The Code of the West is Alive and Well!

Phyliss's caption

“A man’s got to have a code, a creed to live by, no matter his job.” ~John Wayne

The Code of the West is alive and well today!

When I began writing western historical romances, I had to do some serious research on the old west. It became quickly apparent that every account of the men and women who came out to the new frontier during the westward expansion of the United States were bound by a special caveat that ruled their conduct … not by written laws. Being a native Texan, I grew up with these unspoken policies being pounded in my head, but never thought about them being anything but doing what is right whether you can legally get by with it or not.  I never thought about “The Lone Ranger” being a perfect example of a hero living by homespun laws and a gentleman’s agreement.

Lone Ranger

Almost every article about the Code of the West attributes the famous western writer, Zane Grey, as the first chronicler of the unwritten laws in his 1934 novel aptly titled The Code of the West. The resilient, heroic trailblazers who forged west and learned to live in the rough and tough country were bound by these understood rules that centered on integrity, fair play, loyalty, hospitality, and respect for the land. For these pioneers, their survival depended largely upon their ability to coexist with their neighbors, their rivals, and their peers.

The Code of the WestA cowman might break every written law on the books if deemed necessary, but took pride in upholding his own code of ethics. Failure to abide by the unwritten law of the land didn’t necessarily bring formal punishment, but the man who broke it basically became a social outcast. Losing a man’s honor was considered a fate worse than being hanged.


I read a very technical, yet interesting, article where historians and social theorists explained the evolution of the Code of the West. How it was a result of centuries-old English common law. The paper explained the code’s elements which includes “no duty to retreat”, “the imperative of personal self-redress”, “homestead ethics”, and “ethic of individual enterprise.”

Although informative and logical, it sounded a little stiff, so here’s my explanation of the code as it applies today as it did in the Old West.

1. Mind your own business;
2. Keep your hands to yourself; if it isn’t yours, don’t touch it;
3. Be loyal, modest, courageous, friendly, and respectful; and
4. Live by the Golden Rule.

There are many practical, and some quite humorous, interpretations, I’ve come across.

  • Remove your guns before sitting at the dining table.
  • Always drink your whiskey with your gun hand, to show your friendly intentions.
  • Never try on another man’s hat.
  • Tend to your horse’s needs before your own, regardless of how weary and hungry you might be from a long day in the saddle.
  • Be loyal to your “brand,” your friends, and those you ride with.
  • Cuss all you want, but only around men, horses, and cows.
  • Defend yourself whenever necessary and look out for your own; but never shoot an unarmed or unwarned enemy. Known as “the rattlesnake code”, always warn before you strike.
  • And, never shoot a woman, no matter what.
  • Don’t inquire into a person’s past.
  • Take the measure of a man for what he is today.
  • Be pleasant even when out of sorts. Complaining is for quitters, and a cowboy hates quitters.
  • When approaching someone from behind, give a loud greeting (call to camp) before you get within shooting range.
  • After you pass someone on the trail, don’t look back…it implies you don’t trust him.
  • Be modest. A braggart who is “all gurgle and no guts” is intolerable.
  • Honest is absolute–your word is your bond, a handshake is more binding than a contract.

There are hundreds of “do’s and don’t” that the pioneers and cowboys honored because of the informal code they lived by. What are some of your favorites?

As a holiday week extra, I will give one lucky reader who leaves a comment an Amazon Gift Certificate.


Website | + posts

A native Texan, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Phyliss Miranda still believes in the Code of the Old West and loves to share her love for antiques, the lost art of quilting, and the Wild West.

Visit her at

24 thoughts on “The Code of the West is Alive and Well!”

  1. I love this post Phyllis. I always loved John Wayne too! I love the way you broke down his Code of the West. I would love to be entered into your giveaway.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.

    countrybear52 AT yahoo DOT com

  2. I kind of knew about the code of the west, but I didn’t know that much about it. Now I really want to read Zane Grey’s books. I think I’ve read one, but I don’t really remember. I guess I’ll have to go check them out. 😀

  3. Hi Cindy, I believe about everyone loves John Wayne. I thought it was interesting that the Code was part of his funeral. Thanks for stopping by and you are definitely entered into the drawing. Have a great day. Hugs, Phyliss

  4. Hi Faith, thanks for coming by and leaving a comment. I think everyone loves Zane Grey and never get tired of his books. Many of today’s western authors used Grey’s books as a learning tool. His books were and still are wonderful. Have a great day, Faith. Big hugs from Texas, Phyliss

  5. Hi Phyliss!

    What a wonderful post! I loved this! Oh, yes, you’re so right–who DOESN’T love John Wayne? I don’t know anyone who doesn’t (or maybe they just know they better not speak it aloud…) LOL I really enjoyed all these rules of the code. I’ll have to keep this to just go back and re-read.
    Hugs, dear friend!

