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Both a Stock Phrase and a staple of the action genre. A character comes into the scene armed with what he thinks is sufficient, only to find out he is severely outclassed weapon-wise, because he brought the entirely wrong type of weapon (usually the superior weapon is revealed after the first person has committed to a fight). Could lead to a Curb Stomp Battle (which would make it a Pre-Mortem One-Liner, or maybe a Bond One-Liner if uttered after), or the character running for his life.

A popular subversion is Never Bring a Knife to A Fist Fight. Subtrope to Combat Pragmatist.

Elmer Keith is the Trope Namer... he was a gunwriter and Idaho cowpuncher, and the phrase is sometimes called "Keith's First Law".

Examples of Never Bring a Knife to A Gun Fight include:


Advertising

  • Parodied in a Geico ad series which mocks Stock Phrases. In this particular sketch, "Is the pen mightier than the sword?", a ninja brandishes his sword. The camera changes to a guy signing for a package with a pen. He opens the package and removes a taser, which takes the ninja out instantly.

Anime and Manga

  • Subverted in a couple instances in Maiden Rose, particularly with Taki's Curb Stomp Battle with Berkut. Sometimes Katanas Are Just Better than guns.
  • Subverted in Infinite Stratos, as the protagonist's older sister explains how he lacks the experience necessary to use projectile weapons, and must make the best of his Kendo training and his IS's Yukihira-2.
  • In Black Lagoon, Hansel comes after Balalaika in a wide-open plaza, armed only with his axe. Not only is Balalaika carrying her rifle, she has backup stationed on the rooftops, so he never gets anywhere near striking distance.
  • During the "Fifth Moon" episode of the Trigun anime, Rai-Dei the Blade pits his katana against Vash the Stampede's guns. He turns the tables by first launching the blade off its hilt, then by fitting the hilt back onto the empty scabbard and using the whole thing as a rifle.
  • In Mobile Fighter G Gundam, Gentle Chapman, the pilot of the John Bull Gundam, ended up winning three Gundam Fights with his British Gundam, because he ended up shooting Gundams in the head, putting them out of the Gundam Fight. If it wasn't for Master Asia kicking his ass in the 12th Gundam Fight, things would have turned nasty.
  • Subverted in Sengoku no Mikazuki, a one-shot story by Nobuhiro Watsuki. The musket-armed Big Bad says this to samurai protagonist Hiko Seijuro. Hiko proceeds to render the gun temporarily useless by throwing his wakizashi into the barrel, then kills him with his tachi.

Comic Books

  • Blackhawk does this in a tub, in homage to the Untouchables line.
  • Averted in every Sin City story featuring Miho, who brings a katana to a gun fight quite often.
    • Marv also took out a SWAT team that were armed with automatic rifles while all he had was a hatchet.

Fanfic

 I draw out my father's blue switchblade, and flick it open.

She pulls out her katana.

I feel a little stupid.

  • This is a theme repeated in a number of variations throughout the works of Eyrie Productions Unlimited.
    • It initially appears as "Overstreet's First Law of Tactics", from contributor Kris "Redneck" Overstreet's story The Quagmire Project:

 Take a stick to a fistfight.

Take a knife to a stickfight.

Take a gun to a knifefight.

Stay out of a gunfight.

    • Again, in Symphony of the Sword:

  Percy "Techie" Mui: (to his son) To paraphrase Admiral Overstreet, bring a knife to a fistfight, a gun to a knife fight, grenades to a gunfight -- oh, hell, if you know where it's going to be beforehand, mine the area. If all else fails, there's your friend, the air strike.

    • Then, "Gryphon's Expansion of Overstreet's Law of Tactics":

 Take a stick to a fistfight.

Take a knife to a stickfight.

Take a gun to a knifefight.

Take a 'Mech to a gunfight.

Bring a lance to a 'Mech fight.

      • Followed by "Matrix Dragon's Expansion of Gryphon's Expansion":

 If all else fails, bomb the planet.

