Don’t Knock “The Code of the West”!

A commenter just nominated the Republicans in the Montana State Legislature for “Incompetent Elected Official” status because they have proposed “The Code of the West” as  Montana’s State Code.

Nomination rejected. I don’t want to argue about whether a state needs a State Code, although it seems a lot more useful and constructive than state birds, state songs and state pies. I also don’t feel like debating the political correctness attacks on the potential use of the Code of the West by Native American activists, who apparently think the Code glorifies cowboys and insults Indians (Oh, all right: the complaint is nonsense. Valid ideals are not sullied by the misdeeds of those who espoused them.) But I like the cowboy codes, all of them. One is already on the site. I might not choose the same ten tenets of the unwritten Code of the West that is being debated in Montana, but the Code of the West is a perfectly good statement of ethical principles, and any state that embraces it should be praised, not embroiled in a lot of political posturing.

Here is a version of The Code of the West. Pick your favorite ten rules; it’s hard to go wrong, though the obsession with whiskey is a little off-topic, and the horse-related ones are not as relevant as they once were.

My ten favorites are in bold.


  • Don’t inquire into a person’s past.
  • Take the measure of a man for what he is today.
  • Never steal another man’s horse. A horse thief pays with his life.
  • Defend yourself whenever necessary.
  • Look out for your own.
  • Remove your guns before sitting at the dining table.
  • Never order anything weaker than whiskey.
  • Don’t make a threat without expecting dire consequences.
  • Never pass anyone on the trail without saying “Howdy”.
  • When approaching someone from behind, give a loud greeting before you get within shooting range.
  • Don’t wave at a man on a horse, as it might spook the horse. A nod is the proper greeting.
  • After you pass someone on the trail, don’t look back at him.  It implies you don’t trust him.
  • Riding another man’s horse without his permission is nearly as bad as making love to his wife.
  • Never even bother another man’s horse.
  • Always fill your whiskey glass to the brim.
  • A cowboy doesn’t talk much; he saves his breath for breathing.
  • No matter how weary and hungry you are after a long day in the saddle, always tend to your horse’s needs before your own, and get your horse some feed before you eat.
  • Cuss all you want, but only around men, horses and cows.
  • Complain about the cooking and you become the cook.
  • Always drink your whiskey with your gun hand, to show your friendly intentions.
  • Do not practice ingratitude.
  • A cowboy is pleasant even when out of sorts.
  • Complaining is what quitters do, and cowboys hate quitters.
  • Always be courageous. Cowards aren’t tolerated in any outfit worth its salt.
  • A cowboy always helps someone in need, even a stranger or an enemy.
  • Never try on another man’s hat.
  • Be hospitable to strangers. Anyone who wanders in, including an enemy, is welcome at the dinner table.
  • Give your enemy a fighting chance.
  • Never wake another man by shaking or touching him, as he might wake suddenly and shoot you.
  • Real cowboys are modest.  A braggart who is “all gurgle and no guts” is not tolerated.
  • Be there for a friend when he needs you.
  • Drinking on duty is grounds for instant dismissal and blacklisting.
  • A cowboy is loyal to his “brand,” to his friends, and those he rides with.
  • Never shoot an unarmed or unwarned enemy.
  • Never shoot a woman no matter what.
  • Don’t stir up dust around the chuckwagon
  • Don’t wake up the wrong man for herd duty
  • Respect the land and the environment by not smoking in hazardous fire areas, disfiguring rocks, trees, or other natural areas.
  • Honesty is absolute – your word is your bond, and a handshake is more binding than a contract.
  • Live by the Golden Rule.

13 thoughts on “Don’t Knock “The Code of the West”!

  1. Years ago I was acting at a summer repertory theatre in Bigfork, MT. One of our plays was a satirical farce, “The Death & Life of Sneaky Fitch”, by James L. Rosenberg. It was set in the fictional cowboy town of Gopher Gulch.

    In it, whenever somebody uttered the words, “The Code of the West”, all dramatic action stopped, all the characters reverently removed their hats, then covered again and the play’s action continued.

    It always got a huge laugh.

    That’s why I howled upon hearing of that legislator’s proposal. But he was serious — it was not theatrical farce.

  2. I might have picked additional ones to highlight, but overall, words to live by are a good thing, not subject to political correctness. Edit the code to modernize it if you like, but the important ones are everlasting, regardless of culture or the times.

    Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code (linked in your post) are about the best I’ve seen. You should have listed that separately.

  3. Howdy. . . . I am from Montana. Born and raised. Excuse me while I finish my glass of whiskey filled to the brim . . . . .

    Hopefully, our legislators will follow the Code – “A cowboy doesn’t talk much; he saves his breath for breathing.”

    • Howdy, Lizzie – I’m a Last Chance Gulch native, but now regard both Bigfork and Missoula as “home towns” – yep, an old Grizzly (but also Bobcat, where I got my bach. deg.). Huzzah for the last best place!

        • We should all get together for a couple of rousing choruses of Joe Howard’s song, “Montana, the Glory of the West”!

      • Hey Curmudgeon – Way back in ’74, we lived in Helena. Loved it. We made some wonderful theatre friends. My husband and I were involved in the first season of opening Grand Street. And now after many years of performing, this old cowgirl (I’m pretending to be a cowgirl) is retired. Go Griz! And I know all the words to the Montana State Song.

        • Hello again, Lizzie – a little history: the Grand Street Theatre – GST – (actually on Park Ave.) was originaly a Unitarian church ; then the city bought it for use as municipal library; after new library was built, GST took over.

          When renovating, GST discovered that the Unitarians had actually built the congregational seating area with a raked floor – perfect for theatrical audience use! The city had installed a level floor, on top of the raked floor, for library use.

          For GST, a case of “Serendipity”.

          (And that wonderful word comes from the Farsi fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip”, useful knowledge if you ever get into a trivia contest. Further, Serendip derives from an Arabic word for Ceylon, which further derives from Indo-European for “Island of the Dwelling Place of Lions”; though I’ve never heard that lions were native to Ceylon. All this from the Code of the West? Truly serendipitous.)

  4. Pingback: Don’t Knock “The Code of the West”! ( from « Ethics Bob

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