Move over, plastic throwing circle; here comes the petanque mat

There is a new product on the market— the “petanque mat” (tapis de pétanque or tapis de lancement). It is a 50cm circular piece of vinyl polymer (rubber). It is 3mm thick. You place it on the ground like a plastic circle, and when you throw, you stand ON it rather than IN it.

It is manufactured by a Franch company, Tapis de Pétanque ( Their web site says that these petanque mats were approved by the FIPJP in 2019, and they put a stamp on the mats to prove it. (I haven’t found anything on the FIPJP website that documents or announces this approval… but then the FIPJP said nothing a few years ago when it approved OBUT’s paramagnetic “black jack”.)

The mat comes in a plain black “classic” design (above) for about €20 and a slightly thicker (4mm) “luxe” version. The luxe version comes in a variety of preprinted designs for about €70, and you can have one printed with a custom design for around €140.

The touted benefits of the mat are that it can be rolled up, making it more portable than a plastic circle; it is comfortable to stand on; you can’t trip on the edge when stepping off of it; a player standing on it cannot move it; and it causes no disturbance of the ground that needs to be repaired at the end of the mène. I think we have to take those claims with a few grains of salt. It’s still possible, of course, to trip on the edge when stepping ON to the mat. And it is possible to kick and move the mat when you aren’t actually standing on it, so you still must mark it.

I think it is a neat idea, but for manufactures and vendors of petanque equipment, not for players. Basically, it is just another platform for advertising. In the future we may start to see mats with OBUT logos in televised championships, but for everyday grass-roots games nobody is going to spend €140, or €70, or even €20 on a mat when they can get a perfectly serviceable plastic circle from Decathlon for $7.

One consequence of these mats— assuming that the FIPJP now really does recognize/approve the use of mats as well as plastic circles — might be that grassroots players will begin cutting 50cm circles out of pieces of carpet tile, scrap rubber or carpet, to make their own home-made mats. Personally, the idea of lugging around a dirty old piece of carpet doesn’t appeal to me— I’d rather just draw a circle on the ground, in the traditional way. Or I could raid my grand-daughter’s college savings fund and purchase one of these tapis de pétanque— after all, they are washable.

Playing with a larger jack

Last week I tried to watch a petanque video on Youtube, but it was hopeless. You just couldn’t see the jack. It was a low-resolution video, the terrain was light-colored, and the black-colored jack was completely lost among shadows caused by irregularities in the terrain. Eventually I gave up.

Later I wondered what could have been done to make the jack more visible. Perhaps a different color. Or… perhaps… a larger jack!

There is no reason why the jack has to be the size that it is— 30mm ±1mm, as currently specified by the FIPJP rules. The size isn’t written in stone. Before 2008, the official size of the jack was 25mm to 35mm in diameter, which allowed for quite a lot of variability.

What if we played with a larger jack? For one thing, it would make televised matches easier to follow. And there would be another benefit— it would make the game easier for vision-impaired players. Last year one of our senior players began to experience the effects of age-related macular degeneration. Fortunately she was able to continue to play if we used our brightest-colored jack. But it occurs to me that we could help her even more by playing with a larger jack. Why not?

If you make your own jacks, it is easy to make a larger jack. Normally you would start with a wooden ball 1-1/4″ (30mm) in diameter. Instead, start with a wooden ball 1-3/4″ in diameter. The 1-3/4″ wooden balls that I ordered from arrived in a package marked 1.7in | 44mm. The size seems good to me: bigger, but not too big. Here is a picture of the two sizes of wooden balls along with a 75mm boule.

I’m not saying that the FIPJP should change its rules about the size of the jack. (Although it would be sensible to provide competition organizers with a “large jack” option for televised games or games with a large stadium audience.) But I think that for friendly games with vision-impaired players, it would be quite reasonable to consider making and using larger jacks.

