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A Mech as powerful as possible, as impenetrable as possible, and as ugly and foreboding as conceivable, so that fear itself will be our ally."
— Aleksandr Kerensky, describing the design goals for the Atlas assault mech from BattleTech
Not everyone who carries a weapon actually uses it. Sometimes it's best to have something to make you look intimidating, be it a large staff or a gun. It might actually be completely useless (such as an unloaded gun or even a toy gun). Other times it's just not needed all that much, but when you need it, it'll get the job done.
May lead to an unfortunate demise through the Shoot Him, He Has a Wallet! trope, because the police and military aren't going to put their guns down and negotiate and are trained to blow you away as soon as possible. Also doesn't work on people very intent on taking your stuff, nor on people who are more well-armed than you are.
Subtrope of Useless Accessory. The Sword of Damocles is an upscaled version of this trope; a weapon so fearsome it brings nations or worlds to their knees in fear of it. If you don't even have a fake weapon, but wish to achieve the same effect, that's a Brandishment Bluff. Compare It Works Better with Bullets, where the shooter has no idea the weapon is unloaded at the time they try to use it for intimidation.
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Anime and Manga
Exploited by Shanks in One Piece. Early in the story, when a Mook pulls a gun on Shanks to threaten him, Shanks responds that "guns aren't for threats; they're for actions." This is immediately followed by one of Shanks crew members shooting the mook in the head.
In Sandland, when Rao is asked why he didn't use his gun in a fight, he answers that bullets are expensive (especially in a Desert World) and pointing his gun is enough to scare most would-be bandits.
In Rurouni Kenshin there was a guy who is impersonating his title as Hitokiri Battousai, he wields a sword which he threatens to use to scare off people. But he never uses because its really old and rusty.
Akagi: The title character once "borrowed" a revolver as leverage against some thugs who were out to get him.
In Two Thousand AD's DR And Quinch, Pulger once carved a (fake) phaser rifle out of a bar of soap as part of a prison escape attempt when traveling the tunnels burrowed out by a species known only as the "Snufflegruffs". When one of them shows up, Pulger makes his best attempt at this with carved-out bar of soap. And then he does it yet again with what's left of the soap gun in the following installment.
During the '80s, Batman sometimes encountered a Gotham-based Hard Boiled Detective named Joe Potato. While Joe usually carried a licensed gun, his preferred method of extracting information from perps was to threaten them with his "potato peeler", a knife with a hole in the blade making it resemble a vegetable peeler. Batman confronted him over threatening a suspect at one point, but Joe then revealed that his knife was made of rubber.
One Bash Street Kids strip had a gunman take the school hostage. It ended when Fatty asked if he was planning on eating the black pudding he was pointing at people.
The Headhunt: Dul'krah uses the mere presence of a combat knife as part of his "interrogation by glaring and looking scary" technique. It works.
Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet carries a revolver but states that he rarely needs it.
"That's just part of my clothes. I hardly ever shoot anybody with it."
In Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, Soap insists they get big, scary knives that "look like they could skin a crocodile" for a heist. He points out that knives are more intimidating than guns because they're quiet, and thus can be used without attracting the police. He concludes, "Guns for show, knives for a pro."
Vince buys a gigantic shotgun to "raise pulses" when he robs a bookie joint. He actually uses it to blow a hole in a wall, then gets it turned against him.
Later, Sol gets two starter pistols loaded with blanks as intimidation weapons against Bullet-Tooth Tony, who notices that they've got "Replica" written right on them. Then he draws his own Hand Cannon...
Tommy's giganticrevolver is bought for self-defense, but it actually doesn't work. He still keeps it around, and uses it as an intimidation weapon against Brick Top's dragon and a bunch of Mooks. Doubles as an unexpected Crowning Moment of Awesome for Tommy, who is absolutely convincing while threatening the mooks.
Inside Man has the bank robbers armed with AK-47s that they never fire and Clive Owen has a Hand Cannon that he uses for intimidation. The guns are all fake.
In Raising Arizona, HI always robs stores with an unloaded gun, which is what helps him get out of prison so quickly to stick up another joint.
Fight Club has a scene where Tyler Durden takes a store clerk out the back of the store and holds a gun to the back of his head, scaring the wits out of him and forcing him to go and follow his old dreams of being a veterinarian. At the end of the scene, the protagonist (who was with them) opens the chamber of the gun and sees there are no bullets inside.
In The Gumball Rally, hot-blooded Franco pulls a gun from a paper bag and threatens another driver with it. It turns out it's a squirt gun, and the whole thing was a gag.
