Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Episode 239: Horshoes and Hand Grenades


This week Shauna and Dan look at the phrase, "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades", which is way more modern than Dan thought. Also, Shauna points out that Clydesdale horses bring their own Ugg boots to the party, while Dan notes that trebuchets are the superior siege engines. Bonus: Shippy Shippers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the color vision deficient crowd (mostly Dan). And did you know the United Kingdom once listed horseshoes as an "uncivilized game"?

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 239: Close Only Counts in Horseshoes and Hand Grenades
Record Date: June 9, 2024
Air Date: June 12, 2024


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Dan Pugh

And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
When I was in high school, I remember a classmate arguing their course grade with the teacher. He said, I think I should get a B in this class, my grade on the final exam was 69%. I was so close; it’s basically a C. The teacher replied, “You were close, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”


The phrase "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades” is used to indicate that the topic being discussed requires more precision or that getting close is not sufficient. The word almost could be interchanged with the word close in the phrase.

Most dictionaries haven’t officially added this phrase - or at least not to their online resources - but we’ve still got plenty of data to review.

We’ll be reviewing the terms that make up our phrase and then a precursor to the phrase before it transitions into its final form.


First, let’s look at the word horseshoes. According to Oxford English Dictionary, the term has been in use since around the late 1300s. Here is the definition,

A shoe for a horse, now usually formed of a narrow iron plate bent to the outline of the horse's hoof and nailed to the animal's foot.
End quote


It wasn’t until 1825 that it appears in print in reference to the game in John Trotter Brockett’s work, “A glossary of north country words, in use”.

The game of quoits.
End quote

It appears again in the 1846 version of the glossary,

The game of quoits is called ‘horse-shoes’ in the North because sometimes played with horse-shoes.
End quote


What is the game of quoits, you might ask?

According to Oxford English Dictionary, the term shows up in texts around the mid 1300s. Quoits means,

The sport or game of throwing rings of flattened iron, rope, rubber, etc.; (subsequently esp.) the game of throwing or aiming such rings at a peg placed in the ground or at another target.
End quote

Following this, the game spent part of the 1400s and 1500s being considered uncivilized or even unlawful in England along with other devious games like dice, tennis, and football. In the 1600s, it made its way back into accepted behavior as a popular game amongst country folk.


Here is a bit how the game of quoits came about and how it connects to our phrase in an article about the History of Horseshoe Pitching from the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association, governing body for the sport.

As early as the second century, before the Christian Era, iron plates or rings for shoes were nailed on horses' feet in Western Asia and Eastern Europe. In Greece and Rome athletic contests, games of different kinds generally formed some part of religious observances and festivals. One of the four Grecian national festivals was the Olympian Games. These Grecian Games consisted of boxing, putting the weight, chariot races, archery, and discus throwing. The discus was similar in form to the modern quoit but not in size and weight. Originally, it was a circular plate of metal or stone 10- or 12-inches in diameter. It was pitched or thrown with a strap or thong passed through a circular hole in the center, the strap being released by the player as he swung it so the discus would go the greatest possible distance. There is a tradition that the camp followers of the Grecian armies, who could not afford the discus, took discarded horseshoes, set up a stake and began throwing horseshoes at it. Horseshoe historians have not been able to discover when the game of quoits or horseshoes was changed so that it was pitched at two stakes, but it is pretty well established that horseshoe pitching had its origin in the game of quoits and that quoits is a modification of the old Grecian game of discus throwing.

In 1869, England set up rules to govern the game.
End quote

Interestingly for us Kansans… the first tournament for horseshoe pitching that was open for worldwide competition took place in 1910 in Bronson, Kansas. We’ll have a little more about this competition and cool trick-shooter of sorts in the bonus segment of our behind-the-scenes video which is available for free every Friday at

Hand Grenades

The term grenade in reference to explosive weapons shows up around the late 1500s with Hand Grenade quickly following in use starting around the early 1600s. At this point, the definition was as simple as it is now - a grenade that is thrown by hand.


