Ben Lilly - Mythic Mountain Man

Ben Lilly - Mythic Mountain Man
Ben Lilly (1856–1936) lived an unconventional life. His hunting adventures are legendary, and his shooting skills were extraordinary.

By all accounts, Ben Lilly was an old coot who dressed like a mountain man, didn’t shave his beard from the time he was 17 years old until he died at the age of 80, and preferred the company of wild animals to that of humans. He was a legendary houndsman and a bear and lion hunter extraordinaire. And by lion, I mean mountain lion. One source has Lilly killing 500 mountain lions and 600 bears. Others say he killed thousands. Regardless of the actual number, he is thought to have killed more black bears, grizzlies, and mountain lions than anyone of his time.

Benjamin Vernon Lilly was born in Alabama in 1856. He grew up hunting, primarily for bears and mountain lions who preyed on his family’s livestock, and became an adept tracker. Eventually, Lilly inherited a farm, but he was not cut out for life on the farm.

Lilly was married twice and fathered several children, but neither marriage lasted. You might say he was struck with wanderlust, and over the years he traveled through Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. He had some success trading cattle, finding and selling wild honey, and blacksmithing. In fact, he designed and handmade a special hunting knife similar to an Arkansas Toothpick with an 18-inch-long S-shaped blade that he carried throughout his lifetime.

Lilly also worked as a hunting guide, sometimes for notable and wealthy men, such as President Theodore Roosevelt and Oklahoma oilman W.H. McFadden. But he was happiest when he was hunting himself, and during the last 25 years of his life, he made a sufficient living as a professional hunter, sometimes using a pack of 20 hounds. Most of his earnings came from ranchers who hired him to exterminate predators, and he lived in the hills with his hounds, sleeping where he wanted and hunting where game was plentiful. He also shot and prepared specimens for the U.S. Biological Survey and the National Museum.


Lilly was well known for his minimalist lifestyle. He inhabited the forests and hills with just the clothes on his back, a canvas tarp, a wool blanket, his hunting knife, and a rifle or two.


His life spawned many myths and legends. One such was the time his first wife demanded that he dispatch a troublesome chicken hawk and he subsequently disappeared in chase not to return home for over a year. Or the one about him hunting every day except Sundays for 15 years straight. Or the one about him being attacked by a huge grizzly bear during which he shot the bear in the chest and under the eye and then finished him off with his trusty 18-inch-long knife. There are tales of his super-human stamina and reports of him preferring to sleep outdoors in the crook of a tree rather than in a house or hotel bedroom.


Books and articles have been written about his hunting exploits, but my favorite stories are the ones that illustrate his shooting skills.

As a boy, Lilly perfected his shooting skills on moving targets like buzzards and bats, darting bees, and flittering songbirds. Later in life, he preferred the Winchester Model 1886 in .33 Winchester for hunting bears and the Winchester Model 1894 or the Marlin Model 1893 in .30-30 for hunting mountain lions, but he also used .22 and .32 Rimfire rifles and was photographed with a Savage Model 1899 in .303 Savage.

Lilly is reported to have wingshot bumblebees and yellowjackets. Some said he could down mosquitos and shoot both antlers off a running deer and then drop the buck with a third shot. He could shoot a buzzard out of the sky and hit it again and again before it hit the ground. All with a rifle. Undoubtedly, some of those stories are exaggerated, but nevertheless, it is clear that he knew his way around a rifle.


Ironically, Ben Lilly died in bed in a farmhouse where he was rooming in 1936. He lived a legendary life, mostly in the outdoors. As one historian put it, his loyalty was to “the freedom of an unfettered life, with neither rules nor rent.”

Recommended for You

The Wilson Combat X-TAC Elite Compact is a precisely built, wonderfully refined, utterly reliable Model 1911. Handguns

Wilson Combat X-TAC Elite Compact Model 1911 Review

Joel J. Hutchcroft - August 20, 2019

The Wilson Combat X-TAC Elite Compact is a precisely built, wonderfully refined, utterly...

Harvey A. Donaldson may be best known for his .219 Donaldson Wasp wildcat cartridge, but during his lifetime he was popularly called the “pioneer benchrester.”  Gunsmithing

Harvey Donaldson: Pioneer Benchrester

Joel J. Hutchcroft - May 07, 2019

Harvey A. Donaldson may be best known for his .219 Donaldson Wasp wildcat cartridge, but...

True Velocity is exploring options to make its distinctive ammo available to civilians. Ammo

True Velocity Rifle Ammo

Joel J. Hutchcroft - May 31, 2019

True Velocity is exploring options to make its distinctive ammo available to civilians.

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Tactical Solutions Introduces New X-Ring Takedown SBR Rifle

Tactical Solutions Introduces New X-Ring Takedown SBR Rifle

Keith Feeley of Tactical Solutions sat down with Michael Bane at SHOT Show 2018 to talk about the new X-Ring Takedown SBR .22LR rifle.

Pinging Steel At Over A Mile Away

Pinging Steel At Over A Mile Away

Big bore semiauto or a lever gun? We look at the futuristic .450 Bushmaster and how it compares to the tried and true .45-70. ISS Prop House gives us the rundown on the guns used in Enemy at the Gate. We ping steel with a .300 WinMag at over a mile.

The Future Of Special Operations Small Arms

The Future Of Special Operations Small Arms

We're taking a look at what the Army's Elite Units are using for service rifles and what the future of SOCOM sniping looks like.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

Improved ballistic coefficients lead to greater performance downrange without upping blast and recoil. How-To

The Key to Shooting Far: Improving Ballistics

Rick Jamison - April 17, 2019

Improved ballistic coefficients lead to greater performance downrange without upping blast and...

True Velocity is exploring options to make its distinctive ammo available to civilians. Ammo

True Velocity Rifle Ammo

Joel J. Hutchcroft - May 31, 2019

True Velocity is exploring options to make its distinctive ammo available to civilians.

Crimson Trace enters the riflescope business with the Crimson Trace CTL-3420 4-20X 50mm. Optics

Review: Crimson Trace CTL-3420 4-20X 50mm

Joel J. Hutchcroft - April 29, 2019

Crimson Trace enters the riflescope business with the Crimson Trace CTL-3420 4-20X 50mm.

See More Stories

More Rifles

Designed by John M. Browning, the Winchester Model 1895 was chambered for the most powerful rounds of its day. Once again, this classic rifle is back in Winchester's line. Rifles

Winchester Model 1895 Review

Joel J. Hutchcroft - September 04, 2019

Designed by John M. Browning, the Winchester Model 1895 was chambered for the most powerful...

An old gun that's new to you can be loads of fun. For some shooters, it can be as interesting as the latest developments in technology. Rifles

All That's Old Is New Again

Terry Wieland - August 12, 2019

An old gun that's new to you can be loads of fun. For some shooters, it can be as interesting...

Light weight, extreme accuracy, and high magazine capacity are required for a Precision Rifle that can double as a hunting rig. Rifles

Hunting with a Lightweight Competition Precision Rifle

Joseph von Benedikt - November 07, 2019

Light weight, extreme accuracy, and high magazine capacity are required for a Precision Rifle...

See More Rifles

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.