Annie Oakley "Powders I Have Used"


Growing up during the dark days of World War II, doctor I was a lucky little boy. My dad, remedy who was too old for military service, order was home virtually all the time. Remington production was 100% military, and sporting guns, ammunition plus the trap and skeet products he sold weren’t again available until late 1945.

When he wasn’t hunting or catching fish, we would spend lots of hours together. Nights were always one of my favorite times with him. After listening to the exploits of the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and before I shut off the old radio, Dad would come in to say good-night, and I’d always ask him to tell me a story. They varied from his days growing up in Connecticut at the turn of the last century to his favorite foxhounds or a fox hunting-related story. Generally, I was fast asleep before Dad’s adventure ended.

But there was one story about one person that always kept me wide awake—his association and personal friendship with Annie Oakley.

Right after WW I, Dad covered Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina for Remington. In those years. Annie was out of Pinehurst, N.C., where she and husband Frank Butler worked for the old Carolina Hotel.

Frank ran a gun club, and Annie gave shooting lessons and exhibitions. Butler was once employed by Remington, and he was kept on the payroll even after he stopped shooting. Naturally, the shells used at his gun club were Remington’s, and Dad wrote the order.

Like me, Dad saved everything. Neither one of us ever threw very much away. Among his favorite booklets was one Frank Butler gave him more than 80 years ago. It was published by the DuPont Powder Co. in 1914 and written by Annie Oakley. It’s called "Powders I Have Used" and appears in its entirety in this month’s The Road to Yesterday, compliments of DuPont, who gave me permission to reprint it.

Powders I Have Used
by Annie Oakley

I have often wondered what the trap and game shots of today would say if they had to use some of the powders I have used during my thirty years of shooting through fourteen different countries. I think a few trials would cure all complaints against the really high class powders made in America. When I first commenced shooting in the field in the Northern part of Ohio my gun was a single barrel muzzle loader, and as well as I can remember was a 16 bore. I used black powder (DuPont’s cheapest grade) but my own wads out of card board boxes, and thought I had the best gun and load on earth. Anyway, I managed to kill a great many ruffed grouse, quail and rabbits; all of which were quite plentiful in those days.

My father was a mail carrier and made two trips a week to Greenville, which was the county-seat, a distance of twenty or forty miles a day—not very far in these days of good roads, but a long trip then over muddy roads, and very often through snow hub-deep. On each trip he carried my game, which he exchanged for ammunition, groceries, etc. A few years ago I gave an exhibition at Greenville, and met the old gentleman who had bought all of my game. He showed me some old account books showing the amount of game he had purchased. I won’t say how much, as I might be classed as a game-hog, but any man who has ever tried to make a living and raise a family on twenty-seven acres of poor land will readily understand that it was a hard proposition, and that every penny derived from the sale of game shipped helped some.

How well I remember one Christmas Eve when the snow was deep and still coming down. Father was late getting home and did not arrive until long after dark. The log house was lit up by blazing logs in the big, open fireplace, over which hung our stockings— stockings with many darned places, but no holes, thanks to our good mother. Christmas morning we were up before daylight; all anxious to see what Santa Claus had brought. My stocking was so heavy it could not hang from the rail, but was laid on the table. When I opened it, or rather pulled the things out, it contained one can of DuPont Eagle ducking Black Powder (similar to the present DuPont Black Rifle Powder) five pounds of shot and two boxes percussion caps, all the gift of the merchant who bought my game. That was my first can of high-grade powder, and it was many a day before I broke the seal, for I was assured by the merchant that it was the best powder made, and I never again expected to own another can of such a grade.

My first real gun was a breech loading, hammer, 16-gauge made by Parker Brothers. My! I was proud of that gun. One hundred brass shells came with it. These I loaded with DuPont black powder, and continued to do so after I joined the Wild West Show, always using wads two sizes larger, so that the shot would not loosen in the second barrel.

I sometimes smile when I hear shooters talking about targets being hard to break. In those days there was only one kind made— the Ligowsky clay pigeon. These were made of a red clay and many of them were over-burned and hard as stone. I used Number 6 soft shot, as the chilled shot would glance off.

The first smokeless powder I ever used was in the year 1884 and was called the "Ditmar." This, like all smokeless powders, would not work in brass shells and was none too satisfactory when loaded in paper shells, so it was back to black powder for me. My next experience was with the American smokeless powder, which was an improvement on the other, but far from satisfactory, as no two cans were alike; so again I went back to black powder.

My first experience with Schultze powder dates back to ‘87, when an Englishman named Graham introduced it in this country. In demonstrating Schultze, it was his custom to cut open a shell, pour the powder out in his hand, and touch a match to it, thereby showing how even it would burn. One hot day his hand was wet with perspiration when he started his fire-works display, and the powder and fire adhered to his hand; and the result being that he was very badly burned. This was his last demonstration of that kind.

