Chopstick calipers

Here is a handy tool for comparing short distances— 1/2 inch to 4.5 inches. It is a caliper made from the square end of a plastic chopstick and two plastic cable ties. It is cheap and effective.
Click image to enlarge.petanque_chopstick_calipers


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. Another consideration is the fact that your marks on the ground are disturbing the terrain in a very sensitive area — something you really don’t want to do.

I’ve seen reputable petanque sites that suggest that you take another boule and tap a few times — very gently — on the top of A, to make a slight depression under it. Then, when you replace it, it will fit naturally and exactly into that depression.

That’s messing with the terrain! Don’t do it!

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.

What can we do then?

Here’s a tip that was posted by Colin Stewart last year on the “rules of petanque” forum of It is such a neat idea that I can’t help re-posting it here.

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

This is an excerpt from our longer post on Measuring boule to jack. More and more people are carrying smart phones these days, so it seemed appropriate to revisit the topic in a post of its own.

I haven’t yet had an opportunity to try these apps. If you have, please leave a comment and tell us about your experiences. What app are you using (or did you try)? How well is it working for you?

There are three primary issues with any measuring technology.

  1. How quickly can a measurement be made? How easy is it to use?
  2. How likely are you to accidentally move a boule or jack when using it?
  3. How precise is it?

Smart-phone apps are a technology that, at least in theory, should score high on all counts. They should be quick and easy to use. They involve ZERO risk of touching and moving boules or jack. And they should be precise.

There are a number of smart-phone apps, available on both iPhone and Android platforms. Here are a few of the more promising ones that we’re aware of. (As of November 2014, there are now too many to list. So our last link is a search for “petanque” apps at the Google app store.)

mMesur from Obut iPhone & Android, free.
Petanque BoulOmeter iPhone, free
Metre Petanque Android, free
Metre Petanque PRO Android, $1
Who has the point? A qui le point? Android, under $2
Petanque Android, under $2
Search for PETANQUE apps at the Google app store Android

obut_m_measur_iphone_app_screenshotFor older players, a smart-phone app has both pros and cons. Regardless of your age, a smartphone (and a data plan) can be prohibitively expensive. And older players can sometimes be technology-averse. I know a few older players who refuse to touch a computer or a smartphone.

On the other hand, for those 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. And without having to get back up!

But of course there are other tools for dealing with such flexibility issues. One that I’ve found works quite well is… a younger team-mate. 🙂

Buying measuring tools

Tape measures

Measuring is part of the game of petanque and every player should carry a tape measure. When shopping for a tape measure, here are my selection criteria.

  1. The tape should be easy to read. This means that…
  2. It should have metric markings (millimeters, centimeters, etc.). Metric markings are traditional for petanque and they are easier to read than English (imperial, feet and inches) markings. A tape with both metric and imperial markings works well.
  3. It should be long enough to handle 95% of the boule-to-jack measurements— at least 6 feet (2 meters).
  4. It should be small enough and light enough to be carried comfortably and pulled out quickly and easily. This is an important criterion.
  5. It should have a “standout” (the length to which it can be extended without bending under its own weight) of at least a meter. In practice, this means that it should be at least 3/4″ wide. A narrower tape will flop around like a wet noodle if extended more than a few inches.
  6. It should be reasonably priced.

Note that a tape’s product description isn’t a reliable indicator of the way the tape is marked. Some tapes, for instance, are described as 5m/16′ but are marked only in feet and inches.

There are two different styles of printing numbers on a tape, and the style affects the readability of the tape. Generally speaking, a tape with continuous marking is easier to read than a tape with interval marking, although the color and size of the numbers in the intervals also affects readability.

... 50    1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9   60    1 ...

... 50   51   52   53   54   55   56   57   58   59   60   61 ...

Numbering styles, top to bottom— Komelon, Ace, Fastcap.
Komelon has continuous numbering by centimeters.
Ace is marked in centimeters, in intervals of 10cm.
Fastcap is marked in millimeters, in intervals of 10mm.

Here are a few tape measures that I think are worth considering.

The Komelon 4912IM is available on Amazon for about $6. It has dual markings with English and continuous metric marking in centimeters. It is small, light, and easy to carry. It is the only tape measure that I’ve found that has continuous marking in centimeters, which makes it unusually and easy to read.

The Ace 5m/16′ tape (model 2449080) is the same size as the Komelon. The Komelon is shorter (12′ vs 16′), but in an emergency the Ace’s length of 5m makes it possible to measure to 10m in two steps. The Ace is wider (3/4″) than the Komelon, so it meets our width requirement. The numbers on the Ace are bigger, making it significantly easier to read. The numbers are marked in intervals— continuous marking in centimeters at 10-cm intervals. The Ace may be available at your local Ace hardware store. (On Oct 1, 2017, mine cost $7.60.)

After less than 5 years of light use the sliding locks on several of our Komelons have seized up and no longer work. Our Ace seems to be well-made, but we haven’t had it long enough to report on its durability.

fastcap_metric_tapemeasureThe Fastcap 5-meter tape is what I carry. It is bigger and heavier than I would like, but I find that its metric marking are very easy to use. Its length of 5m makes it possible to measure to 10m, if you do it in two steps.

