The American West
We begin our journey through history with one of the most formative times in American history, the settlement of the Western half of this nation. Through that tumultuous history, women played vital roles. Often, those roles meant rearing children, cooking, sewing, and cleaning. A select few women, however, were true mavericks. The likes of Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane immediately come to mind; they were not alone. A name that is as vital to that conversation yet isn’t as common in mainstream retellings is Pearl Hart.
Born in Ontario, Pearl quickly became enthralled with tall tales of the Wild West. She fell in love with a gambler and heavy drinker who, as one might imagine, was not a good husband. Her plight was then to bounce around the burgeoning States, trying to find her way in the world as a bartender, saloon singer, and cook. It was in learning about Annie Oakley and visiting the World’s Fair Women’s Pavilion that she truly began to take control of her own life. On May 30, 1899, she and a man named Joe Boot conspired to rob a stagecoach. Pearl was essential to this daring heist. She cut off her hair and dressed in Joe’s clothes to complete a solid disguise. They made their move as the stagecoach traveled between Florence and Globe, Arizona. Pearl stepped into the path of the stagecoach with guns drawn, forcing the driver to stop. She and Joe escaped on horseback but were apprehended the next day.
Pearl’s legend as the “Bandit Queen” began after her capture. Visitors came to her at the Globe jail for autographs, and shortly afterward, she escaped. She was recaptured and put on trial, where she wooed the jury to her side. She was acquitted of the robbery but was later retried and found guilty of carrying a gun. During her five-year sentence, her legend grew even more, with visitors and reporters coming to the prison to see her regularly. She was paroled after only eighteen months. Pearl Hart is widely known to have been the only person ever to hold up a stagecoach, and she did so in a daring manner.
It has been said that the cold builds people differently. That statement is hard to argue, especially in the case of Lyudmila Pavilchenko. She is widely known as one of the most prolific military snipers ever, earning her the nickname “Lady of Death.”
At age 14, Lyudmila earned a civilian sharpshooter badge and marksmanship certificate. These accomplishments were rare for her age, let alone for a young woman. In 1947 she took a job at a local arms manufacturer. She also enrolled in university, where she took an interest in becoming a teacher while also competing in track & field while taking courses at a local sniper school.
In June of 1941, when Hitler began his invasion of the Soviet Union, she rushed to Odessa to enlist. Recruiters pushed her to become a nurse, but she refused. To prove her worth to the infantry, she sniped two Romanian collaborators and became one of only 2,000 female Soviet snipers. In total, roughly 500 of these women survived the war. While fighting on the front lines during the Siege of Odessa, she totaled 187 confirmed kills.
After the Soviets beat back the Nazis, she fought in the bloody Siege of Sevastopol for a grueling eight months. By May of 1942, her kill count had risen to 257. As that count grew, so did the danger of the missions on which she was sent. These often included counter-sniping, which is some of the most dangerous work a sniper can be asked to handle. Her most famous counter-sniping engagement lasted three full days. After a shrapnel wound, she was withdrawn from the front lines with 309 confirmed kills, 36 of which were other snipers.
The modern era of women in shooting is replete with several notable examples. One of the world’s most prolific and successful female competition shooters shoots for the US Olympic Trap and Skeet team. Kim Rhode’s list of accomplishments is legendary by the standards of today.
Born in California, she spent many of her formative years hunting on African safaris, and by the age of 13, she’d won her first world championship. In 1996 she won Gold at the Summer Olympics to become the youngest female gold medalist in Olympic shooting. She has medaled in five continents and is the first Summer Olympian to win individual medals at six consecutive Summer Olympic games. She’s also the first woman to medal in six straight Olympics. Notably, outside of competition, in 2018, she filed a lawsuit against California regarding restricting the ability to purchase ammunition. That lawsuit, now known as Rhode v. Bonta is still in the courts today, and she continues to fight for the rights of others.
Stepping away from competition, another exemplary woman is First Lt. Rebecca M. Turpin. She earned the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Distinguished Device after saving an eighteen-vehicle convoy she was assigned to. What was supposed to be a single-day drive turned into two days of harrowing combat punctuated by First Lt. Turpin calling in air support via a pair of Cobra attack helicopters and directing fire to keep her convoy moving. After suffering multiple IED and RPG attacks along with small arms fire, 54 grueling hours later, she and the rest of the convoy reached Camp Bastion. As of February 2003, twelve female Marines have received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with a Combat “V.” Her actions under fire were nothing short of exemplary and represent everything the Marine Corps strives to embody.
Conflict and competition are genderless. Both crucibles judge people the same way and by the same standards. At times, they can be unfair. But some women have always risen to that challenge and continue to overcome it. History is full of such women, and in these cases, they all used firearms as an extension of who they were to accomplish their goals and solidify their names in history.
Ever wonder who some of the famous women in firearms history are? Do the names Pearl Hart, Kim Rhode, Lyudmila Pavilchenko & First Lt. Rebecca M. Turpin sound familiar at all?
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