Where Does the Term “Shotgun” Come From?

We’ve all been there, walking to the car with a group of friends, ready for a road trip, when all of a sudden you hear “shotgun.” Everyone who stayed silent moans in despair, forced into the backseat, while the vocal one of your group lives it up in the front. But where did the calling/riding shotgun even come from, and what’s the deeper meaning behind it?

Man With Shotgun Riding A Horse
Man With Shotgun Riding A Horse | Touring Club Italiano/Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Calling shotgun goes way back to the wild west

While the photo above is actually of a man hunting boar, the term “riding shotgun” goes back to the wild west, before cars were even invented. Horses and buggies were the main forms of transportation, carrying cargo across the country one gallop at a time. But one can imagine that a wooden buggy isn’t exactly secure.

To remedy this, there would often be someone riding beside the carriage with a shotgun. The official title was “shotgun guard,” and they were used to ward off bandits and thieves. Otherwise, the precious payload could be ransacked at any given moment.

This isn’t the only instance of the wild west influencing a car term we use today. Shooting brakes were also used around that time, large carriages called brakes for people to shoot out of. Put those together, you have shooting brake.

Though, the phrase “riding shotgun” might have been more of a movie cliche than an actual term. While shotgun guards did exist and did fight off robbers, they may not have considered it riding shotgun at the time. That term was popularized in ’40s and ’50s western movies.

The first example of this was from the 1939 flick Stagecoach, in which one of the characters says “You boys take care of the office for a couple of days. I’m going to Lordsburg with Buck. I’m gonna ride shotgun.” It spiraled into popularity during the 50s, and now we have Hollywood to thank for the competition to get the passenger’s seat.

What are the “official rules” of calling shotgun?

Man Riding Shotgun In The Passenger's Seat Of Car
Man Riding Shotgun In The Passenger’s Seat Of Car | Matthias Balk/picture alliance via Getty Images

Much to our surprise, there’s an entire website dedicated to the topic. ShotgunRules.com outlines the specifics, but we’ll sum up some of the key points here:

  • In a traditional game, you can’t call shotgun until “the deed is done.” In other words, you can’t call shotgun until you’re done grocery shopping/have exited the building.
  • To build off this, you must be outside in order to call shotgun.
  • In some instances, you’re not allowed to call shotgun until the car is in view.
  • If you place your hand on the passenger’s side door, or sit in the seat before anyone has called it, then you get to ride shotgun.
  • The driver is not the dictator, and cannot void a valid shotgun call.
  • Mom’s always get to ride in the front (yes, that’s an actual rule).

If you manage to follow all the rules and earn the right to shotgun, then congratulations. On top of a more comfortable seat, you’ve also earned your fair share of responsibilities.

What exactly does it mean to ride shotgun?

Driver And Passenger Riding In Car
Driver And Passenger Riding In Car | Tim Graham/Getty Images

Riding shotgun means more than just sitting in the passenger’s seat. There are duties to fulfill and tasks to complete in order to make sure your driver is comfortable and gets every passenger there safe.

While it’s not listed as the first rule, it might be the most important. Whoever is riding shotgun is responsible for sending any texts the driver might need. In other words, no texting and driving. Let whoever is in the passenger’s seat safely send the message, or use hands-free methods.

On top of this, whoever is riding shotgun isn’t allowed to fall asleep. I didn’t know this one, as I’ve let passengers regardless of seat pass out as I drive. But in reality, it’s the front passenger’s job to make sure the driver is awake, keeping them company on the long haul. If they can’t stay awake, they must move to the back, and let someone else take the hot seat.

Other duties include unwrapping food/feeding it to the driver, looking out for traffic ahead, reading maps, and acting as DJ (unless the driver specifies otherwise). In other words, there’s a lot more to shotgun than just the word. So the next time you’re racing to the passenger’s seat, remember all the things that riding shotgun entails.

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