Removing a boule for measuring

Sometimes — before the agreement of points — you find yourself in a situation where you know which boule is closest, but you need to make a measurement in order to determine which boule is second. And sometimes you can’t make that measurement because the closest boule is in the way.

Which boule is closer - B or C ?

A has the point, but which boule is second? B or C ?
We must remove A in order to measure the distance to C.

In such a case, you need to mark and remove the first boule (A in our diagram), take the measurement, and then put it back exactly in its original position.

When tolerances are tight, this can be a tricky operation. Your marks on the ground may not be precise enough to allow you to be sure that you’ve put it back exactly in its original position. The traditional solution is “the cup”. This technique involves pushing the boule into the terrain while rotating it a few times (like screwing-in a light bulb) before picking it up. This creates a slight depression or “cup” in the terrain that guides the boule exactly back into its original location when it is replaced. Another traditional way to make a cup is to use another boule to gently tap the top of the boule several times before picking it up.

This technique is without a doubt the most accurate way to mark the location of a boule before removing it temporarily in order to measure. Many umpires, however, hate the cup. They consider it to be disturbing the terrain in an unacceptable way. As Richard Powell, Regional Umpire of the Southern Counties Petanque Association of the English Petanque Association, writes

You should NOT try to push the boule downwards to make a little “cup” in the ground to help with its later replacement, because the “cup” might prevent the moved-and­-replaced boule from moving if any subsequent boule were to disturb it, or may stop any other boule that is moving from going where it would otherwise have gone.

As a practical matter, I think concerns about the effects of the cup are more theoretical than real. Petanque is not played on billiard-table surfaces. The size of the cup is unlikely to be greater than the natural variation of the surface. And the cup is surely a smaller disturbance of the terrain than marks drawn in the dirt, the traditional and accepted method.

Still, this technique does disturb the surface of the terrain, and that’s a concern, at least on a theoretical level. Is there a better method? Here’s a tip that was posted by Colin Stewart last year on the “rules of petanque” forum of

A good method which doesn’t disturb the surface is to use an old shoe lace. Wind the lace around the base of the boule and pull both ends gently until it fits around the point where the ground and the boule meet — but don’t pull so tight as to move the boule, just enough to create a ring that fits closely around the base of the boule.

Lift the boule out carefully and then measure. Replace the boule into the ‘ring’ of shoelace and then carefully unwind the lace from around the boule. The removed boule should be precisely where you left it and no need to scratch marks into the terrain.

This sounds like a great idea. I think I’ll need to practice a few times before I get the knack of it. And I’ll need to add a shoelace to my boules bag.

Smartphone apps for measuring

Many players carry smart phones and they are naturally interested in using a smartphone app for measuring. Smartphone apps are not accepted for use in FIPJP-sanctioned competitions, but of course you can use them in friendly games. [Updated 2018-10-30] (See also our post on Measuring boule to jack.)

There are several questions that can be asked about any measuring technology.

  1. How quickly can a measurement be made?
  2. How likely are you to accidentally move a boule or jack when using it?
  3. How accurate is it?
  4. How easy is it to use?
  5. How expensive is it? How much does it cost?

Smartphone apps can make measurements quickly and they involve no risk of touching and moving boules or jack. For players that already own a smartphone, the cost is essentially zero. For players with knee, back, eyesight, or stability issues, a smartphone can be a great tool— you can measure without squatting or getting down on your knees. (Or you can leave measuring to a team-mate with younger knees! 🙂 )

The real issue with smartphone apps is accuracy. Note that accuracy depends on both hardware and software— on the kind of smartphone that you are using, and on the app that you are running. If you are considering using a smartphone app, our recommendation is to test it. Play a few games and, in situations where you need to measure, measure with the smartphone app AND a tape measure. Compare the results. If you find that the smartphone app gives the same results as the tape measure, then use either one. If the smartphone app gives different results than the tape measure, don’t trust it; use only the tape.

Here are some links to petanque measuring apps. I haven’t personally used any of these apps. If you have, please leave a comment and tell us about your experiences. What apps have you used or experimented with? Which one worked best for you? How well did it work (pros and cons)?

Google app store (Android)
    Obut: mMesur (free)
    Who has the point? A qui le point? 
    Metre Petanque
Apple app store (iPhone, iOS, iTunes)
    Obut: mMeasure (free)
Appshopper app store (iPhone) 
    Petanque BoulOmeter


How to measure boule to jack

updated 2023-02-25
Determining which boule is closest to the jack is at the heart of petanque. There are a number of different ways to do it.
[See also our post on Buying measuring tools.]

(1) VISUAL INSPECTION (aka “eye-balling”)
Visual inspection is the technique of first resort. The trick to being able to tell which of two boules is closer to the jack lies in where you stand. Don’t stand directly over the boules, looking down on them. Stand back from the boules a meter or more, so that you are the same distance from each of the boules. Look across the boules at the jack. Imagine a line between the boules, and imagine a second line extending out from center of that line. You will probably be able to see that the jack falls on one side of that second line; that is, you will probably be able to see that the jack is closer to one of the boules than the other.

Visual inspection is fast and there is no danger of accidentally touching and moving anything.  But it is not precise.  When two boules are almost the same distance from the jack, it may not be possible to tell which is closer. Sometimes if you look across the boules to the jack, one boule looks closer… but if you walk around to the other side and look across the jack to the boules, the other boule looks closer. That is when you need to remember the old adage— “When in doubt, measure.”