In Ocean's 13, the Night Fox reappears to mug Matt Damon of the diamonds he'd just stolen. Damon's Gentleman Thief character hands them over and chides the Night Fox for being so uncouth as to simply threaten him with a gun. Just before departing, the Night Fox tosses him the gun to show that it's unloaded. He does have some standards.
Gyro Captain:(watching Max salvage a shotshell, and pop open the empty chamber to load it) Empty! All this time...! That's dishonest, LOW! Hey, hey, how do I know THAT one's not a dud? Max:(shoves the barrel in his face) Find out.
In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent does a variation of this. The gun he has is very real, but Harvey is still pre-Face-Heel Turn, so he doesn't have any real intention of shooting it yet. He needs to get information from a mook, though, and he keeps flipping a coin to decide the mook's fate, with tails meaning that he shoots him. Of course, the coin is still a double-headed one at this point, so only Harvey knows that he'll never have to actually shoot the mook.
The trio of protagonists in Airheads hold a radio station hostage by brandishing some Uzis. Unfortunately, about 2/3 of the way through the movie, one gun gets caught in a door, shatters, and starts leaking in front of the surrounding police and throngs of onlookers; turns out the whole time they were realistic motorized squirt-guns. Fortunately for them, an inept side-character that thought he was being a hero also chose that moment to burst through a ceiling vent, drop the ACTUAL automatic pistol he had been directed to inside the building, and the predictable hail of bullets convinced the cops that only one of the guns was fake.
Invoked in Jackie Brown. Ordell convinces Beaumont Livingston to hide in the trunk of his car with an unloaded shotgun for the stated purpose of surprising the buying party at one of Ordell's drug deals. However, Ordell's true intentions are to dive over to a nearby vacant lot and shoot the defenseless Beaumont dead himself.
Dally's revolver in The Outsiders. It's not actually loaded, and he states that he uses it to scare people and that's all. This comes back to bite him when he raises the unloaded gun at the police after Johnny dies to get a Suicide by Cop.
Invoked in The Fifth Elephant: Vimes is particularly distrustful of Skimmer's spring crossbow (described as similar to a derringer), which he says is not a weapon, but a tool for killing people. To Skimmer's puzzled "Uh, yeah, it's a weapon," Vimes responds that weapons are for displaying, so attackers know what they're heading into (like dwarves and their ubiquitous battle-axe). The spring crossbow, on the other hand, is for killing people who aren't expecting it.
Also invoked in Monstrous Regiment where vampire Maladict carries a sword to keep people from attacking him. He doesn't know how to use it, of course, as his vampiric abilities ensure he doesn't need to, but "sword" proves a better shorthand for "not someone you should attack."
The Patrician may or may not have a Sword Cane. He lets people spread rumors about it as a tactic of intimidation although in Jingo Colon reflects that it's just as scary that nobody can remember seeing him wield any weapon. Whenever the audience sees him fight he favors a stiletto.
In Making Money, Cosmo has his assistant bring him Vetinari's Sword Cane. The assistant, who would very much prefer staying alive, instead "spent a few hours with a brass brush and some chemicals to create a weapon that looked as if it would jump for your throat of its own accord". Vetinari is unimpressed on seeing it.
And then of course, there's the troll Detritus's "Piecemaker", a converted siege crossbow. It's designed to fire bundles of arrows held together by string that are meant to separate in flight; in practice, it fires an expanding cloud of burning splinters. It's generally used as a threat, as opposed to actually being fired: if it were used, no pieces of the target would likely be recoverable, and Vimes likes to have something for the judicial system to process. It has, however, been used to demolish more reasonable targets, like buildings.
Subverted very forcefully by Vimes in Night Watch. Citizens are rioting and attacking Watch houses, the Watchmen at the Treacle Mine Road house are nervous, and Vimes tells them to put their swords away so as not to provoke the mob any further:
Colon: No swords? But what if a bloody great mob comes round the corner and I'm not armed?
Vimes: And what will you do with a sword against a bloody great mob? Any man who draws against my orders had better hope the mob gets to him before I do, because everything up until then will look like a bloody day at the sodding seaside, understand? Don't let my sugary-sweet tones lead you to believe I'm not damn well giving you orders!
Inverted in Terry Pratchett's Strata, in which Marco the kung equips himself with an improvised sword made of sharpened metal from the cargo. A member of a notoriously-paranoid alien race, he admits it's intended to take the fear out of him, not put it into others.
