1890: What to Bring

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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What to Bring
I always figured you should never bring a gun to a gun fight because then you'll be part of a gun fight.
Title text: I always figured you should never bring a gun to a gun fight because then you'll be part of a gun fight.


This comic consists of a table showing variations of the phrase "never bring a knife to a gun fight", an idiom usually attributed to either Elmer Keith or The Untouchables. Each cell visually expresses the phrase "Should you bring X to Y?". Each row gives an object (X) to bring to the situation, and each column describes the situation (Y) to which the object is brought. The first two columns show an opponent holding a knife and a gun, respectively, indicating a "knife fight" and "gun fight". These indicate situations of conflict. The third and fourth columns describe fighting (extinguishing) two types of fire (wood and oil). Neither one should be battled with knives or guns.[citation needed]

The squares in the table are highlighted in green to answer "Yes" to the question, where the specified object is appropriate or advantageous for the situation, or red to answer "No", usually because the object would not be helpful in resolving the situation. With the exception of "bringing a gun to a knife fight", these are exactly diagonally arranged from the upper-left to the lower-right, corresponding to sentences that make logical sense. In the case of the gun to a knife fight, the situation is heavily skewed in your favor.

The ultimate point of this comic may be in the title text. There is a phrase in American English, "to bring a knife to a gun fight," which means "to be so naive as to be unprepared." While Randall may be commenting specifically on managing Conflict escalation by being adequately prepared for the situation, it is also possible that he is subtly expressing his opinion about the virtues of constraint.

Should you bring ... to ... a knife fight a gun fight a wood fire an oil fire
a knife Yes. If you bring a knife to a knife fight, you will be evenly matched with your opponent. No. If you bring a knife to a gun fight, you will be at a perilous disadvantage. No. Attempting to stab a wood fire with a knife will lead to you being burned. No. Attempting to stab an oil fire will lead to you being burned, in addition to causing metallic scrapes on the pan.
a gun Yes. Bringing a gun to a knife fight will leave your opponent at a perilous disadvantage. (You may be accused of "not playing fair".) Yes*. Bringing a gun to a gun fight will leave you evenly matched with your opponent. No. Shooting at a wood or an oil fire will not extinguish either one.[citation needed]
water No. Splashing either a knife-wielder or a gunman with water will serve only to agitate your opponent. (However, water can disable some older guns that use gunpowder, since the gunpowder will not ignite when wet.) Yes. Wood fires are best extinguished with a well-aimed splash of water. No! Pouring water on an oil fire is notorious for creating huge fireballs, aggravating the situation even more.
a lid No. Attempting to put a lid on the head of a knife-wielder or gunman will probably not help matters, as it may only serve to agitate said knife-wielder. There's a possibility that your attacker may be momentarily stunned by the surrealism of the situation, but even that will only buy you about a ten-foot running start. (However, a metal lid with the right sort of handle could serve as a makeshift shield.) No. Trying to put out a wood fire with a lid would usually require a lid far too large for you to carry. Yes. An oil fire is best extinguished by cutting it off from oxygen; stove top oil fires generally occur in cooking pans, which often come with lids suited to making an airtight seal.

* While the chart states that you should bring a gun to a gun fight, the title text makes the observation that bringing a gun to a gunfight might just raise your status from 'inconsequential bystander' to 'combatant'. So perhaps you shouldn't bring a gun to a gun fight if not bringing one is a way to avoid being considered part of the fight. It probably all depends on why there is a gun fight to begin with, and why you are choosing to go to it, with or without a gun (or knife or water or lid).


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Presumably water in a gun fight _might_ work if the guns involved are particularly old fashioned (e.g. see Flintlock) 06:35, 15 September 2017 (UTC) A flintlock style uses a metal 'frizzen' which hinges over the 'pan' into which the priming power is placed. This not only protects the powder from the weather (and a splash), but also keep the powder in the pan as the firearm is moved about. When the mechanism is fired, the flint comes striking down on the surface of the frizzen which both opens the cover and directs sparks into the pan. The type of firearm that might be made inactive with a splash of water is an older design called the matchlock which held a lit cord or match in a mechanism over the open pan. The gun is fired by allowing the match to fall into the pan and detonating the powder.

