The Phrase “Riding Shotgun” Originated in the Wild West for Protection Reasons Rather than the Best Seat

Andy Devine, gripping the reins of his stage, brought comedy to Stagecoach. United Artists /truewestmagazine.com.

Words and phrases have a beginning to their story just like anything else in history. Today, the meaning of the statement “riding shotgun” is to ride in the passenger seat of someone’s vehicle. However, the second meaning to “riding shotgun” is traveling as an armed guard beside the driver. When it comes to the origin of the phrase “riding shotgun” it is the second meaning that more closely ties in with its origin. Furthermore, the origin dates back to the days of the wild west. One of its earliest newspaper references occurred in the May 1919 issue of The Ogden Examiner. This Utah newspaper stated in an article titled, “Ross Will Again Ride Shotgun on Old Stage Coach.”

The wild west is called such for an obvious reason: the west was wild. During the days of covered wagons, pioneers were busy establishing new states, cities, and homes in the west. However, the land was not unoccupied. Before settlers began moving in, Native American had settled in many areas. Nevertheless, the biggest dangers of the wild west come from a lack of enforced laws, thieves, and other criminals. Because of these circumstances, many pioneers felt they needed extra protection on their journey. Therefore, two people would sit at the front end of the wagon. One person would be controlling the horses, and the other would be holding a shotgun.

Sawyer and Risher Stagecoach in La Grange, circa 1865. fayettecountyhistory.org.

Popular Fiction

Of course, it was not only newspaper articles which used the phrase “riding shotgun.” There are also several references of the words in Hollywood’s western movies. One such film was titled Stagecoach, starring John Wayne, which was released in 1939. In several scenes, the character Marshal Curly Wilcox, who is portrayed by George Bancroft, can be seen riding shotgun in order to protect the items they hold in the stagecoach. It is interesting to note that not all stagecoaches would have shotgun passengers. There was only a passenger in the shotgun seat if the stagecoach was carrying items, such as bullion. If there was no shotgun rider, the stagecoach would be carrying regular passengers.

Stagecoach Buckaroo movie poster from 1942. moviepostershop.com.

Another Hollywood western movie which uses the original version of the phrase “riding shotgun” is Ray Taylor’s 1942 classic, Stagecoach Buckaroo. This movie stars Johnny Mack Brown, Anne Nagel, Herbert Rawlinson, Nell O’Day, and Fuzzy Knight. In this movie, Johnny Mack Brown portrays a character named Steve Hardin, who gets a job as a stagecoach guard, which was another name for the phrase, “riding shotgun” as the shotgun rider was often known as the guard of the stagecoach.

Maybe one of the greatest western movies that show a passenger turned into a gunman is the movie titled merely Riding Shotgun. This 1954 movie, which was directed by André De Toth, features actor Randolph Scott, who plays Larry Delong, a shotgun rider. This movie, while it is made for Hollywood and not real life, focuses on the life of Delong, who was given the job to guard the stagecoach, which was heading for a place called Deepwater.

Unfortunately, Delong is tricked out of his post as a guard, and the stagecoach gets robbed. He is then believed to be part of the gang that robbed the stagecoach and has to try to prove to people that he was not affiliated with the group.