The box tree moth and the future of the jack

All of the wooden jacks produced in France (about a million each year) are manufactured by one small company, Monneret, which sells its jacks to large distributors such as Obut. Now Monneret is reporting that caterpillars (larvae) of the box tree moth (la pyrale du buis, which was first introduced to Europe from East Asia around 2007) are attacking and killing the trees from which wood is harvested to produce the jacks. Monneret’s company head predicts that in 5 to 7 years, all of the box trees in France will be gone. The company is attempting to stockpile box tree wood, and says that in the future it hopes to be able to import wood from other countries.
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Why is a terrible place to buy your first set of petanque boules

There are ladies and gentlemen out there who haven’t yet played petanque but are interested in learning it. Perhaps they saw it being played while they were on vacation in France, or they saw it in the movie A Year In Provence, and it looked fun. They’d like to buy some petanque boules and try it out.

If you are one of these wonderful people, I have two things to say to you. (1) It really is fun! (2) Be be warned about shopping on What you will find on will almost certainly NOT be what you want.

If you search for “petanque boules”, the first thing that will be offered to you will almost certainly be something like this. Click to see larger image.
The set will be described as “bocce/petanque” balls or boules. The cloth bag will be emblazoned with the word “bocce” or “boules”. The set will contain 8 metal balls— pairs of balls with 4 different groove patterns— single narrow, single wide, double, and triple.

The problem with such sets is that they contain NEITHER petanque boules NOR bocce balls. I’ve seen such sets so often that I’ve become hardened to the sight. Rather that screaming “stupid crap!” at my computer screen, I now give the product ONE star, and leave a review which I hope is both objective and helpful. It goes like this.
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Decathlon comes to the USA and starts selling Geologic boules

[originally published 2018-02-23; revised 2020-03-10]

Decathlon (technically, the Decathlon Group) is a world-wide chain of sporting-goods stores. It is, in fact, the largest sporting goods retailer in the world. It was founded in France in 1976. In the mid-1980s it started to expand into other European countries. In 2003 it started to expand into China, India, and Southeast Asia. Today, it has more than 1,100 stores (many of which are large superstores that stock a wide range of sporting goods) in 38 countries. There are about 40 stores in the UK, and one in Mexico. For petanque players, the interesting thing about Decathlon stores is that they stock petanque boules and other petanque equipment.
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Proper use of the boule towel

Most players are familar with the requirement in Article 16(c) always to carry a boule towel in order to be able to remove (enlever) any mud or foreign substance clinging to a boule before throwing it. The rules, however, do not contain precise specifications for boule towels, so it is hardly surprising that the most frequently-asked questions about the rules of petanque are questions about the boule towel— What kind of fabric should it be made of? How big should it be? How should it be held and used?

Perhaps the most surprising thing about boule towels is that the usual English translation of the French word (chiffon) is “boule towel“. In fact, toweling material, thick and fuzzy, is completely unsuitable for use as a boule towel. It quickly picks up stray bits of leaves, twigs, and thorns and is almost impossible to clean. Instead, we recommend a fabric with a much smoother, harder texture— a patch cut from the leg of a worn-out pair of jeans does the job nicely.

There is no regulation size for a boule towel. A towel that is too small to do the job is obviously undesirable; a towel that is too large will be clumsy to use and carry. We have found that a rectangle of fabric approximately 29cm x 43cm (11.5″ x 17”) works well. A cloth table mat makes an excellent boule towel.
Some so-called “experts” advise a player with a larger (or smaller) hand to use a larger (or smaller) towel. That’s rubbish, of course, since the relevant factor here is not the size of the hand but the size of the boule. A player who uses a larger (or smaller) size of boule should use a larger (or smaller) towel.

Finally, there is the question of how to carry and use the boule towel. Here, there are two basic requirements: one legal, the other practical. The boule towel must NOT be carried in such a way that it hides any boules that the player might also be carrying in the same hand. And, as a practical matter, the towel must be carried in a way that it can be conveniently used when needed, while not interfering with a player’s grip on any boule(s) that he may want to carry in the same hand.

The traditional provençal method of using the boule towel is to fold the long edge over the short edge, and then pinch the end of the towel into a small bunch,

The pinched end of the towel is then threaded through the fingers in the manner shown in the photograph (below).

