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I seem to recall that there is an expression for when you are throwing something too big at a particular challenge: "To kill a fly with a..."? Or am I way off here?

Edit: maybe it's not a fly after all? I found this article talking about 'Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut'.

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up vote 14 down vote accepted

... tactical nuclear weapon?

Google autocomplete suggests "sledgehammer", "bazooka", and "cannon". I think "sledgehammer" is the only one I've actually heard used, and I suspect it's what you're looking for.

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I like the tactical nuclear weapon suggestion :)I used the Google autocomplete function as well, but none of the options seemed quite right, so I posted the question here. And now I forgot where I was going to use it... – mvexel Mar 1 '11 at 21:41
"Nuke it from orbit" (the only way to be sure) is the new way to say "overkill." I think it is from "Aliens," but it is also all over the internet. – horatio Mar 1 '11 at 21:51
Sledgehammer is how I usually hear it, too. – Marthaª Mar 1 '11 at 22:05
@horatio you are correct, it comes from the film "Aliens" where they quite literally plan to leave the planet and nuke the aliens from orbit, "only way to be sure". On a related note, there's a Monty Python sketch where "mosquito hunters" use machine guns, bazookas and artillery strikes to kill a single mosquito. – Jon Hanna Jan 16 '13 at 12:38

A Korean proverb exists which states...

Do not draw your sword to kill a fly.

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Sounds elegant. I wish I would get such quick answers on my questions on StackOverflow! Thanks. – mvexel Mar 1 '11 at 21:46
Yeah this website is suffering from an abundance of knowledgeable enthusiasts and a lack of questions. Quite funny actually. – Cerberus Mar 1 '11 at 21:57
Good to know. I do have some to offer from time to time! – mvexel Mar 1 '11 at 22:10

Actually the idiom goes, "to break a (butter)fly on the wheel". The wheel in question being a torture device, for humans rather than flies. From Wikipedia:

The breaking wheel, also known as the Catherine wheel or simply the wheel, was a torture device used for capital punishment in the Middle Ages and early modern times for public execution by bludgeoning to death.

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The sledgehammer mentioned in the top answer is from a different idiom entirely, "cracking a nut with a sledgehammer". Same idea, of course, but the idioms are not to be mixed and matched at will except for comedic effect.

In German and Russian, there's also "to shoot sparrows with cannons" (mit Kanonen auf Spatzen schießen/стрелять из пушки по воробьям). That one hasn't caught on in English, though.

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The "shooting sparrows with cannons" expression is also used in Danish. – kasperd Sep 27 '15 at 15:29

It could be "kill a fly with a sledgehammer", "kill a fly with a cannon", "kill a fly with a bazooka".

To reply to the additional question, "to kill a fly with […]" is the usual phrase. There are other phrases that are used to mean "using something that is excessive".

Use a bistoury to slice bread.

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That one must be quite old because nowadays I think most people use "scalpel" instead. "Bistoury" doesn't get a single hit in BNC or COCA. – Peter Taylor Mar 2 '11 at 7:04
Bistoury is specifically a surgical knife, while scalpel is a sharp knife. The CoCa reports just 3 sentences containing "a fly with a sledgehammer"; that doesn't mean the phrase is not frequently used. – kiamlaluno Mar 3 '11 at 4:35

Any expression can be improvised. Killing a fly with any weapon will probably get the point across.

My favorite expression of this type is "to use a hammer to slice bread."

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But using a hammer to slice bread is an example of absurd unsuitability, not of absurd overkill. – Marthaª Mar 1 '11 at 22:05
I suppose that's true. How about "electric chainsaw"? – Peter Olson Mar 1 '11 at 22:06

I've often used the phrase

Using a cannon to kill a housefly

(or some variant) to communicate an extreme solution to a problem.

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There is a similar phrase "like burning down a house to kill a fly" (or fleas, or rat, etc.) which both highlights the overzealousness, as well as the likely collateral damage.

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