In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe it's explained that the Kill-O-Zap gun's designer had not been instructed to beat about the bush. He'd been told to make the gun evil. He had been told to make it totally clear that the gun has a right end and a wrong end. He had been told to make it totally clear to anyone standing at the wrong end that things were going badly for them. If that meant sticking all sort of spikes and prongs and blackened bits all over it then so be it. He had been told that the Kill-O-Zap gun was not a gun for hanging over the fireplace or sticking in the umbrella stand, it was a gun for going out and making people miserable with. Ford and Arthur found themselves unhappy about seeing the wrong end of said gun pointed at them.
In Shards of Honor, Aral Vorkosigan says that this is the reason he prefers nerve disruptors or plasma arcs to stunners—he's seen people carrying stunners get ganged up on and killed, but nobody would have tried that if there was a risk of getting killed (or worse; remember Ensign Dubauer). Roughly thirty-two years later, Aral's son Miles gets told that this was the rationale behind arming a party of ratings with plasma-arcs when sending them to retrieve members of a Barrayaran warship's complement who had failed to return from shore leave in a foreign port and turned out to have been detained by the local police for being drunk and disorderly, a charge that the Barrayarans disputed... rather forcefully, causing a major diplomatic incident. He says that he recognizes the argument, but points out that the problem is, what if you actually have to fire the stronger weapons?
Miles: "So, after we shot up the police station and set the habitat on fire, what did we do for an encore?"
Near the beginning of Snow Crash, the protagonist decides to rely on his swords, rather than the toy-looking (but deadly) pistol he's been issued by his employer, to defend himself from muggers — because he's much less likely to have to use the swords.
In The Caves of Steel, R. Daneel Olivaw carries a blaster that is utterly incapable of being fired, and uses it for precisely this purpose. Being a fully Three-Laws Compliant robot, he wouldn't have it any other way; if he had a weapon that could be used, it would be possible for him to harm or even kill a human being by accident, which he finds a disturbing idea. He also points out that being equipped with a dummy weapon is perfectly logical on other grounds: to fail to carry a weapon would reveal that he is not the human police officer he is masquerading as, and since humans from the Cities are extremely conditioned towards accepting orders from authority, it is inconceivable that his bluff could be called.
Played nearly straight in Tyrannosaur Canyon: after Broadbent burns his One Bullet Left he threatens Maddox with the empty gun while Maddox holds a gun against Sally. Maddox shoots him, but taking the gun off Sally gives her an opportunity to strike and claim his weapon.
Live Action TV
The Jaffa staff weapon in Stargate SG-1 is explicitly described as this: their primary purpose is to intimidate the low-tech slave populations and fight equally armed warriors of rival Goa'uld. In the hands of a trained Jaffa warrior, as Teal'c repeatedly demonstrates, staffs are lethal weapons both ranged and melee. Colonel O'Neill calls them out as weapons of terror and intimidation when demonstrating the efficiency of the team's P-90 to a group of rebel Jaffa.
O'Neill: This... (lifts a staff weapon) is a weapon of terror. It's made to... intimidate the enemy. (throws staff weapon away) This (lifts the P90) is a weapon of war. It is made to kill your enemy.
Like the atomic bomb in Real Life, the Kelownans developed the naquadriah bomb in an attempt to scare the other nations on their planet into avoiding war. O'Neill naturally points out that, just like on Earth, it only makes a good threat if you're willing to prove it works as advertised. When they finally did use it, all three nations went to the peace table real fast.
In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Resurrection", the Mirror Universe counterpart of Bareil Antos takes Kira hostage with a disruptor and forces her to climb from Ops to a runabout so he can escape. Once they reach there, Kira tells him that she knew all along his disruptor doesn't work because the power cell is cracked. When mirror!Bareil asks why she waited until now to say that, Kira smirks and says that she needed the exercise.
In an episode of Red Dwarf, the crew are creeping aboard a badly-damaged simulant ship, heavily armed with bazookoids, and feeling somewhat confident. Then Lister admits that the superstructure of the ship is so unstable that even a loud noise could cause a shipquake, so the bazookoids are for psychological use only. Cue Death Glare from the Cat.
Before it's over, one shot is fired while aboard the ship ( actually, by the bad guys in a Taking You with Me moment.) This results in the ship going kaboom not long after the Boys from the Dwarf get clear.
In the first episode of Sherlock, the culprit threatens the eponymous detective with a gun. Before long, Sherlock has reason to call his bluff. It's a novelty lighter.
On one episode of Frasier, Niles needs to get Maris a gun for protection. After not being able to procure one, he buys a starter's pistol since having any kind of gun would make her feel safe.