When the hand is closed and holding a boule, the fingers naturally and effortlessly grip the towel firmly, and the tail of the towel falls cleanly away from the hand. When the towel is needed, the long loose tail can easily be folded up and over a boule in the hand in order to wipe the boule thoroughly. While doing this, it is easy to clean and dry the fingers and palm of the throwing hand by rubbing them vigorously with the cloth-covered boule.

Once you have found a boule towel that perfectly fits your hand and your playing style, you should treat it like what it is— a piece of personal hygiene equipment. Never lend your boule towel to another player; you don’t want to catch their cooties.

NOTE I am not a certified umpire. The opinions expressed in this post are solely my own and do not represent official rulings or rules interpretations of any organized petanque federation, national or otherwise. Posted April 1, 2017.

Are your boules toxic?

Some boules are made of stainless steel (inox). Some boules are made of carbon steel (acier au carbone). And some boules (especially inexpensive leisure boules) are made of carbon steel coated (revêtu) in chrome (chromé). The chrome makes the surface of the boules tougher and more resistant to rust (rouille). The problem is that the process of manufacturing chrome-plated boules uses Chromium 6, and Chromium 6 is highly toxic.

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Restoring rusty boules

If you happen to find some rusty old boules, don’t write them off. They can be restored to playable condition.

I have a set of La France SB boules, which are soft carbon-steel boules. During the summer, I lost one of the boules. About 4 months later, I found it under the edge of a scrap piece of carpet in the back yard. Outdoors in our summer rains, the carpet had kept the boule covered and moist. By the time I found the boule, it was completely covered in a thick coat of orange rust.
Click to view larger image.

Despite appearances, this was not a disaster. A few minutes with a wire brush, and a few more minutes dragging the boule around on the ground to simulate a few days of play, and the boule was restored to playable condition. Here is a picture. The boule on the left is the rusty and restored boule. The other is another boule from the same set that was kept out of the weather and played with occasionally. The restored boule is darker in color, and has a rougher surface. Personally, I like the changes.
Click to view larger image.

I simply used a wire brush to remove the rust, but there are other ways to deal with rust. On Youtube you can find a lot of videos that show you how remove rust from iron objects by soaking them for a few days or weeks in vinegar. An important part of the process is a post-processing soak in a solution of baking soda that will neutralized whatever acid (vinegar) might still be left.

There are also products called rust converters that don’t remove rust, but chemically convert it to a hard, black, stable material called iron tannate. Rust converters are often used to restore and preserve iron-based historical artifacts such as old swords. For more information, Google (or search or Youtube) for “rust converter“.

I personally haven’t dealt with a rusty boule using vinegar or a rust converter, so I can’t personally vouch for them. But there is a lot of convincing testimony that they work. I have used a short (6-hour) vinegar soak to blacken boules.

The moral of the story is that if you come across some rusty old boules, don’t write them off and throw them away. They can be restored to playable condition. Depending on your taste, they may even be better than they were before they got rusty.

Pocket scorekeepers for petanque

Traditional leather scorekeeper

One traditional design for a pocket scorekeeper has two numbered wheels made of stiff leather sandwiched between a faceplate and a backplate, also made of stiff leather.

This American umpire’s scorekeeper for baseball (below) was manufactured in the 1870’s. At that time, the rules of baseball allowed nine balls and nine strikes, so the numbers on the two wheels go up to 9, and the wheels are labelled “balls” and “strikes”

The same two-wheel design is used in traditional petanque scorekeepers like this one from the French manufacturer Obut. The front plate identifies the two wheels as the scores for Nous and Eux — “us” and “them”. Numbers go from zero to 15 because international championships used to be played to 15. (It is available from Petanque America for about $14 plus shipping.)

The problem with this scorekeeper is that it is poorly made (or perhaps poorly designed).

  • The colored face is thin paper glued to the leather body. After moderate use, the paper face begins to peel away.
  • The tightness of the aluminum screws determines how easily the scoring wheels can be turned. It is difficult to adjust the screws so that they are neither too tight nor too loose.
  • The screws tend to loosen with use or vibration. If you drive around with this scorekeeper in your car, road vibrations will cause the screws to work loose and fall out, and possibly get lost.

