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Friday, August 19, 2016

Guns of the Great Shooters from Buffalo Bill's Wild West

Reunions with old friends can be a time filled with nostalgia, laughs, and more than a few old yarns to tell. In our business, the phrase, "if this old gun could talk," is a desire commonly expressed. Firearms with rich histories find their way through our doors on a regular basis, and I've had questions on more than one occasion that I would've like to have posed to one or two of them as they passed through our hallways as part of their grand journey. The grouping of items in this article is no exception. The reunion of these trusty arms would undoubtedly result in a whirlwind of stories, knowing nods, and a list of accomplishments that require no exaggeration in their retelling. These arms all have ties to members of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, and even the ol' scout himself, William F. Cody. Their backgrounds are as varied as the people they belong to, but time and circumstance have brought them back together at Rock Island Auction Company's 2016 September Premiere Firearms Auction for one last reunion. If only they could talk.

Buffalo Bill

Lot 1036: Historic and Well Documented John Ulrich Signed Factory Engraved Deluxe Winchester Model 1873 Lever Action Short Rifle with Factory Exhibition Special Order Finish and Features Presented by Buffalo Bill (William F. Cody) to Robbie Campbell Adams Twelve Year Old Son of Wild West Show Pamphlets Publisher for the Wild West Shows Performance at Madison Square Garden

In this case, the headline for our item is so long it almost tells the story itself. Medal of Honor recipient William F. Cody began his own wild west show in 1883, which toured annually in the United States and Europe. He had already earned a solid reputation as a prolific bison hunter, as well as a scout and Indian fighter in the Army, and his reputation continued to grow. However, it was an encounter with author Captain Edward Zane Carroll Judson that began Buffalo Bill's road to stardom. Capt. Judson often wrote under many pseudonyms, but his best known was Ned Buntline. It was a combination of Buntline's dime novels about Buffalo Bill's adventures, as well as Cody's proficiency he displayed in front of top men, such as General Sheridan, Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, and New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett, that resulted his star's continued rise.

In that first year, Buffalo Bill's Wild West was such a popular attraction that it was able to take its act indoors to the first iteration of Madison Square Garden, built in 1879. It had no roof since P.T. Barnum converted it into an open-air "Great Roman Hippodrome" in 1873. It was a large oval-shaped arena where he presented circuses (naturally) and other forms of entertainment and performance. It was a fantastic space that traded hands several times, and each owner had a new vision for what the space should offer: events catering to high brow clientele, illegal boxing matches, indoor track and field, dog shows, concerts, religious revivals, and one of the first indoor ice rinks in the nation. Most importantly, people knew of the venue and its attractions. The boxing matches had long drawn crowds over the venue's capacity, and an elephant purchased by P.T. Barnum from the London Zoo in 1881 readily drew enough onlookers to earn back its purchase price of $10,000. So when Buffalo Bill took his show there in 1883, he had no trouble finding crowds willing to fill its seats. Having names such as James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, Buck Taylor, Captain Adam Bogartus, Doc Carver, and Texas Jack Omohundro on his payroll couldn't hurt either. it was a time of transition for Buffalo Bill from small exhibitions and reenactment performer to an arena-filling showman and master entertainer.

He no doubt gave partial credit for the fine attendance to the man producing the publicity pamphlets for his shows at Madison Square Garden. This same man was also a partner in the Beadle and Adams publishing house, well known for producing the "yellow-back" dime novels of the day. Not to be confused with the publisher Street & Smith, also located in New York, that had published "The Buffalo Bill Stories" which led to a large part of his fame. To thank Mr. Adams for his support in several areas, Buffalo Bill presented this Winchester Model 1873 to his son 12-year old Robbie Campbell Adams. Rock Island Auction President Kevin Hogan says it best, "This is akin to receiving Michael Jordan's sneakers." It was a prized gift from one of the finest performers of the day.

The gun is a remarkable presentation grade gun with a grocery list of special order features:

- Gold plated frame, tip, and buttplate
- Nickel finish
- Ulrich engraved
- checkered, fancy walnut stocks
- short rifle
- shotgun butt
- pistol grip

On the right side of the frame is a panel scene depicting a hunter peering out from behind a tree to shoot a bull elk. The left side also bears masterfully done floral scrollwork along with the inscription that reads, "Presented by Buffalo Bill (W. F. Cody) to Robbie Campbell Adams ~1883~"

Besides being lavished with presentation grade features, the gun was clearly chosen for the boy to be able to use it if he so chose.  It's a short rifle for easier handling by a lad, it is chambered in the relatively mild yet still effective 32 WCF, and the 22-inch barrel would also not have been unwieldy for a 12-year old. Obviously, the gun never saw the typical boyhood use and it remains in very fine condition.

