Greatest Rifle Shot Ever?

Billy Dixon (courtesy scout.warrior.com)

“On June 27, 1874, during the Second Battle of Adobe Walls in northern Texas, [Billy] Dixon shot a Comanche warrior off his horse at a distance of 1,538 yards, a distance just under a mile,” Bob Frost at warrior.scout.com writes. “Dixon, a scout and Buffalo hunter, used a 50-caliber Sharps rifle to kill the brave . . . The battle pitted several hundred Native Americans – Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Kiowa – against a couple dozen buffalo hunters. The Indians withdrew immediately upon seeing the result of Dixon’s shot, according to sources. And for evermore Billy Dixon was a legend.” The U.S. Army withdrew Dixon’s Medal of Honor (he was a civilian at the time). Still, greatest shot ever or, as Dixon protested, luck? Does that matter? [h/t TP]

comments

  1. avatar DickG says:

    Hell, I can’t even SEE that far!
    .

    1. avatar Jeremy S says:

      Seriously. Not sure I could even see (or at least distinguish) a person at that distance. Or even a horse. Or an entire person-on-a-horse unit hahaha

  2. avatar Governmentknowsbest says:

    1500 yards in the 1800’s? I’ll have to go with luck on that one…and maybe a little creative story telling

    1. avatar uncommon_sense says:

      ^ This.

      The sharps .50 caliber rifle would have had a trajectory on par with artillery. Estimate range at 1520 yards when the range is really 1500 yards and you would entirely miss a human sized target.

      Yeah, I am going with unadulterated luck.

    2. avatar BlueBronco says:

      Dixon wasn’t a scout because of luck. He is one of about 3 civilians in history to be awarded The Congressional Medal of Honor. He usually shot a .45-70 but borrowed the .50 for that shot. Quanah Parker thought it was “Bad Medicine” and got the hell out of there.

      1. avatar Icabod says:

        There were 4 civilian scouts and 4 civilians that were awarded the MOH. many MOH were rescinded in the 1920s. The civilian scout’s medals were removed then. One problem was the 27th Maine that was issued 864 MOH for re-enlisting. Following the Civil War there were many requests for the award and at one point the medals were simply sold.

        The only female, Mary Walker was a civilian contract surgeon. After a good deal of nagging the government gave her one. The citation of course was vey vague.

        Jimmy Carter restored Walkers award. You recall this was during the start of the feminist movement and the ERA. The only real benefits of this political action was that the scouts were finally able to get their MOHs returned.

    3. avatar Deuce says:

      According to the story, Army scouts later paced off the distance and confirmed it. So maybe some validity, definitely an Alamo sized bucket of luck if he did make that shot.

    4. avatar IdahoPete says:

      I have read reports on this incident in “Muzzle Blasts” magazine (Nat’l Muzzle Loading Rifle Assoc). Based on the accounts of the shot, the terrain at the Adobe Walls site, and the description of the fight, the researchers conclusion was that the length of the shot was correctly measured. You have to remember that Dixon made his living with a black-powder cartridge rifle – he had YEARS of experience shooting at long ranges over the open prairie. The “Big Fifty” of the buffalo hunters was a .50-90 cartridge, with a 700 grain .50 cal bullet over 90 grains of black powder. Yeah, these old cartridges have a trajectory like a rainbow, but the BC is pretty high and they are very stable in flight. Take a look at some of the records from the black-powder cartridge rifle silhouette shooting fraternity, and the American Single Shot Rifle Association. I believe Dixon did make the shot – way too much personal testimony from people who were there to doubt it.

      That said, a fair amount of luck was probably involved, too.

  3. avatar JWM says:

    Luck? Skill? Both? really doesn’t matter. When it was needed he pulled it off.

    What really needs investigating about that fight is that the one woman present, she was the wife of one of the workers there, passed her husband a loaded rifle that discharged and killed him. Was that an accident or deliberate? Luck? Skill? Bad Karma?

    1. avatar James69 says:

      Double loading was a common “Kaboom” back then. Happened alot esp if you were an abusive husband.

  4. avatar Another Robert says:

    If the story is true–no, it doesn’t matter. He took the shot and hit it, that’s what matters.

  5. avatar Tim Going says:

    Maybe the math is wrong, but by JBM calculations graph, then a 405-gr FP which i figure was a pretty common round for the .45/70, has a 169-ft drop at 1000 yards….I’m not buying that one necessarily.

