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.”

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

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

All About .300 Blackout

All About .300 Blackout

The .300 Blackout is here to stay, and we take some time to look at new technology surrounding this cartridge. Next, we pit subsonic rivals against each other before stretching the legs of this CQB round out to 600 yards from a short 9-inch barrel.

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.

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.

Skills Drills: 3-Second Headshot

Skills Drills: 3-Second Headshot

James Tarr runs through the 3-Second Headshot drill.

Trending Articles

Cutting-edge projectiles provide unprecedented performance in the venerable old workhorse, the .30-06. Ammo

Get the Most Out of the .30-06

Joseph von Benedikt - April 01, 2019

Cutting-edge projectiles provide unprecedented performance in the venerable old workhorse, the...

The joys of handloading are many, and one of them is sharing the experience with a novice. Reloading

Share the Handloading Experience

Lane Pearce - May 19, 2019

The joys of handloading are many, and one of them is sharing the experience with a novice.

A half-century in the making, the new DGX Bonded is Hornady's best-ever dangerous-game bullet. Ammo

Danger Tamed: Hornady DGX Bonded Hunting Ammo

Joseph von Benedikt - May 23, 2019

A half-century in the making, the new DGX Bonded is Hornady's best-ever dangerous-game bullet.

The new Bushnell FORGE riflescope is “the only choice for long-range hunting enthusiasts.” Optics

Review: Bushnell FORGE 4.5-27X 50mm

Sam Wolfenberger - May 01, 2019

The new Bushnell FORGE riflescope is “the only choice for long-range hunting enthusiasts.”

See More Trending Articles

More Rifles

History was made when Winchester introduced the classic Model 70 bolt-action repeater in 1934. Rifles

Pre-'64 Winchester Model 70 .300 H&H Review

Joseph von Benedikt - January 06, 2020

History was made when Winchester introduced the classic Model 70 bolt-action repeater in 1934.

Superbly engineered and redolent of a time near forgotten, the Winchester Model 1895 is one of America's great rifles. Rifles

Winchester Model 1895 Saddle Ring Carbine Review

Joseph von Benedikt - November 25, 2019

Superbly engineered and redolent of a time near forgotten, the Winchester Model 1895 is one of...

The Browning T-Bolt is a classic 22 LR rifle, and the new Browning T-Bolt Speed version has a lot of cool features, shoots very well, and is loads of fun. Rifles

Browning T-Bolt Speed Review

Joel J. Hutchcroft - December 31, 2019

The Browning T-Bolt is a classic 22 LR rifle, and the new Browning T-Bolt Speed version has a...

Reliable, ergonomic, and accurate, the Winchester Model 1873 was unquestionably the most popular all-around rifle of its time. Rifles

Winchester Model 1873 .44-40 Rifle Review

Joesph von Benedikt - August 16, 2019

Reliable, ergonomic, and accurate, the Winchester Model 1873 was unquestionably the most...

See More Rifles

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

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