I see that bringing a lid to a knife or gun fight might serve as some sort of a shield? 06:52, 15 September 2017 (UTC)

If your lid is big enough, you can extinguish a wood fire too 09:50, 15 September 2017 (UTC)

Is this Randall being political about the situation with North Korea? Maybe I'm reading too much into it, although the world would probably be a better place if more people (and countries) followed the tag text. Fluppeteer (talk) 10:29, 15 September 2017 (UTC)

But what if... you bring a wood fire... TO A KNIFE FIGHT?! Also, I'm not the only person thinking about BOTW's lowest-defense shield, am I? OriginalName (talk) 11:24, 15 September 2017 (UTC)

US Military personnel use "lid" as a euphemism for their uniform hat. I think that interpretation is represented in the drawing for "lid to a knife fight". 12:57, 15 September 2017 (UTC)

Using a gun to extinguish fire probably was influenced by this official tweet of a sheriff 5 days ago "To clarify, DO NOT shoot weapons @ #Irma. You won't make it turn around & it will have very dangerous side effects", which was necessary after stupid people started to try to fight the hurricane with guns. Sebastian -- 15:23, 15 September 2017 (UTC)

The sentence "which often come with lids suited to making an airtight seal" is inaccurate. Lids don't form an airtight seal, and airtightness is not necessary to extinguish a pan fire.--Pere prlpz (talk) 23:58, 15 September 2017 (UTC)

The phrase "don't bring a knife to a gun fight" is not a statement of general naive lack of preparation, but is specifically used to advocate literal firearms as a means of defense over literal knives. The "gun fight" refers to encounters with armed criminals who, the phrase suggests, will still use their gun to your disadvantage whether or not you are capable of fighting back. It has been subverted occasionally as an implied threat (usually in drama rather than reality) when the situation is reversed, i.e. the criminal is armed with a knife and the would-be victim is armed with a gun. The violence implied by "a gun fight" tends to restrict more metaphorical use of the phrase. The title text seems to be based in the original meaning, with the implication that Randall expects a gun being used against an armed criminal to escalate violence. (talk) 20:08, 16 September 2017 (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Struggling to work out whether this comment is tongue in cheek, or for real. 16:31, 18 September 2017 (UTC)
Hmmm... Since I don't see the humour in this comment if it was meant as a joke, and trolling is just pointless, I'm going to go ahead and treat it as a serious comment. No. Just no. A literal knife to a literal gun fight would be where the saying came from, but even then only as a metaphor or simile, as an issue easily understood. It should be obvious to anyone who knows how guns work that the gun would have an almost complete advantage. The saying actually means being on unequal footing in some conflict, where the person being warned is trying to attack or go against someone who is better prepared. The stereotypical jock trying to argue a point against the captain of the debate team (presumably the captain being the most experienced at making logical well-reasoned arguments, and as such would have no problem winning such an argument). A brand new private in the army challenging a multi-stipe sargeant to a fist fight (presumably anyone who has risen to the rank of sargeant and gained several stripes besides is quite experienced at fighting). A child challenging an Olympic medalist to a race (besides being an adult, presumably someone who has won a medal has tremendous ability at whatever kind of race this is). "Bringing a knife to a gunfight" is a common SAYING to describe such situations. NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:01, 19 September 2017 (UTC)

Just noticed that the comic on xkcd got a little correction: The "Water to a knife fight" Cueball was missing an arm. -- 23:12, 17 September 2017 (UTC)

Here's still the old image. Can anyone update it? -- 21:59, 22 September 2017 (UTC)

The gun is the only thing with two uses, so it's obviously the most useful. 1337357 (talk)

A nuke would neutralize all of these threats, so obviously it would be the "most" useful. But nuking a wood fire to put it out would probably be overkill. Randall isn't trying to say that something is the "most" useful, he's just showing us different scenarios.Herobrine (talk) 13:13, 1 October 2017 (UTC)

Is this a co-violence matrix?