    Even assuming a hot loaded 350-grain bullet its still 132 feet at 1000 yards….

    1. avatar John P says:

      Since when does .45-70 count as .50 caliber?

      1. avatar Old Ben turning in grave says:

        Either way, was likely not a flat shooter at all. If he estimated the angle, he did really well. I know the old rifles often had marks on the sights for elevation corresponding to different distances, but I don’t know if they went out to 1500 yards.

        1. avatar JR_in_NC says:

          Who cares about “flat shooting.”

          The key to long range rifle is knowing the drop and knowing the range to figure that drop.

          “Flat Shooting” is more gun writer nonsense will little practicality in the real world…save those guys that don’t want to learn the drop tables for their loads and don’t want to do any math.

          Also of interest at the ranges discussed is wind…no ‘flat shooting’ helps with wind doping.

      2. avatar James69 says:

        When the anti-gun guy writes the story 🙂 ….. Actually they had a .45-110 as well.

        1. avatar Jim says:

          Not in 1874. The .45-110 didn’t come along until 1876. Second Adobe Walls happened in ’74. I understand Dixon used a .50-90. Luck? Yup. No doubt about it. Skill. Likely some of that as well. He had to have the skill to make an estimate of the range. It happened in that case that he was spot on.

      1. avatar Skyler says:

        Very cool article!

    2. avatar Omer Baker says:

      I saw a video of Jerry Miculek shoot a revolver and hit a balloon WAAAAAY out there (I don’t remember the specifics). Point being, he had to raise that handgun pretty high to make that shot, and I don’t see anyone calling him lucky, which he may very well be, but along with that luck is a whole lot of skill.

      1. avatar Grindstone says:

        It’s not luck because Jerry did it on a range, not in anger.

        1. avatar Gov. William J. Le Petomane says:

          You should NEVER make Jerry angry. No matter how far away you’re standing.

        2. avatar Mark says:

          ^^^^^^^^^^^
          Good advise right there.

      2. avatar JasonM says:

        Jerry practiced the shot before he turned on the camera, so he knew the launch angle he needed to hit the target.

        I doubt that Bill Dixon had his target stand there for an hour while he practiced.

        1. avatar BlueBronco says:

          Dixon was a professional Army scout and hunter. He knew how to shoot as much as Miculek. Plus Jerry doesn’t have people shooting back and wanting to lift his hair.

      3. avatar Tiru Maru says:

        Not to take anything away from Jerry, but, if I remember correctly, he didn’t hit the balloon. The balloon broke from bullet fragments when it hit the plate the balloon was attached to.

    3. avatar Gov. William J. Le Petomane says:

      I just punched some numbers into Hornady’s ballistics calculator. I had to make a semi-educated guess on the bullet – 405gr., .250BC, 1400fps. And I threw in 79 degrees and 3000 ft. above sea level. To zero in at 1500 yards you need to aim 323″ high at 100 yards, which sounds ridiculous at first, but those Sharps rifles had flip up long range aperture sights. With a one yard sight radius a 3.23″ rise in the rear sight puts you right on target. The bullet hits with 287lb/ft. of energy.

      Side note; In the first world war the British equipped their infantry with ‘volley sights’ on their Lee-Enfield .303s that could shoot out to 2700 yards. Obviously no individual shot would be on target, but with thousands of troops raining down lead it was bound to get the enemy’s attention. Although I think they abandoned the volley sights by the end of the war.

      1. avatar Matt in FL says:

        Mosin Nagants have similar volley sights.

        1. avatar Governmentknowsbest says:

          Dang it you beat me to it lol

        2. avatar Gov. William J. Le Petomane says:

          How far out do the Mosin-Nagant sights go out? I’ve got a later Lee-Enfield (1950) that has the flip up sight out to 1300 yards, but that’s not considered a ‘volley sight’.

        3. avatar JWM says:

          Gov., I’m too lazy right now to go upstairs and check out my 91/30. Just off the top of my head the low sight setting is 300 yards and the max setting is 2000. I’m willing to be corrected if my memory is a little off.

          Out to a hundred yards you can still tap the target with the muzzle of a 91/30. With the bayonet in place you can stick them in the next time zone.

        4. avatar Gov. William J. Le Petomane says:

          Ah.. I guess 2000 yards would qualify.