It appeared in True Relation Famous Seige of Breda by Henry Hexham which was published in 1637.

Satterday night the 22. of August,..the Ennemy shott very much, and cast diuerse Handgranadoes into our Sapp among the Sappers.
End quote

It took a few centuries for the phrase to show up and a little longer than that for the two terms to come together to create the phrase “close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades”.

Prior to explosives being added to the mix, the phrase existed mostly in response to “it was close” or “so close” … that response being, “But close only counts in horseshoes.”


The earliest attestation I was able to find in print comes from a spring 1917 edition of the Loyola University Magazine out of Chicago, Illinois.

Year "C"
The third quarter is now upon us, and every member of Three "C" is striving with renewed efforts to attain some honor next quarter.
What's going to happen? John Shufeldt didn't take the class honors this time. But then there was "Little Joe" Wcislo, who went proudly up and was adorned with the much coveted ribbon. It must be said, though, John Shufeldt came mighty close. But "close" only counts in "horseshoes," and next quarter there are going to be some other "shoes" tossed mighty near that "stake."
End quote

The desire to chronicle the years spent at an educational institution was a popular then as it is today. Reading these items was not much different from reading a senior magazine or yearbook.


The next item comes from the August 03, 1920 edition of The Rock Island Argus and daily union, out of Rock Island, Illinois.

Jack Johnson came near getting out of the Geneva jail for a little while yesterday. But coming close only counts in horseshoes, and Jack was locked up again.

Hurried telephone calls were put in and Mr. Klein was stopped just as he was at the jail entrance with Johnson. "Just my luck," groaned Jack. "I gets out and I gets in again. Can't get away from this jailhouse no how. If it rains gin rickets I got lockjaw.
End quote


Up next, we look at the November 1930 edition of The Pullman News, out of Chicago, Illinois.

Jack" Mowat admits he is not so hot at bowling, but close counts in horseshoes and he challenges one and all.
End quote


On 27 March 1950, w, m, and Edward Sarché, were listed in the Catalog of Copyright Entries with the Library of Congress in the category of unpublished music for the title, “CLOSE ONLY COUNTS IN HORSESHOES”

The song may have remained unpublished, as I was unable to find a recording or sheet music for a song of that title during the 1950s or for the next couple of decades.


Next, we have the article, YOU…… Be The Judge from the United States Air Force publication Flying Safety from February 1960.

Lt. Col. James W. Bradford, Fighter Branch, DFMSR
ow long can you fly a T-Bird before your posterior begins to ache, you long for a cigarette or a cup of coffee, or your hard hat and mask begin to feel like a hot poker burning into your face and head? Many troops agree that 2 hours 15 minutes to 2 and a half hours is enough to fly that little monster without time out for a break-be it a cigarette, coffee, leg stretch or what have you.

Why some pilots on administrative and CRT flights continue to file unnecessarily for a 2:50 to 3:10 leg on a cross-country flight is a mystery. But what makes the whole situation so ridiculous is that some of the heads aren't making it to their destination at the expense of $125,000 to Uncle Sam, and considerable embarrassment to themselves to say nothing of depleting the rapidly diminishing inventory of T-33 aircraft. And all the heads who are goofing, aren't new heads! There are many old ones pulling the same stunt.

Within recent months, two such accidents have caused supervisors to want to throw in the towel. In both cases the pilots were well qualified and had scads of time in the bird. The only sore spot was that they didn't make it to their destination with enough JP-4 to get the "T" safely on the ground. We'll have to admit that they came close, but close only counts in horseshoes.
End quote


From the Congressional Record in a Hearing on the topic of Military Pay Increase from 1965, we find the following,

Retirement costs are a part of our national security. Unquestionably, it is a substantial sum of money. On the other hand, does it seem logical in this troubled world to let deferred retirement costs be an overriding factor in possibly depriving the Nation of the type of men and women we clearly need in our armed services?
I am sure we are all in agreement that, insofar as our national security is concerned, it must be second to none. I remember an old expression that went, "Close only counts in horseshoes." It is not going to do us any good to be close. We must make a ringer every time and this is exactly what I am talking about here. We are going to have in our armed services exactly the kind of people we are willing to pay for and, if the price is high, it is because our precious freedom is mightily worth it.
End quote


