Throughout history, there have been many influential female gunslingers. These “Women of the Gun” have come from a variety of walks of life, ranging from professional trick shots to battle-hardened soldiers. These women were pioneers, occupying roles that were considered the domain of men. Because of this, they had to outshine their male counterparts, which they did admirably. Here’s a brief look at some of the most renowned female sharpshooters of all time.
Mary Fields 1832-1914
Before statehood was conferred on the territories of the American West, mail and packages were transported by private contractors. The U.S. Postal Service hired individuals or entities that placed the lowest bid for delivery services, and provided a sufficient guarantee of reliability. These “celerity, certainty and security bids” were designated with three stars, and thus became known as star routes.
The individuals who accepted contracts for the star routes were as rugged as the terrain they traversed in their duties.
“Stagecoach” Mary Fields was one such person, becoming the first African-American female star route mail carrier in the United States. Tales indicate she was anywhere from 52 to 60 when she was awarded the route, after hitching a team of six horses to her wagon nearly twice as fast as the other applicants. It should be noted that the competitors were all seasoned cowhands, and most were less than half her age.
Born a slave in hills of Tennessee in 1832, Mary Fields was freed when slavery was outlawed in 1865. She took on a series of vocations before becoming a mail carrier, including the resident carpenter/care taker at a convent.
To keep the convent stocked with provisions, she would make 120-mile supply runs to Helena, along with more menial tasks. While there, the nuns took note of her sometimes explosive temper. One sister implored “May God help anyone who walks on the lawn after Mary has cut it.”
Despite her nickname, she drove the 10.5-mile route from Cascade, Montana, to Saint Peter’s Mission with horse and wagon from 1885 to 1893. The route was plenty perilous, plagued with war parties from the Sioux tribes that objected to being displaced by the new settlements and the ubiquitous gunslingers and Highway Men that made a living robbing such conveyances.
She kept them at bay with the lever action rifle and six-shooter that were her constant companions. She allegedly defeated a pack of wolves that descended upon her using her rifle as a club when she ran out of ammunition and still made her delivery in a timely fashion.
Mother Nature served up plenty of danger as well; in the winter, the mercury could dip to -40 degrees with a strong northern blow. And if the snow got too deep for her equine partners, she would simply strap on a set of snowshoes and set out on foot.
Legend says she never missed a day until she retired at 71. Her body would succumb to liver failure in 1914 at the age of 82, possibly a testament to her hard drinking ways.
Annie Oakley 1860-1926
Born Phoebe Ann Moses on August 13, 1860 in Ohio, Annie Oakley is probably the most famous exhibition shooter of all time.
She delighted crowds with her sharpshooting prowess in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a show that toured the country recounting a romanticized version of how the West was won.
Legend says during a typical show the markswoman would shoot a cigarette out of her husband’s mouth or a dime from his fingers, or more pedestrian feats such as splitting a playing card in twain. But she is perhaps best remembered for the backward trick shots she accomplished using a mirror.
She didn’t just look the part, Annie was a rough and tumble cowpoke before she took to the stage. As a child, she helped keep the larder full with her hunting and trapping skills.
As the lore goes, she was only eight years old when she made her first shot, dropping a squirrel off a fencepost in her front yard with a round to the head, preserving the meat.
She later helped pay the mortgage on the family home by selling game and furs.
Her travels with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show would take her to Wimbledon, of tennis fame.
While in Europe, she delighted royalty and heads of stat with her sharpshooting abilities. Notable spectators included Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, King Umberto I of Italy, President Marie François Sadi Carnot of France, amongst other wealthy elites.
In perhaps what is more folklore than fact, she is purported to have shot the ashes off a cigarette held by the newly crowned German Kaiser Wilhelm II at his behest.
Annie even volunteered her services to the war effort. Before the outset of the Spanish-American War, she wrote a letter to President William McKinley offering to raise up a “company of 50 ‘lady sharpshooters’ who would provide their own arms and ammunition should the U.S. go to war with Spain.”
McKinley did not take her up her offer, but Theodore Roosevelt named his cavalry unit the “Rough Riders” after the “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.”
Fly Rod Crosby 1854 – 1946
New England is known for their “Hard Men,” who blazed a path through the North Woods and kept the saw mills stocked with enough timber to build tall ships and facilitate the building of the east coast’s cities.
But right alongside them were an equal number of “Hard Women” that helped settle the wilds of Maine, bringing the trapping of civilization to the vast tracks of timber.