          Looks like the French had the Ruskies beat by 2.7″ – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebel_Model_1886_rifle

          Must have been compensating for something.

  6. avatar JoshtheViking says:

    Makes me think of Jack Hinson the Civil War sniper.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Hinson

  7. avatar Scott says:

    What about Matthew Quigley from Quigley Down Under?

    1. avatar JoshtheViking says:

      ^This

  8. avatar PeterC says:

    It is not recorded that Billy Dixon ever said, “Wanna see me do it again?”

  9. avatar Proverbs says:

    It doesn’t matter. Any hit in that neighborhood is a combination of a lot of skill and a little luck. Luck in that a gust of wind didn’t come up and send the bullet 20 feet off target. The same gust could happen today, despite all the ballistic gadgets and calculators that require less brainpower than yesterday’s marksmen used.

    1. avatar Old Ben turning in grave says:

      Or, given the velocity and distance, your target might move.

    2. avatar FedUp says:

      Right. Luck happens to people who are really good a lot more than it happens to those who don’t know what they’re doing. I once popped a starling with a 600fps air rifle at over 50 yards, which required considerable elevation (and this was with open sights). Hit him right through the lungs, pretty much precisely where I was trying to hit. Was it lucky? Yep. Had I ever fired that gun at that range before? Nope. Could I have possibly have pulled it off without a well earned intuitive grasp of that gun’s ballistic trajectory? Nope.

      1. avatar LarryinTX says:

        My late father-in-law answered more than one kid accusing him of being “lucky” after he schooled them in a round of golf, “That’s right! And the more I practice, the luckier I get!”

      2. avatar Josh says:

        This is what I was hoping someone would say. Experts make their own luck. In my line of work, I stumble onto lots of lucky moments that make the difference between success and failure — but it’s just because my experience puts me in a position where luck will be more useful to me. Dixon couldn’t have hit the target if he made even a very small rookie mistake — but if he did his part just right, luck has a chance to work for him.

    3. avatar LarryinTX says:

      Well, they also did not claim (that I heard) that he hit a CERTAIN Indian. Perhaps he had a line of men on horseback and aimed to hit any one of them, 20 feet off would make no difference so long as the elevation was correct. In this story, one of the remarkable things, to me, was that the shot retained enough energy at that range to knock the man off his horse, and heaven knows if he died.

      1. avatar Garrison Hall says:

        I’ve read accounts that claimed Dixon’s round was spent by the time it reached the line of mounted warriors. One account as the spent round striking one of the sub chiefs in the chest, surprising him so much that he fell off his horse. For the rest of his life Dixon was reportedly commendably modest about making that shot.

  10. avatar bontai Joe says:

    Using black powder, and an open sighted rifle with maybe peep sights, then yeah, I’d agree that is one of the best shots ever, even if it was only 1000 yards. But the story states 1538 yards as if it was measured off later, not 1500, or 1550, but 1538…. it must have been an amazing thing to have been there and seen that and the reaction of the Indians after.

    1. avatar Bruce Badger says:

      The relief troops that showed up shortly after the battle included an Army survey team. They surveyed the distance of the shot. It was not just a WAG on the distance.

  11. avatar Jim March says:

    For the record, Dixon and the rest were NOT the good guys in that fight. They were poaching on recognized tribal lands. Those weren’t savages Dixon shot at, they were game wardens.

    1. avatar Skyler says:

      Comanches are always bad guys. Do you know nothing about Comanches? They were subhuman barbaric animals, much like ISIS.

      1. avatar Vitsaus says:

        I suppose all the other tribes that were displaced/exterminated also fit your description of Comanches as well?

        1. avatar Skyler says:

          No. Did I say that or were you trying to act superior?

          The Indian tribes were all different. The Comanche were vicious. No tears should be shed for them. They were not like the Caddos.

        2. avatar Skyler says:

          ISIS, AQ, murder people, chop arms off of children to scare their parents. ISIS has begun crucifying peaceful Christians. They steal women and sell them as sex slaves.

          In a hundred years, after they have been exterminated someone will claim that all those rotten Christians were poachers and those poor ISIS were just game wardens.

          Oh, wait, we already have people saying such things. It’s hopeless.

        3. avatar juliesa says:

          What about the Tonks and Lipans who were displaced by the Comanches? There’s a reason other tribes worked as scouts for the Army against the Comanches.

