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What is a Shotgun Marriage?

By Cassie L. Damewood
Updated May 17, 2024
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A shotgun marriage is an informal phrase coined in America that commonly refers to a marriage forced to take place when a woman becomes pregnant out of wedlock. The baby's father is forced to marry her, so she will not give birth without benefit of a husband. The marriage generally is intended to guarantee the woman and child’s financial stability.

No firearms are normally involved in a shotgun marriage, which is also commonly referred to as a shotgun wedding. The shotgun reference is thought to have started in the 1700s or 1800s when fathers and brothers of the pregnant woman supposedly used firearms to force the suspected father to marry her. It is rumored that the distraught and angry men often followed the man to the altar with guns pointed at him to ensure his compliance.

Not only were shotgun weddings thought to punish the involved male for his improper behavior, they were considered necessary to provide the child with two parents. It was once considered an appropriate way to prevent so-called illegitimate children. Many times, the mother would hide the pregnancy to avoid being ostracized.

As social norms changed, shotgun weddings became less frequent. Not only did the common practice of settling issues with guns generally fall out of favor, financial support in the form of government aid became available to single mothers. Birth control and abortion also provided more options. Single motherhood became fairly accepted, and mothers without husbands became commonplace.

Although shotgun marriages were called such mainly in America, other countries picked up on the phrase and concept. The Japanese term dekichatta kekkon is slang for a marriage dictated by an accidental pregnancy, but was not introduced until the late 1990s. The loose translation of the phrase means, “it’s already happened marriage” or “oops marriage.”

Once a very serious act of retribution against a man with bad luck, poor judgment or both, the term shotgun marriage or shotgun wedding is often used in jest in films or on television shows. For example, the Japanese term for shotgun marriage was used as the name of a popular sitcom there, and the popular American television comedy “The Office” made reference to the practice.

In recent years, the term has been used in the media in reference to a totally different scenario. If a situation or decision is forced upon someone with the threat of serious repercussion for failure to comply, the term is used as a metaphor. For instance, one might hear, “He voted for the referendum, but based on his past voting record, it seems he was the victim of a shotgun marriage.”

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Discussion Comments

By Phaedrus — On Aug 19, 2014

My grandmother tells a story about the shotgun marriage her sister had back in the 1930s. Her sister was barely 16 years old, and had no idea she was pregnant until she started to show. Once their father narrowed down the list of suspects, he really did bring a hunting rifle to the "justice of the peace" wedding ceremony. To this day, no one is quite sure if the boy he found was the actual father of the child. It was just safer for everyone involved to play by shotgun rules.

By Ruggercat68 — On Aug 18, 2014

I thought a shotgun marriage was an urban legend until I ended up at one. There was no real shotgun involved, but the pregnant bride's father made it very clear that the groom's choices were limited. I agreed to be a witness because I knew the groom from work. It wasn't a ceremonial wedding, but more of a courthouse marriage. The bride wasn't especially happy to be in that situation, but she did love the groom and wanted to raise their child in a two parent household.

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