      • And finally, "Julzz' Commentary":

 And if all else fails, bring your friendly neighbourhood God.

Film

  • The Untouchables, as noted in the page quote. Partly a subversion, since the knife guy was just there to lure the shotgun-carrying Malone into Frank Nitti's tommy-gun ambush.
    • Earlier, Jimmy Malone tells Eliot Ness: "If he pulls a knife, you pull a gun."
  • Happens in Barb Wire when a thug tries to attack Barb with a knife, but she shoots him with her pistol.
  • Almost verbatim in The Punisher movie. Quoth Harry Heck, "You are one dumb son of a bitch. Bringing a knife to a gunfight."
    • Subverted, though, because little did Harry know, it was a spring-loaded ballistic knife.
      • The hitman had no way of knowing it wasn't a regular knife. Ballistic knives are illegal in the States.
  • In Hoffa, Danny DeVito pulls out a knife he uses for defense. Hoffa's goons pull out guns. After he joins with Hoffa's crew, one of Hoffa's cronies tells him, "Give me the knife. You wanna go around, go like a white man. Get a gun."
  • Indiana Jones does this several times. For example...
    • In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the famous scene where Indy shoots the swordsman. As the story goes, there was to be an extended sword fight, but Harrison Ford (playing Indy) was sick with dysentery, and suggested that he just shoot the swordsman. They decided to go with it.
      • This scene is subverted in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Indy is confronted by several sword-wielding enemies. Smirking, he reaches for his gun, only to discover that he does not have it, and then runs away.
    • In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indy warns Mutt about the dangers of bringing a knife to a gunfight (as he takes out his knife, but the Russians have revolvers).
  • Nearly subverted in one of the final fights in Wanted: Wesley is in a gun fight with a Knife Nut. Notably, the Knife Nut was more experienced, got to choose the battlefield (enclosed area with lots of visual obstructions), and very nearly killed him.
    • The Knife Nut earlier explained the various advantages knives have over guns, justifying his weapons preference. Mostly it came down to them being easier to aquire, requiring little maintenance, and never running out of bullets.
  • Near the end of Thai martial arts movie Chocolate, a group of high ranking thugs grab katanas and rush at the Yakuza father of the protagonist. Crowning Moment of Funny ensues when he promptly shoots the first one down, though the rest close in and it turns into a sword fight.
  • Subverted many times in V for Vendetta. V constantly faces enemies armed with guns, but consistently beats them with his superior use of knives.

 All you have are your bloody knives and your fancy karate gimmicks; we have guns!

No, what you have are bullets, and the hope that when your guns are empty I'm no longer standing, because if I am...you'll all be dead before you've reloaded.

    • Doubly subverted in the subway fight near the end with Creedy and his men. V does ultimately die from the wounds they inflict, but only after killing all but one of Creedy's men before they can reload (the one that manages to reload gets a knife in the head) and Creedy himself after another five shots from his revolver.
  • As much as it is a love letter to the Katanas Are Just Better, Kill Bill follows this rule. Nearly any time the Bride's Katana is pitted against a gun, the gun wins, such as when the Bride charges into Budd's trailer, he is able to subdue her with a shotgun. And when she invades Bill's home, she's got a pistol out as her primary weapon rather than the sword slung on her back.
  • Subverted in Yojimbo, where during the climactic confrontation Sanjūrō's knife-throwing skills turn out to be more deadly accurate that Unosuke's gunslinger skills.
  • Parodied in 30 Minutes or Less with "You just brought a gun to a bomb fight, officer!"
  • The final scene of The Warriors has Swan, knife in hand, facing down Luther and his gun. Weirdly enough, Luther shoots, but Swan dodges and nobody else gets harmed. Nobody else, that is, except for Luther, who takes a knife to his gun hand.
  • War Horse has a scene in World War One where the British cavalry appears to have caught the German encampment flatfooted, only to find that the Germans were prepared with a hidden defensive line of machine guns to mow them down. As a German officer says afterward, "Did you think we'd have a camp on open ground without it being defended?"
  • In the BBC adaptation of Tom Jones, when Lord Fellamar's attempted rape of Sophia is interrupted by her father, he turns his sword on the older man, assuring him that his class and education have well prepared him for anything the squire can dish out. Squire Western pulls out a pistol and promptly shoots out one of Fellamar's knees.
  • Routinely inverted by the Jedi Order throughout the franchise. In the words of the prequels' stunt coordinator, they've chosen to use swords against Frickin' Laser Beams, "so they'd better be damn good at it."

