Trump's "cocked and loaded": A tangled history

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Rather than "cocked and loaded", the usual idiom is "locked and loaded", for which the OED gives the following definition, with citations going back to 1940:

to lock and load: (a) to prepare a firearm for firing by pulling back and ‘locking’ the bolt and loading the ammunition (frequently in imperative, as an order); (b) figurative to ready oneself for action or confrontation.

1940 N.Y. Times 19 Nov. 12/3 Lieut. Col. Joseph T. Hart, range officer, boomed through his microphone, ‘Lock and Load’.

President Trump got a predictable amount of grief for this apparent malapropism — e.g. Greg Evans, "Cocked & Loaded: Twitter Takes Aim At Trump Phrase; Andrew Dice Clay Might Hold Clue", Deadline 6/21/2019:

“Cocked and Loaded” is a) the name of Andrew Dice Clay’s breakthrough 1992 tour, the one for which he wore his soon-to-be-signature huge-collared leather jacket; b) a 2006 album by the industrial metal band Revolting Cocks; c) a malaprop for the actual military phrase “lock and load”; and d) the latest Twitter fodder all but gift-wrapped by President Donald Trump for pundits, comics and pickers of low-hanging social media fruit.

Or e) all of the above. Ding ding ding.

This morning, Trump used the bizarre, probably mistaken, certainly mangled, wording in a series of tweets that attempted to explain his last-second decision to halt an air strike against Iran in retaliation for shooting down one of our drones this week.

In fact the idiom's history was both lexically and mechanically tangled before the president intervened. Working backwards from the OED's 1940 citation:

Anthony Leviero, "Men of 27th Hail the Garand Rifle After Its First Use on the Range", NYT 11/19/1940:

The first impression was of the safety factor. Last Thursday, when the correspondent made the first of three trips to the range, Lieut. Col.Joseph T. Hart, range officer, boomed through his microphone, "Lock and Load." That seemed a slip of the tongue. It had always been "load and lock" with the Springfield, the soldier pushing in his clip of five cartridges and snapping the safety catch.

Sergeant David Paye of Company A quickly pointed out to a Garand novice the safety catch cut into the trigger guard of this rifle, which puts the firing pin out of operation before the cartridges go in. At the moment of fire it is released by a forward push of the trigger finger.


So the M1903 Springfield rifle's "load" (the clip) and then "lock" (the safety) turned into the Garand M1's "lock" (the safety) and then "load" (the clip). When I went through basic training in 1969, the range instructions for the M14 were still "lock and load", for similar reasons — although I recall vaguely associating the "lock" part with pulling the operating rod back so as to be able to load a magazine. For later (and more confusing) developments, see Mark Keefe, "Lock Then Load", American Rifleman 19/15/2012.

But the range instructions for the M1903 Springfield rifle already involved a shift of meaning for both lock and load, but especially lock. The OED explains that "In use with reference to firearms …  the name [lock] is due to the construction of the wheel-lock firing mechanism, which used the same parts as a contemporary fastening mechanism operated with a key. This sense development is paralleled in etymologically unrelated words meaning ‘lock’ in other languages (e.g. Dutch slot (1562 in vuurslot firelock; compare slot n.1) and Swedish lås (1548 with reference to firearms))."

Wikipedia lists many types of  lock in antique firearms — "matchlock, wheellock, snaplock, snaphance, miquelet lock, doglock, flintlock, modern caplock/percussion cap, …"

Wiktionary finds an example of the phrase "locked and loaded" from 1793, and an example of "loaded and locked" from 1815, both in reference to flintlock weapons. The 1815 reference is to Walter Scott's Guy Mannering:

Bertram, in complaisance, eat a morsel or two; and Dinmont, whose appetite was unabated either by wonder, apprehension, or the meal of the morning, made his usual figure as a trencherman. She then offered each a single glass of spirits, which Bertram drank diluted, and his companion plain.

‘Will ye taste naething yoursell, Luckie?’ said Dinmont.

‘I shall not need it,’ replied their mysterious hostess. ‘And now,’ she said, ‘ye maun hae arms: ye maunna gang on dry-handed; but use them not rashly. Take captive, but save life; let the law hae its ain. He maun speak ere he die.’

‘Who is to be taken? who is to speak?’ said Bertram, in astonishment, receiving a pair of pistols which she offered him, and which, upon examining, he found loaded and locked.

