Scientific Buffalo Hunter
February 07, 2018
The article re-published below, "Scientific Buffalo Hunter," published in Guns & Ammo's second issue described the exploits of Civil War-veteran Frank Mayer. Mayer used a .45-120-550 Sharps fitted with a German-made 10X scope to allegedly kill thousands of bison until he re-enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1875. He retired 35 years later as a colonel, then served as a law officer in Colorado. He continued hunting until he turned 100 in 1950.
*Originally published in Guns & Ammo, Fall 1958 Volume 1, issue #2.
Scientific Buffalo Hunter
By Norman B. Wiltsey
A weird assortment of gun-toters were busy hunting buffalo in Texas when 22-year old Frank Mayer arrived there in the spring of 1872 to try his hand at making a fortune in "buffalo dollars." Young Mayer became an object of curiosity immediately upon his arrival, for he carried with him a fine 10-power, German-made telescope sight; an unheard-of accessory on the buffalo plains.
Mayer found the world's greatest slaughter of wildlife literally booming around him; the thunder of gunfire resounding daily from sunrise to sunset on the rolling Texas plains. Veterans of both the
Union and Confederate armies were banging away with old army muskets; Eastern "sportsmen" were shooting the big buffs with light sporting rifles and shotguns loaded with slugs; some few hunters, endowed with more guts than brains, were using Colt and Remington six-guns at ranges of six to ten yards. As an inevitable result of this clumsy barrage, far more buffaloes were being wounded than killed outright - a fact that disgusted and angered the true professional hunters, who went about the grim job of slaughtering the great herds of bison in sober, business-like fashion.
Methodically, the youthful Mayer began assembling his outfit in Texas. He had made a stake working and adventuring in Mexico; he spent it freely but shrewdly now to acquire his hunting equipment.
Reasoning logically that guns are of primary importance to a professional hunter, Frank bought the best rifles obtainable. His precious scope sight he had fitted to a .45-120-550 Sharps, weighing 16 pounds and sighted in to hit the bullseye at 200 yards. For alternate rifles - an absolute necessity in those days of black powder ammunition and excessive fouling of barrels - he selected a .40-70 and a .40-90 Sharps. Wisely, he spent $225 for a complete reloading outfit. Thousands of hides were lost when hunters ran out of cartridges in the field. Frank didn't intend to lose a single skin playing the fool that way.
Next in importance to proper shooting irons was the choice of an experienced partner. Here Mayer was lucky - teaming up with Bob McCrea, who had already put in three profitable years of hide hunting. The lean, rawhide-tough McCrea was a "savvy hombre" in the parlance of the oldtimers. He was an invaluable aid to Mayer in putting an outfit together; buying horses, wagons, tents and supplies, and hiring a cook and skinners.
Mayer's top gun, the powerful scope-sighted .45-120, saved the lives of the whole outfit on their first hunt. The Kiowas and Comanches were waspmean that hectic spring of 1872, knowing that their very existence was threatened by the hordes of hide hunters encroaching on their hunting grounds. A number of whites were killed and their wagons burned before most of the hide men decided to try their luck in Kansas, beyond "bad Injun" country. McCrea and Mayer talked the situation over and decided to work the North Texas plains in spite of the hostile redmen.
Six days out from base camp, a band of Comanches made a pass at them. "The lookout warned us in plenty of time," recalled Frank. "Nobody got rattled - not even the . . . cook. Cookie picked up a shotgun mid loaded it with buckshot- he was ready for 'em. We placed our two wagons about 20 feet apart, parallel with each other, and tied our horses between them. We stacked bales of buffalo hides across the openings at both ends for breastworks. We knew they'd circle us at the start, so we put one man at each end of the barricade behind the buffalo bales and two men behind the wagon wheels on each side. All sides were covered, so we just sat tight and waited for 'em to make their move. We were counting strongly on the fact that Indians are the world's most practical fighters - they'll never make an all-out attack unless the odds are pretty much stacked in their favor and they can kill you without risking much themselves. Indians are smart gamblers in warfare - they calculate the percentage beforehand. Well, right off I aimed to let 'em know that cleaning up our outfit would prove too costly for them to turn a profit on the deal. I had a plan that might throw a chill into them before they got started."
Riding fast and strung out to present a difficult target, the Comanches started their famous "wheel" formation around the barricaded wagons at about 500 yards distance and began to close in gradually.
"The poor devils got the shock of their lives," chuckled Mayer. "At about 400 yards, I picked out the chief by spotting the coup feathers in his hair through the scope. I led him maybe 30 feet- his pony was on a dead run - and swung that 16 pound Sharps like I was leading a duck with a shotgun. The bullet hit him plumb center and knocked him spinning off his horse. Lucky shot? Sure, it was a lucky shot - yet only a heap of practice with that big rifle made it possible.
