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'.

  • someone wrote here in a comment: "Using a sledgehammer to miss flies" , but I don't know if this is a frequently used phrase.
    – miracle173
    Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 14:49
  • 1
    Does this answer your question? "To shoot out of cannon into sparrows" Commented Apr 1 at 17:25
  • Note that the question that this question purportedly duplicates arrived at EL&U about two years after this question was posted—so the wording of the close reason—"this question has been asked before and already has an answer"—is, as applied to this question, anachronistic.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Apr 2 at 6:03

10 Answers 10


... 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.

  • 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
    Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 21:41
  • 4
    "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
    Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 21:51
  • 2
    Sledgehammer is how I usually hear it, too.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 22:05
  • 1
    @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
    Commented Jan 16, 2013 at 12:38
  • 1
    I would argue that if a nuclear weapon is used to kill a fly, it's not being used tactically. Unless you're doing it to scare the other flies (so they'll leave you alone), then it would be used tactically.
    – Flater
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 9:20

A Korean proverb exists which states...

Do not draw your sword to kill a fly.

  • Sounds elegant. I wish I would get such quick answers on my questions on StackOverflow! Thanks.
    – mvexel
    Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 21:46
  • 7
    Yeah this website is suffering from an abundance of knowledgeable enthusiasts and a lack of questions. Quite funny actually. Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 21:57
  • Good to know. I do have some to offer from time to time!
    – mvexel
    Commented Mar 1, 2011 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.

  • The "shooting sparrows with cannons" expression is also used in Danish.
    – kasperd
    Commented Sep 27, 2015 at 15:29
  • Great answer! Surely deserving of more than +4...
    – hkBst
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 10:33

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 surgical knife to slice bread.

  • 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. Commented Mar 2, 2011 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.
    – apaderno
    Commented Mar 3, 2011 at 4:35
  • 1
    I work in surgical instruments and have never heard of bistoury? My spell-checker caught it. I don't think it's known in Britain or the US. Commented Oct 20, 2017 at 9:01
  • 1
    Bistoury used to be common in French, but like in English, it seems to have lost out to scalpel. Commented Aug 6, 2018 at 13:34

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.


One that I heard once and I liked a lot was "to swat a fly with a Buick".

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    – Bread
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 11:32

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."

  • 4
    But using a hammer to slice bread is an example of absurd unsuitability, not of absurd overkill.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 22:05
  • 2
    I suppose that's true. How about "electric chainsaw"? Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 22:06

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

This is the one you want.

None of the others are neither (i) idiomatic and/or (ii) common.


I've often used the phrase

Using a cannon to kill a housefly

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


' killing a butterfly with a gun'

  • 1
    This is a good suggestion, but good answers have supporting documentation.
    – Davo
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 11:58

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