Draw a Bead on – Idiom, Meaning & Origin

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

To draw a bead on something is an idiomatic phrase that was adapted into American English during the mid-1800s. Idioms are figurative uses of words that are different from their literal usage. They commonly compare an author’s message and its literal origins.

To draw a bead means to focus on something, like a goal or a plan. This article explains its definition, origins, and use in modern speech and writing.

What Is the Meaning of Drawing a Bead On?

Draw a Bead on – Idiom Meaning Origin

To draw a bead on means to aim at something, train one’s sights on a plan or an ambitious goal, or focus or concentrate on something.

The bead mentioned in the phrase draw a bead on refers to the metal bead placed at the end of a gun barrel as a part of iron sighting when shooting. A notch is placed on top of the gun closer to the shooter, and the bead is placed farther down the barrel. A shooter takes aim by lining the bead up with the notch.

Literally, the idea of drawing a bead means to be aimed at something, and to use it figuratively simply applies this focus to anything you want to be successful at, achieve, or accomplish.

For example:

  • Her doctors were finally starting to draw a bead on what her symptoms suggested and offered a new approach to her care.
  • After staying up all night considering his options, he finally drew a bead on handling the mess he had gotten himself into.
  • The professor rightly drew a bead on his star pupil when she was only an undergraduate; she eventually was hired to litigate some of the largest crimes in U.S. history.

To Draw a Bead on or to Draw a Bead Upon?

The word upon is used as a preposition or adverb and usually replaces the word on. It can also be used to show something that happened soon after or because of something else. 

To Draw a Bead on vs To Draw a Bead Upon Ngram
To draw a bead on and to draw a bead upon usage trend.

In this scenario, upon replaces the word on in the phrase to draw a bead upon. Although this is technically grammatically correct,  to draw a bead on is the more correct, acceptable, and popular way to state the idiom. 

Origins of Draw a Bead On

Draw a Bead Ngram
Draw a bead usage trend.

The idiom draw a bead on came into use in the mid-1800s to mean to aim at a target with a gun. The term was quickly adopted in a larger figurative sense in the United States.

Iron sites were the first form of sighting a gun accurately and are still an integral part of a gun’s barrel. They are a simple yet highly effective form of focusing on a target. A rounded iron “bead” is a common design at the end of a barrel to form the front sights. When lined up with the back sights over your target, you have an accurate shot.

To “set your sights” on something means to place your sights on a target. When you draw a bead, it is part of the process of lining your sights up with a target.

Using the term means to focus on a goal and is metaphorical for the literal and physical action.

Let’s Review

The expression draw a bead came into use in the mid-19th century to describe the action of lining the iron front “bead” and back sights up on a gun’s barrel to a target. Iron sights are a standard design on almost all gun barrels and provide an accurate way to sight a target.

The expression, to draw a bead on, is regularly used figuratively to infer that you have taken aim at an ambitious goal or to focus on a plan. It is used modernly to explain an intense concentration on something.