One such woman was Cornelia Thurza Crosby, who would later come to be known as Fly Rod Crosby thanks to a pen name she adopted.
Born on November 10, 1854 in Phillips, Maine, Fly Rod didn’t realize her love of the outdoors until later in life, when she heeded her doctor’s advice to get “a large dose of the outdoors.”
She left her job at a bank and headed out to the Rangeley Lakes region where she hunted and fished to her heart’s content.
She would become the first Registered Maine Guide, an arduous process put in place by the state legislature in 1897 to ensure inexperienced guides didn’t place travelling sportsmen in danger. She also has the distinction of shooting the last legally harvested caribou in Maine.
Crosby shared her adventures via a column that appeared in many newspapers, and was distributed nationally as a magazine entitled Fly Rod’s Notebook.
Eventually, she was hired to help promote tourism in Maine, and would appear in sportsman’s shows where she would put on fly-casting and shooting demonstrations.
“Fly Rod” gained notoriety for the hunting camp exhibit she built for the first New York Sportsman’s Exposition, held in Madison Square Garden in 1898, replete with a log cabin.
“Dead Shot” Mary Shanley 1896 – 1989
“Dead Shot” Mary was the fourth woman to ever become a first-grade detective in the New York Police Department, earning the gold shield in 1939.
She earned the nickname “Dead Shot” using her .32-caliber revolver to conduct an arrest, becoming the first female police officer to do so within the confines of NYC.
“You have the gun to use, and you may just as well use it,” she was often quoted as saying.
Though Mary Agnes Shanley was born in Ireland on March 14, 1896, she would spend her formative years in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. It was in that rough and tumble community that she attended the School of Hard Knocks, learning her way around the city’s seedier side.
It was this familiarity with the gritty underbelly of the metropolis that led her to become a pioneer of undercover police work.
In 1934, it was officially decreed that policewomen would be permitted to carry firearms. Mary was the first in line, and shortly after being issued the .32 caliber Colt Police Special, she used it to great effect.
On more than one occasion she arrested two men at once, a feat for the most strapping of lads and unprecedented for a lady at the time. Usually when Mary pulled her pistol, it was only for effect, but she let off enough rounds to become known as the “Annie Oakley of the NYPD.”
According to Mary’s niece, she was so adept at ferreting out criminals. Her niece would often accompany her to aid in her disguise as a housewife out on the town, and later told the New York Times that Mary could “smell a crook.”
Mary retired after 27 years on the force, racking up an amazing 1,000 arrests in her career. She was so proficient in her duties that Mayor Fiorello La Guardia praised her for demonstrating “not only keen intelligence and fine police work but also courage at a moment when courage was needed.”
Lyudmila Pavlichenko 1916 – 1974
Already an accomplished shootist when Germany began to march on the then Soviet Union, Lyudmila Pavlichenko took up arms to defend her motherland.
She became the deadliest female sniper in history, amassing some 309 confirmed kills during World War II. This earned her the moniker “Lady Death,” and she remains one of the most effective snipers in of all time.
On July 12, 1916 Lyudmila Belova was born in what is now known as the Ukraine. By age 14, she’d joined a shooting club. It would be a fitting pastime, as young Lyudmila would later toil in the Kiev Arsenal factory, grinding parts for the machines of war.
At 16, she married Alexei Pavlichenko and gave birth to a son, but the union was short lived. In 1941, Germany put boots on Soviet soil and Lyudmila heeded the call to fight, like so many of her compatriots. She left Kiev University, where she was in her fourth year of study, and went directly to the Odessa recruiting office.
She was given the option of joining up as a nurse, but she refused, and insisted she be placed in the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division.
Feeling the full weight of the German offensive, the entire country—male and female—answered the call to arms, making her one an unbelievable 2,000 female snipers who fought in the war.
In less than two months, Pavlichenko tallied 100 confirmed kills, and ascended to the rank of Senior Sergeant in August. By May of the following year she was promoted to Lieutenant after killing 257 German soldiers. By the war’s end, 309 enemies had succumbed to her M1891 Mosin-Nagant rifle, 36 of those being snipers themselves.
She would ultimately be wounded by mortar fire, in June of 1942. The Red Army command had decided she was too valuable as a morale booster to put her back into the fray, and she was sent on a worldwide publicity tour.
After accepting President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s invitation, she was the first Soviet citizen to visit the White House.
Lyudmila would also tour the States with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, making speaking appearances along the way, to gather support for the war effort along the second front.
One particularly moving speech took place in Chicago, where Pavlichenko goaded the crowd: “Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist invaders by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?”