When I was a kid, my dad called everything “Old Betsy,” from our ’80s model station wagon to whatever cherished gun he happened to be using or hunting with at the time. I thought it was just something he made up, but it turns out, Dad wasn’t that original. Old Betsy was the name of Davy Crockett’s .40-caliber flintlock rifle (Crockett’s original Betsy was a .48-caliber named after his sister; he later acquired Old Betsy and, later, Pretty Betsy). Since then, Old Betsy has been one of the most common nicknames that hunters give to their guns.
US Post Office, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Why do we name our guns, anyway? Sometimes it’s a practical thing—it’s a lot easier to say, “Hand me Phyllis” than to say “Hand me the 9 mm. The Beretta. No, not the subcompact, the full-sized one.” Other times it’s just another way to personalize your firearm, and make it your own. Not everyone gives their guns nicknames—‑none of my guns have one. I just call them “the 7 mm 08” or “the Mossberg pistol” or whatever. But when I posed the “Does your gun have a name?” question to friends, I discovered that a lot of people do, in fact, name their guns, and they all have different reasons.
Gun names, like people’s nicknames, are usually earned, not just selected. The way I see it, a good gun name falls into one of four categories.
1. Utilitarian or Descriptive
These are the simplest names because they’re just one step above “the Springfield .45” or other straightforward name. They often involve a size description and/or a color. For example, a former coworker of mine has a Weatherby SA-08 named Black Death. It is, as you might expect, a black synthetic shotgun. Another friend has a Big Black—a Benelli Super Black Eagle II 12-gauge. “It’s so named because of the 49.5” length and black finish,” she says. A family member calls his Remington 7600, a pump-action rifle he uses for deer hunting, The Slide-Action MeatMaster.
Famous duck-hunting writer Nash Buckingham named his Super Fox shotgun Bo Whoop after the sound it made when fired—a bit of a stretch, maybe, but still a descriptive name. General Patton famously called his ivory-gripped .357 Mag Smith & Wesson his “killing gun,” although we don’t have any other indication that he ever killed anyone with it.
Names like Big Bertha, Blockbuster, Little Powerhouse, Critter Gitter and Boomstick also fall into this category.
2. Nostalgic or Sentimental
Old Betsy is the most famous nostalgic name, just based on its storied history, and it started as a sentimental name to begin with due to Crockett’s devotion to his sister. These names have sentimental value to the owner, named after an interesting historical figure or event or a pop culture reference, especially to a classic movie, TV show or character. For example, old-time exhibition shooter Herb Parsons’ Winchester Model 12 was named Mae West after the famous actress of the 1950s and ‘60s. A friend of mine named his turkey gun Mjölnir—the name of Thor’s hammer. Sentimental names have a long history: Buffalo Bill Cody called his Springfield rifle Lucretia Borgia, assumed to be a reference to a Victor Hugo play about a 15th century aristocrat and murderer. Rumor has it he wanted to name the gun after something beautiful and deadly.
If you named your gun Pretty Boy Floyd, Walker (as in Texas Ranger), Dirty Harry, Peacemaker, Chuck Connors, John Wick, Quigley or Wild Bill, or named your gun after your dog or child (or your dog or child after your gun), you might be the nostalgic (or pop culture) type.
3. Clever or Funny
This is the most entertaining category, and the nicknames can get really creative. One of the best I’ve heard came from a Facebook friend: “I have a Colt Cobra from the ’50s, kind of purple where the blue faded on the alloy. Her name is Margaret Thatcher. She may not be beautiful, but she is to be respected.”
Another friend calls his .30-06 The Cell Phone, “so I can reach out and touch them.” Then there’s the hunter who named his .204 rifle Roxanne because she has a red light. “Jezebel is my Grendel 6.5 hog hunting gun,” one woman told me, “Because she does her best work at night.”
If you search for gun name threads on Reddit (not for the faint of heart), you’ll find a variety of creative gun nicknames. One of the cutest I came across there was a long-range rifle named SniperNoSniping, a reference to the character Swiper in the cartoon Dora the Explorer.
And then there’s everything else. Daniel Boone named his rifle Tick-Licker, because he claimed he could hit something as small as a tick with it. Lots of people give their guns human names that have no real meaning; they’re just randomly selected. The owner of the aforementioned Jezebel also owns a TenPoint crossbow named Thalia, a Ruger Hawkeye M77 .270 named Rupert, a Ruger .44 Mag carbine named Fred, a Ruger Red Label over-and-under named Annie and a Beretta Xtreme A400 named Earl.
I have to admit, if you’re going to name your hunting gun a random human name, “Earl” feels like a natural choice.