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

This post has moved HERE.


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. The trick to being able to tell which of two boules is closer to the jack lies in where you stand. Don’t stand 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. 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 for several photos, including the next three.

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

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

The most precise tool for comparing short 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 page on buying measuring tools.) The proper way to use a tape is to measure across the top of the jack to the boule. 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 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 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 close to the jack and the boules, which means that bumping and moving one of them is a real danger.


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)— a circular piece of plastic 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.) In theory, smartphone-assisted visual inspection could be the best way to decide which boule has the point. 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. On the other hand there are many different smartphone apps so they surely vary 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 pretty expensive compared to a 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 then 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