Depending on your outlook on life, shots can either be the best part or the worst part of any night out. No matter your persuasion, it’s curious that humans linguistically evolved to call the small libation by the same name as gunfire.

Where exactly did the term “shot of whiskey” come from? The answer is a muddled combination of entertaining theories and tall tales, most of which are more speculation or outright fiction than fact.

One of the most compelling theories suggests that the term “shot of whiskey” comes from an Old Western exchange between bartenders and cowboys. The story goes that in the Old West, a cartridge of bullets for a .45 six-gun cost 12 cents. Coincidentally, the price of a shot of whiskey was also 12 cents. In the instance that a cowboy was unable to pay monetarily, it was common for him to exchange a cartridge for a drink, and thus the small drink was named a “shot.”

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A shot of whiskey is a dive bar staple.
A shot of whiskey is a dive bar staple, often paired with a beer to make a boilermaker.
Credit: Peter Kim /

It’s a great story, but fact checkers at Snopes have discerned that not only were people using the word “shot” in reference to booze before the Old West period, but also that the cost of a cartridge and a shot of whiskey differed quite dramatically. According to the 1891 edition of “General Catalog” — a trade publication from Chicago hardware company Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett, & Co. — the cost of .45 cartridges was $25 per thousand, meaning each cartridge was priced at around 2 and a half cents. On the other hand, “Boomtown Saloons: Archaeology and History in Virginia City” by Kelly J. Dixon, discloses that the cost of any drink containing liquor in the Old West was approximately 25 cents — 10 times that of a bullet cartridge.

Another compelling argument is that the phrase originated from a standoff during the temperance movement. Dr. Jehu Z. Powell argued in his 1913 book, “A History of Cass County Indiana: From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time,” that in 1857, an armed group of teetotalers in New Waverly, Ind., shot at a barrel of “red eye” whiskey in an effort to prevent the spirit from ever being drunk. Powell claims that after that altercation, “When the boys wanted a drink, they would ask for a ‘shot of redeye.’”

So…Why is a Shot Called a Shot?

More likely is that the phrase “shot of whiskey” — or the term “shot” in general — is a derivative of the Old English word scot or sceot. According to Nathan Bailey’s 1721 “An Universal Etymological English Dictionary,” scot was a term used to describe someone who owed a debt to a bar for drinks that had gone unpaid. The term ale-shot was later used to indicate an individual who had “a reckoning or part to be paid at an ale house.” As cultures and drinking practices evolved while spirits grew in popularity, the definition of “shot” transformed from an outstanding bar tab to the exercise of quickly swallowing small quantities of hard liquor with a hearty “cheers!” that we’re familiar with today.