The history of firearms is not solely a man’s story. For centuries, female sharpshooters have been an integral part of the firearms community. But in recent years, the female shooting population has grown exponentially, due in part to several pioneers who cultivated this gender-diverse market.
These women were vastly different—never intentionally conforming to preconceived stereotypes. Instead, each retained her own unique disposition. Historically, however, these various personalities have fueled intense competition. In the late 19th century, sharpshooters Annie Oakley and Lillian Smith embodied these tensions as their contradictory temperaments were forced to collaborate in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.
Oakley and Smith were both talented shooters, but their personas ultimately influenced their legacies. Oakley’s softer image complemented her abilities, launching the markswoman into stardom, while Smith’s brasher image worked against her, precipitating her downfall.
Little Sure Shot
Annie Oakley (1860-1926) was born Phoebe Ann Mosey in Darke County, Ohio, and was one of seven children. In 1865, her family was struck with tragedy, when their father died unexpectedly from pneumonia. As a means of providing for her family, Oakley learned to hunt and trap by age eight, selling game to local businesses. Due to her family’s unfortunate circumstances, Oakley was unable to attend school regularly, so in 1870, she and her sister were sent to the Darke County Infirmary to learn a trade. By age nine, Oakley was contracted to work for a couple who promised to educate and pay her $0.50 a week. In reality, the couple often refused her compensation and severely abused the young Oakley. Thankfully, she was reunited with her own family two years later.
By the age of 15, Oakley had become a local celebrity. She quickly found that her skills as a markswoman could not be limited to simply hunting for subsistence; in fact, her shooting abilities helped pay off her family’s mortgage. And on Thanksgiving 1875, her skills would further launch her into the limelight.
Acclaimed marksman Frank Butler had been traveling throughout the country challenging local shooters to compete. When he entered Ohio that Thanksgiving, he did not expect anyone to beat him, let alone the five-foot-tall, teenage Oakley. Her victory, however, did not disgruntle the famous shooter; it intrigued him. After their encounter, Butler courted Oakley, marrying her a year later.
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Butler typically performed with another male shooter, but in 1882 his partner’s illness caused him to perform solo. During that exhibition, Butler was not shooting well and a spectator proclaimed, “Let the girl shoot.” Annie Oakley did, and she astounded the audience. After this performance, Phoebe Ann Mosey transformed herself into “Annie Oakley,” the name by which she is forever remembered. With her new stage name, the couple performed together until she joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1885.
Throughout her time with Buffalo Bill Cody, Oakley amazed vast crowds and even royalty, such as Queen Victoria of England and King Umberto I of Italy. These and other performances earned her the nickname “Watanya Cicillia,” or “Little Sure Shot.”
In addition to her shooting ability, Oakley was known as an advocate around the world. She promoted the use of female soldiers and loaned several of her firearms for traveling exhibits that aided in the sale of war bonds. Throughout her entire life, Oakley was known for being an amazing shot, a charitable woman and a devoted wife. In fact, she and Butler remained married their entire lives, with Butler passing away shortly after Oakley.
Lillian Smith (1871-1930) was born in Coleville, California, and certainly was not your “stereotypical” girl. Unlike Oakley, she did not grow up in familial hardship, but she did begin shooting around the same age. At seven years old, she asked her father for a rifle. By 10, she was performing as a competitive and exhibition shooter in San Francisco. At the age of 15, she joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, where she became known as “The Champion California Huntress.”
Like Oakley, Smith was thrust into the spotlight at a young age. She initially received commendation for her shooting ability and, despite her public rivalry with Oakley, was often portrayed fondly by the press. Unfortunately, her 15 minutes of fame were confined to a few short years. The decline of her success began in 1887. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was touring in England, and she shot poorly at a show in Wimbledon. When she returned to the United States, the press, who initially praised her capabilities, had turned on her. Her disappointment in England eclipsed her nearly flawless shooting record. She was even accused of being a trick shot, one who had cheated during her previous performances. In the wake of scandal, Smith left the show in 1889.
She attempted to reinvent herself and changed her stage name to “Princess Wenona, The Indian Girl Shot.” She performed in several Wild West shows, including those put on by the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch and Pawnee Bill. Smith would continue to be a record-setting sharpshooter for 13 years. However, she would never again receive the acclaim she once had.
Her shooting ability was marred by her public persona. Her first marriage to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West headliner Jim “Kid” Willoughby ended in divorce amid rumors of extramarital affairs. Smith then remarried several times, gaining a reputation as a shameless flirt. These perceived flaws influenced her credibility in the public eye, and no number of shooting records could revive her career. She retired in 1920 and passed away 10 years later in Oklahoma.
Little Sure Shot and the California Huntress were polar opposites. Oakley was perceived as demure, feminine and reserved, while Smith was seen as flirtatious, brash and boastful. Despite their differences, they both were initially well-liked by the public. In the beginning, their rivalry created colorful fodder for the press. But as it worsened, the media was forced to choose a side. Some argue that they were equally accomplished shooters, but nonetheless this feud left room for only one to emerge unscathed.
Initially, their rivalry was relatively superficial. Smith was 11 years Oakley’s junior, and many believed that her youth threatened the elder shooter. Perpetuating this theory, Oakley began claiming she was six years younger than her actual age. Additionally, Smith was often heard bragging that Oakley’s time in the spotlight was over. Whether age, attitude or a combination contributed to the budding rivalry, the disdain for each other was evident.
Furthermore, Oakley found that the press held her at a double standard. She was criticized for her actions more harshly, while Smith, who was prone to immaturity, went without reprimand. For example, on the tour of England, Oakley was vilified for shaking the hand of Prince Edward’s first wife. Smith also shook her hand, but received no negative press on the matter. Tensions continued to build between them, but William F. Cody did nothing to assuage the feud. He essentially made issues worse by publicly praising Smith while downplaying Oakley’s achievements. His refusal to intervene and Smith’s persistent antagonism forced Oakley to leave in 1887.
In the long run, the rivalry served as a catalyst for Smith’s journey into anonymity. Her antics affected her life and the legacy she left behind. On the other hand, Oakley, who rejoined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, set a course for historical longevity. Many of her rifles, shotguns and handguns are on display at museums around the country—perpetuating public memory—while a significantly smaller number of Smith’s artifacts remain.
Annie Oakley once said, “When a man hits a target, they call him a marksman. When I hit a target, they call it a trick.” Throughout history, women periodically have been at a disadvantage in this male-dominated industry. Even Annie Oakley, the darling of the shooting world, encountered adversity. Still, a question remains: If Lillian Smith adhered to the moral standards of the time, would she have had the same success that Oakley enjoyed? There may not be an answer, but it allows for larger discussions regarding the precarious balance between public image and actual ability.
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Smith’s demise stands as a cautionary tale for all shooters. It serves as a warning about the ways in which petty rivalries have historically overshadowed ability and that history, when has a habit of repeating itself. Find out more by visiting centerofthewest.org
This article originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.