It’s safe to say Buffalo Bill Cody was the first Western superstar. Long before the days of Hollywood cowboys, he presented audiences with stirring reenactments of life on the frontier. “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” was a sweeping outdoor extravaganza, almost bigger than life, an exciting educational experience – more than a “show”- presented on a scale beyond anything that had gone before, or after.
The “cowboys” in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West were real cowboys, the “Indians” were real Indians, and Colonel Cody himself was an authentic Western hero. Before the Wild West shows, Cody helped conquer the real West as a Pony Express rider and Scout. And of course, in the job that won him his nickname, he hunted buffalo to feed the 1,200 hungry men who built the Kansas Pacific Railroad.
Among other things, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was a testament to the role of the firearm in the winning of the West. Americans and Europeans were thrilled and fascinated by the sights and sounds of American firearms and the adventurous souls who used them, including lawmen and outlaws, hunters and farmers, and explorers and settlers. Most fascinating of all were the sharpshooters, who were able to work miracles with a rifle, pistol, revolver, or shotgun.
A Sharpshooter Hall of Fame
Captain A.H. Bogardus, one of the most celebrated marksmen in the world. Holder of the 1871 title “Champion of America” and winner of the “World’s Championship Medal” from England, Bogardus performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West with his three sharphooting sons. Amazingly, the sons joined the act at the ages of only nine, eleven and thirteen.
Although a gifted performer, Bogardus’ most important contribution to the sport of shooting was actually his invention of a trap used to launch glass balls he designed as flying targets. In short order, exhibition shooters adopted these glass balls in place of their previous targets, live pigeons.
One of Bogardus’ most extraordinary feats came in January of 1878, when he set out to hit 5,000 glass balls in 500 minutes. Starting at two in the afternoon and going until 10:30 at night, with only three breaks, Bogardus achieved his goal with 19 minutes to spare, and against his 5,000 hits were recorded only 163 misses!
William Frank “Doc” Carver -Nicknamed “Spirit Gun” and “Evil Spirit of the Plains” for his deadly skill at buffalo hunting, Carver set out to establish himself as the greatest sharpshooter in the world. In late 1877, he wrote to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, boasting that he could out-shoot any man in the world, including Captain Bogardus, and inviting any challenger to prove differently.
The following year, a challenger appeared, and lost to Carver’s tremendous skill. After that, Carver began a cross-country tour of thirty cities, taking on all comers and emerging victorious each and every time. The press came to dub him “The California Deadshot,” “The Rifle King” and “The Miracle Marksman.”
Annie Oakley, America’s “Little Sure Shot” As a young girl in Ohio, Annie developed a love of shooting, and showed special talent. For a time, she used her skills to provide fresh game for restaurants and hotels, until the day an exhibition shooter named Frank Butler came to Cincinnati. At the request of the townspeople, Butler agreed to a competition against an “unknown” of their choosing. He was astonished to learn the “unknown” was a petite young girl, and even more astonished when she handed him his very first defeat.
Butler went on to become Annie’s manager and husband, and in 1885 they signed with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. In short order, Annie established herself as a star performer, not only for her skill, but for her ability to amuse and delight audiences with her natural humor and charm. She added to the fun by performing joyful kicks when she hit her targets, and giving exaggerated pouts when she missed. Later she would say that the “misses” were on purpose; without them, audiences found her marksmanship simply too good to believe.
With her tiny, girlish frame – 5 feet weighing 100 pounds – Annie was surely the last person you’d have expected to see firing a rifle with such ease and skill. Yet in show after show, she astounded audiences, firing shots that hit playing cards thrown into the air 90 feet away from her, or holding a firearm backward over her shoulder to hit targets behind her with the aid of a hand mirror.
“Aim at a high mark,” she once wrote, “and you’ll hit it. No, not the first time, nor the second and maybe not the third. But keep on aiming and keep on shooting for only practice will make you perfect. Finally, you’ll hit the bullseye of success.”
Johnny Baker was adopted by Buffalo Bill at the age of seven and an expert marksman by the age of fourteen. Performing at first under the nickname, “Cowboy Kid,” Baker stayed with the Wild West an amazing 35 years.
By Baker’s own estimate, he performed in 12,600 shooting exhibitions. At one of them, in Hamburg, Germany, he broke 1000 flying objects out of 1016 shots fired. He was equally adept at firing from a standing position or lying down, bent forward shooting back between his legs or, on occasion, firing from an upside down position with an assistant holding his legs in the air.
After Cody’s death, Baker continued the show for a season, and on his death bed is said to have told his wife, “Keep alive the memory of Pahaska [Cody’s Indian name].” Baker also established the Buffalo Bill Museum, Golden, Colorado, in memory of his mentor.