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
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.
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
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.
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
© Mike Cox
- July 23, 2015 Column
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