What you see: A Stevens model 44 .25-20 single-shot rifle, given to Annie Oakley. Morphy Auctions estimates it at $200,000 to $400,000.
The expert: Michael Salisbury, firearms expert at Morphy Auctions.
Who was Annie Oakley? In the 1880s, exhibition shooting was extremely popular, like football or baseball is today. A well-known traveling exhibition shooter, Frank Butler, came to a Cincinnati hotel owned by Jack Frost. Butler’s coming to town was a great event. At the time, Annie Oakley was known as Phoebe Ann Moses. She was providing game meat to the restaurants at Frost’s hotel, and everybody knew she was an incredible shot. Frost arranged a shooting event. Moses beat Butler by one shot, and a romance began. She married Butler in 1882.
How did Phoebe Ann Moses become a star? In 1885, Butler was looking for his big break. When one of Buffalo Bill Cody’s exhibition shooters fell ill, Butler and Moses applied for the slot. The focus became Annie Oakley because she was a beautiful lady and an incredible shot.
When did she take the name Annie Oakley? Soon after joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1885. The reason is unknown, other than it was popular for performers to have stage names. Perhaps Cody recommended she do so. There is much conjecture on the subject [of how she chose her stage name]. Her sisters, growing up, would call her “Annie”. The name “Oakley” is believed to have come from a town near where she grew up.
No one alive today saw Annie Oakley perform in person, yet we’re still talking about her, almost a century after her death. Why? Why is her legacy so strong? The most important thing is exhibition shooting was a man’s sport. It was a big event, her being a lady and outshooting men. She was kind of ahead of her time. She really promoted hunting and shooting to young ladies. She made incredible shots with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. She was one of the stars. Hers is an interesting story that stuck with people.
Why was Annie Oakley so exceptionally skilled with firearms? What made her a standout? Obviously, she 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.”
That rifle was 40 inches long? Sounds like it was almost as long as her own body when she learned how to use it. Here was this little girl, taking the rifle off the wall and into the woods to shoot game to feed her mother and sister. I think her coordination, her ability, and her willpower contributed to her being an incredible markswoman.
The lot notes don’t give a date for the Annie Oakley gun. Do we know when it was made? 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.
Where was Annie Oakley in her career in 1893? She 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’s 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’s noted as having written Kaiser Wilhelm II a letter saying she wanted another shot. [Laughs] She was a daring woman who had a sense of humor.
How did this Annie Oakley gun come to be? Let me tell you a story. 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 don’t 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’d hear about, for example, a new type of Winchester rifle, and would write to the manufacturer saying she’d like to have one, and of course they’d send her one.
It sounds like Annie Oakley was the 19th century 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.
So this gun has inherent value, even without the Annie Oakley provenance? Yes. It’s a very desirable weapon. If you find an early Stevens model 44, embellished, in near mint condition, it’d be worth $15,000 to $20,000. The connection with Annie Oakley increases that tenfold or more.
This Annie Oakley gun is a single-shot rifle. Why is that important? Stevens’s claim to fame as a manufacturer was very accurate single-shot rifles and pistols. That’s what they did, and they would have wanted to promote that.
Did Annie Oakley use this gun during a performance? I do believe, in my heart, it was special to Annie because it commemorates her and Frank’s first home together. I think it was hung on the wall and never used, but all this is speculation on my part.
The Annie Oakley gun is described as being in “near mint overall” condition. What does that mean when we’re talking about vintage firearms? 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.
What has to happen for a vintage firearm to survive in such good condition? This 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’m sure it was test-fired at the Stevens factory. It’s impossible for me to say Annie Oakley never shot this gun. I don’t 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’s 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.
Why do collectors require vintage firearms to work when no one in their right minds will ever load and shoot them? For the same reason you wouldn’t want to buy a half-million-dollar Ferrari with an engine that doesn’t run. Same thing.
What is the Annie Oakley gun like in person? Are there details that the camera doesn’t capture? 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.
What’s the world auction record for an Annie Oakley gun? It was a Marlin Model 1897 sold through Rock Island Auction Co. in December 2019 for $575,000.
Do you think this Annie Oakley gun has a chance of meeting or beating the record? 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.
How to bid: The Annie Oakley gun is lot 1369 in the Extraordinary, Sporting, & Collector Firearms sale at Morphy Auctions on May 28 and 29, 2020. Absentee and Internet live bidding is available through LiveAuctioneers.
By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY
Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction.