Annie Oakley: The Peerless Shot
February 26, 2018
Annie Oakley achieved worldwide stardom when she joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West show in 1885, but she had been impressing spectators with her shotgun and rifle shooting for at least 10 years prior. Before Oakley (her stage name) began performing for audiences, she had to endure a hard upbringing in Ohio. To help her family, she learned to hunt and trap. According to her autobiography, she was so good at supplying game that she saved enough money to pay off the mortgage of the family farm.
"Oh, how my heart leaped with joy as I handed the money to mother and told her that I had saved enough to pay it off," Oakley wrote.
Oakley continued setting shooting records into her 60s, and became well known for her efforts to advance the rights of women. She strongly encouraged women to learn to shoot and suggested that it it was important for women to know how to defend themselves. She added, "I would like to see every woman know how to handle guns as naturally as they know how to handle babies." It's been estimated that she taught more than 15,000 women how to shoot a gun during her lifetime. Oakley's name continues to stand above all women marksmen in the world, to the point that it remains part of American lexicon.
In the September 1967 issue of Guns & Ammo, Dick Baldwin published an article penned by Oakley recalling behind-the-scenes experiences of her shows. It had been originally written for the Dupont Powder Company in 1914 and can be read below.
The name Annie Oakley stands above all women marksmen of the world. Her accomplishments with the rifle, shotgun and handgun have been retold for decades. Here, in Annie's own words as told to the Dupont Powder Company in 1914, is her story.
*Editor's Note: This article originally titled "Powders I Have Known," was published in Guns & Ammo's September issue in 1967.
I have often wondered what the trap and game shots of today would say if they had to use some of the powders I have used during my 30 years of shooting through 14 different countries. I think a few trials would cure all complaints against the really high class powders made in America. When I firs commenced shooting in the field in the northern part of Ohio, my gun was a single barrel muzzle loader, and as well as I can remember, was 16 bore. I used black powder, cut my own wads out of cardboard boxes, and thought I had the best gun and load on earth. Anyway, I managed to kill a great many ruffled grouse, quail and rabbits; all of which were quite plentiful in those days.
My father was a mail carrier and made two trips a week to Greenville, which was the county seat, a distance of 20 or 40 miles a day, not very far in these days of good roads, but a long trip then over muddy roads, and very often through snow hub-deep. On each trip he carried my game, which he exchanged for ammunition, groceries, etc. A few years ago, I gave an exhibition at Greenville, and met the old gentleman who had bought all of my game. He showed me some old account books showing the amount of game he had purchased. I won't say how much, as I might be classed a game hog, but any man who has ever tried to make a living and raise a family on 27 acres of poor land will readily understand that it was a hard proposition, and that every penny derived from the sale of game shipped helped some.
How well I remember one Christmas Eve when the snow was deep and still coming down. Father was late getting home and did not arrive until long after dark. The log house was lit up by blazing logs in the big, open fireplace, over which hung our stockings â€” stockings with many darned places, but no holes, thanks to our good mother. Christmas morning we were up before daylight all anxious to see what Santa Clause had brought. My stocking was so heavy it could not hang from the rail, but was laid on the table. When I opened it, or rather pulled the things out, it contained one can of DuPont Eagle Ducking Black Powder, five pounds of shot and two boxes of percussion caps, all the gift of the merchant who bought my game. That was my first can of high-grade powder, and it was many a day before I broke the seal, for I was assured by the merchant that it was the best powder made, and I never again expected to own another can of such grade.
My first real gun was a breech loading, hammer, 16 gauge made by Parker Brothers. My! I was proud of that gun. One hundred brass shells came with it. These I loaded with DuPont black powder, and continued to do so after I joined the Wild West Show, always using wads two sizes larger so that the shot would not loosen in the second barrel.
I sometimes smile when I hear shooters talking about targets being hard to break. In those days there was only one kind made â€” the Ligoskey clay pigeon. These were made of a red clay and many of them were over-burned and hard as stone. I used Number 6 soft shot, as the chilled shot would glance off.
The first smokeless powder I ever used was in the year 1884 and was called the "Ditmar." This, like all smokeless powders, would not work in brass shells and was none to satisfactory when loaded in paper shells, so it was back to black powder for me. My next experience was with the American smokeless powder, which was an improvement on the other, but far from satisfactory, as no two cans were alike; so again I went back to the black powder.
