The birth of pétanque

Games played with rolled or thrown balls date back to antiquity. We know that some form of ball game was played by the Egyptians, and then by the Greeks. The Romans learned it from the Greeks, and in turn taught it to the Gauls. In these games, the boule (bulla) was first made of stone. The Gauls, less skilled in stonework, made their boules out of boxwood (buxus), later known as bocco in the Provençal dialect, and bocce in Italian.

Various forms of boules were played in the middle ages, and as the Gauls evolved into the French, boules continued to be played during the French Revolution and on into the 19th century. (The British played lawn bowls; the Italians played Bocce.) Regional forms of the game evolved, including “La Rafle”, “la Boule Lyonnaise”, and others. Rules were published, federations created and competitions started. Boules Lyonnaise became a recognized sport in 1850 with the creation of the first official club “Le Clos Jouve”. The Fédération Lyonnaise was created in 1906. It later evolved into the National Bowls Federation (1933) and then the French Boules Federation (1942).


Pétanque — a new variant of a very old game

Petanque was invented in 1910 [1] in Provence, in the town of La Ciotat, a small port town and island located on the Riviera coast between Marseilles and Toulon.
Pictures of La Ciotat, at FlickRiver

At that time thousands of workers were employed in the local shipyard, and their favorite entertainment was to go to a boulodrome on Sunday. The popular boules game was le jeu provençal, also known le trois pas (three steps) because (for many throws) players took a three-step run-up before launching their balls. The game was also known as la longue because the terrain was long — up to 20 meters. The terrain had to be long because it had to include room — on both ends — for the long pre-launch run-up. In some versions of the game, the two ends of of the terrain are marked off by lines. A player could run up to the line, but had to launch the ball before stepping across the line.

There were several boulodromes in La Ciotat and they were always full. The largest boulodrome was the Béraud, located near the Sainte-Croix cemetery. Nearby was La Boule Etoilée, a café run by the Pitiot brothers, Ernest and Joseph.

According to Ernest Pitiot, every day the best players of the region would meet — and play for money — with the shopkeepers of the town. The games attracted onlookers, and for a while the Pitiot brothers made a little money by renting chairs for 5 centimes to spectators who would sit “ring side” at the boulodrome, relax, watch, and bet on the play.

But this caused problems. Sometimes a shot boule would go into the crowd of onlookers. Spectators who were seated couldn’t get up and out of the way quickly enough to avoid interfering with the boules. The players (who, remember, were playing for money, and took the games seriously) were unhappy. In the end, the Pitiot brothers decided to stop renting chairs.[2]

The couloir of players and spectators probably looked something like this when the Pitiot brothers were renting chairs to spectators. (Photo by Robert Doisneau from the book “Les Boules” by Paul Garcin)

One of the seated spectators was a local shopkeeper (commerçant) named Jules Hugues, known to history as Jules le Noir (or Lenoir), after his nickname “le Noir” (Blackie). At one time he had been one of the local players, but he had become so crippled by “rheumatism” (arthritis?) that he could no longer play. In fact, he could barely stand.[3]

Ernest Pitiot

Ernest Pitiot

In light of his disability, Lenoir was allowed to keep his chair, but with the stipulation that he must sit near the circle that players drew on the ground to mark the spot where they could set down their boules when they weren’t playing.

And from there, our Jules who could no longer participate in any game, used to amuse himself shooting at 1.5 or 2 meters with the boules left in the circle. “I’m practicing” he used to say to me.

Lenoir was both a good customer and friend of Ernest Pitiot. So it’s not surprizing that —

One day, certain of pleasing him, I offered to play with him, without moving, “feet planted” [pieds tanqués]…

It would have been natural, in that first-ever game of pieds tanqués, for Lenoir to throw from the chair where he was sitting, and for Ernest Pitiot to throw while standing next to him, in the circle.

We started again the next day, and the following days. The old players, who numbered quite a few, watched how we played, well enough that my brother [Joseph Pitiot] organized a competition for the following Saturday. There were 8 teams of 2 players with a first prize of 10 francs.

Interest in the new game spread surprisingly quickly. As it spread, other rules of le jeu provençal were tweaked or dropped, making the new game even more attractive.

  • The old jeu provençal requirement to “call the shot” (basically, to say in advance how you were going to throw the boule) was dropped. There was no longer any need to call the shot because all boules were thrown in the same way, while standing in the circle.
  • The practice of routinely marking the positions of boules (so that displaced boules could be re-spotted if the player had called the shot incorrectly) was also dropped.
  • Eliminating the need to call the shot and mark the balls greatly simplified the rules of the game.
  • Because players no longer had to throw while running, it was easier to be accurate. The game became less difficult.
  • With the running throw gone, the long run-up areas at the ends of the terrain could be eliminated, cutting in half the size of the terrain.

All of these changes made the new game not just different, but better — cheaper, less complicated, more accessible, more fun. Even its name became shorter and simpler. Jeu de boules pieds tanqués (game of boules with feet planted) quickly became simply pieds tanqués and then pétanque.

A new game was born.


Development of the all-metal boule

Two innovations created the game of petanque as we know it today — new rules, and a new kind of ball.

It is important to remember that in the early days, petanque, like its parent jeu provençal, was still played with the old nailed-wood balls, the boules cloutées. And in those early days, the production of boules cloutées was hampered by two things — a critical shortage of boxwood roots as raw material, and the First World War. The war ended and young men were able to return to their villages from the trenches. Many had suffered horrible wounds and lost arms and legs in the war. For them, perhaps, as for Jules Lenoir, petanque was a feasible game in the way that jeu provençal no longer was.