‘The flints are gude,’ she said, ‘and the powder dry; I ken this wark weel.’

Then, without answering his questions, she armed Dinmont also with a large pistol, and desired them to choose sticks for themselves out of a parcel of very suspicious-looking bludgeons which she brought from a corner. Bertram took a stout sapling, and Dandie selected a club which might have served Hercules himself. They then left the hut together, and in doing so Bertram took an opportunity to whisper to Dinmont, ‘There’s something inexplicable in all this. But we need not use these arms unless we see necessity and lawful occasion; take care to do as you see me do.’



  1. Observer said,

    June 22, 2019 @ 9:48 am

    "Cocked and locked" is a similar old firearms phrase. It refers to a single action only firearm (such as the Colt 1911 used by the military from 1911-1986) that is loaded with a round in the chamber, the hammer cocked, and the safety on. It is the most common way to carry a 1911 in a holster so it is ready to use. You simply need to draw it and switch off the safety with your thumb to be ready to fire.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    June 22, 2019 @ 10:43 am

    To my (English) ear, "cocked and loaded" appeared a perfectly reasonable idiom, and I would not have known that it was incorrect. As of this moment, Google reports "about 5,790,000 results" for "cocked and loaded" and only "about 2,380,000 results" for "locked and loaded". Of course, this disparity might be explained by Trump's recent usage of the former, but I am not convinced that this is necessarily the case.

    [(myl) You seem to be right, at least about the history:

    Though oddly, the OED has no entry for "cocked and loaded".

    And the older uses of "cocked and locked" seem (almost?) entirely to be literal references to the state of a firearm, while the more recent ones tend to be either literal or about sex rather than general readiness.]

  3. Joyce Newman said,

    June 22, 2019 @ 11:09 am

    The Urban Dictionary does:

    cocked and loaded
    When your testicles rise into your body during sex, usually preceding ejaculation.
    "man I was cocked and loaded, but then her dad walked in so we had to stop."

  4. Yuval said,

    June 22, 2019 @ 3:57 pm

    Boy, Evans certainly mangled that multiple-choice format.

  5. loonquawl said,

    June 24, 2019 @ 1:21 am

    They were going to retaliate against 'sights' – this should also be worth an honorary mention. My guess is that this nincompoop may be the most-verbatim-cited person in history, which is incredibly SAD!

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 24, 2019 @ 6:50 pm

    FWIW, a quick and probably methodologically flawed glance at 21st century American judicial opinions yielded plenty of instances of both "cocked and loaded" and "locked and loaded," but with the pattern seeming to be that the former was typically used as the neutral description of a firearm in that condition by, as it were, the omniscient third-party narrator (the judge writing the decision), but "locked and loaded" (both as a description of the condition of a firearm and more loosely as a metaphor for being aggressive/confrontational) tended to be in quotation mark,s because it was a more colloquial and/or less neutral phrase that had been employed by witnesses, prosecutors trying to sound folksy, juries asking questions, etc.

  7. Andrew Usher said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 8:03 am

    So here Trump's use seems to be the original, and the people criticising him are ignorant of it. I remember seeing Colbert ridicule him for saying 'acumen' with second-syllable stress (!) – I reckon no one dares tell him to look in a dictionary. (In the phrase 'business acumen' at issue, I think also the rhythm sound better as '..'. than '.'.. .)

    This is another example, it seems, of WWII influencing our everyday language, because so many people served. Before, 'locked and loaded' would not have been normal, as it doesn't really make sense in the metaphorical sense of 'ready for action', while 'cocked and loaded' does.

    k_over_hbarc at

    [(myl) Though the order "cocked and loaded" seems to be motivated phonologically rather than logically, since for all of the types of weapons I can think of, cocking first and loading second would be an invitation to disaster. ]

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 10:18 am

    I am no expert of firearms, having only ever fired a Martini-action .22, but would it not be the case that a breech-loader which accepted modern-style cartridges would have to been cocked (or at the very least half-cocked) before it could be loaded ?

  9. Kenny Easwaran said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 4:50 pm

    "Death to America. I terminated deal, which was not even ratified by Congress, and imposed strong sanctions. They are a much weakened nation today than at the beginning of my Presidency, when they were causing major problems throughout the Middle East. Now they are Bust!"

    Out of context, this sounds like something Ahmadinejad might have tweeted about George W Bush, and not something that the American president would intentionally tweet!

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