The Shot of the Century: How Billy Dixon Changed History with a Bullet

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The Shot of the Century was made by a buffalo hunter named Billy Dixon one Texas day in 1874. Dixon and a handful of other buffalo hunters were under siege by a massive force of Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne warriors who’d united in a bloody effort to drive out the invaders from their hunting grounds. For three days, between 700-1,200 mounted warriors laid siege to Adobe Walls, a small trading post on the South Canadian River in the Texas Panhandle. Behind those walls, Dixon fought for his life alongside 27 other men and one woman. In the end, a legendary rifle shot ended the siege and sent the war party into retreat. Dixon’s incredible long-range shooting with a “Big Fifty” Sharps at 1,538 yards entered the history books as the Shot of the Century. How did one lone bullet have such an incredible effect? Find out with a little help from our friends at Guns.com.

Chief Quanah Parker led the massive war party against the buffalo hunters. Decades later, Quanah would recount what happened at Adobe Walls. The Plains Indians were following the advice of a powerful medicine man named White Eagle, who claimed to have the power of raising the dead. White Eagle had promised a great victory, assuring the warriors that the white man’s bullets would fall to the ground, unable to harm them.  According to Quanah Parker, White Eagle said, “I stop the bullets in gun. Bullets not penetrate shirts. We kill them just like old women.”

The fight wasn’t the swift victory White Eagle had prophesied.  The battle had become a siege, with the buffalo hunters still holding out after days of fighting. Four of those hunkered down behind the thick adobe walls had lost their lives, and an estimated 13 native warriors had died under fire from the buffalo hunters’ long-range rifles.

The Shot of the Century: How Billy Dixon Changed History with a Bullet

Photo of Billy Dixon: Wikimedia Commons

On the morning of June 28, 1874, the third day of the fight, the Plains Indians convened a war council. The war chiefs and White Eagle sat their horses on a bluff about a mile away from Adobe Walls and discussed what course of action they should take. The warriors were angry with the medicine man. They demanded to know if there were now bad omens, if the buffalo hunters possessed some magic of their own.

“What’s the matter with your medicine?” Quanah Parker asked White Eagle. “You got pole cat medicine?” White Eagle defended his prophecies. He admitted the buffalo hunters had strong medicine, but their defeat was still a certainty, he promised.

Meanwhile, down in Adobe Walls, Billy Dixon took aim. He was using a Sharps Big Fifty, a single-shot with an octagonal, 34-inch barrel, firing a .50, 600-grain bullet driven by 125 grains of black powder. He dialed in his adjustable rear peep sight and got ready. He was aiming for the group of riders on the bluff, rather than any one particular target, and in later years he would call it a lucky shot, though he would also note, “I was not without confidence in my marksmanship.”

White Eagle punctuated the heights of his oratory by raising his staff and shouting, “Today, the victory is ours!” At that very moment, a warrior named Ton-han-kah fell off his horse. It was a full 4.1 seconds later when the warriors heard the distant roar of the Sharps rifle that had fired the shot.

“Some of the boys suggested that I try the big ‘50’ on them,” Dixon said of the incident later. “I took careful aim and pulled the trigger. We saw an Indian fall from his horse.” Dixon believed his bullet had killed the warrior, but later Comanche accounts claim the wounded man was hit in the elbow and suffered a broken arm.

The Shot of the Century: How Billy Dixon Changed History with a Bullet

Photo of Isatai’I, the medicine man formerly known as White Eagle: Wikimedia Commons

The Shot of the Century sent the war party into a retreat, and the siege on Adobe Walls was lifted. White Eagle had earned the hatred and derision of his fellow warriors. They changed his name to Isatai’I, which meant “Coyote Vagina,” the type of insult common among the rough Comanche warriors.

The Second Battle of Adobe Walls, as it came to be known, led to the Red River War, which in turn brought about the defeat of the Southern Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche, and the end of their reign on the Southern Plains. Though the fight at Adobe Walls wasn’t a major historic battle, it marked the spiritual defeat of the Southern Plains tribes, who saw the superhuman powers of their medicine man fail them.

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