LaBouleIntegralThen, between 1923 and 1925, petanque received a technological shot in the arm. In Lyon, Paul Courtieu developed a manufacturing process for the first hollow, all-metal petanque ball, la Boule Intégrale. Ironically, he did it by employing some of the technology for making hollow metal bombs and artillery shells that had been developed during the war. Because he was concerned that rust might be a problem, he avoided iron and steel, and made the first all-metal ball from a special bronze-aluminum alloy that he developed himself.

At its annual convention in January 1925, the Union Nationale des Fédérations de Boules approved la Boule Intégrale for use in official competitions.

Between 1927 and 1929, the first steel ball (remember, la Boule Intégrale was made of a bronze-aluminum alloy, not steel) was manufactured at Saint-Bonnet le Château, a small village located west of St Etienne, in the department of the Loire, Rhône-Alpes region of France. Courtieu had cast the entire boule in a single operation. Jean Blanc and Louis Tarchier, manufacturers in the village, developed a process in which steel blanks were stamped into hemispheres, and the hemispheres were then welded together to create the boule. (This process is used today for all petanque boules.) In 1928 Jean Blanc created the boules-manufacturing company that bore his initials— JB Petanque.

In 1904 Félix Rofritsch, a native of Alsace, settled in Marseilles and began making boules cloutées for jeu provençal. The company was successful, and when the new all-metal boules were introduced, Rofritsch bought a foundry and began producing all-metal boules. Félix’s two sons, Fortuné and Marcel, joined the company, and in 1947 they created the first boule made of carbon tempered Swedish steel. According to legend, heat treatment and hardening during the manufacturing process gave the new alloy a slightly blue color, so the Rofritsch company was renamed to La Boule Bleue. The Rofritsch family still owns the company and still manufactures La Boule Bleue; they are the only boule manufacturers in Marseilles.


Creation of the FIPJP

With the development of the steel boule, petanque began a meteoric rise in popularity. By 1935 there were an estimated 135,000 players in France, mostly in the South with a few in the Paris region.

During the 1930s and early 1940s, petanque was governed by the successor organization to the Union Nationale des Fédérations de Boules, the Fédération Française de Boules (FFB). The FFB governed several different types of boules games, but was dominated by the large number of boule lyonnaise players. Over time, a considerable amount of friction developed between the “traditionalists” and the growing number of petanque players.

In 1943, a big tournament was being planned for Montpellier. Ernest Pitiot, at that point director of the casino de Palavas-les-Flots, proposed that the competition also include pétanque. The story goes that the tournament organizers laughed him out of the meeting, calling petanque “un jeu de petite fille” — a game for little girls. Furious, Pitiot left, announcing that he would form his own federation for pétanque players. In a few days, the Languedoc-Roussillon league that he organized had 50 licensed players (licenciés, members), and it quickly grew to more than a thousand. The popularity of petanque was becoming impossible to ignore.

On January 16, 1945, representatives of boules committees from Basse-Alpes, Bouches du Rhône, Gard, Var and Vaucluse gathered in the O’Central bar in Marseille and founded the Fédération Française Bouliste du « Jeu Provençal et Pétanque », the FFBJPP. By the end of 1945 the FFBJPP had about 10,000 members.

The FFBJPP held its first championship tournament 1946, only a year after the end of the war. Before the competition began, the players marched to downtown Montpellier to lay a wreath at the war memorial. Martine Pilate, in researching her book about the brothers Pitiot, came to the conclusion that Montpellier, not La Ciotat, should really be considered the birthplace of petanque.

Ce qui m’a plus surprise fut de découvrir que, même si La Ciotat est le berceau de la pétanque, si Marseille revendique la pétanque, c’est en fait à Montpellier qu’elle fut officialisée pour la première fois.

What surprised me the most was the discovery that, even if La Ciotat is the birthplace of petanque, and Marseille lays claim to petanque, it was in fact in Montpellier that petanque was officially organized for the first time.

The popularity of petanque continued to spread, both within France and into other countries. A few years later petanque had clearly overtaken jeu provençal in popularity and the FFBJPP was renamed the Fédération Française de Pétanque et de Jeu Provençal, the FFPJP. For the first time, petanque got “first billing” in a federation name.

In late 1957, the Belgian Pétanque Federation organized an international tournament at Spa. At the tournament, players from six countries — Belgium, France, Monaco, Morocco, Switzerland and Tunisia — met and decided to create an international petanque federation. The six countries were later joined by a seventh, Spain, and on March 8th, 1958 in Marseille, the Fédération Internationale de Pétanque et Jeu Provençal, the FIPJP, was born. In the rules published by the new Federation in 1959, the old boules cloutées are finally forbidden and laid to rest.

In the the technological Stone Age before the World Wide Web, coordinating a multi-national committee was difficult, and the FIPJP struggled. Between 1959 and 1966, it managed to organize six world championship tournaments (Spa, Cannes, Casablanca, Geneva, Madrid, Palma de Majorca), but there were managerial problems. The first president resigned in 1961. The French Federation was having its own problems and withdrew from the FIPJP in 1964. No world championship was organized for 1967, and at the end of 1967 the second president resigned. By 1968, the picture was bleak. The International Federation was comatose if not dead, and the French Federation was sickly.

Fortunately, the French were able to rally themselves. In 1969 the FFPJP elected a vigorous new leadership committee. The new president, Mr. Paul, contacted the other national federations with a view to breathing new life into the FIPJP. There was a meeting in Marseille in 1970. In 1971 a world championship — organized by Henri Bernard, the young new General Secretary of the FFPJP — was held in Nice. At the FIPJP meeting in Nice, Paul and Bernard (respectively, the president and the General Secretary of the French Federation) were elected as, respectively, the president and the General Secretary of the International Federation. In 1977 Paul stepped down from the presidency of both the FFPJP and the FIPJP, and Henri Bernard was elected as the President of the FIPJP, a post he occupied for over 30 years. And there have been FIPJP world championships every year since 1971, without interruption.


The rise of Obut

In 1955, Obut, a new boules manufacturer, was established in the same small town, Saint-Bonnet-le Chateau, where JB Petanque was located. Frédéric Bayet, a lock manufacturer in St-Bonnet le Château, created the “OBUT” trademark. New fully automatic production machines were designed by Antoine Depuy, a talented mechanic.

In 1958 Bayet called upon the Souvignet family to help expand the production, and in 1981, Robert Souvignet became Chairman and Managing Director of Obut. Today his son Pierre directs the company.

Due largely to the efficiency of its automated manufacturing techniques, OBUT quickly grew to be the largest manufacturer of competition petanque boules. In the process, it drove out of business (or bought and discontinued) many smaller and older manufacturers, including JB Petanque and Elté, the two oldest manufacturers of steel boules. In 2013, after several decades of economic decline, La Boule Intégrale, the third of the three companies that pioneered the development of all-metal boules, finally closed its doors.

Today Obut has about an 80% market share for competition petanque boules. It employs about 130 workers, and manufactures over four million petanque boules a year. Its only serious competitors are Chinese manufacturers, which dominate the world market for inexpensive leisure boules, and Thai manufacturers (like La Franc) which make less-expensive competition-quality boules.


Recent developments

Since the very beginning, the FIPJP world championships had been bi-annual affairs (in even-numbered years) of men’s triples.

  • In 1987, the FIPJP began holding bi-annual world championships for women (femmes), and for junior players (enfants).
  • In 2015, the FIPJP began holding a men’s singles world championship.

In July 2007, La Ciotat held a celebration on the (supposed) centennial of the invention of petanque. The older gentleman in the gray vest and white hair is Jules le Noir.

In 2008, the world pétanque tournament, La Marseillaise, attracted 4,300 teams, almost 13,000 competitors and over 200,000 spectators from all over the world.

As of 2012, the FIPJP has 47 national federations as members and there are more than 600,000 licensed players world-wide. About half of them are located in France.

Meeting of FIPJP Executive Committee - Rome, Italy - 13 April 2013

Meeting of FIPJP Executive Committee – Rome, Italy – 13 April 2013



[1] It is sometimes said that petanque was invented in 1907, but that story seems apocryphal. All of the available evidence points to 1910. See our post on Ernest Pitiot and the birth of petanque.

[2] According to The Guardian, “This could cause problems, because people sitting near the jack were not above giving a boule a sly nudge with their feet every now and then, to push it closer or further away – whatever served a friend’s cause.” This doesn’t seem very plausible, despite the fact that The Guardian attributes the story to Martine Pilate.

[3] In more florid versions of the legend, Lenoir is a past champion and outstanding player of le jeu provençal, now tragically paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair.


Martine Pilate, the granddaughter of Joseph Pitiot and the grand-niece of Ernest, has written a historical novel about the creation of petanque — it is called La Véritable Histoire de la Pétanque, la légende des frères Pitiot (2005). You can read an interesting interview with her HERE.


If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy some of our other history posts.

A dangerous game

Today we the explore the darker side of petanque, the dangerous side, the side of injury and death. It will be a short exploration. As human activities go, petanque is pretty safe. Accidents are rare. You’re in more danger crossing the street than you are on a petanque terrain. But, as in any area of life, if you look long enough and hard enough, you will find something. So let’s see what we can dig up.

Injury by flying jack

Being hit by a flying jack (un coup de but) is perhaps the oldest recorded type of petanque injury, dating back to the 19th century.

The danger escalated, however, in the early 21st century. About 2008, the FIPJP approved the use of plastic-resin (as well as wood) jacks. Shortly thereafter, the FPUSA modified its version of the rules to prohibit the use of such jacks.

Anyone who has been hit by a jack whizzing across the terrain after being struck by a shot boule knows how much it can hurt and there is anecdotal evidence that injuries to players are more severe and more painful from these plastic jacks than from the wooden ones.

The FPUSA ban follows the lead of a couple of European federations that banned the jacks after noticing player reactions from being hit by the heavier plastic jacks. There is some suspicion that the plastic compresses upon impact from the steel boule and then is projected into the air with even more force than the wooden jack.

Eventually the FIPJP added a rule about the weight of jacks; now they must weigh between 10 and 18g. This rule effectively banned resin jacks because they are too heavy (22g) to meet the weight limit.

Tripping on a plastic throwing circle

This actually happens occasionally. Embarrassing. Rarely injurious. Never fatal.

Tripping on a string between marked terrains

A number of organizations and event organizers do not allow open-toe or backless sandals or shoes. This is not to protect players’ feet from dropped boules. The element of danger doesn’t lie in the boules; it lies in the strings between the lanes and around the edges of a marked terrain. With an open-toed or backless sandal or shoe, it is easy to catch a string between foot and shoe, and trip and fall.

Injury by dropped ball

This actually happens occasionally.

Injury by a boule leaving the playing area

coup_a_la_tete coup_a_la_jambe

This is a recognized danger, although it seems to be much more common in bocce than in petanque. It is why bocce courts have those big, high backboards.

Death by thrown ball

coup_a_la_tete_fatalityDuring the more than century-old history of the sport, there has been only one reported fatality.

It happened in the town of Adé, near Lourdes (Hautes-Pyrenees) in the southwest of France, on the evening of Friday, August 8, 2009. Shortly before midnight, a man named Franck Hourcade, age 39, was taking part in a game of petanque at the local rugby stadium. As he approached the jack to verify a point, he was accidentally hit in the head by a ball thrown by one of his teammates.

Local firefighters administered first aid without success. He never regained consciousness. He was rushed to the hospital in Lourdes where he died shortly after admission in the early morning hours of Saturday August 9.

For more information, google Franck Hourcade meurt frappé par une boule de pétanque or read the story in the Daily Mail.

Death by exploding boule

Some cheap leisure boules have been known to explode, and there have been at least two incidents in which a boule was heated, exploded, and killed someone.

Petanque hooligans

On a more sobering note, on August 30, 2007, the Wall Street Journal ran a very interesting story about Bruno Le Boursicaud. It contained the following unsettling passages.

The number of licensed pétanque players in France has dwindled as clubs have a hard time recruiting young people to a sport associated in this country with old men and pastis… Recent violence during matches hasn’t helped the sport’s image, either. A pétanque club in Burgundy halted matches recently after players who had been drinking started throwing their metal balls weighing between 1.5 and 1.7 pounds — at each other. Three years ago, the mayor of Montpellier canceled a tournament when fans of rival teams flashed knives.

The French Pétanque Federation is also trying to improve the image of the game, by increasing penalties for violent behavior on the pitch. Punching a referee, for example, will now get a player banned for 10 years from club matches in France.

comedie_de_la_petanqueThe story of the tournament in Montpellier is a sad one. The tournament, known as la Comédie de la Pétanque International because it was held near the Place de la Comédie, had been an annual July event in Montpellier since 1986 and offered one of the richest petanque prizes in France. Over a period of several years, however, there had been an increasing number of incidents (allegedly by gypsies) of threats and intimidation. The mayor of the city cancelled the tournament in 2004, and it never resumed.

For the past two years, players at Montpellier’s annual tournament, the Comédie de la Pétanque, have had to be protected by security guards with dogs. … “Each year it has been getting worse,” said Jean-Louis Salager, the president of the tournament, an international pétanque judge and senior policeman. “We’ve had problems with spectators threatening players, threatening to hurt them if they win.”

The worst offenders, he says, are travelling Roma gipsies who move around the south of France. The Montpellier tournament involves 700 players each July and is one of the richest in France, with a cash prize of £5,200 for the winning team. What has happened in recent years is that a Roma team enters the contest and then has its supporters bully its rivals. As some of France’s greatest players have prepared to throw, they have seen knives flashing in the crowd and heard menacing hisses. The best teams have refused invitations to this year’s tournament.

“We’ve tried everything to stop it,” said M Salager. “But we thought it was better not to have it than have it ringed by riot police. The players say there is so much pressure now, it is impossible to play a normal game.”

La Boule Intégrale and the rise of petanque

In January 2011, a momentous event occurred, completely unnoticed in the American press. The assets of La Boule Intégrale, perhaps the most important manufacturer of boules in the history of petanque, were sold at a public auction.

The origin of boules — a game involving the rolling of stone balls — is lost in antiquity. The ancient Egyptians played it. The Greeks played it — maybe they learned it from the Egyptians, The Greeks introduced it to the Romans. The Romans introduced the game to the Gauls, who began to play it with balls made of wood, eventually out of a very specific type of wood — boxwood root.

Gaul gradually became France. Boules was played there during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment. It was played during the Revolution, and into the 1800s.

To make a ball, it was necessary to find very old — centuries old — boxwood trees in the mountains, dig their roots from the ground, shape the roots into wooden blanks, and dry them slowly so that they didn’t crack. After that, the blanks were formed into wooden spheres by a skillful wood turner. With the development of mass-produced nails in the 1800’s the wooden balls began to be covered with metal nails, creating the boule cloutée, the nailed-wood ball.

Boules was popular in France, and the number of boules players grew through the 1800s, until — in the early 1920s — the sport of boules faced a catastrophic shortage of boxwood roots.

Around 1920, a young man named Paul Courtieu, along with a friend and co-worker Vincent Mille (a champion player of buoules lyonnaise), hit on the idea of manufacturing a ball made entirely of metal.

Courtieu lived in Lyon, and worked during the day at the Berliet Vénissieux factory as head of the mills — the company made handcuffs. He spent his nights in his workshop, trying to find the metal alloy best suited to the manufacture of boules. His work was inspired by the technology used to create spherical explosives during the Great War.

The two engineers rejected steel as too hard and too rust-prone. They began work on a rust-resistant alloy based on aluminum (which had been discovered thirty years earlier) and bronze. Their early attempts failed — the aluminum-bronze alloy was too soft, and too fragile to withstand the shock of a direct hit by another ball. But they kept at it. It took them two years, but they eventually succeeded in developing a suitable “bronze” alloy of copper, aluminum, and other metals. (The exact composition of the alloy is still a trade secret.)

In 1923 they filed a patent for a metal-alloy ball made of two welded-together metal hemispheres. The next year, in 1924, they filed a patent for a ball that was cast in one piece — “La Boule Intégrale” (the Integral Ball, often referred to simply as “the Intégrale”).

Casting La Boule Integral in a mold. The brownish sphere in the center of the mold is used to form the hollow interior of the boule.

Casting La Boule Integral in a mold. The brownish sphere in the center of the mold is used to form the hollow interior of the boule.

Casting a hollow boule leaves a hole in the boule, which is closed with a metal screw-in plug. You can see a plug at the lower left. It looks like a small brown circle on the boule.

Their new company was named “La Boule Intégrale”. At first, out of economic necessity, all machinery and equipment were designed and produced by Courtieu, who created them in the company’s first workshop (atelier) in a former coach house in Lyon.

The new all-metal balls were a serious threat to the established manufacturers of nailed-wood balls. For one thing, all-metal balls could be mass produced more quickly. A skilled nailer could not make more than 4 or 5 sets of 2 boules cloutées per day. For another thing, it had always been difficult to manufacture a well-balanced nailed-wood ball, while balance was a minor issue in the manufacture of an all-metal ball. In addition, with metal balls it became possible for each player to choose the weight of his balls regardless of the diameter of the ball. And there were concerns that the new metal balls would damage the nailed-wood balls already in use.

Naturally, the wooden ball manufacturers resisted the new metal balls. But Courtieu had Auguste Bataille in his corner. Bataille was the son of the former Deputy Mayor of Lyon and apparently a persuasive man. Bataille used his influence and all of his persuasive powers, and he succeeded. It took him two years, but Bataille did it.

A study by the boules federations determined that Integral Balls were about the same hardness as nailed-wood balls, so using the two together would not be problem. So at its annual convention in January 1925, the Union Nationale des Fédérations de Boules (the ancestor of the Fédération Française de Boules) approved the Boule Intégrale for use in all official competitions.

In hindsight, Courtieu saw this as a watershed moment in the history of petanque. With the introduction of the all-metal ball, petanque experienced an explosive growth in popularity.

Les différents comités de pétanque furent heureux de voir que grâce à la Boule Intégrale un engouement extraordinaire s’établit et qu’en peu de temps une multitude de nouveaux pétanqueurs se révélèrent. Un grand nombre de sociétés se fondèrent. La progression rapide de ce jeu parti de la Provence, de Marseille en particulier, gagna rapidement la France entière.

The different petanque federations were happy to see that, thanks to the Integral Ball, an extraordinary enthusiasm for petanque took root, and that in very little time a multitude of new petanque players (pétanqueurs) appeared. Many new companies were formed. The game quickly spread out from Provence and Marseille until it had conquered all of France.

Almost immediately Courtieu had competitors. Jean Blanc and Louis Tarchier developed a process in which steel blanks were stamped into hemispheres and then welded together to form boules. That process eventually became the industry standard. The possibility of rust, which Courtieu and Mille had worked so hard to avoid, never turned out to be a serious issue with the steel boules.

In 1926 the company shareholders were listed as “Mille, Courtieu et Bataille”. In 1930 the shareholders were listed as “Courtieu, Bataille et Delaigue”. The other shareholders eventually left the company, leaving Courtieu the sole shareholder.

In time Courtieu’s son Etienne Bertholet assumed control of the company. Bertholet diversified the company by starting production of steel balls, which could be manufactured much more cheaply than bronze balls. The manufacture of steel balls was subcontracted out in 1960, but Boule Intégrale continued to manufacture bronze balls. Eventually, the AS de Carreau (Ace of Diamonds), or AC, was the only bronze boule on the market. It was a very soft boule, particularly suitable for hard terrains and for pointers who lob.

In 1969 Courtieu celebrated his golden wedding anniversary with Madame Courtieu, who had been his faithful collaborator in the management of the company from the beginning. He died on February 2, 1972.

Under Courtieu’s son Etienne Bertholet, the company continued to produce and innovate. It remained a family business until 1981, when it was sold to Florence et Peillon.

It was probably at that point that the company began to go down hill. Toward the end of its life it was making more money manufacturing bocce balls than petanque balls, which generated only a small part of its revenue. Its boules had always been known for their very high quality, but they were also rather expensive — this may have contributed to the decline in sales. In 2003 the company was transferred to a group of investors. Early in 2007 it ran out of money and was put into receivership. In January 2011, its assets were liquidated at a public auction.

The company had one last spasm of life before it died permanently (see this TV news report from Lyon — La Boule Intégrale est sauvée!). Two brothers, Patrick and Dominique Dauvergne, la fonderie Davergne, bought the brand name and stock for 50,000 euros. The company was back in business again with a new Integral web site. The resurrection was only temporary, however. In September 2013 La Fonderie Davergne stopped producing petanque boules for good, and the Intégrale name was laid to rest (mise en sommeil).

The bronze boule is not completely dead. The ETR and ETR Or are still being manufactured in Turin, Italy by a company called Unibloc.boule_unibloc_etr

And you can still purchase the Futura Bronze from Petanque America and other vendors.boules_FUTURA_Bronze

The photos and information in this post came from this French web page. The rather free translation is mine.

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy some of our other history posts.

Boules cloutées — nailed balls

Petanque hasn’t always been played with the all-metal ball that we’re familiar with today. In fact, such balls were introduced only around 1925. Before then, boules were always made of wood.

Sometimes the wooden boules were reinforced with nails. In French, a clou is a nail, so boules cloutées are “nailed balls”.

This is the first generation of boules cloutées. Note that the nails don’t cover the surface, but merely reinforce the boules. Click on the image, and then click again, to expand it.

Making boules required the wood of the boxwood root, which could be found in the hills of Provençe. There, the sun, heat, and harsh conditions produced stunted boxwood plants, more bush than tree, with very hard roots. The town of Aiguines became famous for its boules d’Aiguines manufactured from boxwood roots from the surrounding hills.

The turners would go out to look for boxwood bushes of the right size. When they found one, they would first remove the branches with a pocket knife, and then dig out the roots with a pick (la pitche). The root would be cleaned on the spot in order to reduce the load, and was then carried back to the village. There it was allowed to dry slowly for three years to make sure that that it wouldn’t crack.

When it was ready, the wood turners blocked out the shape with a saw, then the rough boule was turned on the lathe to give it the proper spherical shape. At that point it was turned over to the nailers.

The nailing (ferrage, from the French word for iron, fer) was done by women. The work required a hammer, a heavy stump of wood to serve as a workbench, and a rond de cepoun — a metal ring which was placed on the stump to hold the boule in position for nailing. A skilled worker could make at most eight or ten boules in a day.


Berthe Rouvier making a nailed boule.

Starting about 1850, cheap, plentiful machine-made nails gradually replaced the old hand-forged nails. As nails became cheaper, it became economically feasible for manufacturers to produce more boules cloutées, and to cover them with more and more nails. Eventually the boule cloutée became, in effect, a wooden core supporting a metal shell of nail-heads.

Nails of different metals and colors (steel, brass and copper) were used to create a wide variety of designs and patterns. Some of these old boules cloutées are genuine works of art and valued collectors items.

The number of boules players in France grew throughout the mid- and late-1800s and right up to World War I. But the growth couldn’t go on forever. The supply of boxwood roots was not unlimited. By the early 1920s the sport of petanque was facing a catastrophic shortage of boxwood roots.

Around 1920, a young man living in Lyon named Paul Courtieu, along with his friend Vincent Mille, hit on the idea of creating a ball made entirely of metal. After several years of development work, they were able to manufacture an all-metal boule of a copper-aluminum (“bronze”) alloy — the Boule Intégrale.

The all-metal ball had a number of advantages over the boule cloutée. For one thing, balance was an issue that could be dealt with effectively, whereas it had always been difficult to manufacture a well-balanced nailed-wood ball. In addition, metal balls allowed a player to choose the weight of his balls independently of their diameter.

In in 1925, La Boule Intégrale was approved for use in official competitions. Two years later Jean Blanc and Louis Tarchier began manufacturing the first steel boules. By 1935, all-metal balls were required in competition play. The days of the boules cloutées rapidly drew to a close.

The last boule cloutée was probably manufactured some time in the 1940s. Nailed balls continued to be permitted in competitions until 1959, when the newly renamed Fédération Française de Pétanque et de Jeu Provençal issued rules that required players to use metal boules.

RESOURCES AND MORE INFORMATION — a wonderful page with lots of information

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy some of our other history posts.

Terminology – court, terrain, boulodrome

Americans often use the expression “petanque court”, but technically this is wrong. The proper term is a petanque terrain or (depending on the context) a boulodrome.

Some petanque players actively dislike the expression “petanque court” because they feel that the word “court” implies that— just as you need a tennis court to play tennis, and you need a basketball court to play basketballt— you need a special kind of facility to play petanque. But that isn’t true. As the Petanque America web site says

Actually the word “court” is a misnomer. We use it here because many people search for that term. Petanque is by nature a game one can play without a setup, sort of like frisbee.

Certainly you don’t need fancy or expensive facilities to play petanque. As Byron Putman says, petanque is quite different from golf—

There are no lush fairways, sparkling blue waters or veranda bars with bistro tables and lazily swirling ceiling fans. … I regularly play on public walking paths, gravel parking lots and even empty fields — that’s why we call it a “terrain” and not a court, to signify the lack of grooming. Petanque terrains don’t require water, fertilizer, pesticides or maintenance.

On the other hand, although you don’t NEED elaborate facilities to enjoy petanque, there are indeed sports facilities designed and constructed specifically for the playing of petanque. Most of them are in France. They are called “boulodromes”.

Terrain and boulodrome ▲

The word “terrain”, when used in connection with petanque, means simply “the area where you’re playing a game of petanque”. It doesn’t imply any sort of permanent facility. In my home town, we simply walk down to the local park and find a flat, open spot to play. While we are playing, that spot in the park is our terrain.

The word “boulodrome” goes back to the ancient Greeks. “Hippos” was the Greek word for “horse” and a “hippodrome” was a facility for horse races, a race track. Similarly, a “boulodrome” is a facility designed, constructed, and used for playing boules. Just as a tennis facility may provide one or more tennis courts, a petanque boulodrome may provide one or more “lanes”. Like a tennis facility, a boulodrome might be outdoors, covered, or completely enclosed. An outdoor boulodrome is a boulodrome exterieur. A covered or enclosed boulodrome is a boulodrome couvert.

Outdoor boulodrome, Le Lavandou, Var, France

Outdoor boulodrome, Le Lavandou, Var, France

Covered and partially enclosed boulodrome in Livinhac-le-haut, Aveyron, France

Covered and partially enclosed boulodrome in Livinhac-le-haut, Aveyron, France.

A very new and modern completely enclosed boulodrome in Bas-Bugey, France.  With such a facility it is possible to play at night, and year-round.

A very new and modern completely enclosed boulodrome in Bas-Bugey, France. With such a facility it is possible to play at night, and year-round. CLICK to view larger image.

Also— petanque is not bocce ▲

When a petanque player rejects the expression “petanque court”, he may also be pointing out that you don’t need a court to play petanque… the way you do with bocce.

In the United States there are many more bocce players than petanque players. The Italians simply got to America sooner, and in greater numbers, than the French did. So when it comes to public funding, bocce gets all the visibility and all the money. To American petanque players, this seems both unfair and stupid.

I’ve just read The Joy of Bocce, where the author advocates the construction of bocce courts in schools across the United States. That’s the typical “bait-and-switch” tactic of bocce promoters. They hide the fact that bocce requires extremely expensive, high-maintenance courts. I have seen public bocce courts in California and Oregon that cost thousands of dollars to install, and after months of lack of maintenance have become completely unplayable.

Petanque is played on hard dirt with a little crushed rock (D.G., decomposed granite). Many public parks have open areas or paths with exactly this kind of surface. These areas are essentially maintenance-free. They are perfect for petanque, and they are also available for general public use. Why spend huge amounts of money to build dedicated bocce courts that require expensive ongoing maintenance, when for pennies on the dollar school and city officials can create multi-use, virtually maintenance-free dirt and D.G. terrains?

Petanque on public walking paths in Centennial Garden, Denver, Colorado, USA

Petanque on public walking paths in Centennial Gardens, Denver, Colorado, USA

Boulodromes  ▲

Some boulodromes, especially in France (where they spend a lot of money on boulodromes) are truly beautiful. To see some pictures of nice terrains and boulodromes, see THIS POST.

What is a boule made of?

Today, virtually all petanque balls are made from some kind of steel.

Steel (in French, acier) is a carbon-iron alloy.  The ratio of carbon to steel in the alloy has a significant (and rather complex) influence on the properties of steel. Different kinds of steel may also contain other metals, such as nickle and chromium.

Twenty different steels are used by different manufacturers of boules. In addition to the composition of the steel, different heat treatments (tempering) can give each kind of steel its own properties — corrosion resistance, stress resistance (modulus of elasticity, yield strength, mechanical strength), hardness, and impact strength (resilience).

The two major types of steel used in boules are carbon steel and stainless steel.

Note that a boule’s hardness is determined by the way that it is heat-treated (tempered), NOT by the material that it is made of. You can make a hard or a soft boule from both carbon steel and stainless steel.

Carbon Steel (acier au carbone)

Carbon steel boules provides excellent grip in the hand and on the ground.  Carbon steel, unlike stainless steel, can rust, but this is not a serious issue. Regular play will scour away rust. If you are putting them away for a while, a light coating of talcum power, oil, or WD-40 will keep them from rusting while in storage.

Stainless Steel (acier inoxydable, or simply inox)

Stainless steel is an alloy containing (in addition to iron and carbon) nickel and chromium. Stainless steel gives a smooth, satin feeling that generally facilitates the release of the ball. Stainless steel balls require no special maintenance, and a simple cleaning with soap and water is enough to restore the balls’ shine.   Stainless steel boules are more expensive than carbon steel boules. OBUT uses the star symbol ★ to designate an inox boule.

Bronze and aluminum

The first all-metal boules were made in about 1925, by Le Boule Integral. They were cast in a single piece from a rather soft alloy of bronze and aluminum.  Integral no longer exists, but there are a couple of companies that still make the original bronze/aluminum boules. Since they are not made of an iron-based alloy they will not rust and they cannot be picked up by a magnetic boule-lifter. These boules have a bright gold/brass color. They are real shooter’s boules, they look great, and they are expensive.

At one time Integral also made leisure boules with a dull grey finish that looked more like aluminum than brass. Every now and then an old pair turns up on eBay. You can tell that they are Integral boules because they, too, are non-magnetic.

How is a boule made?

There are two main ways to make a metal boule.  The first is to mold the the entire ball as a single, complete spherical object. That is how the old Integral boules were made.

The other method is the one that is used by every modern boule manufacturer. Steel rods are cut into blobs of steel, and the blobs are mashed down into round disks. The disks are stamped into the shape of hollow hemispheres (coquilles, shells). Then the hemispheres are welded together to create a hollow sphere. The sphere is then machined on a lathe to give it a nice smooth surface, and grooves. Then information about the manufacturer’s model number, the weight, etc. are stamped or cut into the boule’s surface. At some point the boules are tempered — reheated and slowly cooled again to give them the desired hardness. (Youtube video of boules being made)

What material should I choose when buying a competition boule?

When it comes to material, there are two basic choices: carbon steel and stainless steel (inox), although within those two broad categories there are many slightly different types of alloy. The old “bronze” (copper-aluminum alloy) Boule Integral is still available, but it is a good choice only for very advanced shooters.

Carbon steel balls may come in a variety of surface colors — chrome, red, blue, black, La Boule Bleue, La Boule Noire — but those colors are just a thin layer of paint to keep the boule from rusting while it sits on the self. The paint will quickly wear off during use (an afternoon of play is often enough to do the job) leaving a surface of bare metal. Depending on the precise type and hardness (determined by the tempering) of the steel, the exposed surface may vary from a rough matte black to a surprisingly smooth and shiny silver.

Some players feel that stainless steel gives a smooth, satiny feeling in the hand that facilitates the release of the ball, while carbon steel provides more “grab” in the hand and on the ground. If this is true, then a pointer may prefer a carbon ball, while a shooter may prefer a stainless steel ball.

