In a man to man fight, the winner is he who has one more round in his magazine.
—Erwin Rommelnote after coming out on the losing end of this trope in France in 1914
The hero has entered the enemy base. He has killed mooks, blown stuff up, and said one liners. This is it. The final showdown. Hero vs. Big Bad. Mr Villain says, "It's too late! The files have already been transferred!" as he holds the heroine close, threatening to kill the damsel in distress. She cries out to her beloved hero. The hero gathers his resolves and checks his pistol's magazine. He only has one bullet left.
Wait, what? One bullet left?
Oh never mind, he's totally gonna kill the bad guy.
This trope is named after the uncanny attempt at drama of giving the hero only a single chance to win the battle, i.e. one bullet left. You can be sure of it, you can count on it, you could bet money on it if anyone would actually take that bet. That shot is going to hit its target. It may have been actually suspenseful at some point, but by now everyone has seen this one done and done again.
May happen during a Darkened Building Shootout.
See Also: Bottomless Magazines & Counting Bullets.
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Anime and Manga
Trigun: Vash has used up five of his six shots to make a giant projectile veer off course from a group of incapacitated civilians. Vash ejects the empty cartidges (even saying "Only one bullet left, doc."), spins the barrel, locks it without looking, and shoots - he picked the right chamber. Somewhat justified in that Vash isn't really human and may or may not have psychic powers.
Used epically in the Final Battle; both Vash and Knives end up with one bullet each in a random chamber of their respective revolvers, and proceed to play an odd variation of Russian Roulette with their guns in each other's faces.
In Gun Blaze West during a gun duel, Viu deliberately empties his gun of all but a single bullet in the belief that because he only has one bullet, his focus will improve and make that one shot count more than the others. It does.
Train Heartnet in Black Cat has one Oricalcum bullet, and the only thing that can defeat Creed. He almost loses it when he drops it whilst falling, but catches it of course, and his aim is true. In the final arc of the anime as well, when the illusion of his master Zangine tells him to kill him or die, and gives him a single bullet to defend himself with. Train uses the bullet, but not against him, instead to destroy the receptor controlling Eden.
Mobile Fighter G Gundam: During their fight with the Grand Gundam, Chibodee runs out of bullets in his Gundam's revolvers, and George is down to a single Attack Drone. He provides the distraction while Chibodee uses the Attack Drone as a bullet to make the million-to-one shot that takes out the Grand Gundam.
The Tachikoma in Ghost in the Shell are among the worlds best killing machines that can deal with anything short of a heavy tank without breaking a sweat. But when most of them are dismanteled and the rest of them had been refitted for civilian work, they had to rescue Batou from a special forces hit squad with nothing but a single ancient mortar round a senile old veteran had stashed in a shoe box as their only weapon. When they arrive at the scene, Batou had already killed most of the attackers, except for one last soldier in a huge suit of powered armor who was crushing him under his giant foot. After chasing him into the nearby forest while losing one of their own, the last two try everything they can to make their one single shot count. But as a subversion, with a weak "Pfshhh..." the propellant fizzles without ejecting the grenade, and the last two Tachikoma get immediately riddled with gaping bullet holes. But being Tachikoma, they still don't give up after some encouraging words, one of them holds the powered armor guy in place while the other jumps at him, crushing the mortar barrel between their bodies, and detonating the grenade.
Subverted in Miyazaki's "Castle in the Sky". Deep in the floating city Pazu and Muska face each other down with guns raised. The observant, however, already knows both our hero's and the villain's guns are empty.
However, Muska has reloads. Fortunately, the battle isn't decided with guns.
In Gosick, Victorique, of all people, ends up with a single bullet left in a gun; though she needs it not to kill someone, but to disable the bomb her train is heading towards. Halfway-subverted, though, because both she and Kujo have more than enough Genre Savvy to know that there's absolutely no chance of the shot missing. In fact, she may have wasted the rest of the bullets on purpose...