In Have Gun — Will Travel, Paladin will often use his gun as a deterrent, either simply pulling it out or shooting an object to scare his enemy into backing down.
In LOST, Danielle Russeau kept a rifle that had had its firing pin removed.
Used in Burn Notice when Sam is interrogating a medical fraudster. He takes out a big combat knife and starts playing with it, escalating up to cutting his own thumb open and then dripping blood on the poor bastard's head. As Michael's narration explains:
"There's a saying in interrogation: Violence perceived is violence achieved."
The Atlas is designed specifically to be "as powerful as possible, as impenetrable as possible, and as ugly and foreboding as conceivable, so that fear itself will be our ally". The machine isn't actually unbeatable in the game, being primarily a slow short-range fighter with somewhat limited ammunition stores; but it's still one of the heaviest 'Mechs ever built and a tough nut to crack, and you definitely don't want to be caught in front of it if it ever does manage to close the distance...and whenever one shows up on the field in the associated fiction, even other MechWarriors generally take notice, as it's armor and short-range damage potential are one of the highest possible with 3025-era technology. Its Dark Age successor, the Atlas III, can use the optional "Design Quirks" rules to have the "Distracting" trait which has negative morale effects on enemies due to its intimidating appearance.
The effect is given a shout-out in the long-defunct trading card game with the card "Intimidating Paint Job", which grants a 'Mech of 80 tons or heavier that's equipped with it the ability to reduce the attack value of every opposing unit it encounters in battle by 1.
Similarly, fluff-wise anyway, the Titans from Warhammer 40,000 were not only designed to be humungous, walking weapons platforms, their mere presence was often enough to rout entire opposing armies. The largest ones, the Imperator class, are so big that someone jokingly "fielded" one in a tabletop game by making a cardboard costume and standing on the table over the roughly 1" models and kicking them all over. That said, Imperators have enough firepower to level cities as collateral damage, and even the smaller Warhounds and their ilk will trash a decently sized force. The intimidation comes from knowing that the fourty-to-two-hundred-foot death machines are every bit as deadly as they look.
Subverted in 40K, though...it is, in fact, necessary to kill many enemies, such as Necrons in fluff.
GURPS Goblins actually provides game mechanics for this by giving every weapon a Menace attribute. A weapon's Menace is not necessarily tied to its effectiveness; a schoolmaster's cane may not be a very strong weapon, but it has a high Menace due to the painfulmemories seeing one can call up.
Kyle Katarn in Jedi Academy: "Remember, your lightsaber is an invaluable tool. Even when inactive, it can defuse a potentially hostile situation. Trust me on that." Of course, in the actual gameplay...
Liberal Crime Squad: You can try to intimidate or kidnap people, and it works better with a weapon. Even if you don't have the skill.
Sam in Sam & Max: Freelance Police: The Devil's Playhouse, when you try to use the gun on anything you are not supposed to, Sam states that "I don't need to shoot anybody, it's enough they know I have a gun."
I Am Alive has your gun be used in this way as you start with no bullets and what bullets you do find are few and far between.
World of Warcraft: The backstory of Pandaria mentions that when the Mogu ruled it and enslaved the Pandaren, their weapons were designed for fear rather than practicality. They fell from power when the Monks taught the Pandaren to overcome their fear, and their fast, dextrous combat outmatched the cumbersome attacks of the Mogu.
The above Mad Max example is parodied in Fallout 3, with a random encounter where a nervous, stuttering man named Mel attempts to mug you with a double-barreled shotgun. If your Perception is high enough, you can call his bluff by noting his shotgun is unloaded.
Final Fantasy X has the Threaten skill, in which the user intimidates the target with their weapon to freeze them.
In survival/FPS hybrids like Rust or DayZ, this can happen as emergent player behavior. Ammo is nastily scarce (and in DayZ, firing a gun attracts zombies to such an extent that one notable rifle is nicknamed the "Dinner Bell"), but guns are an enormous combat advantages over the nothing a starting character may have, so player killers often won't take the chance. Unless you let somebody see your gun when they can get the drop on you, that is... Then it's a giant "KILL ME AND LOOT MY BODY" sign.
In Atelier Annie: Alchemists of Sera Island, Kilbert's giant sword Fragarach is used as a special skill to scare away weak enemies. He never fully removes it for his sheath (he literally can't, because the sword is too large and heavy for him to use as a general-purpose weapon); all he needs to do is pull it out slightly to send enemies running.
In Planet Alcatraz, most weapons increase your "Attitude" stat, making it easier to threaten people to give you want you want. The bigger Machine guns give the most Attitude bonus.