Universal pocket scorekeeper

In 2006, Jill Barnes of Dublin, California (just east of San Francisco) was frustrated during her son’s baseball games. “Typically there aren’t any scoreboards, and if there is a scoreboard, it’s not functioning. My son was playing baseball. Like with all the other games, parents were saying, ‘Does anyone know the score?’ ‘How many runs is that?’   I thought, ‘I can design something. I know exactly what this needs to look like.’”

What she came up with was a simple universal pocket scorekeeper. Like the traditional scorekeeper, it has a set of wheels for “us” and “them”. (Well, “me” and “you”.) Its four independent numbered wheels can record scores of up to 99 for virtually any sport. (It is available from Jill’s web site,, for $6.99 plus $3.00 shipping.) The plastic construction is rugged, and the straightforward simplicity of the idea is great, but I found the wheels to be stiff and difficult to advance. I needed to use both hands to change the score.



Home-made pocket scorekeeper

I’m diabetic, and I use disposable insulin pens. To use an insulin pen, you twist the end of the pen— click, click, click— and dial in the number of units of insulin that you want to inject. When the pen is empty, you throw it away.

I took three of these discarded pens, cut off the ends with the twist counter, and glued them together in parallel to make a pocket scorekeeper.
This triple-barrel design is quite useful.

  • It is sturdier than the Obut scorekeeper and easier to use than the Pocket Scorekeeper.
  • In a cut-throat game, three players play against each other and you need to keep track of three scores, one for each player. That’s easy to do with this design.
  • Our favorite cut-throat game is Two Jacks, which is played to a winning score of 21. This scorekeeper is capable of recording scores of 21 (and more).
  • The best short form of petanque is one in which games are played to a fixed number of mènes. The third counter can be used to record the number of menes. Very handy.

If Obut was smart, THIS is the pocket scorekeeper that they would be selling.


Smartphone app

The requirements for a petanque scorekeeper app are quite simple. You need to be able to increase (and, in case of a mistake, decrease) the score of each of two teams. You need to be able to reset the scores to zero. And it might be nice to be able to count the number of menes played.

For Android, Pétanque: Marque Scores looks promising. It has a lot more features than just the basic ones I mentioned. Not surprisingly, it looks like it is the creation of a French software developer.screenshot_PetanqueMarqueScores

Apple’s app store didn’t seem to have any good petanque scorekeeper apps. Two general-purpose scorekeeper apps that had good reviews were Swipe Scoreboard and Score Keeper HD Lite.

Are your boules too big?

I’m beginning to suspect that most of the traditional advice on how to select boule size is bogus, and that many players may be playing with boules that are too big.

  1. The traditional advice and its problems
  2. Do shooters really play with bigger boules? Not any more.
  3. What happens when you play with boules that are too big?
  4. The solution — smaller boules

The traditional advice and its problems ▲

There is one question that all petanque players confront when purchasing competition boules — “What size should I purchase?”

There are two different schools of thought (theories, really) about how to select the size of boules.

  1. The Role-based Theory is that “It depends on what kind of player you are. Small boules for pointers, because small boules make small targets for shooters. Big boules for shooters, because a bigger missile is more likely to hit its target.”
  2. The Hand-size Theory is that “It depends on how big your hand is. Small boules for small hands. Big boules for big hands.”

There are problems with both of these schools of thought.

The Role-based Theory is useless for the average player. Beginning players aren’t yet skillful enough to classify themselves as pointers or shooters. Sometimes they will need to point, and sometimes they will need to shoot. The division of players into pointers, middle-men (millieux), and shooters really makes sense only for world-class players playing triples.

The idea that a boule is a more difficult target, or a more effective missile, because its radius is one millimeter less or more than some other boule… well, that’s just ludicrous. It’s like telling a Marine sniper to use a larger caliber bullet so he’ll have a better chance of hitting his target. Or telling a fat dictator that he needs to lose weight so he’ll present a small target for an assassin.

