Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Hot As A Two Dollar Pistol

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 10, 2014

Sometimes similar sounding idioms have different meanings.  Sometimes those similar sounding different meaning idioms have a common root.  Sometimes the idiom hot as a two-dollar pistol refers to how angry someone is.  Sometimes it means that others find that person attractive.  And in some cases, it refers to the weather.

In Gary C. Walker‘s 2008 novel, “Son Of The South” the idiom is used to describe a third party’s frame of mind.

It was late afternoon Thursday before Hank called me into the office. “Guess you know I went to see Lawrence?”  I nodded that I did.  Hank continued, “We talked for some time.  He was as hot as a two-dollar pistol at you.  You embarrassed him in front of his guests.  You cased him to lose face.  He thought you had deceived him by making believe you could read.  He was hoping he would never see your face around Anchor and Hope again.”

In Laurie Norlander‘s 2013 novel, “Mirror Images” the image is used to describe a third party’s physical attributes.

Frank shook his head.  “It’s hard to imagine someone like Chris killing himself.  What with all his money and a wife as hot as a two dollar pistol.”

And in Jessie Fernandes‘ 2011 novel, “Rough Ride On A High Horse” it describes the weather.

The next morning, I rose exhausted from a humid night filled with nightmares about Billy. It was as hot as a two-dollar pistol again.  The minute I opened the kitchen door, Buck raced out across the yard and into the pasture.  Cleo acted as lethargic as I felt and refused to leave the kitchen.  As soon as I finished setting Edna and Claude up for the day, Buck and I also sought the comfort of indoors.  Ceiling fans were adequate, but sometimes I envied Lynn’s air-conditioning.

The idiom was used in the 1944 movie “Trocadero.”  An interesting but little recognized bit of pop culture came about in this movie about a newspaper columnist in search of a good news story for his Sunday column.  In the story, the club decides to move from the traditional big band sound to add a swing band — a genre of music that was hot back east but not nearly as well known on the west coast.  Slipped into the dialogue, you’ll hear the comment about someone being as hot as a two-dollar pistol.

Did any handgun ever cost two dollars?  From what Idiomation found in the 1897 Sears Roebuck catalogue, pistols sold for anywhere between sixty-eight cents and up.  Here’s an image of the less expensive pistols available by mail order.

IMAGE 1
The mid-range pistols can be seen in this image from the Sears Roebuck catalogue of 1897.

IMAGE 2

In the Scientific American magazine (established in 1845) published an article in the December 13, 1879 edition that made reference to two-dollar pistols (and not in a complimentary fashion either) in an article entitled, “The Scientific American As An Educator Of The Young.”

The intellectual society which young people enjoy tells upon their moral and mental character not how powerfully than do their social affiliations.  The devourer of sensational stories is as little likely to excel in studies requiring patient effort and sobriety of mind, as the habitual reader of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN is to run away with a two-dollar pistol and a brierwood pipe, to hunt buffaloes and slay Indians on the plains.

The recognized marked brand names in the United States were Colt (1836), Remington (1848), Smith & Wesson (1857) and Winchester (1866).  They were promoted via print advertisements among other promotional and marketing avenues.  But with success comes knock-offs, and it wasn’t long before customers were being warned about counterfeits and patent infringements.

To combat this, Colt published a flyer called, “Simple Reasons For Preferring Colt’s Arm To All Others.”  It listed 14 reasons why Colt was the brand to buy.  Among those reasons, #5 and #7 addressed the issue of inferior quality of counterfeits and those that infringed on Colt’s patents.

5.  They leave no burning paper in the barrel after a discharge, to block the next cartridge into your face, as do the guns which open from behind.

7.  They are made of the best steel that can be procured for money, and have the strength to resist the explosive force of gunpowder, while the mongrel imitations and cheap arms are clumsily made of cast iron or inferior materials, and are more dangerous to their owners than they are to all others.