Observant viewers who count the number of shots fired in the final episode of Psycho-Pass will know that there is only one bullet left in the revolver when Akane needs to disable the Big Bad's escape vehicle. She makes the shot.
The ends of both Die Hard and Die Hard With a Vengeance. At the end of the first movie, John McClane actually had two bullets left, and exactly two bad guys left to kill. Played with, in that McClane doesn't kill Hans Gruber with either of them — Gruber dies when he falls off of the Nakatomi Building. At the end of the third, he had two bullets left in a small gun, and two bad guys in a helicopter with a BFG. He shoots a power cable which wraps around the tail rotor, causing the helicopter to crash and explode.
The final battle of Doom begins with this exchange:
The end of the shootout/rescue scene near the start of Mission: Impossible III. Of course, Hunt had been shooting excellently up into that point anyway, and wouldn't have checked his ammo if Ferris hadn't asked him how much he had left.
Farris: How many bullets do you have left?
Ethan: Enough. *shoots the last goon* Now I'm out.
Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name does this at the end of A Fistful of Dollars. He has one bullet left in his six-shooter, while the bad guy has one bullet in a rifle. Clint might have been lucky, but considering how Bad Ass the MWNN is, he was probably just that good.
The point was that both of them have one bullet, but they have to load their weapons of choice first. And Clint's six shooter is faster to load than the Big Bad's rifle. Or So I Heard.
Subverted in Top Gun, in which Maverick is sitting on one missile and facing 3 MIGs at the end of the climactic air battle... And then the MIGs retreat.
From the 2000 film The Patriot, Benjamin Martin deliberately saves a special bullet made from one of his murdered son's lead soldiers especially for the Big Bad who killed him, Colonel Tavington. Subverted in that while he does get his final, poetic justice-y shot in on Tavington, a cannonball landing nearby throws off his aim and only wounds the villain, leading to a rather fierce duel between Benjamin and the now very pissed-off Tavington in the midst of the battle.
In Independence Day, the trope becomes "One Missile Left". By the time the humans realise they need to attack the weakpoint of the alien ship in order to bring it down, the only guy left with the ability to exploit their new weakness is the insane crop-dusting veteran. Then his missile malfunctions and never leaves his aircraft. Fortunately for the human race the missile was still set to go off, and Ramming Always Works.
The pipe bombs in Tremors. Val kills the last Graboid with the last pipebomb, although he uses it in a slightly different way than expected.
Subverted in Tremors 2: the heroes are trying to reach the last working vehicle in the area and escape a Shrieker pack, only to find the route blocked by one of the creatures. Burt Gummer has only one (enormous) bullet left for his (equally-enormous) rifle. He successfully shoots the Shrieker, but the bullet then punches right through a stone wall, several barrels, and wipes out the escape-vehicle's engine.
The Host, where it is subverted. Turns out there were no bullets left, Gang-du just miscounted.
Shanghai Noon has this in probable homage to A Fistful of Dollars. Roy O'Bannon has one bullet left in his gun, and says as much to his corrupt sheriff nemesis. Out of a "sense of fair play", the bad guy mimes emptying his still fully-loaded revolvers, leading to a final shootout with Roy's one bullet vs. the bad guy's 12. Roy gets him right through the heart - and through his badge.
Bad Guy: "Now how the hell did that happen?" * collapses*
By the way, this is the only time in the movie Roy successfully shot anything. When he tells Jackie Chan's character, he doesn't believe him at all. Roy notes that the baddie's bullets all went through the robe he was wearing without leaving a scratch on him.
The climax in Dirty Harry. Apparently the Scorpio Killer did feel lucky, that punk... he wasn't.
Harry Callahan: Ah-ah. Now, I know what you're thinkin'. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I kinda lost track myself. But bein' as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?
At the end of the western Bad Girls Kid Jarrett is apparently out of ammo, so Cody pops one bullet out of her gun and gives it to him, saying "Pick it up, put it in, die like a man."
