CLARIFICATION: Just so it’s clear, this question is specifically about the economic claims made by the meme presented below. It is a NOT question concerning the origins and etymology of the word “shot” in any way/shape/form. If there is a desire to discuss/debate the etymology of the word “shot” I have started a thread at the English Language SE site specifically for that purpose.


This image is popping up on my social media feeds, and I wonder if there is any truth to the presented claim. The text reads:

‘A SHOT OF WHISKEY’

In the old west a .45 cartridge for a six-gun cost 12 cents, so did a glass of whiskey. If a cowhand was low on cash he would often give the bartender a cartridge in exchange for a drink. This became known as a “shot” of whiskey.

That little bit of trivia seems a bit too perfect: Guns, booze and the cost of one thing connected to one thing is the same as another thing. Perhaps this is a “legend” that spawned from people trading physical objects instead of using cash at local stores and then was distilled (figuratively) into this one sentence over time?

‘A SHOT OF WHISKEY’ - In the old west a .45 cartridge for a six-gun cost 12 cents, so did a glass of whiskey. If a cowhand was low on cash he would often give the bartender a cartridge in exchange for a drink. This became known as a “shot” of whiskey.

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    Would this question perhaps be better suited for the English site? (Such "fake etymologies" are often discussed there.) – Fattie Jun 11 at 12:32
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    The current price of a .45 is $0.43/round. ammograb.com/45-colt There's actually several types of .45 but I don't know the difference between 45 ACP and 45 Colt. I'm guessing it was 45 Colt they used back then. That is the cheapest price. A bottle of whiskey I have is $16.99/liter = $0.5025/oz. That may be an expensive bottle purchased in an expensive state, so it seems plausible there is a round/shot parity depending where you buy or trade. – Chloe Jun 11 at 16:46
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    @Chloe Well, I checked that out as well and did similar math. But the problem is that the math and economics of 2018 aren’t necessarily the math and economics of the 1800s. – JakeGould Jun 11 at 16:53
  • @Chloe you are correct, that would have been .45 Colt. (Often called ".45 long colt" today to differentiate it from .45 ACP, because the .45 ACP cartridge is shorter. – zeta-band Jun 11 at 21:38
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    @JakeGould Yup. That is the round that is famously associated with the model 1911 autoloading pistol. – zeta-band Jun 12 at 16:15
up vote 189 down vote accepted

The answer seems to be no on all accounts.

In general, Snopes says:

Although the meme is of recent origin, Internet mentions of this alleged historical fact date to at least 2003. Significantly, however, we were unable to trace it back any further than that, nor could we find any credible support for the general claim that it was common to use ammunition as a substitute for hard currency in frontier drinking establishments.

The price of a drink probably wasn't ever comparable to that of .45 cartridges:

The 1891 edition of Chicago hardware dealer Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett & Co.’s General Catalog lists Smith & Wesson .45 cartridges at a price of $25 per thousand, or 2-1/2 cents per cartridge. For the price of a shot of whiskey, we consulted Kelly J. Dixon’s 2005 book Boomtown Saloons: Archaeology and History in Virginia City, which notes that the average cost of a measure of any drink was around two bits, or 25 cents (although the cost later dropped as competition increased when more Americans moved west). Using those figures as our base prices, one shot of whiskey would have cost the equivalent of 10 cartridges. Even allowing for price variations according to time and place, it appears highly doubtful a one-to-one correspondence between the price of a cartridge and the cost of a drink ever existed in the Old West.
ibid

Lastly, "shot" meaning a "supply or amount of drink" (Oxford English Dictionary) predates the Wild West. The earliest attestation according to the OED is this 1676 citation—from England nonetheless:

A company of fellows would needs drink 2d a peece..their vain way of drinking shots.
The Rev. Oliver Heywood, B. A., 1630-1702: Autobiography...

(The OED also lists a 1691 citation for the word.)

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Sklivvz Jun 13 at 12:40

The word "Shot", a corruption of the Late Old-Engish "Scot" or "Secot", itself a corruption of the old Norse "skot", was a word meaning a Tax or measure. This means it pre-dates not just the "Wild West" period of American history, but also the invention of the first firearms.

A cannon used to fire either a large Cannonball or a measure ("shot") of smaller pellets/projectiles for a wider spread. Someone hit with these smaller pellets had been "hit by shot", or just "shot" - so, it seems likely that the etymology is actually the opposite of that "trivia".

(Incidentally, "bucking" is an old mining term referring to breaking rock or ore down into small pea-sized pellets - known as "buck" - with a flat-bottomed bucking hammer, so "buck-shot" is a measure of pea-sized pellets)

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    Most sources list the etymology of "buckshot" as referencing a buck (male deer), especially since that was what it was used to hunt. For this same reason, "shot" is also called "birdshot." – JackArbiter Jun 13 at 21:33

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