Obviously, a poorly made gun that kept burning paper in it would become hot at best (and blow up in your face at worst) with each shot fired.  And a poorly made gun would be one the manufacturer intended to sell at a cut-rate price.

History relates that a good pistol cost the equivalent of nearly a month’s wages for a cowboy; in the 1870s, a cowboy generally earned $25 per month.  Back in 1873, the Colt Peacemaker — also known as the gun that won the West — sold for $17.

A pistol that sold for $2 wasn’t much of a pistol at all.  In fact, it was a bargain basement pistol that no self-respecting cowboy would be seen carrying.

In the end, the expression — whether it’s used to mean hot as in the weather or hot to the touch or hot as in temperament — originates from the very real problems created by $2 pistols with their heated barrels and potential to explode when used.  For this reason, Idiomation pegs the expression to the 1850s when Colts, Remingtons, Smith & Wessons, and Winchesters were doing brisk sales, and counterfeiters were trying to muscle in on those sales.

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5 Responses to “Hot As A Two Dollar Pistol”

  1. Great entry. So “hot as a two dollar pistol,” means pretty darn hot, and a cheap sort of hot, at that. I can use this is my novel.

  2. I think you may be missing one meaning of the word “hot” in this reference. In this usage “hot” can mean “stolen.” A pistol sold for two dollars is likely stolen. That is the meaning I always understood. The usage can refer to something like an engine “running hotter than a two dollar pistol,” or even a person, “He/she’s hotter than a two dollar pistol,” meaning sexy.

    • Hello Chris, and thank you for your comments. Yes, “hot” can mean “stolen” however that meaning only came about in the mid-1920s, having been first recorded in 1925 in the sense of “easily identified and difficult to dispose of” when referring to theft.

      In April 1925, the Bureau of Forensic Ballistics was established in New York City by C. E. Waite, Major (later Colonel) Calvin H. Goddard, Philip 0. Gravelle and John H. Fisher. The Bureau provided firearms identification services to law enforcement agencies since there weren’t many law enforcement agencies that had the capability to do proper analysis.

      The Federal Bureau of Identification (FBI) Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory (SCDL) began ballistic forensics in the 1930s. Ballistic forensics was still in its infancy as identification of fired projectiles and cartridges cases to specific firearms based on observation, physical matching, caliber determination from an examination of the shape and size of the average bullet.

      In other words, a bullet could be identified as coming from a certain type of weapon, and it could be determined if a weapon had been recently discharged, but the rest was, for the most part, conjecture. Since two-dollar pistols purchased across two generations would be plentiful (thanks to being passed down father to son), having to get rid of one for fear of being identified as having discharged one while committing a crime wouldn’t be difficult or create a sense of worry as to how one would get rid of said weapon.

      The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) was established in 1950, and the science had advanced to accurate toolmark identification of bullets and weapons. Five years later, in 1955, Calvin H. Goddard — considered to be the ‘father’ of the science — passed away.

      When researching this idiom, all of the above was considered which is why “hot as a two-dollar pistol” has nothing to do with “hot” in the “stolen” sense and everything to do with the downside of a poorly manufactured two-dollar pistol and its hot barrel.

    • Tim Attig said

      I’m with Chris on this one. If a person were offered a pistol for two dollars that normally sold for a months salary, first thought would be that it was stolen or faulty. Same with an offer to purchase anything at a ridiculously low price. If it works and is offered that cheap, it has to be stolen. Like the guy in the trench coat with the watches for sale dirt cheap….

      • Hello Tim and welcome to Idiomation. While you might agree with Chris that the idiom means the pistol is stolen, “hot” meaning “stolen” wasn’t part of the language until the 1920s while $2 pistols (which were known for creating hot barrels hence the advertisements warning against purchasing $2 pistols for that reason) were part of everyday life in the mid-1800s. Idiomation’s research (which is extensive for each entry) did not yield any instances where the idiom referred to something that was stolen.

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