        4. avatar ropingdown says:

          I highly recommend the book (available in paperback) “The Empire of the Summer Moon.” It provides a well-documented history of the Commanches, including their relationship with other tribes (not good). The Commanches did not own any of the land, except in this sense, that they butchered every indian tribe that stood in their way as they moved south until they found land they liked.

          The story of Quahna Parker is very well told from start to finish.

        5. avatar Skyler says:

          Another very excellent book about Comanches is by T. R. Fehrenbach.

      2. avatar Vitsaus says:

        “The battle pitted several hundred Native Americans – Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Kiowa – against a couple dozen buffalo hunters.” Did you read the article? The indigenous force was composed of multiple tribes. Say he had hit one of the Cheyenne there, would it make it any different?

        1. avatar Skyler says:

          Led by Quahna Parker, the last major Comanche chief, widely regarded as the most vicious.

    2. avatar Tanner says:

      I suppose then the word “greatest” is referring to the difficulty and impressiveness of the shot and not the righteousness of the man doing the shooting. I understand that there were a few instances where Native Americans were killed for attempting to hold the white men to their end of a deal. In the end, I guess it just sucks to be outgunned, and unfortunately for the Natives, they almost always were.

      1. avatar JR_in_NC says:

        “I guess it just sucks to be outgunned, and unfortunately for the Natives, they almost always were.”

        Seems there is a lesson somewhere there history has to teach us modern folk, eh?

      2. avatar juliesa says:

        And the Comanches, with their superior horsemanship, outgunned and displaced all other Indian tribes in their way. They also blocked the Spanish from moving further north into Texas, although the Spanish were overstretched by that point, and wound up inviting in Americans to help settle the parts of Texas they couldn’t. Then the Comanches held off the Anglo settlers for decades, but of course that was just a delay of the inevitable.

        1. avatar BlueBronco says:

          They also ran the Apache out of Texas! People seem to miss that fact about the Comanche for some reason.

    3. avatar juliesa says:

      The Comanches got to Texas about the same time the Spanish did.

      The Indians who were already there were displaced by both.

      Comanches raided all the way down to the Yucatan to take cattle, horses, women and children. They were the most successful and aggressive US tribe.

      1. avatar Another Robert says:

        Whoa, I should have not bothered with my post after seeing yours…

    4. avatar Another Robert says:

      The Comanches more than likely ran some other tribe off that land in order to claim it for themselves. That’s kind of the way history works.

    5. avatar JWM says:

      Except that game wardens generally give the poachers a chance to surrender and then take them off to jail if they do so. This group of “game wardens” tried for a massacre at dawn and woe betide any they took prisoner.

    6. avatar nynemillameetuh says:

      Never, ever, apologize for winning.

      1. avatar Grindstone says:

        I can see why you have a Putin avatar.

        1. avatar nynemillameetuh says:

          So you wish the United States didn’t win? Sounds pretty treasonous to me.

  12. avatar Gunr says:

    Some skill estimating the hold over, the rest, pure luck! How could he even see the target under the barrel with that much hold over. Probably wouldn’t happen again in a thousand tries.

  13. avatar Grindstone says:

    He probably just use a ballistic calculator app on his phone.

  14. avatar Former Water Walker says:

    Luck…but that’s a heckuva’ shot. Just saw Jerry Michulek make a 1000yard 9mm revolver shot on his new show on Outdoor channel. Over a 200foot drop…very little luck with Jerry.

    1. avatar 5Spot says:

      If you saw the entire thing, they went to a machine shop right next door and built a taller scope base because the first was not high enough above the barrel to get the 200 foot hold over.

      1. avatar Former Water Walker says:

        And I’ve seen Jerry make offhand shots a gazillion feet away…Your point?

  15. avatar Tom in Oregon says:

    Luck is where skill meets opportunity.

  16. avatar Paul says:

    He deserves the Medal. He’s a civilian under arms in support of the Army and following Army orders.

    1. avatar Vitsaus says:

      Sort of like the Einsatsgruppen in WWII…

      1. avatar actionphysicalman says:

        Their shots were at a bit shorter range.

  17. avatar Tommy Kocker says:

    Folks need to read up on the times. Gun guys back then were shooting at long distances just like today. Gen Custer wrote of shooting pronghorns at 600 yds. The Creedmoore matches just a few years later were with iron sights at 1000 yds. The armories did tests with the 45-70 up to 3200 yards.

