America’s strong gun culture has produced a large number of statesmen with firearm expertise. In fact, with the number of veterans that have served as elected officials, it is almost impossible to come up with a list of the best.
Here are the top ten politicians that could handle a gun and publicly demonstrated that expertise after they were elected.
1.) David Crockett
The hero of the Alamo was first known to Americans as a rough-hewn backwoods hunter from Tennessee who performed incredible feats of daring on the frontier. Most Americans today know him as “Davy” Crockett, but contemporaries in the early 19th century almost always called him David Crockett during his lifetime. However, Crockett did in fact have a .40 caliber flintlock rifle named “Old Betsey” that was named after his sister.
In between sessions of Congress, Crockett would hunt and provide for himself and his family, once killing six buck elk in one day and a staggering forty-seven bears in one season! He would dazzle audiences with incredible displays of marksmanship, shooting holes through coins, and was a wonderful story teller of his own exploits on the frontier.
Unfortunately, Crockett was an opponent of Andrew Jackson, partly because he said he would not be Jackson’s “dog” in Congress. Jackson’s Democratic allies worked against and defeated Crockett in his district in Tennessee, prompting him to say, “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas!”
Crockett went to Texas, died in Texas and became a true legend at the Battle of the Alamo. Crockett joined the Texas revolution that started in 1836 and fought alongside other Texan heroes like Jim Bowie at the Alamo, an American Thermopylae. Crockett was one of the most prominent leaders in the Alamo’s defense, expertly picking off Mexican Army cannoneers with Old Betsey.
Crockett died a hero with the rest of the Alamo’s defenders, most likely clutching his famous rifle.
2.) Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson was not exactly a crack shot, but he made up for it as he did many other problems in his life, with sheer iron will and guts. “Old Hickory” as Jackson was often called, was filled with so many bullets that if you shook him he would practically rattle. One bullet in particular, lodged near his heart, came from a famous duel with fellow Tennessean, John Dickenson.
Jackson knew going into the duel with Dickenson that his opponent was an expert shot, one of the best in the state, so he wasn’t going to win by conventional methods. Jackson let Dickenson fire a quick shot first, which hit him near the heart. It was difficult for Dickenson to ascertain whether or not he hit Jackson, as Jackson was wearing loose clothing and was rail thin. Jackson placed his hand on the wound to stop and conceal the bleeding and took careful aim. He then pulled the trigger, but the gun jammed. Jackson re-cocked the pistol and fired the pistol, landing a lethal blow that went through Dickenson’s groin.
There are countless stories like this about Jackson, some undoubtedly stretching the truth. However, there is no doubt that Jackson had, according to one of his many unfortunate opponents, “shoot in his eyes.”
Sometimes skill with a gun is not just about marksmanship, but more about being able to aim steady while facing the end of another man’s gun.
3.) Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt’s military and hunting exploits are legendary. Whether in the badlands of South Dakota, the wilds of Yosemite in California, the grassy plains of Africa, or San Juan Hill in Cuba, Roosevelt was always proving his strength, courage and ability to use a firearm.
After leaving the presidential office in 1908, Roosevelt went on a grand African safari. In his biography T.R.: The last Romantic, H.W. Brands quotes Roosevelt on the eve of his African trip, “I have never shot dangerous game, unless you call the very few grizzly bears I have shot dangerous.”
Apparently, grizzly bears were nothing dangerous to a man like Roosevelt.
Roosevelt described the killing of his first lion,
Right in front of me, thirty yards off, there appeared, from behind the bushes which had first screened from him from my eyes, the tawny, galloping form of a big maneless lion. Crack! The Winchester spoke; and as the soft-nosed bullet ploughed forward through his flank the lion swerved so that I missed him with the second shot; but my third bullet went through his spine and forward into his chest.
Roosevelt went on to rack up a massive kill count on his safari, just adding to his legend as one of the most daring and “manly” of presidents.
4.) Aaron Burr
The man who won the most famous duel in American history had to be on this list. Burr, often seen as a Fallen Founder, shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in Weehawken, New Jersey in 1804 after years of back and forth sniping.
Although ending Burr’s chance to become president in 1800 was bad enough, it was Hamilton’s effort to keep Burr from the New York governorship that led directly to the duel. Burr lost the New York gubernatorial election in the biggest landslide in the state’s history, to a mediocre candidate at best. During that campaign, Hamilton had frequently said that Burr had “no principles” and was a scoundrel. Hamilton pulled strings behind the scenes in order to ensure that Burr would lose. Burr became enraged and challenged Hamilton to the infamous duel.
Once the challenge was issued Burr began to practice his aim with a pistol, but he certainly knew how to wield a firearm as he had been a colonel in the Continental Army and served with distinction.
When Burr’s duel with Hamilton commenced, Burr’s first and only shot gave Hamilton a mortal wound from which he died just a few days later. Burr may never become a favorite Founding Father, but the man could shoot.
5.) Thomas Hart Benton
“Old Bullion” Benton of Missouri was a master duelist. He even wrote “In Defense of Dueling” to demonstrate why the practice was important and necessary for an aspiring frontier politician in the mid-19th century.
In a famous feud with Charles Lucas, who was a rival politician in Missouri, Benton went to Bloody Island to face off with his opponent with pistols at 35 feet. In the duel, Benton hit Lucas in the neck, incapacitating the man. When asked if he had received “satisfaction,” Benton claimed he had not. Under the rules of dueling Lucas was allowed to convalesce before engaging in yet another duel months later.
