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
    Jun 9 '17 at 14:49

... 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
    Mar 1 '11 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
    Mar 1 '11 at 21:51
  • 2
    Sledgehammer is how I usually hear it, too.
    – Marthaª
    Mar 1 '11 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
    Jan 16 '13 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
    Sep 20 '17 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
    Mar 1 '11 at 21:46
  • 7
    Yeah this website is suffering from an abundance of knowledgeable enthusiasts and a lack of questions. Quite funny actually. 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.

  • The "shooting sparrows with cannons" expression is also used in Danish.
    – kasperd
    Sep 27 '15 at 15:29
  • Great answer! Surely deserving of more than +4...
    – hkBst
    Oct 27 '17 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. 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.
    – apaderno
    Mar 3 '11 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.
    – OmarL
    Oct 20 '17 at 9:01
  • 1
    Bistoury used to be common in French, but like in English, it seems to have lost out to scalpel. Aug 6 '18 at 13:34

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

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    – Bread
    Apr 18 '18 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
    Mar 1 '11 at 22:05
  • 2
    I suppose that's true. How about "electric chainsaw"? Mar 1 '11 at 22:06

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.


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
    Sep 20 '17 at 11:58

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