What is the term for a bullet hitting a bystander in a gunfight?

When it misses the intended target and hits a bystander.

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    "Collateral damage" is the US military euphemism. Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 16:55
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    Note collateral damage as you said would only be used by the military. The news wouldn't report a gangster's stray bullet hitting a bystander as "collateral damage"
    – bobobobo
    Commented Nov 3, 2012 at 15:04
  • all the voting in this Q&A is like a gunfight, maybe some of them were like 'a bullet hitting a bystander' ;) Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 9:39

4 Answers 4


Crossfire would describe the entire scene. From the OED:

gunfire from two or more directions passing through the same area, often killing or wounding noncombatants: a photographer was killed in the crossfire.

The bullet itself would be described as a stray bullet. From the OED:

move without a specific purpose or by mistake, esp. so as to get lost or arrive somewhere where one should not be

  • 16
    Crossfire would imply that two or more opposing parties are exchanging gunfire, and that the bystander was located directly in between them. I think the term “stray bullet” would work for a much broader range of scenarios. That's just my interpretation though.
    – Doresoom
    Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 18:45
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    @Doresoom I agree that stray bullet would work for a broader range of scenarios. But OP specifically used the word gunfight, which would require more than one shooter.
    – amacy
    Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 19:35
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    @NewAlexandria I'm sorry but I don't see how that link demonstrates that a gunfight can involve only one person. Also, both Mirriam-Webster and the OED (a fight involving an exchange of fire with guns) specify guns.
    – amacy
    Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 21:20
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    The number of combatants is not relevant. Crossfire in no way implies an accidental shooting. In fact crossfire is the main purpose of the 4 Fs (find, fix, flank, finish). Stray bullet is a far more suitable choice for the stated question.
    – horatio
    Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 21:24
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    While one can be hit accidentally in the crossfire, there can be crossfire without anyone getting hit. So clearly, the term for a bystander getting hit is not crossfire.
    – Jim
    Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 7:13

I think the word you're looking for is stray, which means to deviate from the desired course.

The bystander was hit by stray gunfire.


A stray bullet struck a bystander.

  • 4
    Google Books confirmed my suspicions on this one - a stray bullet is some 200 times more common than stray gunfire, which latter sounds decidedly odd to my ear. Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 19:41
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    yea I agree. stray gunfire doesn't sound right.
    – Reactgular
    Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 19:58
  • Well you wrote it! Not that I'm downvoting the answer, but I think amacy's is better because it includes crossfire as well (not necessarily good for OP's "lone gunman" context, but closely related). Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 20:05
  • lol, no problem. "The bystander was hit multiple times by stray gunfire" or "Multiple stray bullets struck the bystander". I think I prefer the first one in this example.
    – Reactgular
    Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 20:08
  • I think this describes the imprecision of the shooter, not the striking of a bystander. Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 20:57

This is called Collateral Damage.

  • missed StoneyB's comment-answer. It's the term that most-directly addresses the hitting of a non-target by a bullet (or other attack). I don't think that there is any term that more-directly denotes this hitting specific to gunfire. Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 20:54
  • Collateral Damage is more about damage that happens in addition to the intended damage. Like with a bomb that hits its target. This is a miss
    – Chad
    Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 19:18
  • @Chad it's true, given usage. Specifically, collateral references 'concomitant' matters in the definition, so perhaps its not too far off. Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 20:12

If you are talking about an actual gunfight, as in two groups exchange gunfire, then the appropriate term would be crossfire as in caught in the crossfire.

While the term may technically mean somebody between the two groups, colloquial use will often include people that are merely within a reasonable area of conflict.

Collateral Damage is a US military concept, and while it does apply to what you are talking, it also applies to other actions that can injure or kill innocent bystanders. e.g. "The soldiers did not call in an air strike, as there would be too much collateral damage"

  • Welcome to the site! This answer is rather similar to one or more answers already given. Also, be keen to the subtleties of the questions, particularly when your first thoughts are already present in others answer - and none are yet accepted. It often means the OP is asking something else. In this case, the OP is asking for a verb that means 'hitting' in context to gunfights. Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 4:10

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