How Buffalo Bill Got His Name
We were this close to having a Buffalo Bill Comstock, but fortunately for all of us, Colonel William F.
Cody was a savvy billiards player.
The story of how the founder of my little town of Cody, Wyoming earned his world-famous nickname is
quirky, grisly and difficult to believe. Story elements include fierce competition, a ruthless lady and a
testosterone-fueled feat of endurance. It is a story that could have been concocted by Zane Gray and
turned into a Hollywood production by John Ford. I can envision Clint Eastwood in the starring role,
assuming he could grow the mustache. In this case, though, truth is stranger than fiction.
After the Civil War where he served with distinction as a Union scout and soldier in the cavalry, 21-year-
old William F. Cody put his sharpshooter skills to work as a buffalo hunter charged with supplying meat
to railroad workers along the Kansas Pacific Railroad.
In just 18 months, he shot 4,282 buffalo. That’s about 13 bison a day. The man was busy. (Buffalo, by
the way, was the incorrect but common term back then for the then-plentiful American Bison that
roamed the prairie in herds so vast that they appeared to be massive, moving brown spots on the earth
when witnessed from atop the hills.)
The happy, well-fed crew on the railroad bestowed on the mustachioed hunter the nickname “Buffalo
Bill.” But the crew handed out nicknames easily, apparently. The same name was granted to another
hunter in the party, William Comstock.
Everyone knew even back then that the world wasn’t big enough for two Buffalo Bills. A solution was
concocted in the form of an eight-hour shooting competition. The William who could shoot the most
buffalo would win the right to call himself the one and only Buffalo Bill.
During an eight-hour competition, William F. Cody shot 68 bison. That’s about one every seven minutes.
He had a strategy and a large-caliber Springfield Model 1866, a gun which he named Lucretia Borgia
after the cold-hearted, politically ambitious Italian femme fatale, a character given eternal life in the
Victor Hugo opera that bears her name. Probably best not to explore his choice of gun names too
His success was due to a strategy he learned by playing billiards. He rode to the front of a herd of buffalo
and shot the leaders, forcing the animals behind to one side of the carcasses piling up on the prairie.
Just as he had hoped, these 1,400-pound mammals eventually began to run in a circle creating easy
targets for Cody to shoot one right after the other. He shot them one by one as easily as kids might
shoot the slow-moving targets at the Cody Firearms Experience arcade. Buffalo Bill likened the strategy
to one a skilled billiards player might employ by nursing balls into a circle and when properly aligned,
going for a big run.
Meanwhile, Comstock was employing a different strategy. He approached the herd from the rear,
leaving a trail of carcasses over a three-mile distance. The Comstock approach was the losing strategy on
this day, with Comstock shooting only 48 bison, 20 fewer than Buffalo Bill Cody.
After his stint on the railroad, Buffalo Bill Cody returned to the Army as a scout for the Fifth Cavalry. His
hunting accomplishments while on the railroad, though, were never forgotten. In fact, the story became
legend, thanks to the help of a dime novelist named Ned Buntline. Buntline added Buffalo Bill to the
lineup of other Wild West characters – like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone – whose fictionalized lives
became a crazy mashup of fact and tall tales.
Buntline had a plan for Buffalo Bill, but it took a few years to complete the setup. By 1872, the master
plan was complete. Buffalo Bill from the dime novels came to life on stage, when Buntline convinced
Buffalo Bill to play himself as the star of a play called “The Scouts of the Plains.” It was then that the true
showman – the man who soon afterwards would display his theatrical genius with the Wild West Show –
became the Buffalo Bill Cody the world knows today.
But that’s a story for another day.
Until next time, I’m re-reading Zane Grey novels and loving life here in Cody Yellowstone Country.