And now, we are finally ready to look at our full phrase. There were a few texts that popped up from around 1970 in my search for the terms horseshoes and hand grenades used together. They seemed to essentially describe that throwing a hand grenade was not dissimilar from pitching horseshoes. Unfortunately, I was unable to access the actual text for those couple of entries so we’ll have to leave that unconfirmed for now.

The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro was published in 2012. It offers a reference to the phrase found in 1970.

The book’s information states that the phrase "Close only counts in horse shoes and grenades." Was included in the Guthrian, out of Guthrie County Iowa, 26 January 1970.

But I do have an example from April of 1970. This is from an article called “The Neutral Corner” by Jerry Littrell and was published in the The Post, April 15, 1970. This references the North Peninsula League.

The Sharks were not counted on to win the NPL title. They have lived up to that expectation in weird style, however. Oceana has played six NPL games and has an 0-6 record. Not too glamorous, eh? Well, the Sharks have lost every game by one run. We know. Close counts in nothing but horseshoes and hand grenades. Still one has to feel a certain amount of pity for coach Harry Vaplon and the team.
End Quote


And now we get to the most-frequently credited origin and most-certainly, the person responsible for popularizing the phrase. For that, we go to the piece on ESPN Classic: More Info on Frank Robinson by Nick Acocella, Special to

In the list of interesting details about the famous player, coach, and manager under the section “Odds ’n’ Ends”, we find the following item,

Few people remember that it was Robinson who first said, "Close don't count in baseball. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades." The quote appeared in Time magazine (July 31, 1973).
End quote

Okay, we have several modern uses to cover and we’ll get to those, right after we say thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You
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Modern Uses


Horseshoes and Hand Grenades is a 2009 song by Green Day. Here are the lyrics from the chorus,

Maybe you're the runner-up
But the first one to lose the race
Almost only really counts in
Horseshoes and hand grenades
End quote


Hot Dogs, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades is a VR game. Here is the description,

Do you like hot dogs? How about horseshoes? Hand grenades? (everyone likes hand grenades) Anyway, we've got all that, and guns. SO MANY GUNS. So if you like ordnance, meat, and far too many groan-worthy puns, this is the VR sandbox game for you.
End quote

In the preview on Steam, one of the modes of play is a first-person shooter in which you are aiming - not at enemy combatant humans - but instead, you take aim at camo-wearing hot dogs.

I have to be honest, I still can’t decide how to feel about this one.


"Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades" was the topic of a discussion thread on English.StackExchange. The original poster asked about the meaning and origin. The conversation naturally drifted to include the extended version of the phrase. One commenter writes,

How odd that some would add nuclear bombs to this saying. Surely with nuclear bombs close doesn't count either, but the other way around: a nuclear explosion will do an awful lot of damage even from definitely-not-close-at-all!
End quote

Another participant in the thread replied to this comment,

Yes, you could make a strong case for "Pretty far away doesn't count except with nuclear bombs."
End quote
"Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades"

I agree with these two. I’m not sure that nuclear or atom bombs really fit with the other two items… It’s really a matter of scale here, I think.


Close Only Counts in Horseshoes, Hand Grenades…. and PRP?
In this 2022 article, Greyledge Technologies states “that the field has never defined clearly what makeup of cells, plasma and platelets define ‘PRP’.” - Platelet-Rich-Plasma. It goes on to say,

…many of the patients treated in this fashion do see improvement. For those that don’t have a positive outcome, was it that PRP didn’t work, or did they actually get a proper dose/concentration of PRP?
End quote

Greyledge hopes to work with physicians to create concrete, trackable data regarding these types of treatments with the intention of making them more effective.