In comparison we use some physical object whose length can be adjusted to compare the distances between the boules and the jack.  Various objects can be used to make the comparison. The traditional Provençal method is to hold two sticks together, as in the photo below.  A telescoping metal rod like an old radio antenna or a pointer will also do the job nicely.

Chopstick calipers – a modern version of a traditional Provençal technique

Another traditional technique is to use a piece of string, as in the picture below.  It is not a reliable technique.  It is amazing how much the string mysteriously stretches depending on whose boules are being measured. Thanks to the Brighton-Hove Petanque Club and Pen-Y-Coed Petanque for several of the following photos.

One of the best comparison tools is a folding rule with an extensible end piece, commonly called an umpires rule. The photo below shows the correct way to hold the rule, with the butt against the boule and the slider extension toward the jack. NOTE that the rule is held with the unmarked side and the slider-control button facing upward. That way it is easy to use your left thumb to use the slider-control button to slide the extension in and out.

There is a trick to using an umpires rule. Do NOT position the rule between the boule and jack and then slowly push the extension toward the jack. If you do that, you may accidentally push the extension too far and touch and move the jack. Instead, hold the end of the rule ABOVE the jack while you are adjusting the extension, and then slowly lower the end of the rule down toward the jack. If you see that you are too long or too short, then lift the rule up again, adjust its length, and then again lower it down toward the jack. Repeat this process until you are satisfied with the measurement.

There is a kind of tape measure that is popular among bocce players; it is designed to be used as a comparison tool. Ignore the numbers on the tape. Extend it between the boule and jack, and lock it.

In petanque we measure the shortest distance between two objects. That means that if the objects are very close together and of greatly differing sizes (like a jack and a boule), the shortest distance is “tilted”.
When the distance is short and the plane of measurement is tilted in this way, you need to use a set of calipers.

Some tape measures have a small built-in set of calipers.
A folding rule can be used as a calipers.


Comparison isn’t practical for longer distances. For longer distances, we need to measure, that is, to measure the distances between the jack and the relevant boules, and then compare the measurements. Measurement involves assigning numeric values to distances, which comparison does not.

The most common tool for measuring is a retractable steel tape measure. (See our page on buying measuring tools.) The proper way to use a tape is to measure across the top of the jack to the boule. Make sure that the end of the tape is positioned at the middle of the boule; if it it too high or too low, the measurement won’t be accurate. Keep the tape above the jack, without touching it. Look straight down at the jack, and measure to the edge (not the top) of the jack.

Measurement requires strong legs, steady hands, and good eyes. It is difficult to do. It requires squatting or kneeling and holding the tape measure steady, with two different parts of the tape microscopically close to boule and jack, then reading the numbers on the tape to the precision of one millimeter while avoiding distortions due to parallax.  And of course, it creates a danger of bumping and moving the boule or the jack.


Le Juge

The first step along the path to device-assisted visual inspection took place around the year 2000 with a device called Le Juge (the Judge). It was a circular plastic lens with concentric lines painted on it. You centered the view on the jack, and (in theory) the concentric rings made it easy to determine the relative distances of the boules. Le Juge didn’t actually work very well, but the basic idea was quickly adapted for smartphone cameras.

There are a number of smartphone apps that work basically the same way that Le Juge worked. (See our post on smartphone apps for measuring.) The idea of smartphone-assisted visual inspection is extremely attractive. There is no risk of touching and moving boules or jack. You don’t need to squat or get down on your knees. Smartphones, now, are virtually ubiquitous. One issue is that, now, there are many different smartphone apps and they vary widely in reliability, accuracy, and ease of use.

Another device for visual inspection is a “laser tape measure”. These devices are widely used in construction, but as devices for making petanque measurements they are clumsy. A laser beam can’t see though intervening boules or through rocks or bumps on the terrain. And a laser tape measure is expensive compared to a old-fashioned tape measure.

Before we end, we should mention a couple of the finer points of the art of measuring.

wedges_and_calipersWhen the distances are close and an umpire wants to make sure that nothing is disturbed during the measuring, he/she can place wedges under boules. In this YouTube video we can see the umpire placing wedges and then measuring with calipers. In the video the jack is hidden behind the center boule and she is measuring the “second” boules to determine whether the winning team scored one point or two.

feeler_gauge_spread_outAnother standard item in an umpire’s toolkit is a set of feeler gauges, the kind that you would use when gapping spark plugs. An umpire will use them when there is daylight between boule and jack but they are so close that you can’t fit a calipers between them.

Rather than declaring two boules to be equidistant from the jack, an umpire will resort to feeler gauges in an attempt to find that one boule is closer to the jack than the other. This makes ordinary players in friendly games wonder how precise their own measurements should be. My advice is— don’t be afraid to declare that two boules are equidistant from the jack. If both teams measure, and neither team is sure that one boule beats the other, then let it be. Agree that the boules are equidistant, the point is null, and carry on with the game.


  1. “Measuring distance between boules and the cochonnet” by former Southern Counties Petanque Association Regional Umpire Richard Powell is available HERE.
  2. The Petanque New Zealand “Umpire’s Training Manual” (2019) is available HERE.