The Wild West had its collection of fast guns that are part of legend: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Pat Garrett, to name a few. What about back East, where lobsters, caulk-booted loggers and rugged coastline comprise our lore more than lean, steely-eyed hombres with Hog Legs on their hips?
Believe it or not, we in Maine did have one fast gun, which is part of the rich lore of Maine’s western mountains. You don’t hear much about him. Born on Chebeague Island off our rocky coast, he wound up as a teenager in Rangeley working as a bellhop and a part-time fishing guide.
His name was William “Billy” Hill. He loved to hunt and shoot guns. As a boy on the island, he was known for his ability to consistently down eider ducks on the wing with a .22! Although, he did shoot his toe off while hunting rabbits as a youngster, the experience never slowed him down or dampened his interest in guns and marksmanship. According to Rangeley historian Bill Pierce, Annie Oakley, the iconic competitive shooter, who had no peers when it came to precision marksmanship, showed up at, of all places, the Rangeley Lake House on a holiday from one of her many world tours with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows. Oakley was 33 years old at the time and had never once lost a shooting challenge.
Billy, who had his own local rep as quite a shooter, was offered up by his friends in a challenge match with Oakley. Billy was actually horrified when he found out what his friends had done.
Oakley agreed to the joust. The object was to see who could put a bullet through the most glass target balls, the most popular shotgun target of the day. They alternated by attempting to break 20 target balls per shooter at a time with a .22 rifle. All in all, there was to be 100 toss-ups. According to Pierce, Hill went first and nervously missed his third shot. Annie would go on to break an impressive 88 out of a hundred targets. Billy, however, never missed again busting 99 out of 100, thus becoming the first person to ever best the Great Annie Oakley in a shooting contest.
Surely the onlookers in Rangeley were as surprised as Oakley must have been. Heck, the humble Billy himself may have been just as surprised as anyone. However, Annie then graciously sent a telegram from the hotel to her chief sponsor, Remington Arms, urging the President “to get to Rangeley and hire this kid.” He did and Billy would retire from Remington as one of their most celebrated shooting exhibitionists and instructors some 42 years later.
You can’t help but like Annie Oakley who was born and raised in rural Ohio as Phoebe Ann Mosey. Barely over 5 feet tall, she learned to shoot at a young age hunting squirrels and rabbits to help feed her impoverished family. At 15 years old she pulled a Billy Hill on a well-known fast gun named Frank Butler and outshot him in a local contest. He was so impressed he eventually married Annie and, from all reports, they had a good marriage.
Wouldn’t you liked to have seen her in action? She drilled dimes in the air at 90 feet. Aside from her Marlin .22, her other favorite gun was a Parker 12-gauge side by side. In 2012, that gun sold in an auction for $143,000! She taught thousands of other women to shoot competitively.
Once in Germany, she shot the ash off the end of a cigarette between the lips of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Later during the war, she contacted the Kaiser and offered to try the trick again.
The Kaiser demurred.
You can learn more about Maine’s fastest gun at the Outdoor Heritage Museum in Oquossoc, north of Rangeley. When you visit just ask the curator, Bill Pierce, to tell you about Billy Hill.