As someone who has tended to ride shotgun often in cars, the thought struck me last night that I had not researched where the term shotgun came to refer to riding in the front seat of a vehicle, though there are a wide variety of possibilities. So, when I had a little time this evening, after I had spent more hours today riding shotgun on my way to the second week of job training, I decided to do a little bit of research, and the folks at The Straight Dope were kind enough to have greatly aided that research . I thought it would be worthwhile to share with my own readers a brief summary of the evolutoin of the term shotgun as best as I am able.
For one, the term shotgun itself, in all its uses, appears to be a term of American origin, starting from the mostly Scot-Irish inhabitants of Kentucky and other parts of the then frontier west starting in the late 1700′s. Shotguns, of course, are guns most useful at short ranges when accuracy is not necessary but where simply pointing and shooting in a general direction is acceptable, especially because of the short range of combat (with either man or animal). Naturally, stagecoach drivers, harried and vulnerable as they were, tended to ride carrying a shotgun to defend themselves against threatening people and animals. However, apparently, they did not use the expression “riding shotgun.”
It may be humorous and noteworthy that the term shotgun wedding (which dates to the early 1800′s) was used before the expression riding shotgun. Having known a few people who have had shotgun weddings because of sudden pregnancies, the term has a great deal of humor for me, considering I have never put myself in such a situation myself where that would be a possibility. I imagine it would be a great deal less funny when facing the double-barreled shotgun of a father who feels that one has dishonored his little princess, however. That is, obviously, a situation I never want to be in myself, though.
Riding shotgun itself apparently was an expression that was coined when people started representing the old west in films, before being appropriated to cars about a generation later. Given this origin, it appears to be related to the way in which the frontier of the West was memorialized in nostalgia, an aspect I have written about some . We must not forget that the age of the frontier west as not a romantic period (it was a pretty grim and exploitative one) and that the supposed heroes of the West were often opportunists or drifters seeking a better life away from the rules and restrictions of civilizations. Wherever there are frontiers, those who dwell on them will often be a bit rougher and a great deal more lawless than civilized parts, ever seeking to move beyond the restrictions of the socieities they come from even as they serve as the advance guard of that expanding civilization that all too quickly regulates and settles conditions as best as it is able.
There are gains and losses when civilization advances. Security increases as freedom decreases, leaving those who wish for freedom at all costs to seek further frontiers and greater distance from the order they find threatening. With security come infrastructure and more settled people of more settled habits who appreciate the quiet life and modest pursuits. When a society is unable to settle down conditions in its frontiers, that society is generally one with insufficient cohesion to protect or defend its citizens, leading to a breakdown of order. It is only those who are corrupt who prefer the lawlessness of disorder and chaos to a legitimate order. Most of us would far rather ride shotgun metaphorically than face the need to defend ourselves at every step from every possible threat, knowing that no help was available from anywhere else.