Another tape measure that has received good reviews on is the 25-foot (7.5 meter) Trust 72-7525.

Folding rulers

Except for calipers and feeler gauges (which only umpires carry) the most accurate measuring tool for petanque is a folding ruler with an extensible end. Such a ruler may be made of wood, fiberglass, or steel. Note that a steel folding ruler isn’t very rigid; it will sag in the middle even at relatively short distances. Umpires have invented a way of folding the unused portion of the ruler back on itself, so the unused portion of the ruler can be used to support the sagging center of a steel ruler, but this is a clumsy work-around; I cannot recommend buying a steel folding ruler.

In the past I’ve used an old wooden carpenter’s ruler made by Lufkin and it worked well. However, the wooden folding carpenter’s rulers that are being made today (still by Lufkin) seem to me very shoddy, with poorly machined sliders, and I cannot recommend them. In addition, the segments on a carpenter’s ruler are longer than a true petanque umpire’s folding ruler, so the minimum distance that you will be able to compare (by fitting the ruler between the boule and the jack) is about 18cm.

If you are seriously into precise measurement, unquestionably the best choice is the Obut fiberglass umpire’s ruler. The segments are short, so it can compare lengths as short as 11.5cm. The extension has a smooth action; it isn’t loose in the channel and it doesn’t bind. Click below to see larger images.

Long tape measures

One long tape that I like is the Amico 10m Fiberglass Tape Measure.Amico_10m_fiberglass_tape

When you’re selecting a 10-meter tape you have the choice of a fiberglass tape or a steel tape. I recommend a fiberglass tape. It will have a bigger case than a steel tape, but it will weigh less and cost less.

For a 10-meter tape, you want a tape that re-winds by means of a hand crank handle that folds out of the case. A spring-loaded retractor is a safety hazard— a long tape zipping back into the case can cut your hand like a sharp knife.

Most long tapes are marked in feet and inches one one side, and in meters on the reverse side. So if you see a nice 50-foot fiberglass tape at your local hardware store, it might do the job nicely.

posted: December 23, 2012 — updated: October 1, 2017
See also our post on measuring boule to jack.

Measuring boule to jack

Determining which boule is closest to the jack is at the heart of petanque. There are a number of different ways to do it.

(1) VISUAL INSPECTION (aka “eye-balling”)

Visual inspection is the technique of first resort.

There is a trick to being able to look at the game on the ground and tell which of two boules is closer to the jack. The trick is in where you stand.  Imagine a straight line drawn between the boules, and a perpendicular line drawn away from its center.  You want to  stand back a bit from the boules, somewhere on that imaginary perpendicular line.  In most cases, from this angle, you will be able to see that the jack is closer to one of the boules.  Some people prefer to look across the boules to the jack, while others prefer to look across the jack toward the two boules. When in doubt, try doing  both.

Visual inspection is quick, and there is no danger (as with a tape measure) of accidentally touching and moving a boule or the jack.  On the other hand, it is not precise.  When two boules are almost the same distance from the jack, it can be impossible to tell which is closer simply by visual inspection.


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, a pointer, or a magnetic boule lifter, also works 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 for several photos, includeing the next three.

One of the best comparison tools is a folding rule with an extensible end piece.

A locking tape measure can be used as an effective comparison tool. Ignore the numbers on the tape. Extend it between the boule and jack, and lock it.

The most precise tool for comparing small distances is a set of calipers.

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

Unfortunately, comparison isn’t practical for longer distances. For those distances, we need to measure.


The third technique is to measure the distances between the jack and the relevant boules, and then to 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 post on buying a tape measure.)

Measurement works well for long distances, but 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 (but without touching or moving either of them), then reading the numbers on the tape to the precision of one millimeter (while avoiding distortions due to parallax).  It requires strong legs, steady hands, and good eyes.  And of course, it involves placing a tape measure so close to the jack and the boules that bumping and moving one of them becomes a real danger.


Le Juge – a visual inspection device for petanque

New technology is making visual inspection more precise.

The first advance in this area occurred around the year 2000, with a device called Le Juge (the Judge). It was essentially a magnifying glass with concentric lines engraved on it. You centered the view on the jack, and the concentric rings made it easy to determine the relative distances of the boules to the jack.


Le Juge worked pretty well, but it was never widely used. Almost immediately it was made obsolete by a similar idea implemented in far superior technology — smartphone apps.

There are a number of smartphone apps, available on both iPhone and Android platforms.

Device-assisted visual inspection has a lot of advantages over other methods. It is quick, easy, and precise. There is no risk of touching and moving boules or jack. You don’t need to squat or get down on your knees. It requires a smartphone, but smartphones are becoming ubiquitous. (See also our post on smartphone apps for measuring.)

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 pretty expensive compared to a $10 steel tape measure.

Some finer points

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 the measuring with calipers. It looks like 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.



  1. Measuring distance between boules and the cochonnet by former Southern Counties Petanque Association Regional Umpire Richard Powell. (Also available HERE.)
  2. The Umpire’s Training Manual by Petanque New Zealand
  3. A guide to measures by Pen-Y-Coed petanque