Guns & grammar

I’m willing to bet that at least some of the reading audience did not know that firearms have generated several turns-of-phrase that still of relative common use in today’s lexicon. We’re going to go over a couple of the ones you might have heard, and what their origins are.

One phrase I’m guessing everyone has heard, especially if you watch war movies is “lock and load”; which has graduated to the general lexicon. It’s current usage means “get or be ready” for whatever action may happen. With the M1 Garand, we wouldn’t have this handy phrase for overzealous business majors to use in class. The phrase was originally “load and lock”, which referred to inserting a clip (I don’t get to say that much…clip clip clip clip) into the M1 Garand, and locking the bolt forward. An alternate interpretation suggest that the phrase was originally “lock and load” and referred to locking the bolt in the rearward position prior to inserting the clip into the rifle.

No matter the origin, the phrase was immortalized by John Wayne in the movie The Sands of Iwo Jima; and was also uses later in both Platoon, and one of the Star Trek movies.

The next phrase is “flash in the pan”, which is currently used to describe bands, actors, or artists that have one hit and then disappear. Its usage is similar to “shooting star”, and “one hit wonder”.

This phrase has its genesis in the days of flintlock weapons. Back then, loose powder was carried in “the pan” of your weapon; which would in theory ignite the main powder charge. However, as flinters were and are notoriously unreliable, a “flash in the pan” would sometimes occur, where the powder in the pan would burn but not ignite the main charge. The result would be a pretty lightshow, and a very unhappy soldier.

That concludes today’s “gun induced grammar” lesson; feel free to add your own in the comments section!

14 thoughts on “Guns & grammar”

  1. Funny!

    A guy I work with told me that “going off half-cocked” originated from the porn industry. He did this with a straight face, he was deadly serious. As a firearms term it makes sense to me, as a porn term it sounds rather painful or embarassing.

    I didn’t feel obligated to correct him.

  2. “Lock, stock, and barrel” – describing the three major components of a firearm.

    “Going off half-cocked” – old single-action revolvers had a “half-cock” notch that served (poorly) as a safety. Flintlock and percussion cap rifles also, I believe, have a half-cock position used for priming the pan or fiting a cap. “Going off half-cocked” then is pretty obvious.

    “Quick on the trigger.”

    “Loose cannon” (you can imagine the carnage ensuing from a ship’s cannon coming loose on the gun deck).

    There’s a lot more.

  3. “Shoot from the hip” is obvious to anyone who actually has tried to accurately shoot from the hip.

  4. There’s plenty more. “Point Blank” is one, and one that is most often misused. Point Blank was originally an artillery term, with it being the furthest range that your boresight is still on target (flat trajectory.) When you are talking about five pounders, that can be a pretty long distance in handgun terms.

    Keeping your powder dry — that dates back to Cromwell

  5. Phelps,

    I’ve also seen it used as the maximum distance a given firearm can hit a given sized target without having to adjust for elevation. For example, if I zero my .30-06 at something like 230 yards, it never goes above 4″ above my line of sight, and doesn’t go below 4″ below my line of sight until something like 260 yards. (Numbers are close, but not right… I’m working from memory here) So, with that rifle, I can shoot at a deer-sized target by holding the center of the vitals and not have to worry about hold-over out to 260 yards.

    That definition being *really* close to the artillery definition– The longest distance you don’t have to worry about elevation.

  6. “Lock & Load” goes back to the very earliest firearms.
    You load at te muzzle, and then prepare the lock for firing.

  7. “When the smoke clears” is another term that’s clear to anyone that has fired a black powder rifle.

    “As cold as the balls on a brass monkey” refers to how cold a stack of cannon balls gets, not to some mythical creature’s genitalia.

  8. Into the breech, or Charging into the breech referred to getting in between the artillary pieces.

    Son of a gun.

    Quick draw.

    Shooting blanks (or shooting a wad)


    The gun way (before it was called mass production, thanks Mr. Ford, you piker)

    Cooking off (now seems to mean a fire setting off rounds rather than a misfire firing late)

    You could turn this into a contest!

  9. ‘“As cold as the balls on a brass monkey” refers to how cold a stack of cannon balls gets, not to some mythical creature’s genitalia.’

    Actually, I believe it’s “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.” Navy term, referring if I remember correctly to a brass tray known as a monkey, and used to store cannon balls. If it got too cold the differing coefficients of thermal expansion meant the tray contracted more and the ball at the edge fell off. Something like that, anyway.

  10. Going ballistic – which I guess is the extreme opposite of point blank.

    And of course my all time favorite – albeit somewhat off topic: ” You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”

  11. Fodder: Sorry, but you’re wrong about Into the breech, or Charging into the breech. “Breach” in these phrases refers to a hole pounded in a fortress wall by artillery, so the infantry could charge in. With muzzleloading cannon and a well-built fort, this meant a number of guns pounding on the same spot for hours or even days, so the fortress commander had plenty of time to arrange for massed troops to defend the breach with muskets and bayonets. Only a few men could make it through the breach at at time, and the rubble meant they couldn’t move very fast, while many more men could be waiting for them. There’s a chapter or two of one of Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe novels that explains the whole process, circa 1810.

    To lead the first charge into the breach was therefore pretty nearly suicide. Preferably, the British Army (at least) would give this job to some disgraced officer, as a way to redeem himself in the slim chance that he actually did the job and survived, or a Sergeant who desperately wanted a promotion to an officer might take the lead. The whole first wave was called the “forlorn hope”…

    Not that this concept became obsolete with breechloaders. The men who landed on Utah Beach on D-Day and had to claw their way to the top of the cliffs faced a similar challenge, except there the defense included machine-gunners dug into bunkers that for the most part survived even shelling by battleship 16 inch guns. But they did it!

    “Son of a gun” probably comes from two customs of the British navy in sailing ship days. One is that the men could sling their hammocks between the cannon. (Except when they were readied for use, the cannon were pulled fully into the ship and tied down, so the gunports could be closed.) Of course, the sailors had to roll up the hammocks and store them elsewhere when not in use, and get up and clear them out of the way immediately (just a part of “clearing for action”) when an enemy was sighted. Second, because many of the sailors had been hauled onto the ship by the crude form of a draft called “press gangs”, captains didn’t dare give them shore leave for fear they’d desert. So a humane regulation allowed the sailors’ wives to visit them on the ship while it was in port. In the interest of maintaining crew morale, smart captains didn’t notice that unmarried sailors, and sailors married to someone in another port, were acquiring new “wives” by the half-hour through monetary negotiations carried out with boats that pulled alongside. Of course the place for these conjugal visits was the hammocks slung between guns, and if the woman found herself pregnant later, the ship was already sailed and the chances of ever finding the same sailor(s) again weren’t too good…

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