Although there was no doubt of Annie’s ability with a gun, it wasn’t until early in 1883 that she stepped into the limelight during a performance given by her husband. Frank liked to miss tricky presented targets on purpose to keep the interest of his audience, but on one occasion a man shouted out from the crowd that perhaps the little girl with him could do better in hitting the objects than him. Frank handed Annie the gun, and to the uproar of the audience she broke the targets in a flash. The crowd wanted more, and Annie’s life of fame had begun. It wasn’t long before Annie was heading the bill ahead of her husband.
One of the greatest turning points in Annie’s career came in late 1884 when the couple were introduced to Buffalo Bill after he arrived to watch one of their shooting performances. It was but a short time before an opportunity arose for Annie to prove her worth on the big stage with one of the biggest travelling shows of the time.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show opened many doors for Annie, and marked the beginning of 15 years of enormous popularity. It is sometimes forgotten that Annie actually visited our shores during her successful career. The trip coincided with Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, but more important for Annie was her acceptance by British sportsmen.
She had one such gunmaker, Charles Lancaster, to thank for that. Little is known about the relationship between Charles and Annie Oakley, but during Annie’s 1887 tour with the Wild West Show to London, they met at a competition where Annie shot poorly at the Blue Rock pigeons – a British breed sharper, swifter and more unpredictable than the American pigeon Annie was so used to shooting.
Charles took Annie to his Willesden Shooting Ground and used a ‘try gun’ to measure and calculate a perfect fit for the no fewer than four shotguns he made for her. During Annie’s time in London she continued to visit Charles for lessons, and that summer Annie shot an exceptional 25 out of 25 followed by a 49 out of 50 at a competition, demonstrating her abilities as a true international sportswoman among the professional British shooters. She wrote to Charles some years following her return to America:
The four breech-loading hammerless shotguns you built for me are, in my opinion, as near perfection as is possible to get them. The pair of 20-bores (weight 5lb 2oz) I have been using now for two years. I find them just as tight and sound as when new. I have never had any repairs except having the locks cleaned. The pair of 12s (6lb) are as good as the 20s. Since using your guns and receiving lessons from you at your grounds, my shooting in the field has so much improved that now I always make a good score even at fast and difficult birds. With many thanks for the pains you have taken in making me such perfect fitting and fine shooting guns, I am gratefully yours.