Gun Trivia: Why Is A Tire Called A Tire?

A collection of cannons and howitzers, Institute of Military Technology collection

Here’s a bit of trivia fun for you.

Question: Why is a “tire” (as in a car or bicycle) called a “tire”?

Answer: If we look at old wagon wheels or a Gatling gun carriage, we see the central wood hub, the spokes, and a metal band around the outside. In fact, that metal band was originally made oversized by the blacksmith (or wheelwright) and as it cooled it would shrink to tie all the spokes into the hub. Get it? It’s a tie-er. A tire is (derived from) a verb.

57-inch Civil War cannon wheel by hansenwheel.com

 

At least, that’s the story I heard. Since this is the esteemed The Firearm Blog I suppose I can do a little better than that. Here are a few sources I scrounged up as supporting evidence.

  • In 1907 inventor Stephen H. Garst filed a patent for a “Vehicle-wheel“. In it he describes generally “the process … of completing the Wood Wheel … is to first put the spokes in the hub, and then connect the rim … to the spokes and finally shrink the metallic tire onto the rim”. Though this was the earliest relevant patent I could find, I found another dated 1825 that states “two wheels … are constructed in the usual manner with hubs, spokes, fellie‘s, and tire like the wheels of a common cart“.
  • In Hiram Maxim’s autobiography My Life (1915), Maxim writes, “Wishing to make a wheeled carriage for my gun, I ordered from the importers some very strong, but light, American wheels with hickory spokes. Instead of delivering the wheels they asked me to specify the kind of tyres that I wished to have shrunk on to them.” (I recently discovered that My Life is available online for free here, and I’ve found it to be a lot of fun to read.)
  • Lastly, the above image was found on the excellent website of Hansenwheel.comAccording to their wheel repair page, the method described in the trivia is called “hot setting”.

Indeed, a search of the term “hot setting” reveals videos like the one below from a real wheelwright, describing the process in detail:

 

To be fair, an etymological counterargument could link “tire” to the earlier verb “attire” (to adorn). Perhaps a tie (shrunk tightly around the neck) and attire could lead to further discussion. Until then, I hoped you enjoyed today’s trivia.

A grammatical error has been corrected from a previous version of this post. – CRW





Corey R. Wardrop

Corey R. Wardrop is the Museum Curator for the Institute of Military Technology in Titusville, Florida where he manages one of the finest, if not the finest, firearms collections in the country. Corey is a former OIF infantry Marine and has worked professionally in the firearms industry for over 20 years. In 2014 he obtained an unrelated Bachelor of Science degree from one of the nation’s leading diploma mills. Through his work at IMT he is currently studying CAD design with an emphasis in reverse engineering rare firearms.
Corey asks forgiveness for his novice-level photographs and insists they are improving dramatically thanks to certified rockstar http://nathan-wyatt.com/. Corey can be reached at coreyrwardrop@gmail.com and always appreciates suggestions for future articles.
For the record, Corey felt incredibly strange writing this bio in the third person.


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  • noob

    Nice! I like a bit of history. I’ll leave one here in return: A barrel. Why is a gun barrel called a barrel?

    In the days before deep drilling and gun drilling, people wanted to make canon that were longer than they were wide. How to do this?

    They knew how to make wooden barrels, so they decided to take iron rods, arrange them in a circle and drive iron bands down around the outside just like making a barrel. the whole assembly was welded together, and was generally a bad idea.

    The hoops would frequently not have enough hoop strength (another barrel term) and the big guns would blow up for one reason or another. An exploding cannon killed King James II of Scotland on August 3rd 1460 at the age of 29. He was succeeded by his son who was 9 years old.

    Anyway we also have the term “canonization” as in canonizing a saint, or a body of literature. It also comes from the image of taking a bundle of sticks and making them strong by binding them together.

    • Phil Hsueh

      Nice theory but I’m pretty sure that canon and cannon from separate root words and are only superficially similar.

      • int19h

        Curiously, they’re from the same root word, but it goes way way back – at least via Latin “canna” to Ancient Greek “kanna”, and quite possibly before that. The word meant “cane” (also from the same root!), and the plant from which it was made. From there it became to mean all kinds of rod-shaped objects.

        One of those was a standard-length rod for measuring sizes, which was called “canon”, and this is where that word comes from – basically, something you measure or check things against, a set of rules or a list of vetted things. “Canonization” is a shorthand for “adding to the canonical list of saints”.

        The other rod-shaped thing was a pipe, and the same word “kanna” / “canna” denoted it as well. Now, a cannon is a kind of a pipe, just a big one. As Italy was more technologically advanced in Europe at the time, it was one of the first regions to acquire cannons; Italians called them “cannone”, from “canna” + “-one”, the latter being a suffix common to most Romance languages that basically means “grand” or “large”. So, literally, a large pipe. From there it went to French, and from there to English.

        • Corey R. Wardrop

          If barrel comes from cane … I wonder if it’s related to a bamboo shoot? 😛

  • EdgyTrumpet

    TFB: tangentially related trivia, not politics

  • Joe

    Interesting, tie-er makes sense, as does ancient cannon tube manufacturing technology being related to wooden barrels.

  • Pseudo

    So even if the root is from to tie, a tie-er or one/something that ties is still not a verb…

    • Corey R. Wardrop

      You’re right of course, and I corrected the article. Thank you.

  • Some Rabbit

    This post was tiresome (see what I did there?)

  • Michelle & Randy Krieger

    If what you say is true, how do you explain the British spelling of “tyre” other than the fact that they cannot spell, or speak, American correctly?

  • Bill

    Next, the etymology of muzzle plugs, tampions and tampons.

  • Swarf

    Am I the only one having videos take up too much space on mobile devices?

    At least they aren’t auto playing.

    • Dan

      Same

    • DangerousClown

      Not mobile friendly.

      • Swarf

        Well, they used to be.

  • jonp

    It’s named after the resemblance to a device used in ancient Tyre

  • Martin Buck

    The modern equivalent verb is the French “tirer” (to tie). In early English, standard spellings had not evolved fully. Thus “tyre”, which is still in use in English speaking countries today. If you buy a “tyre” it may originate from Canada. I believe it was Webster who standardised American spelling, removing seemingly surplus letters (and thereby concealing their true origins), and changing anomolies like “tyre” to “tire”.

    • int19h

      “tyre” as the standard spelling is actually a relatively recent, circa 18th-century introduction to British English, similar to “-our”, “-re”, “-ise” etc. Until then, both spellings were common, but “tire” was more so.

      Webster didn’t really remove any superfluous letters. He simply standardized the language as it was at the time in US – which itself was more conservative than British English, not having adopted most of the 18th-century innovations. So, for the most part, American English spelling is closer to earlier historical practices.

      Canadians pretty much always use “tire”, rather than “tyre”. I don’t think I’ve seen the latter even once in my time living there. I’ve seen it in New Zealand, though.

      • jonp

        If Canadian Tire doesn’t spell it like that then that settles it

  • kyphe

    Tire from the word Attire to mean adorn ready or prepare.

    Source etymologyonline

    • Corey R. Wardrop

      I mention this in the article.

  • Peter Nissen

    Thanks Corey – fascinating insight piece. Keep them coming!

    • Corey R. Wardrop

      Thanks Peter!