In a Car, what does Calling Shotgun Mean?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

If you prefer having some control over the car's radio, environmental controls and available legroom, then "calling shotgun" may be your most critical move of the day. Calling shotgun refers to an informal contest amongst passengers as to who will get to ride in the front passenger seat. By calling shotgun, the winner gets to enjoy all the benefits of sitting up front, while the rest are doomed to a backseat world of car sickness, limited views and hit-or-miss heating and cooling.

People who sit in the front seat get control over the radio and environmental controls.
People who sit in the front seat get control over the radio and environmental controls.

Calling shotgun is often a matter of reacting just a little faster than the rest of the passengers. Once the driver announces his or her intentions of taking a trip, it falls on everyone else to cry out "Shotgun!" or some other reasonable variant. When passengers start calling shotgun, it often falls on the driver to be the final judge on the matter. In many households, parents or other adults are usually allowed to ride up front, while children routinely ride in the back seat for safety. This practice does not necessarily render the practice of calling shotgun completely obsolete, however.

Passengers who are doomed to sit in the backseat of a car may experience limited views and insufficient heating and cooling.
Passengers who are doomed to sit in the backseat of a car may experience limited views and insufficient heating and cooling.

According to a number of sources, the idea of calling shotgun most likely arose from the days of stagecoaches. The driver of a stagecoach generally had to concentrate on controlling the horses and following the trail. Security was usually handled by a second man seated next to the driver, who often wielded a shotgun for protection. This shotgun position did offer a few privileges, so passengers on stagecoaches without a designated shotgun rider would often ask the driver for permission to ride in the "shotgun" seat.

The modern practice of calling shotgun has little to do with security, but everything to do with comfort. Calling shotgun successfully usually means having some influence over the audio system and climate control, although the driver may have the ultimate power of veto. The shotgun rider may also have to assume the role of navigator, as well as become a second pair of eyes when looking for landmarks or interstate exits. Calling shotgun is sometimes a permanent arrangement on shorter trips, but the shotgun crown may have to be relinquished several times during longer drives.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments

Reminiscence

When I was growing up, I didn't really expect to ride shotgun most of the time. That was my mom's seat in the car. Later on in life, I started calling "shotgun" more often with my friends, since that was usually the seat with the best view. There was always one guy who claimed to get really carsick if he had to ride in the back, so it was usually better to just let him ride up front.

Buster29

The main problem with winning the "shotgun" battle is that you end up becoming the navigator.

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