Riding shotgun

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Riding shotgun
The driver is holding the whip with the shotgun messenger on his left.
Origin/etymologyA bodyguard riding alongside a stagecoach driver (derived from "shotgun messenger")
    • Sitting next to the driver in a moving vehicle
    • Giving support or aid to someone
Coined byAlfred Henry Lewis (1905)

"Riding shotgun" was a phrase used to describe the bodyguard who rides alongside a stagecoach driver, typically armed with a break-action shotgun, called a coach gun, to ward off bandits or hostile Native Americans. In modern use, it refers to the practice of sitting alongside the driver in a moving vehicle. The coining of this phrase dates to 1905 at the latest.[1]


The expression "riding shotgun" is derived from "shotgun messenger", a colloquial term for "express messenger", when stagecoach travel was popular during the American Wild West and the Colonial period in Australia. The person rode alongside the driver. The first known use of the phrase "riding shotgun" was in the 1905 novel The Sunset Trail by Alfred Henry Lewis.[1]

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.

— Alfred Henry Lewis, The Sunset Trail, Chapter 14

It was later used in print and especially film depiction of stagecoaches and wagons in the Old West in danger of being robbed or attacked by bandits. A special armed employee of the express service using the stage for transportation of bullion or cash would sit beside the driver, carrying a short shotgun (or alternatively a rifle),[2] to provide an armed response in case of threat to the cargo, which was usually a strongbox.[3] Absence of an armed person in that position often signaled that the stage was not carrying a strongbox, but only passengers.[4]

Historical examples[edit]

Tombstone, Arizona Territory[edit]

On the evening of March 15, 1881, a Kinnear & Company stagecoach carrying US$26,000 in silver bullion (equivalent to $821,000 in 2023) was en route from the boom town of Tombstone, Arizona Territory to Benson, Arizona, the nearest freight terminal.[5] Bob Paul, who had run for Pima County Sheriff and was contesting the election he lost due to ballot-stuffing, was temporarily working once again as the Wells Fargo shotgun messenger. He had taken the reins and driver's seat in Contention City because the usual driver, a well-known and popular man named Eli "Budd" Philpot, was ill. Philpot was riding shotgun.

Near Drew's Station, just outside Contention City, a man stepped into the road and commanded them to "Hold!" Three cowboys attempted to rob the stage. Paul, in the driver's seat, fired his shotgun and emptied his revolver at the robbers, wounding a cowboy later identified as Bill Leonard in the groin. Philpot, riding shotgun, and passenger Peter Roerig, riding in the rear dickey seat, were both shot and killed.[6] The horses spooked and Paul wasn't able to bring the stage under control for almost a mile, leaving the robbers with nothing. Paul, who normally rode shotgun, later said he thought the first shot killing Philpot had been meant for him.[7]

When Wyatt Earp first arrived in Tombstone in December 1879, he initially took a job as a stagecoach shotgun messenger for Wells Fargo, guarding shipments of silver bullion. When Earp was appointed Pima County Deputy Sheriff on July 27, 1881, his brother Morgan Earp took over his job.[8]

Historical weapon[edit]

When Wells, Fargo & Co. began regular stagecoach service from Tipton, Missouri to San Francisco, California in 1858, they issued shotguns to its drivers and guards for defense along the perilous 2,800 mile route.[9] The guard was called a shotgun messenger and they were issued a Coach gun, typically a 10-gauge or 12-gauge, short, double-barreled shotgun.[10]

Modern usage[edit]

More recently, the term has been applied to a game, usually played by groups of friends to determine who rides beside the driver in a car. Typically, this involves claiming the right to ride shotgun by being the first person to call out "shotgun" when everyone is in view of the vehicle; in some regions, calling shotgun too early disqualifies one from the game. Variable rules may apply such as users needing to be within view of the car, or having to be on the same level as the car (the same parking lot, garage, etc.). The game creates an environment that is fair by forgetting and leaving out most seniority except that parents and significant others automatically get shotgun, and this meanwhile leaves out any conflicts that may have previously occurred when deciding who gets to ride shotgun.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Lewis, Alfred Henry (1905). The Sunset Trail. New York: A. L. Burt Company. p. 349. Retrieved March 30, 2018 – via Internet Archive.
  2. ^ Fradkin, Philip L. (April 24, 2002). Stagecoach: Wells Fargo and the American West. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-743227-62-9. OCLC 893160059 – via Google Books.
  3. ^ Agnew, Jeremy (2012). The Old West in Fact and Film: History Versus Hollywood. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. p. 17. ISBN 978-0-786468-88-1. OCLC 817224898.
  4. ^ Martin, Gary. "Riding shotgun". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved May 1, 2010.
  5. ^ O'Neal, Bill (1979). Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. p. 180. ISBN 978-0-806123-35-6. OCLC 1066549530. Retrieved April 14, 2011.
  6. ^ Willis, Warren F. (2008). "Tombstone, AZ". Silver State Ghost Towns. Archived from the original on March 24, 2012. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
  7. ^ "Home Page". History Raiders. Archived from the original on February 8, 2011. Retrieved February 11, 2011.
  8. ^ WGBH American Experience: Wyatt Earp, Complete Program Transcript. PBS. January 25, 2010.[dead link]
  9. ^ Jones, Spencer (June 2004). "Revival Of The Coach Gun". Popular Mechanics. Archived from the original on September 30, 2007. Retrieved March 18, 2007.
  10. ^ Wilson, R. L. (2005). The Peacemakers: Arms and Adventure in the American West. New York: Book Sales, Inc. pp. 121, 197, 244. ISBN 978-0-785818-92-2. OCLC 566819978.
  11. ^ "The Official Rules for Calling Shotgun". ShotgunRules.com. Retrieved October 25, 2017.