It’s not unusual for a man to bestow a beloved moniker on his favorite fishing rod (Bessie), his shiny truck (Ol’ Red), his saber saw (Killer)—or his rifle. Even as far back as 1867, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody was no exception. When he acquired his “new buffalo killer,” a Springfield .50 caliber trapdoor needle gun, he christened it “Lucretia Borgia.”
Cody spoke often of the rifle in his autobiography, typically adding “old” before the rifle’s name, making the nickname a term of endearment.
In one story, Cody told of one “poor man on his way to Colorado” who lost a horse to a passing herd and the trail boss wouldn’t return it. He asked Buffalo Bill for help, but there was some confusion about whether Cody was a constable with authority to seek the horse’s return.
But as Cody wrote, “I buckled on my revolver, took down my old Lucretia rifle, and, patting her gently, said, ‘You will have to be constable for me today.'”
In November 1917, western author Zane Grey added an epilogue of sorts to Last of the Great Scouts by Helen Cody Wetmore, Buffalo Bill’s sister. Grey recounts a recollection of Cody’s last days that he received from Buffalo Jones, one of Cody’s long-time friends. Jones asked Cody which gun was his favorite.
“Lucretia Borgia,” he smiled.
“Did you always use the same gun?” Jones asked.
“Practically so. The barrel of Lucretia Borgia is now on the elk horns at the ranch, with the knife with which I killed Yellow Hand. I don’t know where the stock is.”
And here the white head drooped wearily . . .
Fort Hayes State University Assistant Professor of History Dr. Juti Winchester—a former curator of our Buffalo Bill Museum—says there’s a mystery about the stock’s disappearance, and many stories abound. “One story is that after downing an elk with Lucretia, Cody finished it off with a blow to the animal’s head which broke the stock,” she explained. “Another story is that Cody supposedly loaned Lucretia to the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia whom Cody was guiding on a hunting trip. The Grand Duke was so excited at killing his game, he threw the rifle in the air, and his horse stepped on it after it hit the ground.”
But how did it get its name in the first place? Lucretia Borgia was a famous fifteenth century femme fatale (French for “fatal woman”) from a corrupt political family. Victor Hugo wrote a play about her, and it could well be that Buffalo Bill saw the play or knew about it. Because Lucretia Borgia was deadly, as was his buffalo rifle, the name fit.