Hotshot, meaning a brash, flashy, and successful fellow, is an Americanism dating to 1927. From J. Frank Dobie’s Texas And Southwestern Lore from that year:
Men who are either slow or lazy are given such names as…"Hot Shot"…"Lightning,"…and “Speedy.”1
There is an older British sense of the term meaning a reckless person, one overeager to fire a weapon, a trouble-maker. From George Peele’s 1593 The Famous Chronicle of King Edward the First:
O maister doubt you not but your Nouice will prooue a whot shot, with a bottle of Metheglin.
And in 1604 Thomas Middleton wrote in his Father Hubburds Tales or the Ant and the Nightingale:
To the warres I betooke me, ranckt my selfe amongst desperate Hot-shots.2
But this older sense isn’t recorded in American usage and is probably not the source of the American term. Ultimately, both the British and the American usages come from the literal meaning of a bullet that is hot from firing.
It is commonly stated that this is term is naval in origin and refers to the practice of using heated shot to set ships afire. This is almost certainly not the case. None of the early figurative uses are from naval sources or contexts. And while naval texts can be found that use the words “hot shot,” these are invariably in a quite literal sense, not a metaphorical one.
1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 2, H-O, edited by J.E. Lighter (New York: Random House, 1997), 182.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton