We’re you ever told you can’t hit the broadside of a barn? That is not a nice thing to hear. Barns are huge buildings and hard to miss. If you are a pitcher that can’t hit the broadside of a barn then you aren’t throwing strikes. Better consult with the pitching coach and practice some more. For hockey players that can’t hit the net it is said they cannot hit the broad side of the barn. The same thing is said for quarterbacks who can’t hit the open man or basketball players who can’t find the net.
The term though comes from the early 19th century. Weaponry had not yet been rifled meaning weapons from artillery to muskets were extremely inaccurate. As a new recruit it was likely that you would be inaccurate with your weapon, or your instructor would say you couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn. For those who were not used to firing a gun it took a great deal of practice to become proficient with it and for artillery it was even more involved. Military commanders of the time knew this and when they went into battle they used volley fire in a tightly packed mass of soldiers to try to maximize the amount of damage that is done figuring that if even a third of their men shot true they could do serious damage. Of course it worked the other way as well with horrific results sometimes.
There are other ways to say this like you can’t hit the ocean from a boat or you can’t hit your way out of a wet paper bag. Perhaps the most famous version ever uttered was by Union Major General John Sedgwick at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse in May 1864 when trying to reassure his men who were taking cover from Confederate sharpshooters he said that “they can’t hit an elephant at this distance.” He was then shot moments later in the left eye and died instantly.