The Vloz'ress Nether Summoners in Drowtales are specifically said to often use large weapons like scythes for the purpose of intimidation and visibility, especially since a major tactic of the Vloz'ress is to make themselves looks scary.
This was one of the purposes of swords for eighteenth and nineteenth century officers; it helped herd fugitives back into the battle line. As with skilled hands a sword can be as lethal or non-lethal as the bearer wishes it to be, that makes it useful.
If you go through a museum with an armory exhibit, you will likely find a selection of swords and knives that were clearly designed to terrify the person the owner is pointing them at.
Most US Policemen carry a gun as a matter of course but never use it in combat. However, if they are in a situation where they might need to intimidate someone, they are more likely to simply break out a taser or pepper spray, which are much more reliable than intimidation and reduce the chance of injury to both the officer and suspect.
Military "escalation of force" procedures for interacting with civilians typically specify that a unit carry their weapons unloaded and safed. Partially this makes it harder for someone to shoot a random person at the wrong time...but the other reason is that clatter of a entire squad chambering a round or turning off their safeties in unison serves as a useful intimidation tool.
Averted with extreme prejudice in the case of concealed weapons permit holders. No one's ever supposed to know you're packing until you need to actually use it on an assailant, and brandishing a weapon to threaten can get you in serious trouble, with or without a permit. One of the cardinal rules of gun safety, in fact, is never to point a firearm at anyone you do not intend to kill.
In most US jurisdictions, intentionally revealing that you have a gun (brandishing) is itself assault, regardless of 'intent to threaten'. You're only allowed to even pull back your coat to show you have the thing in response to someone else making a threat.
Played straight with open carry permit holders, much like the sword on your side example. Also, some states only require you to keep the magazine out of the gun when it is carried, or at very least not have a bullet chambered.
The atomic bomb counts. After Little Boy and Fat Man got used in World War II, no one dared to use them ever again in any conflict. Considering its world-ending potential, its only effective use is as a deterrent (both from conventional invasions as well as other countries with nukes). The weapon you only have to fire twice. (And that only because you fired it at an extremely desperate ImperialJapan, who had no idea what the weapon was at first, and weren't sure you could fire it twice). If both sides have enough nuclear weapons, their possession ultimately incurs this trope, either as Mutually Assured Destruction ("there is no way for you to destroy me without me destroying you back") or as qualifying for The Moscow Criterion ("I can inflict so much damage on you it's not worthwhile for you to annihilate me").
The Gatling gun was designed to reduce casualties by decreasing the size of armies and intimidating armies into preemptive surrender. The gun and its progeny certainly decreased the size of armies, but only until the enemy called up more recruits. As you might expect, Dr. Gatling's hopes were not realized.
Security experts often say that if you must have a gun in your house to feel secure from intruders, a pump-action shotgun is the way to go, with its loud and unmistakable "Shk-SHK!" sound of a shell being loaded. Plus, in the unfortunate event that an intruder calls your bluff, your typical 12-gauge's low muzzle velocity means that a shotgun is (somewhat) less likely to over-penetrate and harm innocent parties that you would still be legally liable for harming. The trope is actually invoked in some US states, where the sound of a pump-action shotgun being cocked legally qualifies as sufficient warning to leave the owner's property.
Because guns are banned in the UK with a few exceptions, gun crime is pretty darned low. What (gun) crimes there are are committed with either an air-gun (which is rarely lethal) or a gun with little-to-no ammunition. While guns are smuggled in, there just isn't enough ammunition to go around - any gun-user needs regular practice to be assured of accuracy with their weapon - as the usage thereof regularly outstrips the supply. All the same, most victims err on the side of caution when encountering armed criminals.
Due to the rather obstructive red tape involved in obtaining a gun license in South Africa, many homeowners opt for high-powered paintball guns loaded with hard plastic balls. These weapons have the distinct advantages of requiring no permits, usually being non-lethal (but still bloody painful), and sidestepping a good chunk of most legislation involving actual firearms.
In modern air combat, tagging someone with your radar is a very good way to get their attention, and to tell them that they're in a place where they aren't welcome. Aircraft designed for long-range aerial warfare such as the F-14 Tomcat, F-15 Eagle, F-22 Raptor, Mig-31 Foxhound and Su-27 Flanker are particularly good at this tactic as their long range radars and missiles will pretty much ensure that anyone not welcome will get the message loud and clear when the lock-on tone blares in their headsets. After all, absolutely no one wants to have a one-ton missile get rammed down their cockpits or tail pipes. Something all of the mentioned aircraft are VERY good at doing.