It is Friday night and you are getting ready to hit the town with your friends. You all start to load into a car when someone yells “I call shotgun!” Without thinking, you instinctively know they mean to take the passenger seat in the front, but do you know the origins of that phrase?
During the late 1800s, a period commonly referred to as The Wild West, stagecoaches transported more than people across the vast open territory. Wells, Fargo & Co. had an established stagecoach route that ran between Tipton, Missouri and San Francisco, California. This 2800 mile route “passed through some of the most lawless areas of the West” and was used to transport people, goods, U.S. Mail, and gold shipments to banking institutions along the way (Christian 94). Robbing stagecoaches became such a lucrative business for outlaws that from 1870 to 1884, Well, Fargo & Co. reported over 340 robbery attempts.
A stagecoach served as the major mode of transportation of people and goods before the popularity of railroads. Stagecoaches were typically covered wagons pulled by a team of four horses; the driver sat on top of the coach, usually on the right side as to operate the wheel brake. To the driver’s left sat the messenger. His job: safeguard the stagecoach, its occupants, and transported goods.
In effort to stave off robbery attempts by bandits, Wells, Fargo & Co. messengers began carrying a “coach gun.” This was usually a 12-gauge sawed-off, double-barrel shotgun. The compact size made it easy for messengers to handle in the cramped driver’s area atop the stage. Although the practice of riding shotgun stems from the era of The Old West, stagecoaches, Wyatt Earp, and the O.K. Corral, the expression “riding shotgun” was not officially documented until 1905 in Alfred Henry Lewis’ The Sunset Trail:
“What more should a Western marshal require than a perfect pistol hand and eye to match? Wyatt and Morgan Earp were in the service of the Express Company. They went often as guards—“riding shotgun,” it was called—when the stage bore unusual treasure.”
Click here to read The Sunset Trail by Alfred Henry Lewis or stop by the LRC to check out further awesome resources!
Christian, Chris. “Riding Shotgun.” Popular Mechanics 181.6 (2004): 94. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 7 Nov. 2011.
Lewis, Alfred Henry. The Sunset Trail. A.L. Burt Company: New York, 1905.
Patridge, Eric. “Ride Shotgun.” A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Macmillian Publishing Co.: New York, 1970. Pg. 1366.
Spears, Richard A. “Ride Shotgun” and “Shotgun.” NTC’s Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions. National Textbook Company Lincolnwood: Illinois, 1991. Pgs.309, 335.