In Freejack: Descending in an elevator to escape the building, the hero and his girl knows they will face guards on the way out. He looks at his LED ammo counter, sees it read "01", and remarks, "Think I can get them all to stand in a line?". Cut to a scene of the Mooks all lining up. But, at the last second, the elevator is called to the Big Bad's penthouse.
Another Chow Yun-Fat movie, The Killer, has hitman Ah Jong living by these words: "I always save the last bullet, either for myself or for my enemy." The first time he says this, it's when he's demanding of his handler Sidney Fung to know who took out the Contract on the Hitman, and after a shootout in his apartment where Ah Jong defends himself and Sidney, it's revealed that he indeed had one more bullet. Unfortunately, later on when Sidney goes to Johnny Weng's residence to get Ah Jong's money and gets the living shit kicked out of him, he doesn't keep a final bullet, and Ah Jong has to Mercy Kill him when he is gunned down by Johnny's men.
Double Subverted in Wild Wild West: Artemis Gordon has a derringer with only one shot and only one chance to make an impossible shot to save Jim West's life. He fires, and misses. The villain delays killing West to mock Artemis for his failure, especially after the 'can I kill someone?' soul-searching he engaged in beforehand. Unfortunately, for the villain, Artemis wasn't aiming directly at him.
A different take on this trope is in Eight MM when the hero, whose gun has been unloaded and left on a table, only has time to load a single round in the chamber. And he's facing two criminals. While handcuffed to a desk.
Rango: A running theme during the movie. When he first arrives in town, Rango lies about killing seven men with one bullet, and then manages to (accidentally) kill the hawk using just one bullet. Then, during the climax of the film, Rango confronts Rattlesnake Jake with only one bullet left in his gun. After Rattlesnake Jake backs down, the mayor forces Rango to hand over his gun, but Rango stealthily removes the bullet. He ends up using it to free himself and Beans from the bank vault they've been locked in.
Valentin Zukovsky in The World Is Not Enough has precisely one bullet in his walking-cane gun, and has to decide between killing Electra and freeing Bond. He chooses the latter.
The Man with the Golden Gun. Happens with the final confrontation between Bond and Scaramanga; the latter only has a single-shot weapon, and Nick Nack taunts Bond with the fact that "You have only three bullets left" at one point.
Played with in the conclusion of Saving Private Ryan. Wounded and immobile, Captain Miller pulls out his sidearm and fires it at an incoming tank. The bullets bounce off harmlessly until he fires the last one and the tank explodes. He then looks up in disbelief and sees the close air support that had really taken out the tank.
Played for Laughs at the end of the very Black ComedySix Shooter. After an extremely violent and depressing day that began with the death of his wife, the protagonist takes home a revolver with two bullets in it. He's about to put one of them through his head when he remembers their pet rabbit, which will presumably starve if both owners are dead, so before proceeding he cradles the rabbit in his arms and shoots its head off. As he goes to use the other bullet on himself, he drops the gun, misses his shot, and is left sitting there widowed and holding his headless rabbit.
"Jesus... what a fuckin' day."
Iron Eagle: By the time that Doug Masters is forced to face his nemesis, Col. Nakesh, his F-16 is down to a few hundred rounds of ammunition and a single missile... which misses. Nakesh has just enough time for some Evil Gloating before it is revealed that the missile is a heat seeker, which comes around for a second pass...
One bad guy tries to invoke this in The Sabata Trilogy: thinking that Sabata has fired his gun dry, he makes a dive for his rifle... only to have Sabata shoot it away using a second gun hidden in the first one's grip.
Thoroughly justified in The Crossing. Bad weather has forced the Continental Army to use bayonets rather than shooting because the powder's all wet, except for one soldier who sealed his musket—a weapon that has one shot anyway—with candle wax. He's the only guy in the army who can shoot, and he uses the shot on Colonel Rall, mortally wounding him and ending the battle.
In "Stagecoach" (1939) the white people are on the verge of being taken alive by Indians and a gambler saves his last bullet to spare a lady "a fate worse than death". There's another woman on the coach but she's a prostitute so he doesn't seem to care. He's just about to pull the trigger when he's shot and mortally wounded, sparing her. They are saved by the calvary moments later.