My first experience with Schultze powder dates back to '87, when an Englishman named Graham introduced it in this country. In demonstrating Schultze, it was his custom to cut open a shell, pour the powder out in his hand, and touch a match to it, thereby showing how even it would burn. One hot day his hand was wet with perspiration when he started his fireworks display, and the powder and fire adhered to his hand; the result being that he was very badly burned. This was his last demonstration of that kind.
While the English powder at that time was far ahead of any of the other smokeless powders, it would not compare with the American Schultze powder of today. The grain was soft and it required careful loading, as too much pressure was sure to mash the grains into a pulp; and, as it was impossible to get the same pressure on all shells by handloading, the result was very often disappointing. I well remember the first time I tried using it in a pigeon match. My husband, who always loaded my shells, entrusted the loading of them for this match to a professional shell-loader in New York, as he (my husband) had never loaded any of this powder and did not care to take chances of loading it wrong but, as we afterwards found out, the man we entrusted the loading to knew no more about it than Mr. Butler did. However, he did surely put plenty of pressure on each load, the result being an occasional kill, and more often a few feathers or a hole through the board fence 100 yards away, showing where the shot had balled. Needless to say, I lost this match with the lowest score I ever made. Three days later I had another match of 50 birds against Capt. Brewer, at Point Breeze Park, Philadelphia. This time I was again back to DuPont black powder. I lost the match by one bird. My score was 46, which was satisfactory to myself and all present, especially as it was a windy day and an open boundary.
When I went to England in 1886, I found a very good smokeless powder in use; the English Schultze. My husband made a trip to the Schultze factory to find out how to load it, which was only a matter of getting the right pressure. Simple as this may seem, it was not such an easy matter, as all shells in those days had to be loaded by hand. Since that time I have used Schultze whenever it was possible to get it. At the same time, I experimented with every new powder, always looking for something better, but always returning to Schultze, which I had no trouble getting while in the English provinces.
Not until I went to France did my real powder troubles commence, as that country had a monopoly, which meant that no other powder was allowed to enter. I did not know that until we got to Havre. I had about 50 pounds of Schultze, which I expected to pay the duty on, and I was very much disappointed when I heard from our agent that it could not be landed. I was very anxious to do good shooting on my first visit to Paris, for it not only meant success for myself, but for the Wild West Company; as I was advertised very strongly and much was expected of me. Well! I got it in all right and in a way probably never tried before or since. In the Company, we had five lady riders, including myself. Bustles were quite the rage in those days, and although I had never worn them, I was glad to on this occasion and a regulation rubber hot water bag filled with powder made the bustle. We sure did attract some attention when we went down the gangplank, for although the bustle originated in France, it was going out about this time. We brought the powder in with no trouble. I have cause to remember the first time I tried the French smokeless powder, as I burst on of my best guns, fortunately without accident to myself or anyone else. My husband loaded the shells according to directions which our interpreter read from the can, but we found out later that on damp or rainy days, the powder charge should be increased, while on hot days, it was to be decreased. I had a wet weather load on a very hot day. After that my shells were loaded every morning, as Mr. Butler would not even trust the weatherman's report.
Shortly after I arrived in Paris, I was made an honorary member of the leading trapshooting club. This gave me the right to compete in the shooting events, and I saved my Schultze powder for that purpose. There were many fine shots among the members, and I needed the best gun and ammunition if I hoped to hold my own. I soon found that a few of the best shots were also using this powder, brought in probably on their private yachts.
When I first went to Europe in 1886, no matter how good my exhibition of shooting was, I had to enter the pigeon contests, if I wanted to be rated as a real shot, (pigeon shooting at that time being considered one of the national sports) but, let me say right here that the class of birds used for this purpose in England and on the Continent made the shooting a far different and harder proposition than any found in America. The birds were small and very fast, most of them being raised especially for that purpose, and usually costing about $5.00 per dozen. Although the dead birds go to the Clubs, I always insisted upon having mine sent to the local charity hospitals.
After eight months in Paris, I made a tour through southern France and, as there were several shooting tournaments in the towns on my way, I decided to take them in; for although I was a professional, my membership in the Paris Club entitled me to compete in the events. By this time my Schultze powder was used up, and I had to again use the French powder. My first shooting was at Lyons, France, where they had a very fine gun club. My showing here was very poor. This may have been partly owing to my not having confidence in the load; whatever it was, my three days shooting cost me about $200.00, as I did not make a single win. The following week there was a big tournament at Marseilles, and Mr. Butler and myself decided to try it once more.