That “grab” or roughness is a consequence of the fact that carbon steel boules (unlike stainless steel boules) will rust. In the presence of heat and humidity, microscopic areas of rust (iron oxide) form on the surface of the boule and then flake off, leaving the microscopically rough and pitted surface that gives a carbon steel ball its “grab”.

Rust is not an issue if you play with your boules regularly. If you are putting them away for some time in storage, packing them in rice, or dusting them with baby power or talcum powder, or wiping them with a bit of oil or WD-40, will keep away rust.

And even if your boules rust, it is not a disaster. Just playing with them for a few days will abrade away the rust. In a worst-case scenario, a scrubbing with a wire brush in a bucket of water can usually transform an ugly ball of orange rust into a wonderful glowing dark boule with a lot of character.

Beautiful outdoor boulodromes

Here are a few pictures of places where petanque is played (“boulodromes”), just for fun and to give you some ideas of what might be possible.
To see full images, right-click on the image and select “Open image in new tab”.

Collioure, France (courtesy of Homage to Barcelona). Real-world obstacles — trees, a light post, a sewer cover. Nice shady trees, a few benches for spectators, a gentleman walking his dog. This is real petanque.

An open terrain in L’Île-Rousse, a commune in the Haute-Corse département of Corsica, France.

A park in Orange, France.

The petanque club in Revel, France holds a tournament in the town park.

The Cote d’Azur.

One of the most pleasant places I’ve ever played — a public park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.

A public park in Tucson, Arizona, USA (Reid Park)

Somewhere in France

Somewhere in France

Somewhere in France

A public park in Tucson, Arizona, USA (Harold Bell Wright Park)

Augusta, Maine, USA (Mill Park)

location unknown

Resin jacks

See also our post on The Evolution of the Jack.

Resin jacks are variously referred to as “resin”, “plastic”, “synthetic”, or “composite” jacks. They are made of a hard epoxy resin similar to the material used to make bowling balls and billiard balls.

The first mention in the rules of synthetic jacks is in the 2002 (Grenoble) version. They are also mentioned at the end of the Approved Manufacturers/Labels.

Jacks carrying the “VMS” label are approved. Jacks are made of wood or of a synthetic material (plastic) bearing the manufacturer’s label…

Article 3 of the FIPJP rules says

Jacks are made of wood, or of a synthetic material bearing the manufacturer’s mark and having obtained the FIPJP’s approval in line with the precise specification relating to the required standards.

The FPUSA version of Article 3 says

Article 3 — Approved Jacks
Jacks (Cochonnets) are made entirely of wood. * …
* For safety reasons the FPUSA does not permit use of the FIPJP-approved VMS plastic-resin jack.

The reason for the FPUSA ban on resin jacks can be found in a 2008 post on the FPUSA blog — Resin jacks banned

Citing safety concerns, the FPUSA board, composed of players elected by its member clubs, has recently voted to ban the use of resin jacks in all competitions and casual play.

Anyone who has been hit by a jack whizzing across the terrain after being struck by a shot boule knows how much it can hurt and there is anecdotal evidence that injuries to players are more severe and more painful from these plastic jacks than from the wooden ones.

The FPUSA ban follows the lead of a couple of European federations that banned the jacks after noticing player reactions from being hit by the heavier plastic jacks. There is some suspicion that the plastic compresses upon impact from the steel boule and then is projected into the air with even more force than the wooden jack.

A number of European petanque federations, including the English Petanque Association (EPA), have also banned resin jacks.

According to Mike Pegg

Resin jacks were produced back in 1996 for the launch of the new “VMS” boule which was about the same time as the World Champs in Essen, Germany.

The company gave a free resin jack with each set they sold. Soon afterwards the jacks became available for purchase and the market was flooded with resin jacks by other manufacturers (such as Obut, see right).

The FIPJP decided to approve them (sadly, without any real investigation), so it was not until resin jacks started to be used at competitions that we became aware of the issues with them.

There are two problems with resin jacks. First, they are far more dense than a wooden jack; they don’t even float. This means that a resin jack will cause more injury than a wooden one if it hits someone. Second, when a resin jack breaks (as a result of being hit by a boule for example) it can shatter into pieces which can be sharp.

There are a number of reported incidents where players have been hit on the arm by a resin jack, raising a severe bruise. Worse, there was a case in which a player was hit in the face near his eye and received a nasty cut. We all know a wooden jack can hurt if it hits you, but they very seldom break or cut someone…

The FIPJP’s insurers have advised us that, because we know that these jacks can cause an injury, we could negate our policy coverage if we allowed them to be used. As a consequence, the FIPJP have recently stated that “only” the wooden jacks that they supply will be permitted at the World Championships.

What is “VMS”?

“VMS” is an acronym for:

Vartan Berbérian, a French-Armenian engineer.

Bernard Marle, founder and owner of Groupe Marle, the world’s second largest hip implant manufacturer.

Henri Salvador, French-Guyanese crooner extraordinaire, who sang and played petanque until his death at age 91 in 2008.

Together, these three men formed a boule-manufacturing company, VMS PLOT. The company’s most distinctive product was its line of “equator balls” designed by Salvador to resemble old-fashioned boules cloutées.

The famous VMS Plot boules, designed by Henri Salvador

The famous VMS Plot boules, designed by Henri Salvador

VMS introduced the resin jacks in 1996. In 2009 Marle sold the company to the Carlyle Group. This was followed by a management buyout that resulted in the creation of a new company MS Petanque. So although the jacks are still marked “VMS”, the company that makes them is no longer called “VMS”.

Obut also manufactures synthetic jacks.