This remarkable rifle's provenance is extensively documented, as it has been in the public eye for quite some time, appearing in numerous books and magazines. Rock Island Auction Company is proud to offer this rifle to the public, taking this oft dreamt-about gun and making the possibility of owning it a reality.

Frank Butler and Annie Oakley

Lot 1770: Documented Historic Factory Engraved Remington Model 12-B Gallery Special Model Slide Action Rifle Sold to Frank Butler Husband of Famed Exhibition Shooter Annie Oakley

Phoebe Ann Moses, better known as Annie Oakley, is a woman that needs no introduction to most Americans, let alone those interested in shooting. However, much fewer folks know about her husband, Frank Butler, or the story of how they met. First things first, there is much debate over the exact significant dates of the young couple. That in mind, precise dates will be avoided as much as possible in an effort to stick to the story.

Frank Butler was a dog trainer and exhibition shooter who, like many others, toured the country taking on challengers in shooting competitions for money, bragging rights, and an increase in reputation. On one of those trips he placed a $100 wager with Jack Frost (yes, that's his real name) who owned a Cincinnati hotel. Butler stated that he could best any local who dared to challenge him. When a challenger was found and the match was set, imagine Butler's surprise when out from the crowd walked a young lady. "The last thing Butler expected was a five-foot-tall... girl named Annie," recalled Frost. As was customary at the time, they would shoot live birds, and both sides agreed to a best-of-25 contest. Frank Butler lost that contest by a single bird, but both lives would be changed forever. Frank had fallen for the then-shy young lady, while Annie seemed more interested in his French poodle named George. Frank courted Annie by sending her postcards and letters signed by George. The two would be wed within a year.

It was 1885 when Annie Oakley and her husband, Mr. Frank Butler, became part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West. Annie's stature earned her the nickname "Little Sure Shot" in  Cody's publicity flyers and ads, a name given to her by Lakota leader Sitting Bull, himself a participant in the early years of Buffalo Bill's Wild West. There is no need to recount her numerous feats and popularity. However, she is an intriguing personality, known for fierce independence, an advocate for suffrage (as was William Cody), as well as a kind heart, a gentle word, a strong desire to maintain her sterling reputation, and to always portray herself as a lady despite her involvement in what was then a very masculine sport.

The first time Annie and Frank tried to settle down was in 1901, an attempt to alleviate Annie's terrible back pain suffered during a train accident, but such joie de vivre could not be tamed for long. Defeating an early diagnosis of paralysis after five spinal operations, Annie left the Buffalo Bill show in 1902 and began a less travel-intensive career in stage acting. She would return again to another show in 1911, "The Young Buffalo Show," while consecutively serving as a representative for Union Metallic Cartridge Co. Annie never lost a step as she aged, with one reporter quoted as saying, "Annie Oakley looks as though she had discovered the secret that Ponce De Leon sought so long in vain...She is as bright and alert, as when I saw her a slip of a girl with long braids 25 years ago when I was a kid." However, it didn't last long and the couple "retired" once again in 1912, even though Annie toured sporadically with another show.

For the most part, the Butlers were finished with life as performers (until Annie attempted a comeback in 1922). Perhaps as a retirement gift for his wife, Frank purchased this Remington Model 12-B on February 28, 1912. Designed by J.D. Pedersen, the model had been introduced three years prior and Annie would have already been familiar with it. Later she became quite prolific with the model using it to shoot apples off of the head of their beloved dog, Dave, and another Model 12 of Annie's (SN 600125) still resides in the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming.

The example in Cody, while in excellent condition, is relatively plain compared to the Model 12-B currently offered by Rock Island Auction Company. The example purchased by Frank Butler has a highly grained, fancy stock, checkered forearm, half octagon-half round barrel, a folding peep sight, and is finely factory engraved with panel scenes of rabbits and squirrels.