Most damaging to the theory, though, is the fact that the whole idea is questionable. A big wheel is better than a small wheel at rolling over lumps and bumps in its path. That’s why bicycles have bigger wheels than roller skates. So you’d think that a pointer would want to play with larger, not smaller, boules. Byron Putman reports that “Many club players contend that a pointer should use the largest boule that he can comfortably throw.” [Petanque, p. 103] Conversely, it would seem sensible for a shooter to prefer a smaller, not bigger, boule. One would think that being able to really wrap your fingers around a smaller boule would give a shooter more control over the boule.

You see the problem here. These ideas are just theories that somebody came up with because a priori they seemed to make sense. But completely opposite theories also make sense. They are all just theories. They have no basis in actual facts. That’s what makes them bogus. As Byron Putman says, “Be skeptical of most club-level boule selection advice… because it is often based on urban myth and contradictory inferences.”

In contrast to the Role-based Theory, the Hand-size Theory seems practical and sensible. There is obviously a relationship between the size of a hand and the size of a boule that will fit comfortably into that hand. So the slogan “Small boules for small hands; big boules for big hands,” seems to make sense.

The problem lies in the practical application of the theory. Boules manufacturers have tried to create formulas based on this idea (“a player with hand-size X should use boules of size Y”). But the numbers in their formulas are questionable, if not downright bogus.

The first sign that something is fishy is the fact that different boules manufacturers offer different ways to measure your hand. In theory, if there was a specific feature of a hand that made a boule more or less suitable for that hand (the length of the fingers, for instance) then everybody would know that, and all boules manufacturers would ask for the same hand measurement. But they don’t. Some measure the length of the middle finger from the hand to the finger tip. Some measure the distance from the base of the hand (the wrist) to the finger tip. Others measure the distance from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the middle finger. (Read our post on the various methods.) There is, in short, no standard formula for measuring hand size. Nobody really knows what should count as “a small hand” or “a big hand” for the purpose of picking boules.

You encounter the second bit of fishy business when (having measured your hand) you consult a manufacturer’s table that maps boule size to hand size. Suppose you measure your hand and get a measurement of X centimeters. And suppose that the table says that someone with that hand size should play with a boule of 74mm. But where did they get that number of 74mm? Could that number be wrong? With a hand size of X cm, perhaps you should be playing with a 71mm or 72mm or 75mm or 76mm boule. How do we — or they — know what size boule a person with an X-centimeter hand should use?

On the left, Steve Ferg (USA).  On the right, Daniel Duflot (France).  Which player do you think plays with the larger boule?

Steve Ferg (left, USA) and friend Daniel Duflot (right, France). Steve plays with a 74mm boule. Daniel uses a 75mm boule.

This brings us to the question of how much the choice of boule size is determined by anatomy, and how much it is determined by culture.

  • In the USA, a boule size of 73 mm seems to be the average for men, with smaller sizes such as 71 mm being popular with women. In France on the other hand, the most common diameters for men are 74–75 mm, and for women 72–73 mm.
  • Generic Chinese leisure boules of the kind that you might buy from Petanque America are about 73 mm, but Obut (French) leisure boules are 74 mm.
  • Since French players are probably on average smaller than American players, why are they using bigger boules?

And if French players prefer larger boules than Americans, and French boule manufacturers design their size-selection guidelines with their largest market (French players) in mind, then the size-selection guidelines provided by French manufacturers will tell Americans to buy boules that are too large. So why should American players follow the advice of French manufacturers?

When I used the hand charts, they said that I should play with a big boule — 76mm. Despite my gut feeling that that was too large, I went ahead and bought 76mm boules. Why?

  • Partly, it was because I was new at the game, I knew that I didn’t know much and I assumed that the boule manufacturers knew their business. As an ignorant newbie, I accepted established authority.
  • Partly, there was some stupid macho bullshit rattling around in my brain — the kind that equates “big” with “strong” and “manly”. And the fact that I actually am a tall guy helped me not to recognize the macho bullshit for the bullshit that it was.
  • But the strongest reason was the Role-based Theory. I wanted, some day, to become a really good petanque player, i.e. a shooter. So, I reasoned, I should buy shooter’s boules — big boules. The Role-based Theory led me, an aspiring shooter, into playing with boules that were too big.

I suspect the same kinds of things happen to other players.

