“Little Sure Shot”: Annie Oakley during The Great War

Published: 27 June 2021

By Charles Pauley
Staff Writer

Annie Oakley takes aim with a Lever Action Rifle towards the end of her career

Annie Oakley takes aim with a Lever Action Rifle towards the end of her career

Annie Oakley is renowned for being probably the best Woman Sharpshooter to ever live. Through her talent with firearms, she became a national celebrity in the United States during the late 1800s and into the early 20th century. While she was most famous for her feats of skill and shooting tricks during her time performing with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, she was also a huge supporter of the war effort when the United States entered into World War I.

She participated in a number of ways, and even tried to raise a small army to be used at the United States’ disposal. Some might even say that at one point, she had the opportunity to “prevent” the war with a single shot. Despite her involvement’s relative obscurity, the role she played during the conflict was quite interesting and unique.

Annie Oakley’s Humble Beginnings

A young Annie Oakley leveling her shotgun

A young Annie Oakley leveling her shotgun.

Phoebe Ann Mosey (or Moses on some accounts) was born on August 13th, 1860 in Darke County, Ohio. Phoebe endured a difficult childhood. Her Father, Jacob Mosey, died when she was very young leaving her mother, Susan Wise Mosey, to raise Phoebe and her 6 siblings on her own. When her mother remarried to Dan Brumbaugh, he died soon after, leaving her with another child to support. After her mother’s third marriage to Joseph Shaw, Phoebe found herself using her father’s old Kentucky rifle to hunt and sell game to a local grocery store in order to help support her family. Through necessity, Phoebe began to discover her talents as an excellent shot. She was so successful in hunting game that at the age of 15, she was able to pay off her mother’s home mortgage. Considering her age and the time period, this was a truly remarkable feat. Little did she know that this would prepare her for a lifetime in show business.

Phoebe found her way into stardom through her participation in a shooting competition with renowned sharpshooter of the time, Frank Butler. Butler was one of the popular travelling marksmen of the day and thought that he could beat most anyone. When he was on tour in Ohio, the locals there told him they had a shooter who could best him. On the day of the competition, Frank was quite surprised to find that his opponent was an unassuming young woman. Despite their skill being evenly matched for the duration of the competition, Frank eventually missed a shot, handing the competition over to Phoebe.

Of course, Phoebe found herself the victor of the close competition, and with that winning shot, her life changed forever. After his loss, Frank began to fall in love with her. They eventually married in 1876. It was once she started performing with Frank that she adopted her iconic stage name, Annie Oakley.

Annie Oakley and her husband Frank Butler

Annie Oakley and her husband Frank Butler

During this period, her fame began to grow. Phoebe and Frank performed shows all across the country. While in St. Paul, Minnesota for a performance in 1884, she met Sitting Bull, the famous Lakota leader who bested George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn in present day Montana. Impressed by her shooting abilities, he coined her the name “Little Sure Shot.” The following year, Annie Oakley and Frank Butler joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show and performed with the troupe for 17 years, entertaining audiences all over the United States.

In the late 1880s, the show toured abroad in England where she was presented to Queen Victoria, and then on to the rest of Europe. It was here in Europe that Annie Oakley found herself involved in the intricate and carefully laid web of events that led to the outbreak of World War I. 

“Little Sure Shot” Meets “The Hun”

Oakley’s ties to WWI began in 1887, almost 27 years before the outbreak of the conflict. So the story goes, while on tour in Europe with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, she encountered Crown Prince Wilhelm (later the Kaiser Wilhelm II) at a performance in Berlin. Annie performed an act with Frank where she would shoot the ashes off of a cigarette while he held it in his mouth. Sometimes, she would ask for a volunteer from the audience to perform this trick.

To her surprise, the future Emperor of Germany volunteered for her act, and held the cigarette between his teeth in eager anticipation. Annie performed the feat perfectly, shooting the ashes from the end of the future Kaiser’s cigarette. Some years later, the Archduke of Austria would be shot, plunging the world into war with Kaiser Wilhelm’s German Empire being one of the main belligerents. It is said that after the war began, Oakley wished that she had missed her shot and killed the then-young Prince.

Atkinson Milling Company Ad depicting Oakley and the Kaisers supposed encounterAtkinson Milling Company advertisement depicting Oakley and the Kaiser’s supposed encounterWhile the origins of this story seem historically murky due to a lack of primary source evidence, there is no question of its notoriety. For instance, on December 6th, 1949, the Atkinson Milling Company ran an ad in the publication “The Northwestern Miller” with an illustration depicting a young Crown Prince Wilhelm looking quite concerned as a bullet from Annie Oakley’s firearm whizzed past his face, clipping the end off his cigarette.

