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According to the Oxford dictionary:

Sure-fire: (adjective, informal) certain to succeed. Example: bad behaviour is a sure-fire way of getting attention

Where does this word combination come from and does it have anything to do with fire?

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

Etymonline says:

surefire (adj.) also sure-fire, by 1864, American English, from sure + fire (v.). Originally of rifles.

Since early rifles were rather less than completely reliable, a "sure-fire" rifle would be highly regarded.

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In the literal sense it dates at least as far back as 1837, as shown in an advert for gunpowder in the Vermont Watchman and State Journal (Montpelier, Vt.) of November 27, 1837:

Powder ... warranted "Sure file"

The Burlington Free Press (Burlington, Vt.), July 08, 1842 refers to sure fire guns:

the guns they had taken in his defence were sure fire!

As does Sunbury American (Sunbury, Pa.), September 13, 1856:

Thereupon, he drew a revolver, and assuring them that it was well loaded and it sure fire

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+1 Nice research. The first one refers to gunpowder. The second has to do with guns. The third one, a revolver. (Can you imagine a criminal of today using the phrase "blow his brains out forthwith"?) – rajah9 Jan 11 '13 at 20:13
@rajah9: Ha ha, but, well, those the journalist's words rather than direct quotation and I imagine the real words were more direct. – Hugo Jan 11 '13 at 20:50
@rajah9- It's interesting that you don't consider a revolver to be a gun. I would have said, "... and the other two have to do with guns." – Jim Jan 11 '13 at 23:50
@Jim, that's because I mis-parsed it the first time. I thought it was calling the criminal a sure fire, implying that he was a good marksman. I thought there was a progression in meaning for gunpowder (literal) to gun (less literal) to marksman (figurative). But I agree with you: it's gunpowder, gun, and gun. – rajah9 Jan 12 '13 at 19:49

Instead of a fire that you light, think of a rifle that you fire.

Etymology online says

also sure-fire, by 1864, American English, from sure + fire (v.). Originally of rifles.

Dictionary.com puts the date around 1915-1920.

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d'oh, faster than me by 8 seconds. – Hellion Jan 11 '13 at 16:28
Just too easy to type "etymology sure-fire" ... wonder if this will be closed as a general reference. – rajah9 Jan 11 '13 at 16:30
Ok, now I know how to find etymology online. – Leo Jan 11 '13 at 18:10

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