Annie Oakley: More Than Just A Trick Shot


Image via Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Gwendolyn Janik, Writer

When you hear Annie Oakley, you might think about her amazing shooting. It is true that she was able to split a card with a bullet, hit targets that were behind her, and could hit a dime in midair, but she was also an advocate of the idea that women deserve the right to protect themselves and that we are just as good at shooting as men are.

After her performances, she would give shooting lessons to the women who wanted to learn how to handle a gun. She told a newspaper, “I have been teaching women to shoot for many years at Wentworth in summer and Pinehurst in winter, without compensation, because I had an ideal for my sex. I have wanted them to be capable of protecting their homes.” In the late 1800s, it was almost unheard of for a woman to know how to shoot a gun, let alone carry one. The few women that did handle firearms at the time were taking part in the shows or were outlaws. It was viewed as improper because women were expected to sit at home raising kids while their husbands made money and were expected to protect the family. Due to the gender roles placed on women at that time, a lot of men disapproved of women learning how to handle guns, to which Oakley said “it stands to reason if woman is the weaker, as men claim she is, that she would learn to use firearms so that she can protect herself if she has the occasion to do so.” She was pointing out the hypocrisy of the men in charge. They often said that women were physically weaker than men were, which is why they needed their dads or husbands to protect them. They would also say that guns were too hard for women to properly use. Oakley agreed that guns are sometimes tricky to handle, but she believed that everyone should learn how to properly use them to minimize the number of accidents that are common when an ignorant person messes around with guns. 

Advocating for gun control had begun in the 1800s. Annie Oakley was a strong opposer to such laws. She stated, “I think of all the fool pieces of legislation, the law in New York, which forbids people to have firearms in their homes, is about the worst. It protects the burglar. He has the advantage because he has no conscience about the law. As he knows that most people are law-abiding, the element of danger is greatly lessened for him.” Oakley told a newspaper about an instance where her teaching allowed a woman to stop a burglar. Neither the burglar nor the woman was hurt because the mere presence of the woman’s gun was enough to stop the burglar from resisting. Oakley’s opinion still echoes throughout our population today as we continue to struggle over the debate about guns. 

  At the beginning of her lessons, the women that learned from Oakley were as “frightened at the sight of a rifle or pistol, as a rabbit is of a ferret.” Oakley said that most of the girls and women were terrified of guns to begin with, but learning how to shoot was important to them because they wanted to defend themselves. Their aim and abilities grew with Oakley’s teaching. By the beginning of the Spanish-American War, Oakley’s pupils were accurate enough that she sent a letter to President McKinley offering “a company of fifty lady sharpshooters” to defend America. McKinley didn’t take her up on her offer. Oakley also didn’t get a reply from President Wilson when she made a similar offer to help in WWI. 

While many people dismissed her, she continued to make waves in society. Over her career, it is estimated that she taught over 15,000 women how to handle and shoot firearms. Toward the end of her life, she got into a train crash, which temporarily paralyzed her, and a car accident, which injured her legs. She healed from her injuries and continued shooting into her 60’s. Even though she is gone, her words and accomplishments are still felt today. As an advocate for equal rights, she was more than just a trick shot.