The term ‘Kentucky windage’ appeared in two of my favorite episodes of ‘The Twilight Zone,’ so I decided to figure out where it came from.
Two episodes of The Twilight Zone feature the phrase Kentucky windage and neither has to do with the state of Kentucky or a breeze.
The first instance was in 1961’s “The Odyssey of Flight 33.” It’s about an airliner that somehow passes through a strange barrier in the sky and ends up going back in time. The plane’s crew then tries to find its way back home.
At one point, as the pilot is discussing options with his crew and asks for the compass heading to Idlewild, the navigator says this:
Part of this is scientific, skipper. Part of it’s Kentucky windage. Try 262, that’s as close as i can get.
The phrase comes up again in 1962’s “To Serve Man,” which is about an alien race that visits Earth with a promise to end poverty, war and suffering and for nothing in return. As the government tries to determine whether it’s too good to be true, a coding expert says he believes the aliens are sincere.
A colonel who isn’t as quickly impressed asks this:
Am I to assume this is a scientific analysis, Mr. Chambers, or just some Kentucky windage?
You can surmise what the phrase means — at least as it’s being used — pretty easy. In context, it seems to imply a guess or estimation.
Since Rod Serling wrote both scripts, it’s easy to assume there was something about the phrase that he liked.
‘Kentucky windage’ originally involved a rifle
Specifically, Kentucky windage was related to using the Kentucky rifle, which was a distinctive type of flintlock rifle used on the American frontier from about 1700 to the 1850s.
Officially, windage refers to an adjustment made by a shooter to correct for either wind or the motion of the target. The shooter would try to compensate by sliding the rifle to one side or the other just enough to ensure a better hit.
I’ve seen references to “Tennessee windage” as well. I don’t know how many other states had their own version of the phrase, but I’ve seen sources report that the term linked to the Bluegrass State was well known in the 1960s, which is when the original run of The Twilight Zone aired.
That brings us back to those two Serling scripts, in which the phrase had nothing to do with guns and everything to do with making an educated guess to make sure they were on target.
The phrase doesn’t seem as common these days as it was then, but if you ever encounter it outside the context of the use of a rifle, you’ll now have a better idea of what’s actually being said.