Q: Can you explain the expression “lock, stock, and barrel”? I know that it means all of something, but does it refer to the actual parts of a firearm?
A: Yes, the individual words refer to parts of a gun, but the phrase itself has almost always been used figuratively.
The “barrel” here is a gun barrel, the “stock” is the handle, and the “lock” is the firing mechanism where loose powder is exploded in old-style firearms (hence terms like “flintlock,” “matchlock,” and so on).
The phrase was inspired by an old joke about a rural Scotsman who takes his worn-out gun to be repaired. But it’s virtually beyond repair, and the gunsmith suggests he should simply buy a new one. The Scotsman replies that he’ll settle for a new stock, a new lock, and a new barrel—in other words, a whole new gun.
We’ve seen dozens of versions of the story, dating from the late 1700s onward. Usually the weapon is called a “gun,” but sometimes it’s a “pistol,” a “musket,” or a “fowling-piece” (a light shotgun). This is the earliest reference we’ve found to the story:
“When we think of the other improvements which this work would need, before it could be rendered useful, we cannot help recollecting the story of a gun which, in order to be repaired, required a new stock, a new lock, and a new barrel.” (From a review of a book on agriculture in the Monthly Review, London, March 1790.)
And the Scottish poet Robert Burns referred to it in a letter written in April 1793: “Let him mend the song, as the Highlander mended his gun; he gave it a new stock, a new lock, and a new barrel.”
The resulting figurative phrase—originally “stock, lock, and barrel”—means “as a whole; entirely,” or “the totality or entirety of something,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and its earliest examples are from Scottish authors.
The OED’s first confirmed figurative usage is from a letter written by Sir Walter Scott on Oct. 29, 1817, in reference to an old fountain on his estate: “Like the High-landman’s gun, she wants stock, lock, and barrel, to put her into repair.”
We found this 1819 example in the writings of another Scotsman: “I am afraid that if the Americans continue to cherish a fondness for such repairs, the highlandman’s pistol, with its new stock, lock, and barrel, will bear a close resemblance to what is ultimately produced.”
(From a letter written on Feb. 10, 1819, by John Duncan, commenting on Americans’ readiness to overhaul their state constitutions. His letters were published in Glasgow in 1823 as Travels Through Part of the United States and Canada.)
And this Oxford example refers to a financial disaster: “Even the capital likewise—stock, lock, and barrel, all went.” (From Lawrie Todd, an 1830 novel by John Galt about a Scotsman who emigrates to North America.)
In our searches of old newspaper databases, we found that the phrase persisted in that order (“stock, lock, and barrel”) well into the 20th century, though it fell off sharply in the 1930s.
Meanwhile, a version with the first two nouns reversed—“lock, stock, and barrel”—had started appearing in figurative use as early as the 1820s (we’ve seen reports of an 1803 American example, but we can’t confirm it). By the mid-19th century the newer phrase was quite common in both Britain and the United States.
The OED’s earliest confirmed example in which the reversed phrase appears figuratively is from a Pennsylvania newspaper:
“Congress are in possession of the flint, powder, gun, lock, stock and barrel, and still we exclaim with the old lady, take away the musket” (the Adams Centinel, Gettysburg, April 7, 1824).
And we found this example in a work of Irish fiction published two years later: “Maybe you might have the heart to say another word;—one—jist one—that ’ud save poor Peery Conolly sowl an’ body, lock, stock, an’ barrel, an’ ould Matthew along wid him, that’s goin’ to ruination an’ smithereens” (Tales by the O’Hara Family, by the brothers John and Michael Banim, London, 1826).
Why was “stock, lock” reversed to “lock, stock”? We can only suggest that perhaps the resulting phrase came easier to the tongue. Today, as the OED notes, it’s the usual form, and the original “stock, lock” version is “rarely” used.
As for the individual words in the phrase, “lock” in the weaponry sense is defined this way in the OED: “In a gun or firearm which uses loose gunpowder: a mechanism by means of which the charge is exploded.”
The term appeared originally as part of a compound, “firelock.” Oxford’s earliest example is from a 1544 document in the state papers of King Henry VIII: “Some of them shute with maches not having the fyre lockes.”
Other “lock” compounds refer to various firing mechanisms or weapons using them: “matchlock” (first recorded in writing in 1638), “gunlock” (1651), “wheel-lock” (1670), and “flintlock” (1683).
By the time those later compounds were recorded, “lock” was also being used by itself to mean a firing mechanism. Here’s the OED’s earliest example:
“Others carrie … some Peeces, with the Match readie lighted … and haue the best lockes that possible may bee found in all Europe.” (From Discours of Voyages into ye Easte and West Indies, a 1598 translation of a work by Jan Huygen van Linschoten.)
The use of “lock” for part of a gun evolved from the familiar noun for a fastener with a sliding bolt and often operated with a key. That earlier “lock” has been around since early Old English and was “inherited from Germanic,” Oxford says.
As for “stock,” it too has an ancient history and was derived from Germanic. The original Old English noun, now archaic, first meant a tree stump and later a block of wood.
The earliest use of “stock” in weaponry emerged in the late 15th century, when it meant a gun carriage for mounting a cannon or artillery piece. The term in this sense was first recorded as “gunstok” in 1496 and as “stokke” in 1497, according to OED citations.
A “stock” later came to mean “the wooden portion of a musket or fowling-piece” or “the handle of a pistol,” the OED says.
Oxford’s earliest example is from a law enacted in 1541 during the reign of Henry VIII: “Any handgun … shalbe in the stock and gonne of the lenghe of one hole Yarde.” (Note: In early use, a “handgun” meant a firearm carried by hand, as opposed to a cannon.)
Finally, “barrel” in the weapons sense, a use first recorded in the 17th century, comes from the familiar noun for a large roundish wooden cask.
That earlier noun came into English in the early 14th century from French (baril), the OED says, but the ultimate source is medieval Latin (barile). Oxford adds: “The Celtic words (Welsh baril, Gaelic baraill, Irish bairile, Manx barrel) sometimes cited as the source, are all from English.”
It was only natural that the hollow cylindrical metal tube of a firearm should come to be called a “barrel.”
The earliest use in the OED is from Two Treatises (1644) by Sir Kenelm Digby. Here Digby describes an experiment for demonstrating the power of suction, and we’ve expanded the citation to get in the rather alarming context:
“Take the barrel of a long gun perfectly bored and set it upright with the breech upon the ground, and take a bullet that is exactly fit for it … and then if you suck at the mouth of the barrel (though ever so gently) the bullet will come up so forcibly that it will hazard the striking out of your teeth.”
He adds later, “I remember to have seen a man that was uncautious and sucked strongly that had his fore-teeth beaten out by the blow of the bullet ascending.”
Do not try this at home!