Again the combatants assembled with their seconds on Bloody Island and this time Benton shot Lucas in the heart. Lucas cried out, “You have persecuted me and now have murdered me!” Lucas died shortly thereafter.
Benton, no butcher, wrote in his book Thirty Years View that he experienced a “pang” which “went through his heart when he saw the young man fall, and would have given the world to see restored to life.”
However, Benton defended the institution of dueling as a necessary evil. Regardless of his feelings, there is no doubt that it was unwise to cross Old Bullion, especially if he had a gun in his hand.
6.) Anson Burlingame
South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks is infamous for delivering a legendary caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor less than five years before the start of the Civil War, but few remember the dramatic round two.
The South won the first round, as Sumner took several years to recover from the vicious blows he took to the back of the head, but the North had just the man to settle the score, Anson Burlingame.
Brooks, who had drawn the ire and verbal attacks of most northern senators and congressmen, challenged one Massachusetts Republican to a duel. The congressman rejected the challenge, but Burlingame accepted it and told Brooks to meet him at a specific location in Canada, with rifles. Any duel involving rifles was particularly grave and most likely going to be deadly for one of the actors. It was a bold ultimatum.
The Chicago Evening Journal gave the following account of what Brooks had gotten himself into,
Burlingame completed his preliminaries in a few hours and left with his friends for New York where he arrived about 11 o’clock in the morning; and not having practiced with the rifle for some time it was suggested that he had better repair to some gallery and try a few shots… Burlingame used the rifle ten times, nine out of which he hit the exact center of the target and the tenth within one-half an inch.
It was clear that Burlingame, who had spent time living on the western frontier, was a crack shot. Brooks made an excuse about it being too dangerous to travel through northern territory to get to Canada and never showed up. The story seemed like a cop out and Brooks was thought of as a disgrace.
7.) Rick Perry
Texas Gov. Rick Perry once famously blew away a coyote with a .380 Ruger pistol. Perry said of the incident, “Don’t attack my dog or you might get shot … if you’re a coyote.” This brought howls of condemnation from detractors, some local groups suggesting he carry a plastic whistle instead of a gun on his runs. But amongst Perry’s supporters, the able use of a firearm was impressive and humanizing.
The coyote slaying was not just an isolated incident of firearm use. Perry has been known to be an avid hunter, and was seen shooting pheasants with Iowa Rep. Steve King during the 2011 GOP primary.
If he could debate as well as he could shoot, Rick Perry just might have become president.
8.) Henry Clay
Undoubtedly the greatest Speaker of the House in American history faced one of the most challenging episodes in his political career during his first run for a seat in the Kentucky Assembly in 1803. Henry Clay was shaking hands, buying drinks and trying to win over voters in 1803, but he was given an unexpected challenge while speaking in front of a large group of frontiersmen.
A rough looking militiaman approached the young lawyer and said, “Young man, you want to go to the legislature, I see. Are you a good shot?”
Clay answered, “The best in the country,” to which the militiaman responded, “Then you shall go to the legislature. But first you must give us a specimen of your skill. We must see you shoot.”
Clay was given the militiaman’s prized Kentucky rifle, “Old Bess,” and instructed to shoot a target 80 yards away. Clay took aim and fired, hitting the target near the center. The crowd let out a cheer, but one onlooker was not convinced. The heckler said, “He might shoot all day and not hit the mark again. Make him try it over.”
Clay knew he had made a lucky shot so he shot back a response that helped build his reputation as a legendary gambler and master political bluffer. Clay said, “No. Beat that; beat that, and then I will.” Clay’s skeptic slinked away in a huff and the crowd loved him.
Although Clay claimed, when later telling this story, that he never had fired a rifle before or since, it is likely that he had acquired shooting skills while growing up in a rural part of Virginia. The fact is Clay could shoot, as evidenced by his later duel with John Randolph of Roanoke.
9.) Richard Mentor Johnson
Sometimes a single incident can make an entire career as it nearly did with Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky.
Johnson became famous at the Battle of the Thames in the War of 1812 when he killed the Shawnee chief Tecumseh. Tecumseh, thought to be invincible by his Shawnee followers, lead the most successful American Indian war against the United States, waged a relentless assault on American settlers on the frontier. He was finally stopped by a confrontation with Johnson. The young former Congressman in his mid-twenties ended up face to face with Tecumseh during a cavalry charge.
Upon inspection it appeared that Tecumseh had received both sword and bullet wounds, but it was most likely a shot from Johnson that felled him. Given Johnson’s close proximity and the discovery of his hat near Tecumseh’s body, it is likely that the story was accurate. Many future political opponents doubted the tale and Johnson’s heroism, but he stuck by it until he died.
10.) Sarah Palin
The leading “Mama Grizzly” clearly knows how to handle a high-powered rifle. Sarah Palin demonstrated her skill by successfully and skillfully shooting a caribou on her reality show, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.”
Liberals, like Hollywood playwright Aaron Sorkin, were quick to criticize Palin for both the act and her statement that anyone who eats meat should “save their condemnation.” However, given that Sorkin couldn’t even identify the animal she was hunting, these criticisms fell flat with most Americans that appreciate fine hunting and shooting.
Palin clearly knows how to use a gun with deadly consequences if she has to, and despite some political detractors she backs up her frontier woman image. For Palin’s supporters there is no doubt that President Obama should learn to “shoot like a girl.”