Riding Shotgun — Meaning, Uses, Examples & Origin

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Riding shotgun is an idiom that means taking on the role of a responsible partner or companion to someone in command. It often refers to the occupant of a vehicle’s front passenger seat who may assist the driver as a navigator. 

Idioms like riding shotgun are phrases with figurative meanings diverging from their literal interpretations. They frequently appear in informal English communication and serve as vital components to understanding the nuances of the English language. 

This article covers the idiom’s literal and figurative definitions, origins, variations, and tips for its use, as well as a quick quiz to test your knowledge. Keep reading to learn in-depth about the idiomatic expression riding shotgun and how to use it in a modern context. 

Riding Shotgun — Meaning Uses Examples Origin

What Is the Meaning of Riding Shotgun?

The idiom riding shotgun is used to emphasize being in a position of responsibility, engagement, accompaniment, or escort. 

According to Dictionary.com, the extension of this phrase to mean “a more general function of protection” dates back to the mid-20th century. It can be extended to mean having someone’s back or acting in a supportive position.  

Today, this expression is considered slang, as explained by yourdictionary.com

Literal Meaning

The literal meaning of riding shotgun refers to riding in the front passenger seat of a car or truck. This term has its origins in the practice of having someone ride next to a stagecoach driver with a shotgun to provide security.

In modern times, with the decline of stagecoaches, the true literal definition of riding shotgun has become somewhat obsolete. It is only relevant in contexts involving armored vehicles that transport valuables, money, or prisoners.

Figurative Meaning

The figurative meaning of riding shotgun implies that you are there for someone or have their back. It suggests taking responsibility with or for someone and acting in an encouraging and supportive manner. 

Variations of Riding Shotgun

Variations of the expression have become popular through the years. Most of these depend on regional dialects and personal preferences.

  • Shotgun: This is the most common variation of the idiom. It refers to claiming the front passenger seat in a vehicle, typically next to the driver.
  • Call shotgun: This phrase indicates one’s intention to sit in the front passenger seat. It is often used when multiple people are vying for the seat, and the first person to call “shotgun” gets to sit there.
  • Riding shot: This is a shorter version of the phrase, still conveying the meaning of being in the front passenger seat.
  • Riding shotty: This is a more informal and colloquial variation of the idiom, often used among friends or peers.
  • Riding upfront: This expression is another way of indicating that you want to sit in the front passenger seat.
  • In the copilot seat: This phrase suggests sitting in the seat traditionally occupied by the copilot or navigator in an aircraft or other vehicles.
  • Co-driving: This term implies sharing the driving responsibilities with the person in the driver’s seat.
  • Shot-bunny: This is a humorous variation of the idiom, typically used when someone is eager to claim the front seat.

How Is Riding Shotgun Commonly Used in Context?

If you are unsure how to use the expression riding shotgun, consider the following examples of usage to help you understand how it fits into the context of a sentence. 

What Are the Different Ways to Use Riding Shotgun?

  • Literal use: This term can be used directly to refer to a passenger sitting in the front seat of a car next to the driver. Example: “Octavia is riding shotgun on our road trip to California.”
  • Metaphorical use in projects or tasks: The phrase can be applied metaphorically to depict someone taking a prominent role in a project or task, often assisting the lead person. Example: “For this project, Clarke is riding shotgun with our team lead.”
  • Indicating responsibility: Riding shotgun can signify the responsibility of providing guidance, support, or vigilance. Example: “As the senior engineer, I’ll be riding shotgun on this system upgrade to ensure everything goes smoothly.”
  • Describing supportive role in events: The term can describe someone taking a supportive role during events, functions, or conferences. Example: “Echo will be riding shotgun with me during the upcoming sales conference.”
  • Symbolizing position in competitions or games: In competitions or multiplayer games, riding shotgun can represent partnering with a leading player or team. Example: “In the doubles tennis match, Abby will be riding shotgun with the top-seeded player.”
  • Expressing partnership in a journey: It can be used to express a partnership or companionship in a figurative journey or life path. Example: “In this journey of entrepreneurship, my mentor is riding shotgun, guiding me through the challenges.”

Where Can You Find Examples of Riding Shotgun?

Here are some modern examples from recent newspapers and magazines. Take a look at even older uses in our origin section. 

  • The mother of four is the latest pop diva to ride shotgun with this year’s Grammy Awards host, who previously cruised with Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears and Sia. (People Magazine)
  • So if you get the chance to ride in one, don’t call shotgun, volunteer to ride in the back and catch up on some Netflix. (Business Insider)
  • But then young passengers got a huge visual treat: someone with a tidal chart and a hell of a lot of time on their hands had constructed a series of wooden structures on the mudflats in Emeryville — in clear view if you had the foresight to call “shotgun” and were driving southbound on Highway 80. (The San Francisco Chronicle)

What Are Some Tips for Using Riding Shotgun Effectively?

