Annie Oakely's Rifle

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There is nobody alive today who saw Annie Oakley perform in person, but almost a hundred years after her death people are still talking about her.


Annie Oakley was a crack shot and competed in shooting exhibitions but exhibition shooting was a man's sport. It was a big event for a woman to outshoot the men. She encouraged young women to take up hunting and shooting and made some incredible shots with Wild Bill's Wild West Show. She was a star in the true sense of the word and her interesting story has stuck with people.
In the 1880s, exhibition was extremely popular similar to football and baseball today. A well known exhibition shooter, Frank Butler, stayed in a Cincinnati hotel owned by Jack Frost. At the time Annie Oakley was known as Phoebe Ann Moses and was providing game meat for the restaurant at Frost's hotel. Annie's reputation as a crack shot was widely known and Frost arranged a shooting event. Mosses beat Butler by one shot and a romance began that culminated in marriage in 1882.
A Stevens model 44.25-20 single shot rifle given to Annie Oakley
In 1885, one of Buffalo Bill Cody exhibition shooters fell ill and Butler and Mosses applied for the position. The combination of beauty and incredible shot made her a star.

A close-up view of the engraved Stevens model 44.25-20 single shot rifle given to Annie Oakley

Soon after joining Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1885, she changed her name to Annie Oakley. The reason for the change of name is unknown, but it was popular for performers to have stage names. There may also have been influence from Cody for her to do so. There is much conjecture about how she chose her stage name. Her sisters called her Annie when they were growing up, and Oakley is believed to be the name of the town close to where she grew up.
Annie Oakley obviously, had incredible hand-eye coordination. In her autobiography, she said she had an inherent love of firearms and hunting. It was unusual for a lady, but it developed out of necessity. She was seven when her father died. In the book, she says, “I remember how I struggled to master the family’s 40-inch cap and ball Kentucky rifle, which I finally did much to my pride, I was eight years old at the time.” The rifle was 40 inches long, almost as long as her own body when she learned how to use it.
Stevens was developing the model 44 rifle in 1893, and Annie and Frank Butler moved into their first home together in Nutley, New Jersey in 1893. Those dates coincide. My theory is Stevens gave the gun to Annie Oakley as a Christmas gift or a housewarming present. That would explain the “Nutley, N.J.” inscription on the left side of the gun’s frame. The Stevens records are not complete for that period.
Annie Oakley rifle
Nutley, N.J.’ is engraved inscription on the left side of the gun’s frame. Image courtesy of Morphy Auctions Morphy
In 1893he was at the height of her career. She had toured Europe eight times with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and done hundreds of shows in America. She gave performances for royalty and the elite. There is a story that Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany challenged her to shoot the ashes off his cigarette. She took the challenge. There are all kinds of different accounts–some say he had the cigarette in his hand, some say it was in his mouth–but she shot the ashes off his cigarette. When World War I began, she is noted as having written Kaiser Wilhelm II a letter saying she wanted another shot. She was a daring woman who had a sense of humour.
Every firearms manufacturer in the U.S. gave Annie Oakley firearms. It was no different than Nike sending Michael Jordan shoes he could wear. She was a rock star. Everybody wanted to go to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. It was a huge event. And I do not know if it was her intellect or her desire to shoot different weapons, but Annie Oakley never settled on one type of gun. She used a wide variety of firearms. She had hear about, for example, a new type of Winchester rifle, and would write to the manufacturer saying she would like to have one, and of course they sent her one.


It sounds like Annie Oakley was the 1800s version of an influencer. The Stevens company was developing this gun, the model 44, and gave it to Annie Oakley. It was one of their very first ones. Later on, the model 44 became Stevens’s most famous and best-selling firearm.


It is a very desirable and collectable weapon. If you find an early Stevens model 44, embellished, in near mint condition, it would be worth $15,000 to $20,000. The connection with Annie Oakley increases that tenfold or more.


Stevens’s claim to fame as a manufacturer was very accurate single-shot rifles and pistols. That is what they did, and they would have wanted to promote that.


I do believe, in my heart, it was special to Annie because it commemorates her and Frank’s first home together. It was probably hung on the wall and never used, but all this is only speculation.


Typically, what it means is it has 97 to 98 percent of its original finish. In this case, it means the bluing on the barrel and the gold on the frame has no more than 2 to 3 percent loss on any part of the gun. This gun has that.


Annie Oakley rifle

The Stevens Model 44 .25-20 single-shot rifle is described as being in ‘near mint’ condition. Image courtesy of Morphy Auctions


For a vintage firearm to survive in such good condition? The gun was well-cared for. They knew how to handle a firearm, and they kept it dry and clean and never used it.


The Annie Oakley gun has never been fired? Not even by her? Not even by her.

Really? Never fired? I am sure it was test-fired at the Stevens factory. It is impossible for me to say Annie Oakley never shot this gun. I do not have any doubt that she took it to her backyard and shot an apple off the head of her dog, Dave, but there’s no record of it. There is no photos or illustrations of her shooting it.


So I take it you haven’t fired this Annie Oakley gun either. Certainly not!

Does the Annie Oakley gun function? Can it fire? Absolutely. You can take this gun out and fire it today.
How can you be sure that the Annie Oakley gun works if you or someone else at Morphy Auctions hasn’t fired it? You operate the action. You pull the trigger and it fires the firing pin.
For the same reason you wouldn’t want to buy a half-million-dollar Ferrari with an engine that doesn’t run. Same thing.
Yes. On most engraved guns, the engraving isn’t that deep. This is very deeply engraved and has an almost 3-D look to it. The finishes are so vivid, and the wood is incredibly well-figured – beautiful, beautiful wood. It’s very rare to find a gun of this age in near mint condition. It’s a work of art, and the canvas here is wood and steel.
How many guns with firm Annie Oakley provenances are out there?There are three or four guns I’m aware of, by L.C. Smith, Parker and Marlin. Most of these guns are in museums. This is one of the few with an Annie Oakley provenance that’s in private hands.
As we’re speaking on May 22, 2020, the Annie Oakley gun has been bid up to $100,000. Is that at all meaningful at this stage? Yeah, it’s a good indicator that there’s interest there, and there’s going to be some robust bidding on the gun.
It was a Marlin Model 1897 sold through Rock Island Auction Co. in December 2019 for $575,000.
Yes, for a couple of reasons. One, our gun has higher condition. [The Rock Island Auction Co.’s lot notes described the Marlin as “exceptionally fine” and retaining 70 percent of its original gold plating.] Two, our gun is factory-inscribed to Annie Oakley. And three, I think Nutley New Jersey, Annie and Frank’s first address, is important.
Why will this Annie Oakley gun stick in your memory? I’ve had a connection with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show my whole life, and I’ve had an interest in Annie Oakley and the performers in the show. Buffalo Bill’s partner in the show was Nate Salisbury, a relative of mine. Nate had a deluxe engraved Winchester rifle. I have that gun in my collection. He and Annie Oakley were friends. It’s been a privilege to research the gun and be connected with the gun.