The rifle may have been a perfect retirement gift for Annie, but it didn't help her desire to settle down. Annie often gave pointers on shooting to those around her, be it at trapshooting tournaments, impromptu exhibitions, or even fellow guests at the Caroline Hotel of Pinehurst, NC. "The lessons [at the hotel] began by accident when the shooting star had overheard a wealthy New Yorker comment to another in the hotel's ballroom, 'My, how I wish I were a man so that I could shoot.' Oakley replied, 'Your sex does not prevent you from learning to shoot.'"  It is documented in numerous sources that her skills had not faded in the slightest even into her fifties and sixties. In 1922, in a shooting contest in Pinehurst, the 62-year old hit 100 clays in a row at 16 yards. Unfortunately, her sixties was as long as Annie would live. She passed on November 3, 1926, at the age of 66, of what the doctor termed "pernicious anemia." Frank Butler went into intense mourning and refused to eat. He followed Annie in death 18 days later.

This is not only an incredible rifle with numerous special order features, but it remains an incredible piece of memorabilia tied to arguably the greatest American exhibition shooter from the sport's Golden Age. Opportunities like this may never arise again, and any collector or museum would be extremely fortunate to acquire this little rifle.

Buck Taylor

This remarkable Colt Single Auction Army owned by Buck Taylor, the true "King of the Cowboys" has already been covered in depth in a previous article. If you'd like to find out more about this incredible cowpuncher, his history with Buffalo Bill's Wild West, and how the important provenance of this beautiful revolver was almost lost forever to history, please read our story "Buck Taylor: The True King of the Cowboys."

Memorabilia of William F. Cody

There is also a fascinating lot in this auction that contains two items with intimate ties to Buffalo Bill.  Frankly, with all the items shown above, also with ties to the man, it could not have arrived at a better time. These items were consigned to us by someone who purchased them from an estate sale 25 years ago. The sale was being held by the niece of a man who had worked for Cody in Wheaton, Illinois. With the birthplace of Buffalo Bill a short drive away from Rock Island Auction Company, it is not surprising to hear of artifacts of the man in nearby areas. The first item is a briefcase with his name clearly printed on the closing flap. It is likely no coincidence at all that the case is designed to resemble a saddle bag. The second item is a tri-fold mirror that, according to its inscription, was a Christmas gift from Cody to "my darling wife Louisa."

Both items are a simple reminder of the wonderfully ordinary life of a man more known for his spectacle, crowds, and showmanship. They would be welcome in any accomplished collection of the man or his storied show.

These marvelous items revolving around the America legend that is Buffalo Bill's Wild West, are only the beginning of the historic and presentation grade items available in the 2016 September Premiere Firearms Auction. With items from celebrated figures such as President Teddy Roosevelt, to infamous Nazi leaders, the selection has never been better. Two juggernaut groupings among several other accomplished collections lead the way, but they are accompanied by hundreds of single gun consignments from around the country. They all combine to make a sale that collectors will be talking about for years to come. Visit today to browse the items and see for yourself.

-Written by Joel R. Kolander


Sorg, Eric V. "Annie Oakley." Wild West Feb. 2001: n. pag. Web.


  1. Was any of this collection from the Royal American Shows family, Carl J. Sedlmayr? I know the grandson Mike Sedlmayr and I know they had an Annie Oakley collection as well as a Buffalo Bill Collection.

  2. I've got Stack Lee's rifle from the 101 show, ordered with 9 others just before the Miller Bros took the show on the road, and a Cody letter on all three rifles though it doesn't specifically saw who bought them except the dealer number. The buttplate was cast with his name in it, and the left receiver cartouche with the 101 Ranch, but I can't find another one of the 10 rifles to get 100% authentication (though I have a photo of him holding it at Panama, apparently taken and mass printed for souvenir sales, but the rifle wood is identical).

    Pity almost no fans of even the Wild West show days that not one in a hundred know who Stack Lee was.

    1. Blah, all 10 rifles are listed on the copy of the sales invoice I have, they were entirely purchased by one customer to specifications for the standard .30 WCF (30-30 as its known now) full length standard rifles with three bladed sights. This particularly example has the sites silver soldered to an unchangeable position, and the bore almost totally shot out from using black powder (for effect) with what was effectively a shotgun shell (to insure against embarrassing misses). If anyone has a similar rifle let me know and I'll publish the serial's of the other 9 up. I think the order date was 1904, though I'd have to dig up the paperwork to get the details.