    1. avatar Tommy Kocker says:

      Here is a link to the test from after the war on the 45-70.

      http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/843705/posts

      Remember that these guys of the time lived and worked outdoors full time. They shot and killed buffalo full time. Shooting all day. Killing hundreds of buffalo in the last of the herds. For years. They didn’t have iPhones or Facebook. They inherited from the mountain men of previous generation and led lives later as lawmen in the expansion of the West 10 and 20 years fast forward, like young Bat Masterson who was with Dixon that day. They were war veterans of Mexican War or Civil War or the Indian fighting. Plus the guns of the day were not crap. They were state of the art and nearly handmade. The Creedmoor 1000 yard matches were an indication of how good things could be.

      http://riflemansjournal.blogspot.com/2010/04/history-story-of-creedmoor.html

    2. avatar James69 says:

      and if you clean the bore after every shot you can hit at those distances after you get it dialed in.

  18. avatar Ken says:

    As “Longfellow said:

    I shot an Arrow into the air
    It fell to earth I know not where,
    For so swiftly it flew, the sight
    Could not follow it in its flight.

    I breath’d a Song into the air
    It fell to earth, I know not where.
    For who has sight so keen and strong
    That it can follow the flight of a song?

    Long, long afterward in an oak
    I found the Arrow still unbroke;
    And the Song from begining to end
    I found again in the heart of a friend.

  19. avatar JWM says:

    Dixon apparently borrowed a .50-90 sharps cause he felt that his .45-90 would not reach that far. He fired 3 shots to get that hit. With a borrowed rifle.

  20. avatar Leonard P says:

    The Sharps’s carbine is an instrument of uncanny power and precision.

  21. avatar Jack says:

    I’d rather be lucky than good.

  22. avatar Excedrine says:

    When shooting at that distance, even today and with the most modern guns, optics, and ammunition, it comes down to almost equal parts luck, skill, and equipment.

  23. avatar Ralph says:

    “Luck is the residue of design.”

    Branch Rickey

  24. avatar Gunr says:

    I finally figured it out! He had a range finder, and one of those new gizmo’s that fire an exploding bullet over the target that wipes out anything under it in a 100 yd. circle! believe it!………………………………..or not.

  25. avatar jwtaylor says:

    Required reading for this discussion is Dixon’s own autobiography as well as Empire of the Summer Moon.

    1. avatar Tom in Oregon says:

      Yup. Dixon’s autobiography is on my “gotta read” list.

    2. avatar ropingdown says:

      Hadn’t read this far down the comments before mentioning Empire of the Summer Moon above. What a good read that is.

  26. avatar BLAMMO says:

    Lucky shot.

  27. avatar Steve says:

    He flock shot em and knocked one down

    1. avatar BlueBronco says:

      Good point! He happened to hit the Chief Quanah Parker, but it only wounded him but killed his horse. Parker got his people out of there because he thought there was some Bad Medicine going on.

  28. avatar John D. says:

    Bear in mind that the riflemen in Adobe Walls had been shooting at the braves for some time. So they would have pretty good zeros set on their tang mounted long range sights. The only issues would have been wind and movement. That’s where riflemen of yore beat the pants off of today’s poseurs.

  29. avatar fuque says:

    Total dumb luck… He was shooting a Trebuchet masquerading as a rifle..

  30. avatar Daniel says:

    All of the world’s “best shots” owe something to luck.

  31. avatar BlueBronco says:

    Other stories I have read had Dixon wounding the chief Quanah Parker and killing his horse. Parker got his people out after that. Parker was the son of one of the women the John Wayne movie The Searchers was based on.

  32. avatar Another Bob says:

    I am not trying to demystify or diminish the feat. I would like to see some fellows with the skill try it ( a reenactment ) and put it on youtube. That would be something to see.

  33. avatar ShaunL. says:

    Some people are understandably doubtful but I’ve seen old hunters make some AMAZING shots offhand using Kentucky windage, muscle memory and gut instinct on more occasions than I’d feel comfortable calling “luck”. The article mentioned that he was a buffalo hunter as well so he probably had THOUSANDS of rounds downrange across some pretty large plains at targets that weren’t shooting back. In that day and age I couldn’t imagine a more perfect practice regimen to develop the skills needed for that specific shot.

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