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The Phrase 'Riding Shotgun' Came Way After the West Was Won

two girls in car
Riding shotgun doesn't just mean having a prime seat. There are also etiquette rules for this spot, like keeping an eye out for road signs and adjusting the AC. Vladimir Vladimirov/Getty Images

Ever "called shotgun" to claim the front passenger seat in a car as a kid? Many people are familiar with the term "riding shotgun" but not its origin, which combines threads from the stagecoach era, the Wild West and Hollywood.

The American stagecoach era began in the early 1700s and lasted nearly 200 years. In the eastern and southern U.S., stagecoaches largely traveled along established routes dotted with inns and taverns, making passenger travel relatively easy. In the sparsely populated West, however, it was a different story. The roads weren't good, there were few support services, and attacks from wild animals and lawless people were possible.

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To protect the passengers and drivers, the coach lines sometimes stationed an armed guard next to the driver — especially if a stagecoach was also transporting valuables such as silver bullion. The guards' preferred weapon was a shotgun, which scatters pellets, making it relatively easy to hit your target at close range.

Riding shotgun movie
This poster for the 1954 movie "Riding Shotgun" spells the plot out for you.
LMPC via Getty Images

The term "riding shotgun" was derived from this practice, although there is no evidence it was used during the stagecoach era. One of the first newspaper references to "riding shotgun," for example, didn't come until May 1919, when The Ogden (Utah) Examiner used it in an article titled "Ross Will Again Ride Shotgun on Old Stage Coach."

Soon the movie industry latched onto the term, popularizing it during the next few decades, when Westerns were the rage. The 1939 classic "Stagecoach," starring John Wayne, featured the local marshal talking about riding shotgun; a 1954 flick titled "Riding Shotgun" starred Randolph Scott as a stagecoach guard.

So how did "riding shotgun" get transferred from stagecoaches to motor vehicles? There's no definitive answer. Experts say it seeped into popular culture by the 1950s and was entrenched by the 1960s, after extensive use by the film and television industries. Americans used it to indicate the front passenger car seat, then shortened the term to "shotgun" and began requesting the seat, as in, "I call shotgun."

While people still refer to "riding shotgun" today, the term had another incarnation after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when federal air marshals began flying on commercial airlines for protection. With news media and others dubbing the armed marshals as "riding shotgun," this creative American term came full circle.

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