When it comes time to load into the family car, at least in the U.S., passengers play a game. The driver takes the obvious seat behind the wheel, but there is a cherry seat next to the driver which mandates “calling it.”
To call it, one must announce, “shotgun” before anyone else. Within families and circles of friends, there exist exclusive rules pertaining to age and gender clauses, but also the specific moment the game begins.
When the game doesn’t dovetail into a shouting match, it’s a silly competition which begs the question: why shotgun?
The origins of the term shotgun date back to America’s Wild West. At one time, riding shotgun was a privilege many would have preferred to avoid. In fact, back then, the only thing worth fighting over was not sitting in the shotgun seat.
The person in the seat next to the stagecoach operator of a shotgun messenger service literally carried a loaded shotgun.
Shotguns, as a killing weapon, are indiscriminate. They spray buckshot in a wide pattern, hitting a large target, perfect for someone riding on a bumpy stagecoach.
The seat for the shotgun might have been left or right of the driver. Shotgun messenger coaches carried important documents or valuables.
The one with the shotgun had the job of protecting the stagecoach, the driver, and the contents of the coach. This, they achieved by shooting any would-be attacker or bandits.
This was not a job for everyone. The one wielding the shotgun was a skilled shooter, okay with killing for pay.
The modern bank Wells Fargo, then known as Wells, Fargo & Co, remains one of the more well-preserved cases of riding shotgun.
Wells Fargo built their reputation on transporting bullion and other valuables across the U.S. Their coaches during the days of the Wild West carried guards who wielded 10 or 12-gauge double barreled shotguns.
One can still see some of their antique stagecoaches preserved at company history sites. The interiors of their facilities and most of their marketing today references these famous coaches.
When exactly the role of the shotgun messenger transformed into the expression, riding shotgun, is debatable.
It wasn’t until 1919, long after the era of stagecoaches, that The Ogden Examiner first printed a news story using the phrase. In 1921, the Washington Post ran a story where the phrase turns up, as in “He’s ridin’ shotgun for Wells Fargo.”
Again, this was at the edge of the motorized vehicle revolution, so it’s anyone’s guess. These usages were likely after it had gained common usage as a phrase, but for how long, who knows?
Were these carryovers from the Wild West or did some clever writer dream them up? We will never know at this point.
The next time someone shouts, “shotgun” before loading into a car, make sure that person knows they have a job to do. That said, it’s probably not wise to hand them an actual shotgun. The cops tend to frown upon that.