Headbloom Blog

Gun Expressions in American English

People from outside the United States often marvel at the American fascination with guns. According to one source, one out of every three U.S. homes has a gun in it. Estimates show over 280 million guns in private (non-military/police) hands. And because of our frequent use of guns, such references show up in our language.

In a wonderful article called Language Under the Gun, cross-cultural communications consultant Joe Lurie examines the abundance of gun expressions in American English. The article mentions over three dozen expressions referring to guns, ammunition, or shooting. After you read his analysis, check my list of explanations below to see how many of these expressions you know.

gun [tele]scope and cross-hairs

While guns are at the center of many crimes and deaths in the U.S., I do not intend to talk about the pros and cons of gun ownership. Rather, I’d like to look at U.S. history and see how we came to be this way, leaving to sociologists or politicians to judge whether we should or shouldn’t have so many guns.

a bulls-eye (center of a target)

Donald M. Bishop, a consultant and former U.S. diplomat, reminds us that “the first colonists brought British concepts of military organization with them, including reliance on local militias. It was select militia that became the Minutemen of the Revolution, and it was mostly state volunteer regiments that fought the Civil War.”

He goes on to note that frontier life for early European settlers included “isolated homesteads and settlements facing animal predators, lawlessness, threats from other colonial powers, and, yes, conflict with Native Americans.” And over the past century, millions of American men (and later women) served in the U.S. military: WWI (1910s), WWII (1940s), Korea (1950s), Vietnam (1960s-70s), and the Middle East (2000s). Military service provided familiarity with guns to generations of Americans.

With all this familiarity with weapons, then, it’s no wonder that our language has so many ways to employ the vocabulary of guns. Beyond the cowboy days of the American West, many Americans still live in rural areas, with firearms still used for everyday purposes. Bishop relates the story of traveling in rural Wyoming with a rancher friend of his. At one point, they heard the telltale warning shake of a rattlesnake. The friend, without hesitation, went into the truck, pulled out a pistol, and shot the snake dead—reminding us that circumstances for rural Wyomingites are different from those of urban New Yorkers.

This understanding of historical and contemporary contexts helps us understand the deep incorporation of “gun talk” in the language and helps English students better understand American discourse, literature, and business culture.

Before you begin checking the list of expressions, you may wish to review the names of the physical parts of a gun.

image source

image source

Expressions (from the Lurie article) relating to guns:
1. triggered = started, initiated
2. in the cross-hairs = targeted, about to be shot
3. being a target = about to be shot
4. reloading = adding more ammo, preparing to shoot again
5. Columbine High School = Colorado school where 2 male students used illegally obtained guns to kill 13 people and then themselves in 1999
6. Virginia Technological University = U.S. college where a mentally ill male student used 2 guns to kill 31 people and then himself in 2007
7. Safeway parking lot in Tucson = a 2011 shooting at an Arizona shopping center where a mentally ill man shot 19 people with an extended-magazine handgun, killing 6 of them. His main target was a member of the U.S. Congress.
8. a smoking gun = evidence of a crime
9. be a straight shooter = to always tell the truth
10. shoot their mouths off = speak quickly, without thinking
11. to shoot from the hip = speak quickly, without thinking
12. a parting shot = to criticize one last time before leaving
13. shooting oneself in the foot = to harm oneself or to impede one’s progress
14. shoot the messenger = to blame or attack the person who brings the news
15. be blown away = to be completely overwhelmed (by the force of something)
16. double-barreled action = extra force (Special shotguns have two barrels and therefore twice as much fire power.)
17. shoot someone = to send someone something quickly (“Shoot me an email.” )
18. your best shot = your best attempt
19. stick to their guns = not backing down, persevering
20. jumping the gun = starting prematurely (beginning the race before the starter’s gun)
21. more bang for the buck = maximizing the results of the expenditure
22. the big guns = most powerful people in an organization
23. a silver bullet = a magic solution to the problem
24. bulletproof = unable to harm, impervious
25. be going great guns = to be enjoying great success
26. to fire away = assault with constant questions/information
27. a killer [movie] = a highly effective or impressive [movie, presentation, memo, etc.]
28. be shot down = to have one’s ideas criticized and rejected
29. being gun shy = afraid to engage (Some hunting dogs are too afraid of gun noise to be effective hunters.)
30. to bite the bullet = to endure a painful situation (before anesthesia, patients were given something to bite down on to withstand their pain; sometimes a “soft” lead bullet was used during war-time surgeries)
31. to shoot for the moon = to aim for high goals
32. a shot in the dark = firing blindly, making an attempt without much hope of success
33. be under the gun = be under much pressure to succeed
34. to go off half-cocked = to begin talking without full knowledge or preparation (cocking the gun means fully drawing back the hammer before pulling the trigger)
35. to keep their powders dry = to stay prepared, to wait patiently for the right time to engage (or attack)
36. (as) sure as shootin’ = very sure, highly certain
37. be in their sights = to be targeted
38. on the firing line = close to the shooting, near the battle front

Additional gun/shooting expressions:
1. be right on the mark (right on target) = exactly correct
2. a bulls-eye = in the center, accurate
3. a loaded gun = the power to create harm or damage
4. be hunted down = to be pursued (and found)
5. to go in with guns blazing = enter a situation aggressively
6. lock, stock, and barrel = completely [all parts of the gun]
7. to do a bang-up job = great work, impressive production
8. to miss the mark = to be wrong, inaccurate, off target

Alan Headbloom