Riding Shotgun – What Does it Mean & Where Does it Come From?
Russ Chastain 03.01.21
I’d venture to say that just about everyone these days has heard the term “riding shotgun,” but most of us don’t really know the origins of that phrase. In modern usage, riding shotgun has come to mean sitting in the front passenger seat of a vehicle while someone else is driving, and less often, it means accompanying someone on pretty much any venture with the purpose of providing security. How did this uniquely American phrase come about in the first place?
Back in the 1800s, one of the most common forms of cross-country transportation was the stagecoach. The stagecoach was used to transport mail, passengers, luggage, and money. And because the coach often travelled through long stretches of uninhabited land, it became a target for thieves. All too often, armed robbery resulted in heavy losses for passengers and commercial interests who used the stagecoach for bringing in payroll money. What to do?
These days we would call him a good guy with a gun; an armed guard was hired to ride alongside the stagecoach driver while carrying a loaded shotgun. Most crooks are not anxious to get perforated (who is?), so a mean-looking guy with a scattergun and the will to use it was a good deterrent against highway robbery. This worked pretty well, especially if the guy with the shotgun was fairly large and scowled a lot.
Acting as an armed guard in this capacity may have been called “riding shotgun” back then, but my research turned up no evidence that was the case. Most folks seem to agree the term wasn’t used – at least in print – until the 1900s when stagecoach travel had pretty much become a thing of the past.
Incidentally, most guns used for riding shotgun were double-barreled shotguns, often with short barrels to keep them manageable and easy to maneuver. This is where we get the term “coach gun” for side-by-side double guns with fairly short barrels. Once you understand the origins of the phrase ‘riding shotgun’ it’s easy to understand why and how it is used today in reference to a front-seat passenger in a vehicle and/or someone who goes with someone else for safety’s sake.