The Hobbit. In "The Desolation of Smaug" it's revealed that Laketown has only a single bolt of black iron capable of killing the dragon Smaug. When last used, several bolts failed to penetrate Smaug's thick scales, though one did knock loose a scale creating a vulnerability. If you can hit it on the first go...
The Hobbit: Bard shoots the dragon with the only arrow he has left. Although more justified in this case, as the one left is also a special one inherited through generations, and just before the shot Bard is told the dragon's weak spot.
In the novel The Rescuers by Margery Sharp, Bernard (a mouse) attempts to stop the human villain from climbing a ladder. Having failed with a sword and an axe, he throws the last weapon in his arsenal, a tiny dagger. The sharp sting of the knife causes the villain to lose his grip on the ladder and come crashing to the ground.
Subverted in The Lost World, where a character is told that she only has One Bullet Left. After she makes the impossible shot, she checks the rifle and finds that there are still more bullets- she was told there was one left to motivate her.
Discworld plays with this, with the characters being Genre Savvy and arguing about how a "one in a million shot" always works. So they get rid of all their extra arrows, and set up an increasingly convoluted way to fire the arrow to make sure that the odds of success are exactly one in a million. note They missed. Luckily, the odds of their survival if that one shot didn't work were exactly a million to one.
In Thief of Time, the newly incarnated Auditors are so unused to physical sensation that chocolate will kill them. After the heroes think they've run out of suitable sweets, Miss Susan notes that there is generally one left amoung the empty wrappers.note A sizable group of them kill one another trying to get it. It destroys the lone survivor.
Live Action TV
Adam12: Late in the series' first season, Reed has the lesson of the importance of following direct orders to the letter reinforced when, during a stakeout of a warehouse burglary, he is asked to not shoot unless absolutely necessary or when told. Indeed, when the whole standoff ends and the robbers are captured ... Reed's gun has just one bullet left. (The argument being that, aside from following orders, any time it takes – however fast – for the officers to reload would give the suspected robbers the opening they need to shoot and kill the officers.)
Subverted in LOST, "Tabula Rasa," when many of the Losties think the marshal should be euthanized. Sawyer remarks on the appropriateness of there being one bullet left in the gun. Unfortunately, Sawyer shoots the marshal in the chest, which doesn't kill him and makes his suffering worse.
Also from LOST, when Sawyer, Michael and Jin are captured by the Tailies, Sawyer's gun had a single bullet left over from the shark incident. Turns out to be very important several episodes later when Ana Lucia uses it up (accidentally) shooting and killing Shannon.
At the end of the episode "Revelations" of Criminal Minds, Reid pulls this trope off with a revolver. (It's thematic, and also lampshaded.)
Taken Up to Eleven in Supernatural, with two full seasons of buildup. The heroes are hunting "the yellow-eyed demon" armed with six blessed bullets. By the time they catch up to the demon with the gun, they're down to one. Dean doesn't miss.
Interesting example from Breaking Bad: Hank Schraeder has been cornered by one of Tuco's Cousins. He's about to kill Hank, who's out of ammo, with his gun, but then decides that would be too easy. Since Hank's otherwise immobilized, he calmly walks to where he left his chrome fire axe. Hank discovers that a bullet has fallen out of the Cousin's pocket (a free sample from the arms dealer, earlier in the episode), just out of arm's reach. Nonetheless, he loads his gun with it and kills the Cousin with a headshot, just as he's about to bring the axe down.
This happens on Burn Notice quite a bit due to various circumstances, whether in a struggle for an enemy's gun, stealing a bullet to use as a distraction, or as a handy way of breaching a barrier.