Do shooters really play with bigger boules? Not any more. ▲

On Youtube, there is an interesting video of a clinic that Claudy Weibel gave at the 2012 Petanque America Open. After the clinic, during the question-and-answer period, one gentleman asks Claudy “When do you know that the boule is too big for a shooter? Because when we shoot, we like big boules, but what is too big?” And a bit later in the video we can see him with a boule in his hand, and it looks too big. It is pretty clear that he has been playing with, and having trouble with, a boule that is too large for his hand, and that he’s been doing it because of the tradition that shooters play with big boules.

Claudy’s answer is interesting. You can watch the video on YouTube, and I have made a transcript of the conversation (below). Note that Jean-Pierre Subrenat (president of the New York Petanque Club, and a very strong player in his own right) is translating for Claudy, and sometimes he offers his own thoughts as well as Claudy’s. The conversation begins at 12:15.

When do you know that the boule is too big for a shooter? Because when we shoot we like big boules, but what is too big?

It’s totally the contrary. Me [Claudy], I play 73. I [Jean-Pierre] used to play 75. Now I play 72.

A shooter doesn’t have to have big boules to shoot. On the contrary, you have to control the boule in your hand. [When you play with a smaller boule,] when you release the boule, you release it better, you can control it better with your fingers.

[Jean-Pierre, talking to the student:] I think this boule is too big for you, just by looking at your hand.

[They examine the boules. The student says that he thinks his boule is 76 or 77. Claudy compares his hand to the student’s hand. The hand sizes look to be about the same. Claudy says that he plays with a 73. The implication, of course, is that the student is probably playing with a boule that is about 3mm too big for him.]

I [Jean-Pierre] was playing 75, then with my team we got sponsored by KTK, the brand, and when they gave me the boules, I said I want 75. They said no, all the big players are playing with smaller and smaller boules. Quintais plays with 71. 71! And he’s bigger than you!

Yeah, the smaller… And that is a trend that is new. When you think that Quintais plays with boules that are smaller than my 72, its amazing, the results that he has.

When you point, you can control the smaller boule ten times better. All these years, I went from 75 to 72. I cannot play now with 75, at least not any more, at least not decently.

Dylan [Rocher] plays with 73. Marco [Foyot] plays with 74. Damien [Hureau] plays with 73.

QUESTION: So it’s a trend then?

ANSWER: It’s a trend. It’s the results… you see the results!

At the very end of the video Claudy makes some remarks in French that Pierre does not translate. I think I hear “It is important to have a good grip on the boule in the hand (bonne tenue en la main).” And later, something about “leaving the hand well (bien sortir en main).”

The bottom line is that Claudy and Jean-Pierre think that the old orthodoxy of “big boules for shooters” is dying. The new thinking is “Not too big. You can control a smaller boule better.”

I recently discovered more support for this idea. On August 16, 2014, there was an interesting post on one of the forums of the petanque710 web site. Its subject was diameter of the boules of shooters (Diamètre des boules des tireurs). Here is my rather free translation of the post.

When I started playing petanque I noticed that the majority of the players, and especially shooters, played with boules of 75 or 76 mm in diameter, with 75mm being the most used. But now I notice that small diameters (72-74) are being used, with diameters of 75 and 76 now being quite rare in games. And even more surprising, many of the great shooters are playing with the small diameters.

So I decided to make a list of the diameters and also the weights of the boules that the great players are now using. If you find any errors in my list, you can correct them and add other names to the list.

  • 74 – 700 – Foyot
  • 74 – 700 – Miléi
  • 74 – 690 – Quintais
  • 74 – 680 – W Chapeland
  • 74 – 680 – Fred Michel
  • 73 – 690 – Weibel
  • 73 – 690 – Savin
  • 73 – 690 – J L Devernois
  • 73 – 690 – Gasparini
  • 72 – 680 – Dylan Rocher
  • 73 – 680 – S Chapeland
  • 73 – 680 – J Darodès
  • 73 – 680 – Dufeu
  • 73 – 680 – D Olmos
  • 72 – 700 – Suchaud
  • 72 – 680 – Maillard
  • 72 – 680 – Leboursicaud
  • 71 – ??? – Christian Fazzino
  • 71 – 700 – Gross
  • 71 – 680 – A Papon

The result, as you can see, is something that might seem strange. Almost all of the top female and male shooters in the world play with 71 and 72mm — the smallest diameter.

