‘Don’t Fire Until You See the Whites of Their Eyes’: The Obscure Origin of the Military Command

Legend has it that a heroic American commander at the Battle of Bunker Hill implored his men to hold their fire until their enemies were under their noses. But did the event actually happen?
‘Don’t Fire Until Your See the Whites of Their Eyes’ may (or may not) have been uttered at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
‘Don’t Fire Until Your See the Whites of Their Eyes’ may (or may not) have been uttered at the Battle of Bunker Hill. / Culture Club/GettyImages

The Battle of Bunker Hill is often viewed as a key moment in the early stages of the Revolutionary War, a turning point for American morale and valor against the British forces. And it’s thought to be a source of one of our most famous military quotes, but experts still don’t agree on who actually said don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes

As the story of the battle goes, in June 1775, American forces learned about British plans to send troops from Boston to occupy the hills north and south of the city. To stop the impending attack, roughly 1000 Connecticut and Massachusetts soldiers built fortifications and launched defenses on Breed’s Hill, located across the Charles River from Boston’s North End. (The original plan had been to fortify the adjacent Bunker Hill, but Colonel William Prescott changed course at the last minute, as Breed’s Hill was located closer to Boston.)

The American troops faced a British force more than double their size. Allegedly, one of the American leaders at the battle instructed the soldiers, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” It was, as the legend goes, his way of telling them to preserve their gunpowder until they were confident they could inflict damage on the enemy—in other words, to make every shot count.

The British ultimately won the battle, but the Americans were able to cause more enemy losses than expected, lifting morale among the colonial forces. The outcome proved they were willing to fight and die for their independence—and showed the British military that the war was going to be a costly one.

The Americans’ strategy of holding fire against enemies until they saw the “whites of their eyes” was effective, yet the origin of this quote has been questioned time and time again over the past few centuries.

The Possible Origins of “Don’t Fire Until You See the Whites of Their Eyes”

The words as they were uttered at Bunker Hill have been widely attributed to at least four American military commanders, with Colonel William Prescott of Massachusetts and Colonel Israel Putnam of Connecticut mentioned most often. But different analyses over the years have yielded varying conclusions and raised other questions, including, for instance, whether one commander might have repeated the words after hearing them from another. 

The uncertainty about the speaker has led some to suggest the words may not have been uttered at Bunker Hill at all—and that the story is merely an old legend.

In fact, variations of the quote existed for centuries before the Revolutionary War. One of the earliest may have come from Gustavus Adolphus, the Swedish general-king known as one of the greatest military commanders of his time. He is believed to have told his troops to “never to give fire, till they could see their own image in the pupil of their enemy’s eye”—a concept that has resonated with military leaders over the years.

Historian J.L. Bell, in a 2020 article in the Journal of the American Revolution, argues that don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes actually originated from the British side during the Battle of Bunker Hill, not the American.

The Royal Navy had long before adopted the tradition of holding military fire for such a period, Bell notes, citing British media accounts from the 1750s and references predating the Revolutionary War. “Delving deeper into sources of the early 18th or even 17th centuries might therefore uncover more examples,” he writes.

How “Don’t Fire Until You See the Whites of Their Eyes” Became Famous

Why, then, do so many people associate this quote with the American commanders at the Battle of Bunker Hill? According to Bell, don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes was popularized through patriotic accounts of the Revolutionary War in the years following its conclusion. 

Two major publications referenced the quote based on eyewitness accounts from the battle. The widely read Life of George Washington (1808 edition) by Mason Weems suggested Israel Putnam was the originator of the quote. (Weems is credited with fashioning the myth about young George Washington and the cherry tree, so take his word with a grain of salt.) Samuel Swett’s “Historical and Topographical Sketch of Bunker Hill Battle,” in David Humphreys’s An Essay on the Life of the Honourable Major General Israel Putnam (1818 edition), also claims Putnam said the phrase and that it was repeated by Colonel William Prescott. 

More recently, many historians have come to doubt that any one person said don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes at Bunker Hill, but that if anyone did, it was probably Prescott.

We may never know the full story about where these words originated, but we know for certain that they represent a military strategy that existed for centuries—and may very well have changed the course of history.

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