In Bones, there's an episode where Booth has a fight with a guy using a shotgun that has infantry military experience. Booth is using Brennan's gun because "it's too big for me", and we get this exchange: "How the hell does a guy with military training miss with a scattergun? What were you, Navy?" "Infantry! Which is how I know you're carrying the .50 caliber 500. That's 5 shots.. and by my count, you only got 1 left!" A minute later, cue Booth killing him with the last shot.
Well, I checked the chambers of my gun Saw I had one final bullet left My hand, it looked almost human As I raised it bravely to my head "Drop your weapon and come on out! Keep your hands above your head!" I had one long hard think about dying And did exactly what they said.
In the PulpRole-Playing GameSpirit Of The Century, Ammo normally isn't tracked; the game just assumes you brought enough and lets you get on with the fun. But if you bought a certain ability, you can declare at any time that you have one bullet left- you'll be out of ammo after your next shot, but that last bullet gets huge bonuses.
The Death Or Glory rule in Warhammer 40,000 can be invoked when a unit is being run down by a tank. Instead of getting out of the way with the rest of his unit, one soldier may stand directly in the vehicle's path and make a single shot with a ranged weapon or a single attack with a melee weapon. If he immobilizes or destroys the tank, he lives, otherwise he gets run over and dies messily. The dramatic potential for having an Imperial Guardsman about to be run over by a Chaos Land Raider, and then lobbing a melta-bomb through an open gun slit is limitless. As is the sheer awesomeness of having a Space Marine power-fist a tank about to run him over.
Starblazer Adventures, based on the 1980's British science fiction Comic Book. A character with the One Shot Left stunt may declare at any time that their ranged weapon only has one shot left. This gives their next shot a +3 bonus. (This is the same stunt as in Spirit of the Century above, right down to the exact wording; the two games share the same basic system, although with Starblazer Adventures being a slightly later iteration there are some differences in detail as well as genre-specific add-ons.)
The Silent Scope series always does this at the end, forcing the player into a situation, such as shooting out a pane of bulletproof glass, where he must waste all but the last bullet of his existing magazine (or, if there's only one or two bullets left already, the last bullet of his next magazine) before confronting the last boss. As such, you have to get a headshot on him, or it's game over with the bad ending.
Exception: Silent Scope 2 forces this situation after the last boss is killed. Your last target is the handcuffs that connect him to the Distressed Damsel.
In Silent Scope EX, the first two bosses are like this; failure to headshot will yield a big Life Meter penalty and you'll be forced to repeat the mission.
Call of Duty: World At War has a variant of this - the "Desparado" challenge has you kill an enemy with your magazine's last bullet.
Call of Duty: Black Ops has one mission begin with you in a room full of mooks with one round left in your revolver being forced to play Russian Roulette with one of your comrades.
Call of Duty: Black Ops also features a multiplayer mode that has every player with a pistol (M1911 or PM), one bullet and ability to take one more bullet from a killed enemy. Missed the enemy? Your only hope now is a knife kill
In Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain's first bonus mission, Stone has a sniper rifle with only one bullet, and must kill enemies by snapping their necks until he finds the target.
GHOST Squad has a variant of this for the boss of mission 2: You get only one shot to headshot him, but that's because if you miss, he'll set off a grenade, not because it's your last bullet.
In Call of Juarez at the end, the bad guy takes you out with a gun shot to the head, and you, with one final shot, have to shoot him in the head before he knives your companion in the back.
StarCraft II uses this with some subtlety. Raynor always carries his pistol around, but never uses it. It's not until later in the game when he launches a boarding action on Mengsk's flagship does he check his pistol and we see it loaded with only a single cartridge in the six-chamber cylinder. He simply clicks the cylinder back in place and holsters the gun back. It implies the bullet was originally meant for Mengsk, but in reality the bullet was more symbolic of setting right the past and redeeming his mistakes, thus why he uses it in the Grand Finale to Save The Girl.
In the beginning of the game, it actually has two bullets in it. Raynor uses one of the bullets to shoot a TV that has Mengsk on it.
Point Blank does these with its infamous "sniping" challenges, where the player is given one shot to take down a small, moving target, such as a falling leaf or a tossed coin.