While the English Schultze at that time was far ahead of any of the other smokeless powders, it would not compare with the American Schultze powder of today. The grain was soft and it required careful loading, as too much pressure was sure to mash the grains into pulp; and, as it was impossible to get the same pressure on all shells by hand loading, the result was very often disappointing. I well remember the first time I tried using it in a pigeon match. My husband, who always loaded my shells, entrusted the loading of them for this match to a professional shell—loader in New York, as he (my husband) had never loaded any of this powder and did not care to take chances of loading it wrong, but, as we afterwards found out, the man we entrusted the loading to knew no more about it than Mr. Butler did. However, he did surely put plenty of pressure on each load, the result being an occasional kill, and more often a few feathers or a hole through the board fence 100 yards away, showing where the shot had balled. Needless to say, I lost this match with the lowest score I ever made. Three days later I had another match of 50 birds against Capt. Brewer, at Point Breeze Park, Philadelphia. This time I was again back to DuPont black powder. I lost the match by one bird. My score was 46, which was satisfactory to myself and all present, especially as it was a windy day and an open boundary.

When I went to England in 1886, I found a very good smokeless powder in use; The English Schultze. My husband made a trip to the Schultze factory to find out how to load it, which was only a matter of getting the right pressure. Simple as this may seem, it was not such an easy matter, as all shells in those days had to be loaded by hand. Since that time I have used Schultze whenever it was possible to get it. At the same time I experimented with every new powder, always looking for something better, but always returning to Schultze, which I had no trouble getting while in the English provinces.

Not until I went to France did my real powder troubles commence, as that country had a monopoly, which meant that no other powder was allowed to enter. I did not know that until we got to Havre. I had about 50 pounds of Schultze, which I expected to pay the duty on, and I was very much disappointed when I heard from our agent that it could not be landed. I was very anxious to do good shooting on my first visit to Paris, for it not only meant success for myself, but for the Wild West Company; as I was advertised very strongly and much was expected of me. Well! I got it in all right, and in a way probably never tried before or since. In the Company we had five lady riders, including myself. Bustles were quite the rage in those days, and although I had never worn them, I was glad to on this occasion and a regulation rubber hot water hag filled with powder made the bustle. We sure did attract some attention when we went down the gang plank, for although the bustle originated in France it was going out about this time. We brought the powder in with no trouble. I have cause to remember the first time I tried the French smokeless powder, as I burst one of my best guns, fortunately without accident to myself or anyone else. My husband loaded the shells according to directions which our interpreter read from the can, but we found out later that on damp or rainy days the powder charge should be increased, while on hot days it was to be decreased. I had a wet weather load on a very hot day. After that my shells were loaded every morning, as Mr. Butler would not even trust the weather man’s report.

Shortly after I arrived in Paris, I was made an honorary member of the leading trapshooting club. This gave me the right to compete in the shooting events, and I saved my Schultze powder for that purpose. There were many fine shots among the members, and I needed the best gun and ammunition if I hoped to hold my own. I soon found that a few of the best shots were also using Schultze, brought in probably on their private yachts.

When I first went to Europe in 1886, no matter how good my exhibition of shooting was, I had to enter the pigeon contests if I wanted to be rated as a real shot, (pigeon shooting at that time being considered one of the national sports) but, let me say right here that the class of birds used for this purpose in England and on the Continent made the shooting a far different and harder proposition than any found in America. The birds were small and very fast, most of them being raised especially for that purpose, and usually costing about $5.00 per dozen. Although the dead birds go to the Clubs, I always insisted upon having mine sent to the local charity hospitals.

After eight months in Paris I made a tour through Southern France, and, as there were several shooting tournaments in the towns on my way, I decided to take them in; for, although I was a professional, my membership in the Paris Club entitled me to compete in the events. By this time my Schultze powder was used up, and I had to again use the French powder. My first shooting was at Lyons, France, where they had a very fine gun club. My showing here was very poor. This may have been partly owing to my not having confidence in the load; whatever it was, my three days shooting cost me about $200.00, as I did not make a single win. The following week there was a big tournament at Marseilles, and Mr. Butler and myself decided to try it once more.