"That one shot broke up the Comanche wheel. When the chief went down, the warriors clustered their horses around him on the prairie. They made a fat target bunched up like that, but we did no more shooting. After all, there was about 60 of them and six of us. We watched and waited, damned willing to call it quits. Pretty soon four braves picked up the dead chief, two on a side, and carried him off a-wailing as they rode. "
An expert marksman, Mayer seldom required more than one shot per buffalo. He never went "hog-wild" with killing, like some hunters (Tom Nixon, for example, burned out the barrel of a new Sharps killing 120 buffs in less than an hour's shooting). Every detail of Mayer's operation was carefully planned to insure a steady profit. He shot only 30 buffaloes a day on an average, as that was the number of hides his three skinners could skin and peg out, working by hand. Many outfits used horses to pull the hides off the carcasses, thereby stretching the skins out of shape, often tearing them, and always leaving pieces of flesh on the inside - flesh which quickly turned putrescent to rot the hide beneath. Mayer paid his crew well, and preferred fewer hides of high quality to rolling up a big score. He had only contempt for hunters like Brick Bond, so-called "Champion of the Hide Hunters," who averaged 97 kills a day in the fall and winter of 1875-76 for a record one-man bag of 5855 buffaloes.
Mayer was a craftsman with his scope sighted .45-120 Sharps. Using a steel bipod shooting stick specially made for him, Frank could drop a buff out beyond 500 yards when necessary. His preference as to range was 200 yards and under, however, to be virtually certain of clean one-shot kills. His best string was 59 clean kills out of 62 shots. The other three animals were mortally hit, but did not die within the 10 or 15 second limit considered by Frank to mark a clean kill. His favorite target was always the neck.
In addition to good marksmanship and the best of equipment, Mayer attributed his success as a hunter to what he called "buffalo savvy."
"You have to understand," explained Frank, "that a buffalo is stupid, and utterly unpredictable except for one important thing - its curiosity. At every stand, I used that curiosity in this manner: After locating a bunch of buffs and taking my shooting position as close as possible in cover or on a rise of ground, I'd pick out an old cow and shoot her in the lungs. A buffalo won't go down right off unless shot in the neck or heart, so that old cow would stand there with her legs braced and her eyes glazed and slowly bleed to death. The other buffs would smell the blood and mill around her, bunching up real accommodating for me. All I had to do was drop 'em one by one until the whole group was down. Some squeamish folks might say that mine was a cruel method. Maybe so, but the only animal to suffer was the cow and she didn't suffer long. The others I usually killed with one shot apiece, and they never knew what bit 'em."
Mayer quit hide hunting late in 1875 with a full poke. "Too many bunters and too few buffaloes," he told his friends. Those who knew him best declared that Frank was just sick to death of the endless killing. A Civil War veteran, Mayer re-enlisted in the Army after giving up hide hunting and served through the military mop-up of the Sioux after the Custer debacle at the Little Big Horn in June, 1876, and the late Apache wars. He served 37 years, resigning in 1913 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Restless as ever at 63, Colonel Mayer journeyed to the diamond mines of Australia, helped build a railroad in Brazil, served as a law officer in Colorado, and hunted moose and brown bear in Alaska. He regretfully discarded his old single shot Sharps for the latter adventure, taking along a .405 Winchester and a .35 Remington automatic. Nearing 70, his shooting eye was reported just as keen and his hands just as steady as on the buffalo plains almost a half century before. The Colonel bagged a 1600 pound bear with two shots from the .405 - one in the neck, one in the heart; and dropped an 1100 pound bull moose with a single heart shot from the .35.
Finally settling down in Fairplay, Colorado, Colonel Mayer hunted regularly each fall until 1951. He shot his last buck with a .30-30 Winchester in 1950 at the age of 100; then hung the rifle on his bedroom wall along with his beloved Sharps .45-120, and announced that he was through hunting for good.
Asked to estimate how many game animals he had killed in his 80 years of hunting, Frank could only place the figure in the high thousands. He curtly refused to guess how many Indians he had killed. "Go ask the long-haired buckskinners that question," he growled. "'Long-haired buckskinners" was his scornful term for the professional Wild West heroes like Buffalo Bill Cody. He chose to ignore the fact that, at the time of the question, Cody and all his flamboyant colleagues had been dead for many years.
Colonel Mayer entered the hospital at Fairplay in December, 1953, suffering from the infirmities of extreme old age. He weakened slowly, and his mind remained clear until near the end. 'Tm the last of the hide hw1ters left alive," he murmured to his nurse a few hours before slipping gently into a coma on February 10. His death occurred on the night of February 12, 1954, three months short of his 104th birthday. A whole colorful era in the history of America died with him.
The photograph on this page (left) deal with another famous buffalo hunter, Bill Tilghman, who is also remembered as a lawman and gunfighter of wide celebrity. The photos, taken by Shy Osborn of Cisco, Texas, were sent to GUNS & AMMO by Mrs. Zoe A. Tilghman of Oklahoma, widow of the famous marksman. The Sharps rifle seen on this page, held by Mrs. Tilghman in photo at left) is quite similar to the gun used by Frank Mayer. Mrs. Tilghman has this to say about her late husband, Bill, and the rifle seen here:
"With it, he killed 7500 buffalo; hunters kept accounts daily. He wore it out until the barrel was smooth inside, sent it to the factory and had it rebored and new rifling in a larger caliber. In 1874 his horse fell with him; gun in saddle scabbard, stock broken. He had just killed a buffalo; mended the stock with a strip of rawhide which is in perfect condition today."