Counter-Strike: Source has the achievement "Magic Bullet" which involves killing an enemy with the last bullet you have loaded..
The achievement points out that this has to be a non-sniper weapon.
Global Offensive will point out a notable accomplishment of someone during each round at its end; one of the possible things to be listed is killing someone with the last bullet in your mag.
World of Tanks awards players a medal for destroying the last enemy vehicle in the battle with their last shell.
I Am Alive features this situation a lot—bullets are extremely rare. The protagonist starts out with a gun with no bullets and has to bluff people attacking him into backing off often with his empty gun—or threaten two or more people with a gun that has only a single bullet.
Borderlands 2 features this with the Gunzerker's "Money Shot" perk—it gives the last bullet in the magazine a huge damage bonus. (The damage bonus is lowered if the magazine has less than 10 rounds so that weapons like single-shot rocket launchers aren't Game Breakers.)
The damage bonus on the last shot is the passive ability of Tsygan from Sanctum 2. Though it has since been adjusted, the final shot from her primary weapon once dealt enough damage to one-shot an Armored Heavy (the most durable non-boss enemy in the game so far).
Zer0's "0ne Sh0t 0ne Kill" skill inverts this—the first bullet fired from a full magazine gets a big damage bonus.
The opening cutscene of The Punisher video game starts out with Frank only having one shell left in his automatic shotgun, and a squad of bad guys blocking his way to the exit. Frank shoots one of the them, and stalks towards them, the goons being too terrified to act. He then throws his empty gun at one of them and uses a knife to kill several of them, taking one of their guns in the process.
Subverted in an episode of Hey Arnold! where a bulldozer is heading straight for a tree with a tree house the kids are in. They throw everything in the house including the sink (seriously) in its path but nothing stops it. Arnold grabs a coffee mug and throws it hoping to hit the brake lever. It misses by a good deal.
Rabbit Fire—a Bugs Bunny cartoon—had a scene where Elmer Fudd seemed to have run out of bullets, much to Bugs and Daffy's amusement. ("Hey, laughing boy, no more buwwets!") Then Daffy grabs the gun and looks down the barrel... "Bang!" He had "one buwwet weft!"
Mighty Max: In The Maxnificent Seven, one of the four heroes who goes with Max, Virgil, and Norman to the center of the earth to destroy Skullmaster's Crystal of Souls is Native American warrior and master archer Yona-Ya-Yin. He winds up having only one arrow left, which he uses to save the lives of Max, Virgil, and Norman by tying a rope to his last arrow, with Norman tying the other end to himself, and shooting a dragon that was flying towards where the escape portal was.
In American Dad! while Steve, his friends, and Principal Lewis are fleeing the casino. They hide behind a trash can until the goons empty their weapons. Barry (who's gifted at counting) claims they're out of ammunition which Lewis bursts out only to be shot in the shoulder by the last bullet. Barry lied and pointed out Lewis should never touch a fat boy's candy while sticking his finger in the bullet wound.
Played straight in the Code Lyoko episode Marabounta. When Jeremie's multi-agent system tries to destroy Aelita and eat all of Lyoko, Jeremie creates a virus to destroy it and uploads it into one of Odd's lazer arrows. He then has one chance to shoot the original agent and destroy the whole system. It then explodes.
Double Subversion in the Young Justice episode "Homefront". Artemis is the last remaining member of the team standing, has one arrow left in her quiver, and needs to make a million-to-one shot. She takes the shot, misses, and runs away to come up with a new plan. Inevitably, when she's ready to try the new plan she's only found one replacement arrow, giving her one shot. It works.
Played with in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, where Victor the hunter has to kill the were-rabbit with a bullet made of pure gold ("Twenty-Four Karat!") and only has three. He thinks he kills the were-rabbit with the first one, but it turns out that he shot a disguise instead. Once he realizes this, he tries to calm down the crowd by firing his gun in the air...
Victor: "Now I've only got two...ARGH! I've only got one bullet left."