Molon Labe — molṑn labé or μολὼν λαβέ — is an Ancient Greek expression of defiance against the surrendering of arms to an enemy. The term has been around for centuries, but U.S. gun rights advocates adopted it in recent decades to signal their resistance to the passage of onerous or confiscatory gun control legislation.
What are the origins of this powerful phrase, and how did it become so popular among American gun owners? Let’s find out.
What is Molon Labe and Where Does it Come From?
The Greek philosopher and biographer Plutarch (AD 46–119) attributed the expression to Leonidas I, king of Sparta, the warrior Greek city-state. During the Greco-Persian Wars, Xerxes I, the King of the First Persian Empire, was determined to conquer Greece. The Athenians and the Spartans led the resistance, but Xerxes’ army greatly outnumbered them.
Herodotus estimated that Persians had more than one million men at their disposal. More recent accounts place the number at closer to 150,000, but this was still a significant force to be reckoned with. Leonidas led a Greek army of approximately 7,000 men, including 300 Spartans.
Before the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, Xerxes I wrote to Leonidas I demanding that the Spartans surrender their arms. Leonidas replied, “Molon Labe,” which translates to “Come and take them” in English. Despite being outnumbered during the subsequent battle, the allied Greek forces held back the Persians for three days before the rearguard was annihilated and Leonidas’ army destroyed.
Use by Gun Rights Advocates
Gaining traction in the 1990s and 2000s, Molon Labe (or ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ) became synonymous with resistance to, and non-compliance with, gun control laws, including outright bans.
Both in English and Ancient Greek, Molon Labe has appeared on T-shirts, sweatshirts, bumper stickers, flags, and firearm accessories like holsters, sometimes accompanied by a Spartan helmet. It’s appeared several times throughout American history, giving Molon Labe meaning in a new nation.
As with the Greeks, the phrase was initially used by Americans in defiance against British and Mexican military forces, often in the face of overwhelming odds.
Fort Morris, Georgia, 1778
The Continental Army built Fort Morris southeast of Sunbury, Georgia, during the American Revolutionary War. This fort was used as a base of operations for a planned invasion of Florida, which was under British control.
Meanwhile, Patrick Tonyn, the British governor of East Florida, plotted to invade Georgia. The British had managed to seize Savannah in 1778, and Fort Morris was the next target.
On November 25, 1778, British soldiers tried to take the fort. British Lt. Col. Lewis V. Fuser demanded that Colonel John McIntosh, who led the American soldiers at the fort, surrender. McIntosh answered: “We, sir, are fighting the battle of America — as to surrendering the fort, receive this laconic reply — come and take it.”
The British didn’t immediately take the fort but returned the following year with more men. Although the British ultimately conquered Fort Morris, McIntosh’s defiance served to boost the morale of the American colonists.
Gonzalez, Mexican Texas, 1835
In 1825, Green DeWitt, an American settler and Virginia native, established the settlement of Gonzales in Mexican Texas. In 1831, a few years before the Texas Revolution began, DeWitt formally requested a cannon from the Mexican government for defense against Indian raids. The town had suffered numerous attacks by Comanche warriors and needed protection.
The request was granted, and the Mexican government gave or loaned a cannon to the colonists. Whether it was functional or not, it was loud enough to act as a deterrent.
In 1835, as relations between the colonists and the Mexican government began to break down, Mexican Army Colonel Domingo de Ugartechea ordered his soldiers to recover the cannon. In response, Texans evoked the spirit of Leonidas I by erecting a flag depicting a star, a drawing of the cannon in question, and the words “Come and Take It.”
From My Cold Dead Hands
A modern American incarnation of Molon Labe, the expression “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands” seems to have first emerged in 1976. It soon became a common saying among gun rights advocates to signify their resistance to confiscatory gun control laws.
The expression became so common that it was depicted on a bumper sticker in the 1984 film Red Dawn as a communist paratrooper pries an M1911A1 pistol from the dead owner’s hand.
Its most famous use, however, came in the new millennium. On May 20, 2000, at the 129th NRA Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Charlton Heston, president of the NRA, gave a speech incorporating the expression while holding a flintlock Kentucky long rifle:
“So, as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: ‘From my cold, dead hands!’”
Don’t Tread on Me
The 1775 Gadsden flag depicting a coiled timber rattlesnake and the words “Don’t Tread on Me” has begun to see a resurgence alongside Molon Labe. While the Gadsden flag’s message isn’t limited to arms, the spirit of resistance that it evokes is the same.
The Right to Keep and Bear Arms is Our Mission
We The People Holsters believe strongly in the Second Amendment and the right to keep and bear arms. Molon Labe symbolizes our dedication to upholding that right in the face of increasing attempts at restricting or prohibiting U.S. citizens from owning and carrying firearms for self-defense and other lawful purposes.
To help Americans effectively bear arms and exercise their right to individual self-defense, we design and manufacture high-quality Kydex and leather holsters for a wide variety of semi-automatic pistols and revolvers. Whether you intend to carry concealed or openly, we have a vast selection to choose from.