I heard someone saying that a few days ago, but provided the context, I still couldn't grasp what he meant with that.

By the way, I didn't find it on the internet either.

  • 8
    What was the context?
    – J.R.
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 20:22
  • 1
    Same basic idea as the aphorism decisive battles will be fought where four maps meet at the corners.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 20:54
  • @J.R. Context is that he was explaining about how he could do wonders with a certain video editing board released for the Amiga back in the 90's, after explaining how much it cost and stuff he said that's the way technology goes, then he said it. I don't remember very well, I was just passing by. What sticked out was this idiom, which I'd never heard before.
    – Otter
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 17:48
  • [what stuck out, past tense]
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 25, 2023 at 18:51

5 Answers 5


Big hands, small maps - that's the way to kill the chaps is a military saying. It is a saying which discourages having masses of resource but not enough fine detail about what to do with that resource; figuratively, from the idea of having maps too small to have sufficient resolution to see details of how the land lies.

The 'chaps' being killed are one's own soldiers, lost in battles where the military commanders had too little detail to work with and made big mistakes in where they put their resources.

The quotes below are taken from reports where responses are being avoided which are too clumsy, too fast and too ill-informed. Big strong hands, but not enough attention to fine detail.

The Scotsman

I would, as always, be studying the ground. "Big hands on little maps, that’s the way to kill the chaps," is an aphorism drummed into every general’s mind. The country to the south of Baghdad is laced with little waterways, the River Tigris bisects it. Every one must be assessed. Obstacle? Or opportunity? How will they affect my ability to manoeuvre? What use can I make of each terrain feature - and how best can I deny its use to the enemy?

ISIS 2014 - The Yorkshire Ranter

There are fields in this desert. Not oil fields, the other kind. Desert is obviously a very relative concept. In case you think I’m falling prey to “big hands, small maps, that’s the way to kill the chaps”, the land ISIS conquered over the summer produces 40 per cent of Iraq’s wheat.

The earliest quote I have yet found is an article in the Spectator in 1966

MANY books are written on strategy these days. And with the broad nibs currently popular almost anyone can take a hand in it: ' Big hands, small maps; —that's the way to kill the chaps.

A quote from a book about the Mau Mau campaign 1945-1960 in South Africa 'A History of the King's Africa Rifles' says :

Senior Officers denote tasks by circling a finger on a map. For bigger tasks a whole hand was necessary. A very big hand could glide very impressively over mountains [on the map]. The troops [subsequently] followed the hand, but not over the smoothness of the map.

The NGram for 'chaps' has a very strong peak in 1920 and it would be interesting to be able to trace this back to the First World War, if indeed that's where it came from and I suspect it might have done, given the circumstances.

I have joined a military forum and put the question out, and am waiting for any responses.

  • 10
    Excellent answer! I think that this must be a UK or British Commonwealth expression, as I've never heard it used in the United States. Any idea how old it is?
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 21:03
  • @SvenYargs I'm still working on it. Will edit when I have something. I'd never heard of it either and I had to edit as I misunderstood the meaning first time round.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 21:09
  • 5
    "chaps" feels VERY British, very posh and somewhat antiquated. Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 11:35
  • Yes indeed. As the NGram indicates.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 11:37
  • 2
    Of course chaps is British. The term is not used in US though we understand it if we have half a head.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 22:38

In the United States Army “big hand, little map” typically refers to strategy. A broad overarching plan. This still must be translated into tactics on the ground. This saying typically has a derogatory connotation as many senior level staff officers fail to recognize and account for issues that the tactical commander will face on the ground. The senior commander and staff glides their hands over a flat map, where the tactical commander must devise a plan to deal with the distance, enemy, terrain, weather, and often a constrained timeline all as a result of a failure to properly plan at higher levels.

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    – Community Bot
    Commented Apr 20, 2022 at 21:32

"Big hand, small map" was a common expression amongst pre-digital age military planners, meaning a simplified presentation of a complex issue, typically offering high-level briefings constrained by time limits. Today's equivalent expression is to "zoom out", eliminating unnecessary detail, to succinctly provide "the big picture" from a "40,000 foot" perspective within an assigned time slot.

The phrase originates from senior officer briefings that used "overhead projectors" with plastic transparencies, where the presenter's hand would cast a large shadow ("big hand") over the image being displayed on a screen ("little map"). Despite content reduction frequently derided as "dumbed down" briefings for incompetent senior officers, the "big hand - small map" technique (in addition to supporting time constraints) also served to reduce decision-making paralysis caused by data over-saturation and to discourage senior officer micro-management. Both of these challenges re-emerged when digital terminals enabled "tactical generals" as their unrestricted workstations often possessed excessive "drill down" capability (e.g. senior officers being distracted by live "Predator Porn" video feeds). Digital content management and presentation tools, similar to the "big hand - small map" technique, have been introduced to mitigate this trend.


I heard this a few years ago from a former U.S. Army Colonel, who was teaching high school history. The "devil's in the details" aspect was clear, but he also used it to indicate the error of assuming a bird's eye view. I've since used it mostly in that context within my organization. We are often involved in inter-agency planning for large events and create plans that may look good and organized when all can be seen at once on a small map, but will be utterly confusing when experienced on the ground. For example, regular breaks in fencing to allow people to exit an event area may be only 50 feet away, but when filled with attendees, the exits cannot be seen. People get frustrated and, not realizing there are exits close by, kick down the fencing. Hilarity ensues.


"Small hands, big maps" is reference to the senior officers (and/or politicians) leaving detailed execution to the lower level leaders. The small hands typically point to generalized objectives and mission parameters on a map, perhaps including "no go" zones and activities.

  • 1
    I think you've got the sizes the wrong way around. Commented Jun 29, 2021 at 13:48

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