Though the purpose of the ad was to equate the accuracy of their milling service to that of the famed sharpshooter, it showed how popular the idea of Annie Oakley’s encounter with Kaiser Wilhelm II was to the American Public 31 years after the end of The Great War.

Many have speculated on how different the world might be today if Annie had missed her shot and put a bullet through the future Kaiser. While there is no way to know exactly how the intricacies of history would have changed due to this single event, it is hard not to think about how his untimely death would have altered the events leading up to the First World War. Would Germany have declared war? Would the Lusitania have been sunk? The Zimmerman Telegram sent? While dealing in hypotheticals is certainly interesting, there is no way to tell how the course of WWI, or at least the United States’ entrance into it, would have been altered. So many more factors than just Germany’s declaration of war were instrumental in the start of the conflict that it might very well have happened with or without Kaiser Wilhelm II’s actions. In any case, it is intriguing to think about how Annie Oakley’s supposed encounter with the future Kaiser cemented The United States’ “involvement” in the war long before its initial inception. It is a testament to the enduring complexity of history, and the events, big and small; that have come to shape the world as we know it.

Oakley During The War

Annie Oakley supported the United States’ war effort in several ways. At the onset of the United States’ involvement, Annie telegraphed the Secretary of War offering to train, arm, and raise a unit of 50 Women Sharpshooters. While specific evidence could not be found to support this occurrence, it is likely to have occurred because of her previous actions during the Spanish American War. In similar fashion, Oakley wrote to President McKinley offering the same service. Nonetheless, her offer was declined on both occasions. Though Annie Oakley was unable to convince the United States to field women in direct combat roles, that is not to say that women did not serve as an integral part of the United States’ War Machine.

Throughout the course of the United States’ involvement in WWI, women served in a number of roles ranging anywhere from nurses to phone operators for the Navy. The sole warring power to include women in a direct combat role was Russia on the Eastern Front, but apparently only for the purpose of attempting to shame men into combat service. It seemed that while the United States was prepared for women to serve in the war filling non-frontline roles such as telephone operators, nurses, and ambulance drivers, it was not quite ready to take up Oakley’s offer of a combat unit of women to engage in direct battle against the enemy.

Annie Oakley found other ways to support the war effort despite her offer to train a combat unit of women being declined. She gave shooting demonstrations to soldiers, travelling with the National War Council of the Young Men’s Christian Association (The YMCA) and the War Camp Community Service to various military camps. Some say that she might have even trained soldiers herself to become sharpshooters, but there is no known physical documentation to support this claim. Even Annie’s dog became involved in the war effort. While living in Pinehurst, North Carolina, her dog “Dave” became known as the “Red Cross Dog” and sniffed out money hidden in Handkerchiefs meant to be donated to the Red Cross. While the fog of history hangs thickly over her actions during this period, it is clear that Annie Oakley was supportive of the war effort, even though she was not permitted to raise a fighting unit of her own.

Parallels to a Superpower

Annie Oakley played an important, but still little-known role in WWI. While the Monarchs in Europe had been fighting their bloody war, the United States’ entrance into the theatre might as well have been the equivalent of Annie Oakley taking the crowds of Europe by storm through her sensational performances with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Similar to the United States’ demonstration of surprising military strength in the killing fields of Western Europe, Cody’s Wild West Show, with “Little Sure Shot” herself being at the forefront of the spectacle, displayed the American mythos of the Western frontier to the European populace. And in regard to the tale of Oakley and Crown Prince Wilhelm’s encounter, the prospect of the life of the future leader of Germany being held in the hands of an American Woman might almost be equated to the fate of Europe resting on the success of the United States’ military in bolstering the Allied effort. Even though Oakley and the United States were unlikely to fail in each of their respective endeavors, the course of history could have gone quite differently.

Oakley’s support of the war demonstrated her patriotism to the United States during this period. Though she spent most of her life performing and displaying the mythos of the American experience at home and abroad in Europe, she was able to manifest her skill and determination into raising money for munitions, and, according to some stories, perhaps even training US soldiers herself. Though much has been lost to the pages of history, Annie Oakley has endured as a symbol of the American Spirit, and also a willing participant in the United States’ endeavors to protect its citizens and interests abroad.

Charles Pauley is a Spring 2021 Intern with the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission.


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