It’s interesting to study where expressions come from. I heard the term ‘straight shooter’ a lot recently (people tend to use the same expressions and so in long conversations, you’ll hear phrases repeated). It stuck in my mind and I was curious where it originates from.
Turns out, like many expressions and idioms, there is more than one theory.
Probably the most intuitive explanation is that it relates to shooting a gun. The notion that a person shoots straight would imply that they are reliable and true (accurate) in their actions. That sounds good and it certainly makes sense. It also makes sense given the United States’ long history of gun sports that it would derive from the shooting ranges and catch on culturally.
But I would assert that there may be a different explanation. One connected to a quickly dying but no less important cornerstone of society: the carnival. Specifically professional wrestling.
In days past, carnivals were a major form of entertainment to communities across the country (and the world). In our age of radio, television, and certainly the internet, we quite simply cannot conceive of just how important carnivals were to communities. They were largely THE source of entertainment and people flocked from all around to go to the carnival. They were an indelible part of the American experience (America at least, if not most countries world-wide).
One critical attraction for the carnivals was professional wrestling. Today we think of pro-wrestling as the glitz, glamor, and pageantry of the WWE, Lucha Underground, New Japan, and other companies. But in the pre-Gold Dust Trio era (Ed Lewis, Billy Sandow, and Toots Mondt), professional wrestling was something totally different: it was often real.
We have only some speculation about this era. A hundred years ago, the practices of wrestling was a closely guarded secret, but what we know from stories and legends handed down from promoter to promoter is that a carnival would roll into town. The barker would come out with the champion or one of their best wrestlers and challenge the crowd. ‘Anybody who can best this man will win $5,000!’ he would call to the crowd. Locals would challenge the champion to a fight. Whether this was just a wrestling match or a true, blue fight, we don’t know but it likely varies. Even in the case where it was a wrestling match and not a ‘fight’, the odds that it resembled wrestling (as in collegiate wrestling) we know today is unlikely. It was probably more akin to submission wrestling, not unlike how bareknuckle boxing compares to modern boxing.
It must be underscored, this was a real match. This was not (in pro-wrestling parlance) a work. This was called a shoot, which means that it was a real confrontation and the carnival was putting up real money (and a lot of it). Now, it is possible that the carnival might have planted people in some markets and that undoubtedly did happen, but that was certainly not a widespread practice and even if it was, it would not have dissuaded other challengers.
Anyway, so the champion would take on these ‘shoot fights’ (one name for early mixed martial arts competitions) and then he would have matches with other wrestlers in the stable that traveled with the carnival. These matches would be work matches, meaning the outcome and perhaps even the whole match itself, would be pre-determined. The shoot fight at the beginning, however, was absolutely critical because it would help to establish the realm of believability. It gave the champion legitimacy in the eyes of the populace and thus validated everything that would come after.
Thus, some wrestlers would be known as shooters. These would be the most capable wrestlers who could legitimately fight well and handle themselves in real situations. This was because of the unpredictability of making open challenges to crowds in new territories. It would absolutely devastate a wrestling card at a carnival – perhaps even the whole carnival itself – if their champion or their shooter (again, likely the same person) lost to some farm boy or stevedore in front of the whole crowd. The shooter had to be able to handle all comers.
I postulate this definition of a shooter may also be a possible origin for the term ‘straight shooter’. In this context, it would signify a person who was not only reliable but also capable of handling herself or himself in any situation, but especially situations of importance and stress. It also connotates this person would add believability and honesty to whatever else was happening. ‘Straight’ would suggest that this is a person for whom being legitimate, real, and honest was their whole job.
I think the gun range is the more likely explanation but I really can’t rule this out. Nor can it be ruled out that both may have contributed. Both might even be true and the homonymic similarities essentially merged them into the same expression. I choose to believe in my theory, just because it’s more interesting.