I heard from a (very) dubious source, today, that the term “riding shotgun” comes to the vernacular from the days of the stagecoaches when there would be a man sitting next to the driver with a shotgun in his lap in the event the coach was attacked by bandits, one of the native tribes (which obviously differed depending on where one was), or some sort of wild animal.* This seemed…too easy; slang rarely works this way.
Naturally, I went and did a bit of research because I’m me and I can’t take anything at face value. It turns out it seemed too easy because it is too easy.
While the term “riding shotgun” was originally used to describe the shotgun guard in the stagecoach era, its first appearance can only be traced to a story published in The Ogden Examiner in 1919. It might be interesting to note that the story put quotation marks around the word “shotgun.” However, “riding shotgun” to describe one’s position on the coach (or, later, in the car) didn’t become a popular usage until the era of western movies and television. Fittingly, the first reference on film comes in the 1939 movie Stagecoach.**
The use of the vernacular to mean riding in a car’s passenger seat first occurred in 1954 and by the early 1960s, “shotgun” was universally understood to mean the passenger seat.
Long story short, do your research before you tell me something is a fact. I will look it up.***
*That he carried a shotgun is not surprising, by virtue of a shotgun firing pellets; bouncing up and down on a stagecoach doesn’t exactly make for sniper-like precision.
**Point of interest, this is one of two westerns I’ve actually seen. The other was The Magnificent Seven (I think? All I remember about it was that there were people shooting guns from a rooftop, which is so very not helpful when describing a western). The former was for a grade 11 history class, the latter was for a unit in my pop culture class in grad school (I think? It might have been my class on the Mexican Revolution…it was the same professor.)
***This drives one of my closest friends nuts. He has threatened to stop telling me anything because he knows I won’t believe him until I’ve verified said information.