The word strafe originally meant "punish, attack, bomb heavily" and since WWII most commonly describes low-altitude aerial attack on a ground target, especially with front-mounted machine gun fire from a fighter plane.

In first person shooters (first appearing 50 years later*), however, the word strafe has been used to describe the player character moving sideways relative to the orientation of view pretty much since the dawn of first-person gaming (at least on the PC). How did the word come to be used this way, and what/who was the first?

* Wolfenstein 3D released in 1992, possibly the first use of strafe with this meaning

  • If the player is firing while moving (assume a repeating weapon) it will have the effect of laying down bullets in a strip, rather like the effect of an aircraft making a low pass while firing (I don't go into the aerodynamics in a comment). I have an idea that I've come across a "sweeping while firing continuously" meaning in a Vietnam war context - maybe helicopter door gunners.
    – Chris H
    Mar 6, 2018 at 19:52
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    A very interesting question! I’ve never seen the word used in that sense at all—even the OED doesn’t have it (even though their article on strafe was updated in 2014). Then again, first-person shooters have never really been my thing. Could you dig up and quote some examples of the word being used in this sense, just to show clearly that it is actually used so? Mar 6, 2018 at 19:53
  • ... Googling huey strafe provides hits from the 60s and 70s to back this up but on mobile it won't let me narrow down the dates
    – Chris H
    Mar 6, 2018 at 19:55
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    So I suggest that the shift from fixed wing aircraft to helicopter gunships (such as the Huey) in a low flying ground attack role was instrumental in this shift in meaning. Importantly the gunners in such helicopters were facing sideways, so their un- or barely-aimed suppressing fire traversed the target area. And that's also what happens in FPSs if you're firing while moving sideways (<alt>+left/right IIRC). Certainly that's how I understood this feature to be used but I've only every been a casual player of FPSs
    – Chris H
    Mar 6, 2018 at 20:08

1 Answer 1


I suggest a logical link from the WWII low-flying fixed-wing aircraft, through helicopter gunships such as the UH-1 Iroquois with their side-firing machine-guns, then on to late 80s/early 90s helicopter games and assorted shoot-em-ups to FPSs. I assume that for most of this time, the player was firing while moving sideways.

The first step (from fixed-wing to helicopters) seems logical, following the change in which aircraft carried out low-flying ground-attack missions. There are plenty of reports of helicopters strafing targets from around this period, such as

a dozen u.s. army and marine helicopters strafed the landing zone
Xin hua tong xun she 16 Mar 1965 (News from Hsinhua News Agency: daily bulletin)

It's certainly clear from some of these sources that forward-firing guns (and for that matter fixed-wing aircraft) were used, but this (more modern) picture of the side armament of a UH-1 gunship clearly shows the door-gunner's machine-gun:

enter image description here

Crucially such guns would be fired while the gunner was moving sideways (as he faced out the door -- this traversing fire seems key.

The next step is into gaming -- in the late 80s and early 90s there were many helicopter flight-sims, though of course they're from the pilot's viewpoint. This was also the era of vertical- and side- scrollers, and I recall side-firing guns being a power-up in some such games (such as the space-themed Hellfire)

In general strafing by moving sideways while firing was commonplace in scrolling shoot-em-ups, thus predating the FPS use in Wolfenstein by a few years.

Google books provides tantalising hints from this period:

Both Zaxxon from Datasoft and Blue Max from Synapse are three-dimensional flying shoot-em-up games with landscapes that scroll one pixel at a time. In each case ... In both games you have to strafe the enemy on the ground, and fight enemy planes in the air. Zaxxon is ...
Practical Computing - Volume 7 (1987) Page 134 (unfortunately the preview is minimal and misses that text)

A link to helicopters in games comes from this reference to Thunder Blade (a rail shooter from 1987) in which weapons fire forwards but the helicopter can move side to side as it follows a pre-determined path

but the reward comes in the form of a nice easy strafing job on what looks like a large rocket.
ACE Issues Oct 1987-April 1992

  • It would be wonderful to find and preserve some first-hand knowledge from the individuals who first coined this usage (i.e. probably the lead developers of Wolfenstein 3D) - there's still lots of wiggle room to interpret the transition as either natural or novel. However this is the most thorough background leading up to it that I could reasonably expect. Mar 6, 2018 at 21:13
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    Of note, it appears your references are to side scrollers or isometric rather than vertical scrolling games, so they wouldn't likely even be using strafing in context of sideways movement (relative to pilot's/aircraft's orientation). I think that second step is still missing. Mar 6, 2018 at 21:20
  • That's true -- sideways movement while firing forwards is almost a definitive feature of vertical scrollers, and I was trying to track down an old one that fired sideways (I've played one much more recently than relies on getting a side-firing powerup to shoot a tricky enemy behind some sort of barrier)
    – Chris H
    Mar 6, 2018 at 21:26

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