History's Top Shots

Annie Oakley

These men and women have earned reputations for their sharp eye, strong arm and steady aim—whether on the battlefield, in the Wild West or at the Olympic Games. Here are 10 of History’s Top Shots.

William Tell
As popular legend has it, in the early 14th century the Swiss hero William Tell–known for his skill with a crossbow–defied the authority of an Austrian tyrant named Hermann Gessler. Gessler forced Tell’s young son to stand against a tree with an apple balanced on his head. If Tell did not shoot the apple with one of his arrows, he ordered, the boy would be killed. Tell took aim with his crossbow and shot the arrow in its center without hurting the boy; he was later said to have killed Gessler and inspired the Swiss people to rise up against Austrian rule.

Robin Hood
Like William Tell, the outlaw hero Robin Hood was a figure of legend; he gained fame as the subject of popular English ballads dating at least as far back as the 14th century. Hood and his band of “Merry Men” defied authorities (especially the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham), robbing from the rich to give to the poor. The legend of Robin Hood’s rebellion has been traced to popular resentment over the restriction of hunting rights in the forests of England. A champion archer, Hood was said to have won a competition by splitting his opponent’s arrow cleanly in two.

Morgan’s Riflemen 
During the American Revolution, General George Washington gave Daniel Morgan the authority to select 500 skilled riflemen from the Continental forces to take into upstate New York and face the invading British Army under General John Burgoyne. In the fall of 1777, their superior marksmanship played a key role in the Battles of Saratoga. With just two shots, rifleman Timothy Murphy fatally wounded Brigadier General Simon Fraser and killed Sir Francis Clarke, Burgoyne’s chief aide-de-camp, dealing a serious blow to British morale. The American victory at Saratoga changed the course of the Revolution, convincing France to openly join the conflict against Britain.

Hiram Berdan
For the 15 years preceding the Civil War, when target shooting was a popular pastime, the wealthy businessman Hiram Berdan of New York was acknowledged to be the bestrifle shot in the country; he had also invented a repeating rifle and a musket ball. When war broke out, Berdan’s skill earned him the responsibility of creating two regiments of sharpshooters for the Union Army. To join Berdan’s Sharpshooters, a soldier had to fire 10 straight shots inside a 10-inch circle from a distance of 200 yards, without telescopic sights. In combat, the shooters were outfitted with distinctive green uniforms and carried advanced long-range rifles; they often operated in small groups and used stealth and cover tactics that anticipated later fighting techniques. Berdan served in the Seven Days’ Battles and the Second Battle of Bull Run (both 1862) and at Chancellorsville and Gettsyburg in 1863 and attained the rank of major general before leaving the army in early 1864.

“Wild Bill” Hickok
Known as “Wild Bill” for his devil-may-care attitude, James Butler Hickok used his skill as a marksman to defend himself against robbers while working as a stagecoach driver along the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. According to biographies of the day (influenced by exaggerated stories told by Hickok and his friends), he never failed to hit a running man 100 yards away with a bullet from his revolver, and once shot a row of holes in the brim of a hat as it was falling from a man’s head, before it hit the ground. After the Civil War, Hickok pursued a colorful career in law enforcement, serving as sheriff of Hays City and marshal of Abilene (both in Kansas), two of the most lawless cities on the frontier. In 1873-74, Hickok performed alongside William “Buffalo Bill” Cody in a precursor to the latter’s Wild West show. Two years later, the famous lawman was shot to death at a saloon poker table in Deadwood, Dakota Territory.

Annie Oakley 
At the age of 15, Phoebe Ann Mosey of Ohio won a shooting match against Frank E. Butler; the pair soon married, and began performing vaudeville and circus shows together after she took the stage name “Oakley” from a Cincinnati suburb. In 1885, Annie Oakley joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show; she would be one of its main attractions for the next 16 years. Her shooting prowess–she could split playing cards along their edges, snuff candles or hit a dime tossed into the air, among other feats–earned her the name “Little Sure Shot.” Injured in a train accident in 1901, Oakley recovered and returned to performing, raising money for the Red Cross during World War I by giving shooting demonstrations.

Alvin C. York
The Tennessee-born York was drafted into the U.S. Army after unsuccessfully seeking conscientious-objector status during World War I. Though he impressed his superior officers with his marksmanship, shooting accurately at ranges up to 500 yards, York refused to shoot at human silhouettes used as targets. As a member of the 82nd Infantry Division during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of October 1918, he took command of a small patrol of soldiers after German gunners killed his superior officer. Almost single-handedly, York shot down more than two dozen enemy gunners, leading the Germans to surrender their position. Promoted to the rank of sergeant, York won the Congressional Medal of Honor and the French Croix de Guerre, among other accolades, for his bravery.

Howard Hill 
Alabama native Howard Hill received his first bow at the age of 6, and went on to become known as one of the world’s top archers, or the “Babe Ruth of Archery.” Despite his 196 consecutive field archery tournament titles between 1926 and 1942, Hill’s real love was hunting. He brought home more than 2,000 different species of wild game, from moose and white tail deer to rattlesnakes and alligators. Hill served as Errol Flynn’s stand-in bowman in several movies (including 1938′s “The Adventures of Robin Hood”) and starred as himself in a number of short features for Warner Brothers. When Hill died in 1975, his obituary in The New York Times underlined two particular achievements: He was the first white hunter to kill a wild elephant with a bow and arrow, and he could stretch a 172-pound bow to a distance of 26 inches.

Kim Soo Nyung 
Kim Soo Nyung of South Korea was only 17 when she won her first gold medals in the individual and team archery events in front of a hometown crowd at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Widely considered the greatest female archer ever, she was the best of a generation of South Korean archers that dominated international competition, winning every Olympic gold in women’s archery from 1984 to 2008 (with the exception of the individual gold won by China’s Juan Juan Zhang in Beijing). Kim retired in 1992 after winning individual silver and team gold in Barcelona, married and had two children, and then returned to training in time to qualify for the Korean Olympic team in 2000. In Sydney, she took home an individual bronze medal (she lost to the 17-year-old Yun Mi Jin, also from South Korea, in the semifinals) and another gold in the team event.

Navy SEAL Sharpshooters in Maersk Rescue
On April 12, 2009, three exceptional shots fired by elite U.S. Navy SEAL snipers ended a five-day standoff between U.S. naval forces on the destroyer Bainbridge and a small band of Somali pirates in a covered lifeboat off the Horn of Africa. The pirates had attacked an American cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, and taken its captain, Richard Phillips, hostage. During the tense standoff, the U.S. Defense Department sought and obtained permission from President Barack Obama to use force against the pirates if it appeared Phillips’ life was in imminent danger. When two of the pirates poked their heads out a back hatch and a third pointed an automatic rifle at Phillips, the SEAL sharpshooters took aim using night-vision scopes. Despite the darkness, and the fact that the lifeboat was bobbing up and down a few feet, the expertly trained shooters were able to take out the three pirates with just three shots, setting the stage for Phillips’ rescue.