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A Look Back: The History of Women and Guns

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Gun ownership has reportedly risen in recent years among American women. Manufacturers have made specific handguns and accessories to cater to this increasing market. But gun ownership among women is not novel. Women have used and owned guns for more than two centuries in America.

Women on the Battlefield

The best-documented examples of women using firearms are during war. Traditionally, women were relegated to non-combatant roles. But this didn’t stop hundreds from picking up a gun and entering combat during the 18th and 19th centuries. These heroic women disguised themselves by chopping off their hair and dressing as males to keep their gender hidden.

During the American Revolution, a 21-year-old schoolteacher named Deborah Sampson of Plympton, Massachusetts, joined the Continental Army. In 1782, she enlisted in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment under the alias “Robert Shurtleff.” During her two years of service, Sampson received a saber wound to the head and a bullet wound to the thigh. She allegedly performed surgery on herself to evade being caught. Sampson was the only woman to receive a full military pension for her service during the war. (Another notable mention is the recent discovery that the famed Polish General Casimir Pulaski might have actually been a woman.)

Historians estimate that during the American Civil War, at least 400 women fought incognito as soldiers. Frances Clayton, under the alias of Jack Williams, served alongside her husband until he was killed in battle. Likewise, a farm girl named Sarah Rosetta Wakeman enlisted as a private under the alias of Lyons Wakeman. She saw action during the 1864 Red River Campaign and succumbed to dysentery. Wakeman is buried under her false name at the Chalmette National Cemetery. Other noteworthy female soldiers who hid their identities include Frances Hook, Jennie Hodgers, Sarah Emma Edmonds and Loreta Janeta Velázquez.

Women on the American Frontier 

In the decades after the Civil War, frontier women needed guns to acquire food to feed their families and for protection. For men and women alike, knowing how to use a gun was essential to survival.

Martha Jane Cannary, better known as Calamity Jane, became one of the most famous gun-toting frontier women. “She was an expert with pistol and with rifle. [Jane] could track and trail as good as any male scout on the frontier. She dressed like a man, swore like a man, drank like a man, shot guns like a man,” noted historian and author Dr. Roger McGrath. Other frontier women adopted a life of crime. Female outlaws Cattle Kate, Pearl Hart and Little Britches were known to be experts with a firearm.

Women, such as Lillian Smith and Annie Oakley, demonstrated their prowess as sharpshooters. Born Phoebe Ann Mosey, Oakley is recognized as one of the greatest sharpshooters — man or woman — in history. Oakley taught herself to hunt with her father’s old Kentucky rifle after he died when she was just six. She became the breadwinner of the family, hunting game and selling it to hotels. A trick shooter with his own vaudeville show, Frank Butler first met the 15-year-old girl while passing through Southern Ohio. Oakley defeated the showman during a shooting contest. (Each hit 24 clay birds in a row, but Butler missed the 25th. Oakley didn’t.) The two married less than a year later and became business partners.

Butler trained Oakley on how to put on an exciting performance for her audiences. She could shoot the flames of candles as they rotated on a wheel, shoot a dime out of a man’s hand, shoot from a bicycle or horseback, shoot while lying backward on a chair, and shoot glass balls or playing cards midair. It didn’t matter if it was a rifle, shotgun or revolver — she mastered all three. In 1885, Oakley joined “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West Show and spent 17 years touring with the legend.

Female Trailblazers

In retirement, Oakley taught women to shoot. “Personally,” McGrath stated, “she trained at least 15,000 women in the use of firearms, for hunting and target practice and for self-defense.” Oakley even offered to recruit a unit of 50 female sharpshooters during the Spanish-American War and World War I. Both proposals were turned down.

Throughout American history, women did not allow gender to restrict them from carrying and using guns. It has been said that firearms are a great equalizer. Female soldiers, frontierswomen and markswomen demonstrated that they could compete with — and even surpass — men when it came to handling a firearm. Gun use among women is part of America’s legacy and will continue to be for years to come.

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