  6. I love some of these codes to live by and they could well be valid in this day and time. The world would sure be a better place. Outlaws had their own code too as strange as it seems. There’s that old saying “Honesty among thieves.” They usually didn’t touch their partners’ things unless they wanted to get shot. And most of them respected women. At least the better ones did though we write bad guys all the time who treated women badly to make the story more interesting. After all, we want the reader to hate the bad guy. Anyway, interesting blog.

    Wishing you lots of luck with your books.

  7. Hello Heidi, glad to see you here today. I love “the code” and here in Texas we still live by it on our ranches and it overflows into our daily lives. Got you entered into my drawing. Good luck. Hugs, Phyliss

  8. Love the list!
    •After you pass someone on the trail, don’t look back…it implies you don’t trust him. I am not sure I could follow that one… I was taught to always keep an eye on everything around you.
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  9. Hi Cheryl, glad to hear from you today! Yes, John Wayne, has to be the number one hero and I love that his family used the code of the west as part of his life’s eulogy. I’ve written about a number of outlaws in blogs (and in books), but good or bad they all had their own code. Talk to you later, friend. Hugs, Phyliss

  10. Hi catslady, I totally agree with your assessment. I think that’s kinda like we are today. I think the majority of us would feed our animals before ourselves. Of course during the 1800’s, if a man didn’t have a horse he sure better have plenty of time and very good soles on his boots! Take care and I’m glad to hear from you today. Hugs, Phyliss

  11. Hi my friend, Linda. I’m glad you brought up the code amongst the thieves because you are so right on it. Even the bad guys had their own code. I also agree if more of us today would live by the code, we’d have a lot more peace. You are also right about how we as authors have to write the bad man being ugly to women, when most of the time they respected women. I think it was pounded into their heads growing up. A “Yes Ma’am” can go a long way now days. Take care of yourself and I hope you have a great day writing on Rand’s story. I love all of the Bachelors of Battle Creek guys … can hardly wait for them to come out, so the world can read them. They are excellent and I’m excited for you. Hugs, P

  12. Wow, what an interesting post. There are a few of the rules that I knew of and some I didn’t, but find really interesting. Thanks for posting.

  13. Dear Anon101, good to see you. Hope you win!

    Colleen, I totally agree with you on that one. What if the one who passed you was an outlaw and pulled a gun and shot you in the back? I guess that’s the writer in me! LOL I’m not writing historical westerns right now, but contemporary romances set in Kasota Springs, Texas, and the characters are the fifth generation of the founders who were in two of our anthologies. However, if I were writing westerns, I think I’d use that plot! Thanks!

    Have a great day to both of you ladies. Hugs, Phyliss

  14. “Do what thy manhood bids thee do
    From none but self expect applause.
    He noblest lives and noblest dies
    Who makes and keeps his self-made laws.”

    When I read the news stories last October about Nevada schoolteacher Michael Landsberry, I thought of these lines. The Code still lingers in some.

  15. Hi Tanya, thanks for dropping by and commenting. I think most of us who are involved with western writing love the code.

    Shay, what a great quote. It does really run parallel with the code of the west. Thanks for sharing.

    Hope both of you ladies have a great evening. Hugs, Phyliss

  16. Hi Phyliss,

    Love the post. I couldn’t tell you how many times I heard my dad repeat the code. It wouldn’t surprise me if my son’s say the same thing of me.

  17. Not a bad set of rules to live by. Heaven knows we would be better of today if more people lived by them. I like the one about drinking your whiskey with your gun hand to show your good intensions.

    thanks for an interesting post.

  18. I have heard most of these rules all my life. there were a couple I didn’t know. The drink with your gun hand reminds me of the Asian way of drinking tea with both hands to show no weapons. I’ve hear all my life that there is no honor among thieves so I didn’t really think they had any. I did know they worked in gangs sometimes. Loved the post hope it’s not too late to be entered.

Comments are closed.