  • Context matters: Always use riding shotgun in appropriate contexts.
  • Know your audience: Be aware of your listener’s or reader’s knowledge of idioms.
  • Combine with a clear explanation: If unsure of your audience’s familiarity with riding shotgun, pair the phrase with a clear explanation or rephrase it.
  • Use sparingly: Like other idioms, riding shotgun should be used sparingly.
  • Use in informal settings: It is ideal for use in casual conversation, storytelling, and other informal communicative contexts.
  • Appropriate pairing: When used to denote the front passenger in a vehicle, it can often be paired with verbs such as calling or claiming. Example: “I’m calling shotgun for our trip tomorrow.”

What Is the Origin of the Idiom Riding Shotgun

Riding Shotgun Ngram
Riding shotgun usage trend.

The idiom riding shotgun has its roots in the era of stagecoach travel. This form of travel was once the only real way to get from one point to another during the 19th and early 20th centuries when railways were inconvenient. The journey often entailed risks, such as disputes over native territories and criminal activities. 

To combat these threats, stagecoach drivers often had a companion who would sit next to them, holding a shotgun ready to ward off potential aggressors and thieves. This is where the term riding shotgun came from.

The first documentation of this practice in writing is found in Alfred Henry Lewis’ historical novel, “The Sunset Trail,” published in 1905:

  • 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.

How Did the Idiom Evolve Over Time?

Because of its origins with stagecoaches, the expression became popularized in Hollywood Westerns. Riding shotgun became the term used to claim the passenger side of a vehicle and later used to infer escorting or aiding someone in a responsible manner. 

Its extended use, meaning to accompany, is regularly used through the mid-20th century and is often seen today. In The Cincinnati Enquirer  in November 1948, the following was recorded within the article Cumminsville Folk Amused:

  • Norb (I Lost On Dewey) Ankenbauer paid off for backing the losing presidential candidate by pushing William Abbott in a wheelbarrow from Colerain and Virginia Aves. to the Mt. Airy Forest main entrance yesterday, more to the amusement of their Cumminsville neighbors. Ed Mohr rides “shotgun” to see that Ankenbauer carries out the bet.

Another one from the Los Angeles Daily News in December 1949 described one Harry Oliver and his notorious lies:

  • …Next thing he knew she was dragging him down the street to the preacher’s, with all the respectable men in town riding shotgun behind them.

What Are Some Related Words and Terms to Riding Shotgun?

We’ve listed the common synonyms, antonyms, and other phrases that can help you better understand the use of the idiom riding shotgun

Riding Shotgun — Meaning Uses Examples Origin 1


  • Taking the passenger seat
  • Assuming the navigator role
  • Riding copilot 
  • Taking the right-hand seat
  • Front-seat companion

Related Terms and Phrases 

  • Front seat
  • Passenger seat
  • Shotgun rider
  • Car travel
  • Driving companion
  • Road trip
  • Navigator
  • Co-driving
  • Road safety
  • Responsibility
  • Wing-man
  • Aide


  • Backseat driver
  • Rear seat
  • Sitting in the back
  • Sitting behind
  • Backseat rider
  • Passenger 
  • Irresponsible
  • Unaccountable
  • Uninvolved
  • Uncommitted

Misinterpretations and Misuses

It’s important to be aware of these potential misinterpretations when using or referring to the phrase riding shotgun to ensure effective communication and avoid confusion.

  • Literal interpretation: Some people may mistakenly interpret riding shotgun as solely referring to physically riding in a vehicle while holding a shotgun or other weapons.
  • Strictly related to shotguns: While the term originated from the practice of having a person with a shotgun, its use is no longer related to the presence of an actual shotgun. 
  • Legal authority: The phrase does not confer legal privileges or responsibilities beyond the customary seating arrangement.
  • Exclusive to vehicles: Although riding shotgun is most commonly associated with cars, it can also be used with other types of vehicles. It also can be used to explain the physical support and presence of another person in various situations.
Riding Shotgun: Test Your Knowledge!

Riding Shotgun: Test Your Knowledge!

Choose the correct answer.

What does the idiom “riding shotgun” mean?
What is the purpose of calling “shotgun” when getting into a vehicle?
Is “riding shotgun” a formal or informal expression?
Which historical context does the phrase “riding shotgun” originate from?
True or False: “Riding shotgun” always involves carrying a shotgun for protection.
Start Over

Let’s Review

The idiom riding shotgun reflects the richness of the English language, embodying both literal and figurative meanings, diverse origins, and variations. It comes from the American Old West. On stagecoaches, a man armed with a shotgun rode beside the stagecoach driver in order to ward off attacks. In time, this position came to be known as riding shotgun.
Mastering its use can significantly enhance English communication, adding depth and color to spoken and written expressions. By understanding and applying idioms like riding shotgun, we can navigate language more effectively, much like a copilot assisting the driver.