Literature

  • From The Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross we have, "Never bring a tazer to an artillery duel"
  • Subverted in Nation: (paraphrased) "His gun will run out of bullets before my knife runs out of sharp."
  • Played straight several times over the course of The Dresden Files, mostly by supernatural forces. Most non-humans, and even some magical humans, eschew guns in favor of claws, swords, or other melee weaponry, or specifically think to counter someone's magic ability when they do consider long-range combat, neglecting to consider firearms. At least one very powerful practitioner thought she had Harry dead to rights after disarming him of his staff and blasting rod, only to learn a little too late that they should have taken his gun too.
    • Also, Kincaid remarked to Harry that, if he wanted to kill Harry, he would use a high powered sniper rifle from a long distance away, neatly avoiding any Death Curse.
  • In David Weber's Out of the Dark, the Shongairi come off as Insufficiently Advanced Aliens because their entire war doctrine revolves around conquering pre-industrial races. Guess what happens when troops trained and equipped to curb-stomp natives with pointy sticks comes up against modern military hardware?
  • Hiro Protagonist's weapon-of-choice in Snow Crash is a katana. At one point, Hiro's use of the katana actually leads to a standoff when he's able to find cover that the gun-wielding mooks he's fighting with can't shoot through, but they're all too far away for him to attack. He actually taunts his adversaries that they can take as long as they like because "Katanas don't run out of bullets."
  • In Michael Flynn's The January Dancer, the owners of the ammunition factory try to avert this by burning it down and then parting for opposite sides of the civil war. This means that when an outside force intervenes, bringing a gun to the knife fight, she tramples all resistance.

Live Action TV

  • In an episode of Chuck, Chuck and Sarah are attacked by three henchmen. One of them pulls out a knife, but they are saved by Chuck's mom, who shoots them dead.
  • In a recent adaptation of Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart and set in the 1930s, Young Siward charges Macbeth with a knife, only for Macbeth to draw a pistol and shoot him.
  • In an episode of JAG an ambitious lieutenant sneaks aboard an enemy ship. His request for a firearm was denied, so he only has a pipe on hand. He meets Col. Mackenzie who asks him, "Who brings a pipe to a gun fight?"
  • In Red Dwarf Lister and a simulant go to "parley". The simulant pulls out a knife. Lister pulls out a pipe. The simulant pulls out a gun.

  Lister: I didn't think of that.

  • In the Law and Order Special Victims Unit episode "Burned," a man accused of setting his wife on fire pulls out a butcher knife during a standoff with several cops. When he starts to lunge toward them, Benson shoots him in the chest - using plastic bullets to bring him down without killing him.
  • McKay in Stargate Atlantis is cornered by the Genii into finding the location of all the pieces of a device to reveal a Zero-Point Module. Upon finding it on a wall-sized map, he asks for a knife, which the Genii are reluctant to give.

  McKay: You all have guns. Someone give me a knife.

