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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Billy Dixon's
Long Shot Analized

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Buffalo-hide man Billy Dixon was used to being the hunter, not the hunted.

But on June 27, 1874, when 300 or so very angry Comanche, Kiowa and Southern Cheyenne Indians attacked the only Anglo enclave in the grassy vastness of the Panhandle in what is now Hutchinson County, he had to fight hard to save his scalp.

An array of warriors sat on their horses along a mesa nearly a mile to the east, readying for one more charge toward the 28 hunters, traders, a bartender -- and one woman -- who constituted the residents of a scattering of dried-mud structures known as Adobe Walls.

With a borrowed .50-90 Sharp’s rifle he braced on a wall, windowsill or barrel (accounts of the incident are not that exacting) Dixon raised his peep sight and did mental calculations as to distance, trajectory and windage. A 24-year-old Virginian, he knew nothing of ballistic science, but he had killed hundreds if not thousands of buffalo. He did know how to handle a high-powered rifle.

Dixon pulled the set trigger (which releases some of the tension on the firing mechanism, but not all) and then squeezed off the shot. As the rifle kicked his shoulder, a conical lead bullet weighing nearly an ounce spun through the heavy octagonal barrel followed by a cloud of the white smoke created by black powder. Before the targeted Indian heard the shot, he toppled from his horse, dead or dying.

At that, the other Indians kicked their mounts and galloped for cover or at least more distance between them and whoever had fired that shot. The buffalo hunters, outnumbered but better armed, had killed 15 to 30 of their attackers while losing only three of their own. After Dixon’s near miraculous shot, they gave up and rode away.

Possibly for the first time in 141 years, that shot, generally estimated at 7/8 of a mile and considered one of the most famous shots in the history of the Old West, was reenacted on July 17 at the scene of the battle. Surrounded by the 98,000-acre Turkey Track Ranch, the historic site may be visited by invitation only even though the five-acres where the old settlement stood is owned by the Panhandle Plains Historical Society.

Two historical re-enactors dressed as Kiowa warriors – Henry Crawford and Jason Ramirez -- graciously agreed to stand on the distant mesa and serve as “targets.” Of course, Bob Butterfield, a nationally-known collector of Sharp’s rifles, would be firing a blank when he demonstrated for members of the Wild West History Association how the legendary shot might have looked.

Less than five seconds after the Californian pulled the trigger, one of the costumed “Indians” suddenly dropped to the ground while the other scurried away. The audience applauded. Meanwhile, the “dead” Indian got up and walked back to his pickup along with his cohort. It was hot up there and they were ready for an icy bottle of water.

For decades, historians and gun collectors have written about, analyzed and debated the story of Dixon’s long shot. Most historians believe Dixon did make an extraordinary shot, but its range is a continuing topic of discussion. Whatever the distance, it was challenging.

As millions who saw “American Sniper” learned, mile-long shots are certainly possible with high-powered “smart" scopes atop equally high powered rifles. But in 1874, even though the .50 caliber Sharp’s was an awesome weapon, hitting a human that far away would have been one heck of a shot.

To appreciate the significance of Dixon’s shot, it’s important to know that bullets do not follow the line of sight when fired. A projectile’s arc-like course is affected by rate of spin, gravity, air drag, temperature (it goes farther the warmer the air), elevation (the higher the elevation, the more a bullet’s range) and wind.

“At nearly a mile, even a modern 30.06 round would drop about five feet,” says San Antonio gun collector Kurt House, who arranged the July reenactment. “To hit something at that distance with a .50 caliber, you’d have to aim way high. And then calculate for windage.”

House said a 1989 scientific investigation of Dixon’s storied shot conducted by a California professor and his students, while full of technical talk, assessed on a sliding scale of likelihood the possibility of Dixon being able to make that shot.

“They concluded that on the range of probability, it was on the low end,” House said. “Around 15 percent.”

After going over the 1989 study along with a ballistics test done in 1992 and other data, forensics expert Dr. James A. Bailey of Wilmington, NC, concluded that to have hit the Indian, Dixon would have had to aim 35 degrees above his horseback target to allow for a 318-inch bullet drop. At the same time, the young buffalo hunter would have had to train his weapon 337 inches to one side or another, given a wind speed estimated at 14 miles an hour.

Assuming Dixon correctly made those adjustments, Bailey further concluded the shot could have been fatal. The bullet would have been traveling 781 feet per second at impact, a hit that would have 630 foot-pounds of energy behind it. (It takes 160 foot-pounds to penetrate skin, 200 foot-pounds to break a bone.)

Of course, back then, digital range finders did not exist. Because of that, precisely how far apart Dixon and that unfortunate warrior had been will never be known for sure. Estimates vary, but the most commonly accepted distance is 1,530 yards.

WWHA member Roy Young, an Oklahoma book dealer and preacher, put Dixon’s shot in perspective: “He was either the best shot in the West…or the luckiest.”

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - July 23, 2015 Column

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