The day after our arrival I received notice that there was a package for me at the Custom House; I also found a letter from England with no signature saying two dozen fresh eggs had been sent me and requesting me not to throw away the packing until I tried it in my gun. At the Custom House, I found a large tin box securely wrapped, and I could not understand at first why it required such a large box to hold two dozen eggs. The officer opened the box and found the eggs packed in Schultze powder sent me by some good English friends. The duty on the eggs was about 40 cents, which I gladly paid. I never shot better in my life than I did the next three days, either winning or dividing every event. It may be that I was in better form, but I am sure my Schultze load had a great deal to do with my good scores. At the finish of the shooting I was requested to try three birds with a rifle, which I did, standing twenty-five yards from the trap, and was lucky enough to score all three, killing one with the second barrel. The Club had them mounted, and I understand they are still on exhibition at the Club House. Besides my winnings, which were a lot more than my losings of the previous week, the Club presented me with a magnificent gold medal.

In Spain, I found no smokeless powder, and only a very inferior grade of black powder, but, as we could have the English powder sent in by paying a duty, I did not have any powder troubles there. I found the Spaniards very poor marksmen, bull-fighting being their idea of sport.

Italy had no smokeless powder, but plenty of good shots, also many fine trapshooting clubs. Loaded shells could be sent in by paying a duty, but no powder in bulk. I had my shells loaded up with powder only and sent in that way. To insure perfect loads, the powder was removed from the shells and re-loaded.

I found one club at Rome, but it was poorly attended—and no wonder!—for when I visited this club they were throwing targets about seventy yards. All of the scores, including my own, looked mighty low. The pigeon clubs were all well attended, especially that at Milan, where all of the shooting was done in a stone arena, dating back about 1400 years and large enough to seat 30,000 people. The birds here were very fast and as everything was "miss and out" it was rather an expensive game. I was fortunate enough to win one event in which there was about seventy entries. My score was thirteen straight. I found the Italian shots largely using English Schultze.

Before going in Austria with the Wild West Show, our agent informed us that there was no smokeless powder in that country, nor would any be allowed in with or without duty. Having plenty on hand, Mr. Butler turned it over to one of the employees who did the packing of bedding, lamps, tents, etc. He took it out of the can and put it in shot sacks. Some of these he put in the mattresses and pillows, and some he put in the box with the lamps. We did not know anything about this at the time, but we found out later, as some of the oil from the lamps in some way got mixed with the powder—the result being that my first exhibition was a failure. Nearly every load sounded like a squib fire cracker, so it was black powder again while in that country, and the quality was about the worst I ever used.

In Germany, where some historians tell us the first powder was made, there was none to be had, but as we could ship it in by paying a duty I had some sent ahead. As it was sent in my name I had to go to the Custom House, where I spent several hours going from one department to another, paying a small fee at each place. If I remember correctly, it all amounted to about $1.25. Some of this was returned after signing some more papers. It happened on this same day that the Czar of Russia was due in Berlin, and in his honor the German Emperor ordered a parade, in which thousands of the pick of the German Army took part. This parade started at one end of Unter den Linden, the finest boulevard in all Germany. When Mr. Butler and myself left the Custom House, we each carried a drum of Schultze wrapped in paper, and started for our hotel. To reach it we had to cross this boulevard, but we found that no one was allowed across between the hours of 9 AM and 3 PM.  As this rule was enforced by soldiers and policemen for a distance of 5 miles, it meant about 4 hours’ wait. I determined to cross that street, and I did, although it was closely guarded by several soldiers whom I managed to elude by diving through the crowd. Mr. Butler had sit in a doorway and "sweat blood" for 4 hours, expecting every minute that one of the soldiers or detectives who were there to guard the Ruler of Russia would ask him what was in the packages. I had a splendid view of this parade from my hotel, but when I saw how closely the Czar was guarded and knew that there were men in the crowd only waiting for the chance to kill him as they did his father, I did not envy him his position. While traveling through Germany I tried out another smokeless powder which was afterwards introduced into America. At the time I tried it, it was far from being perfect, but as I never used it again I cannot say how good it was later.

In my travels through several other countries I had no trouble in having the English Schultze shipped in, and continued using the English make until my return to America. Since then I have used the American Schultze now manufactured by the DuPont Powder Company exclusively. I have been often asked if I could tell how many shells I have fired. If I had the time to go through all of my scrap-books, I might get a rough idea. I really think I have fired more shots than anyone else. I know in one year I used 40,000 shot shells; also several thousand ball cartridges.

During one of my engagements in Continental Europe I gave two exhibitions daily, including Sundays, for 17 months. As I was doing riding stunts at the same time, I was ready for rest when I had finished.

In conclusion, let me say that while I prefer American Schultze powder to all others for shotgun work, I do not say it is the only powder. It suits me—I know when I hold right I will score "dead", but if anything happened that I could not get Schultze, I would not hesitate to use any of the DuPont powders—Dupont, Ballistite, or Empire—and feel sure that I would get good results from any of them.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 June 2010 09:31