Real Life

  • Bruce Lee himself mentioned that this would be a stupid idea, although he was talking about using martial arts against guns but the idea is still the same.
  • This may be inverted in Real Life if the knife-user is skilled and/or the gun-user isn't. Opinions differ on the details, but at very close ranges the one with the knife has a lot of advantages, which is compounded by the fact that outside of the police/military, people often massively overestimate their own ability to use a gun effectively.
    • All things being equal, guns are better at distance of 10 m or more. At 3 m or less, the knifeman really may win. Between 3 and 10 m, everything depends on the gunman's skills (or rather lack of them). Most people are able to shoot only one shot at the time a running man can cover that distance, and if it misses, the knifeman literally has the edge. People not trained on handguns are likely to miss against a moving target, even at short distances.
    • One of many reasons the Bayonet was invented. Shoot if he's far, fight if he's near.
    • What many people, including above, miss about the Tueller Drill is that 21 feet, or whatever, is the distance at which a person with a melee weapon becomes a threat to a gunman. Somewhat later on, people added the notion of the knife "winning" from some distance below that, which is very far from reality: someone with a gun is a lethal threat from maximum effective range down to 0.0m. The distance issue is more about not getting stabbed at all; the actual chance of the assailant both executing a stab and not taking severe return fire afterwards - and the human body is all but guaranteed to retain motor functions to complete draw-and-shoot even after a hit - are never ones you'd want to bet on. In other words, there are techniques to defend against a knife-wielding runner-in, but no sane martial training suggests knife-wielding running-in as a viable method of countering a firearm. More than once in one's life, anyways.
      • One has somewhat better odds with slightly larger melee weapons; being hacked with a sword or axe or smashed with a club does tend to interfere with return fire, though certainly not enough to make it a sure thing or even a particularly good idea.


Video Games

  • In one possible ending of Yo-Jin-Bo, the main characters — who are mostly samurai and armed with swords — are attacked by ninja with guns. The heroes die very quickly.
  • In Team Fortress 2, you get an achievement for the Spy by fatally knifing another Spy who has his gun out.
    • The Scout plays this straight with his domination line "Don't bring a wrench to a gun fight."
  • Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. No matter how many guns the player has when invading Madd Dogg's mansion for the first time, he ends up with just a knife. The player is not even allowed to pick up dropped weapons until half way through. A much later mission ends with a helicopter crash leaving the water-treading protaganist outside of the ship he has to infiltrate. All his weapons (sob) are at the bottom of the drink except his knife. However, here, a quick swim to shore and knowledge of respawning weapon locations makes the ship much easier to overcome.
  • Subverted somewhat in Metal Gear Solid 3. Snake(Big Boss) talks about how sometimes a knife is more useful in close-quarters than a gun, thus he carries both and even wields them simultaneously, the knife held in a Reverse Grip next to his pistol's grip.
    • Leon Kennedy doesn't use his in tandem with his pistols, but he also points out the utility of a knife in close quarters when he gets the drop on Ada.
  • Mass Effect 3: Garrus mentions this trope by name when fighting Phantoms, finding the whole concept silly. As Garrus is a sniper, the amusement is justifiable.
  • Both played straight and Subverted in the Assassin's Creed series. The firearms of the Mooks of the early Renaissance period are slow-reloading and only moderately-damaging, and a knife-weilding Ezio can dispatch them in short order. Subverted when it comes to Ezio's hidden gun, where pulling an Indiana Jones is one of the fastest ways to end a fight.

Web Animation

Web Original

  • Marble Hornets. In Entry #50, we see that Jay starts to carry a pocket-knife with him whenever he goes somewhere with Alex in case he tries to pull anything. In Entry #52, we discover that it doesn't actually help as Alex had a gun the whole time and attempted to kill Jay with it.

Web Comics

 Zola: "Bringing a knife to a gun fight doesn't seem very smart, now does it?""

Agatha: "Well, I suppose it isn't that much worse than bringing a gun to a clank fight."

    • Subverted quite nicely in this page, when Tiktoffen chides Agatha for "bringing a spanner(wrench) to a knife fight";

 "It's harder to break things with a knife."


Alternate Interpretation: A one-legged man should never participate in a contest of asskicking.

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