women how to shoot for sport and protection, and she’s thought to have taught more than 15,000 women to shoot over the years through free classes.
“I think every woman should learn the use of firearms,” she once wrote, according to Macy. “I would like to see every woman know how to handle [firearms] as naturally as they know how to handle babies.”
In 1898 she sent a letter to President William McKinley before the Spanish American War broke out and volunteered to organize a regiment of 50 American female sharpshooters—even though women were not allowed to serve in the U.S. military at the time. Her offer was denied by the War Department.
When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Oakley again wrote a letter to the Secretary of War, offering to train a women’s division: “I can guarantee a regiment of women for home protection,” she wrote, “every one of whom can and will shoot if necessary.”
The secretary did not take her up on her offer, but Oakley still helped in the war efforts by giving shooting demonstrations at U.S. Army posts. She even trained her dog, Dave, to sniff out cash donations for the Red Cross, which people wrapped in handkerchiefs and hid for the dog to find—earning him the nickname Dave the Red Cross Dog.
Protecting her reputation from tall tales
Oakley worked furiously to build her reputation—and protect it from the gossip and libel that often accompanied her fame.
In 1890, newspapers worldwide reprinted a French report that she had died in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Oakley telegrammed reassurances from England, where she was on vacation and very much alive, and demanded that newspapers retract the report. Evidently, Macy writes, the paper had misspelled the name of the actual deceased, a singer named Annie Oatley.
Then, in 1903, two Chicago newspapers reported that Oakley was locked up in a local jail after pleading guilty to stealing a man’s pants to get money for drugs. The story was picked up nationwide. To set the record straight, Oakley wrote to the newspapers saying she had not been in Chicago for months. Most printed retractions when an investigation revealed that an actress with the stage name Any Oakley was the true culprit—but that wasn’t enough for Oakley.
She filed libel lawsuits against 55 newspapers and spent much of the next seven years testifying in court. According to Macy, she won or settled 54 of the cases and came away with more than a quarter of a million dollars.
Oakley was soon considering other career moves, like starring in movies or writing a memoir, but her health declined rapidly after a car accident in 1922 left her with a permanent leg injury. In 1926, she was diagnosed with a blood disorder and died at 66 years old in Greenville, Ohio. Her husband, who had been visiting North Carolina for the winter, died 18 days later.
In spite of—or perhaps due to—the conflicting accounts of her life, Oakley’s reputation has endured through the years. Her tenacity and determination have become an inspiration for many, with her likeness appearing in TV shows, movies, and musicals.
“Aim for the high mark and you will hit it,” she’s reported to have said. “No, not the first time, not the second time, 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 bulls-eye of success.”