The concept makes sense. The more precise a medical treatment is, the better we know the outcomes and the better future patients can be treated. Essentially, close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and perhaps it does not count in regenerative medicine.


The band Horseshoes and Hand Grenades plays a blend of what they call “new-time old-time” music. Here’s a little about the group from their official website,

After ten years, five albums, innumerable sold out shows, and countless libations, Americana mavericks Horseshoes & Hand Grenades appropriately consider themselves a “family” on a wild, wonderful, and often whacky roller coaster. The bond between the quintet— Adam Greuel [guitar, vocals], David C. Lynch [harmonica, accordion, vocals], Collin Mettelka [fiddle, vocals], Russell Pedersen [banjo, vocals], and Samual Odin [bass, vocals]— fuels their creativity and chemistry on stage and in the studio.
“Sometimes, it feels like we’re modern day cowboys on some kind of strange journey,” Adam affirms with a laugh. “We’re five friends who set out to do something we enjoy doing, meet interesting people, see old friends, and make some new buddies along the way. Because of that sense of friendship, everything seems to happen organically.”
End quote

I listened to a few of their songs and the group definitely vibes well together. They’re spot on with the description of “old-time new-time” music which you might be able to guess by the instruments listed. All of them are vocalists so they’re able to achieve some pretty tight and elaborate sounds.


I was attracted to our last modern item by the photo of a tattoo featuring Michaelangelo, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, eating a slice of pizza. Here is a little about the shop where the artist works,

Horseshoes and Hand Grenades Tattoo is Western Massachusetts' eminent tattoo studio. Our artists are all extremely passionate about their artwork. They put the quality of their tattooing long before their egos, and would prefer to make a great tattoo rather than nickel and dime their clients.
End quote
Cool TMNT Tattoo -

They also discuss their strong commitment to health and safety, as well as other aspects of the customer experience like finding the right design and placement.

Wrap up:
It was really cool to research a phrase that came about so recently. Though it brought its own challenges. I found myself thinking that sometimes this phrase represents the outcome of our hours of research on a phrase… I’ll try so hard to pin down the history of a phrase and find myself wishing that close was also sufficient for phrase origin. Though, I’ll also admit, I wouldn’t be satisfied with my own work by just saying, that’s close enough. So, I’ll keep fighting the fight on that one. And it remains true for many other areas of my life as well. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on Patreon,, or comment on our website,


It’s patron poll time!

Recently we asked our Patrons, what gaming systems do you have right now?

It looks like PC Master Race takes the win here, with Playstation and Xbox both getting equal love, though it looks like older versions of those, plus some other retros, are far more frequent than the Xbox Series X/S or PS4.

Jan said,
I've got an old gaming PC in major need of replacement, a PS3 so we can still play our DVD collection, and an Atari 2600 re-release with the built-in games. There's a Wii in a closet somewhere that had a red ring of death if I ever want a repair project to deal with someday.
End quote


Mary said
I bought a gaming laptop for my business because gamers have all the best equipment. I mean you can’t be in the middle of a dungeon and have your computer freeze up. I only play games for a couple of hours every week but I can definitely tell a difference since the upgrade.
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I’ve been a console gamer since I was born or maybe I was three… started with my parents’ consoles playing Pong and such. I was a pc gamer in the late 90s because I liked the story style of them. I went back to console games because that’s what my friends played. Recently, my kids have converted me almost entirely to PC which came mostly with the purchase of a badass gaming computer. It loads complex, heavy games in seconds and I can immerse myself in these beautiful worlds. My current favorite is Enshrouded.

I’m mostly a PC guy these days. I have an Xbox One, but haven’t done anything with Xbox since then. I've also got a working NES, N64, Xbox360, PS2 and PS3. Also, I have the pre-loaded mini-Super NES, which has Contra III, Street Fighter, and Super Mario World. My all time favorite has to be the N64. It was great to play 3D games and between Golden Eye, Starfox64, and Perfect Dark I just couldn't get enough of that system.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. And patrons of all levels, including our free tiers, can take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.

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