The day after our arrival, I received notice that there was a package for me at the Custom House; I also found a letter from England with no signature saying two dozen fresh eggs had been sent to me and requesting me not to throw away the packing until I tried it in my gun. At the Custom House, I found a large tin box securely wrapped, and I could not understand at first why it required such a large box to hold two dozen eggs. The officer opened the box and found the eggs packed in Schultze powder sent to me by some good English friends. The duty on the eggs was about 40 cents, which I gladly paid. I never shot better in my life than I did the next three days, either winning or dividing every event. It may be that I was in better form, but I am sure my Schultze load had a great deal to do with my good scores. At the finish of the shooting, I was requested to try three birds with a rifle, which I did, standing 25 yards from the trap and was lucky enough to score all three, killing one with the second barrel. The Club had them mounted, and I understand they are still on exhibition at the Club House. Besides my winnings, which were a lot more than my losings of the previous week, the Club presented me with a magnificent gold medal.
In Spain, I found no smokeless powder, and only a very inferior grade of black powder sent in by paying a duty, I did not have any powder troubles there. I found the Spaniards very poor marksmen, bull-fighting being their idea of sport.
Italy had no smokeless powder, but plenty of good shots, also many fine trapshooting clubs. Loaded shells could be sent in by paying a duty, but no powder in bulk. I had my shells loaded up with powder only and sent in that way. To insure perfect loads, the powder was removed from the shells and reloaded.
I found one club at Rome, but it was poorly attended â€” and no wonder! â€” for when I visited this club they were throwing targets about 70 yards. All of the scores, including my own, looked mighty low. The pigeon clubs were all well attended, especially that at Milan, where all of the shooting was done in a stone arena, dating back about 1,400 years and large enough to seat 30,000 people. The birds here were very fast and as everything was "miss and out" it was rather an expensive game. I was fortunate enough to win one event in which there was about seventy entries. My score was 13 straight. I found the Italian shots largely using English Schultze.
Before going to Austria with the Wild West Show, our agent informed us that there was no smokeless powder in that country, nor would any be allowed in with or without duty. Having plenty on hand, Mr. Butler turned it over to one of the employees who did the packing of bedding, lamps, tents, etc. He took it out of the can and put it in shot sacks. Some of these he put in the mattresses and pillows, and some he put in the box with the lamps. We did not know anything about this at the time, but we found out later, as some of the oil from the lamps in some way got mixed with the powder â€” the result being that my first exhibition was a failure. Nearly every load sounded like a squib firecracker, so it was black powder again while in that country, and the quality was about the worst I ever used.
In Germany, where some historians tell us the first powder was made, there was none to be had, but as we could ship it in paying a duty, I had some sent ahead. As it was sent in my name, I had to go to the Custom House where I spent several hours going from one department to another, paying a small fee at each place. If I remember correctly, it all amounted to about $1.25. Some of this was returned after signing some more papers. It happened on this same day that the Czar of Russia was due in Berlin, and in his honor the German Emperor ordered a parade, in which thousands of the pick of the Germany Army took part. This parade started at one end of Unter den Linden, the finest boulevard in Germany. When Mr. Butler and myself left the Custom House, we each carried a drum of Schultze wrapped in paper, and started for our hotel. To reach it, we had to cross this boulevard, but we found that no one was allowed across between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. As this rule was enforced by soldiers and policemen, for a distance of 5 miles, it meant about 4 hours' wait. I determined to cross that street, and I did, although it was closely guarded by several soldiers whom I managed to elude by diving through the crowd. Mr. Butler had to sit in a doorway and "sweat blood" for 4 hours, expecting every minute that one of the soldiers or detectives who were there to guard the Ruler of Russia would ask him what was in the packages. I had a splendid view of this parade from my hotel, but when I saw how closely the Czar was guarded and knew that there were men in that crowd only waiting for the chance to kill him as they did his father, I did not envy him his position. While traveling through Germany, I tried out another smokeless powder, which was afterwards introduced in America. At the time I tried it, it was far from being perfect, but as I never used it again, I cannot say how good it was later.
In my travels through several other countries, I had no trouble having the English powder shipped in, and continued using the English make until my return to America. Since then I have used the American Schultze now manufactured by the DuPont Powder Company exclusively.
I have been often asked if I could tell how many shells I have fired. If I had time to go through all of my scrapbooks, I might get a rough idea. I really think I have fired more shots than anyone else. I know in on year I used 40,000 shotshells; also several thousand ball cartridges.
During one of my engagements in Continental Europe, I gave two exhibitions daily, including Sundays, for 17 months. As I was doing riding stunts at the same time, I was ready for a rest when I finished.