Plague is thought to have killed millions during three catastrophic pandemics. Primary pneumonic plague, the most severe form of the disease, is transmissible from person-to-person and has the potential for propagating epidemics. Efforts to quantify its transmission potential have relied on published data from large outbreaks, an approach that artificially inflates the basic reproductive number (R0) and skews the distribution of individual infectiousness. Using data for all primary pneumonic plague cases reported in the USA from 1900 to 2009, we determined that the majority of cases will fail to transmit, even in the absence of antimicrobial treatment or prophylaxis. Nevertheless, potential for sustained outbreaks still exists due to superspreading events. These findings challenge current concepts regarding primary pneumonic plague transmission.