The original post (which has now been taken down) reported Marco Foyot playing with 76 and Dylan Rocher with 72. I've changed their information based on Jean-Pierre Subrenat's comments, which I consider more reliable because I know that he has personally played against Marco and Dylan. I've left other contradictions unchanged (e.g. the list reports Quintais as playing with 74, but Jean-Pierre reports him as playing with 71). Note also that the closing remark that the top shooters play with 71 and 72 is contradicted by the list information. According to the list, most are using 73, with about an equal number split between 74 and 72/71.

What happens when you play with boules that are too big? ▲

There seem to be two consequences of throwing boules that are too big. One is accuracy issues, and the other is forearm fatigue and soreness. These problems occur with notable regularity among women players, who as a group have smaller hands than male players.

Byron Putman, in his book Petanque, notes that many players compensate for throwing oversized boules by unconsciously pulling their fingers apart. There may also be undesired thumb friction. The result is that players throwing oversized boules often have chronic issues with undesired sidespin (causing non-linear rollout) and release hang-ups (which can cause difficulties in controlling the distance of a throw). [pp. 75-77]

In addition, a larger (or heavier) boule requires a greater gripping force. The player must squeeze the boule harder in order to hold it. The squeezing tightens the forearm flexor muscles, producing forearm fatigue and soreness. I’ve had a friend — a small lady player — tell me that she experiences forearm soreness. And Carl Herbert, of the Seattle Petanque Club, reported the same thing in a recent email exchange.

Yes, I believe you are correct that Americans use bad advice for selection of boules. After six months of playing daily with boules that caused my forearm to ache, I tried using smaller boules and found I shoot more accurately with them. I suspect I point better with smaller boules as well… I play mostly with a set of 71mm 650g boules now, and I like them very much.

The solution — smaller boules ▲

The obvious solution to the problems of boules that are too big, is to play with smaller boules. Byron Putman found this to be especially true for the women players in his group. [Petanque, pp. 104-5]

The minimum certified boule size is 70.5mm. According to the boule sizing chart a 71mm boule equates to the hand measurement between 170mm and 180mm. I’ve measured the hands of over 50 women with a variety of heights and bone structures. The average thumb to middle finger span is about 163mm which, according to most sizing charts, would specify a 69mm boule!

Putman tells the story of a female friend with a very small hand who suffered “chronic release issues” while using 71mm, 680g boules. Her release issues vanished when she switched to “competition junior” boules of 70.5mm, 650g.

Even 1/2mm and 30g can make a huge difference to a player with petite paws… Of the 12 regular women players in my summer group, eight of them throw [compet. juniors] — and they absolutely love them!

During my email conversation with Carl Herbert, he wrote

I think there is better advice to give newcomers than what I got myself. I feel strongly clubs should provide a range of boules for new players, especially smaller sizes. Many clubs provide only the 73mm Chinese-made boules or the 74mm Obut leisure boules for lending to beginners, and I think that is a grievous error. They start out hindered even before they know how to play the game.

I see a lot of new players buy Obut leisure boules because they are relatively inexpensive, but many women who start with such large-diameter boules have trouble with them. B.W. Putman mentions in his book that women in his area who play with junior boules (70.5mm, 650 to 670 grams) like them and play well with them. I like them too! I have yet to hear a reasoned explanation why anybody can’t play with smaller, lighter boules to good effect. Indeed, my experience has been that I generally play better with them.

Perhaps I will experiment again with larger-diameter boules in the future, but I expect I will always find smaller-diameter boules more precise. One reason is that boules with a relatively smaller fit within my hand permit me greater variation in my grip. The tactile variability of the boule in my hand allows me better consistency in how I grip it. I have a better feel for minor differences of my grip.

I started with my 71mm, 650-gram boules this past January after having played with 72mm boules for a few months. I had played with a set of junior boules during a visit to California, and I liked them very much. My benefit was immediate and considerable.

I suggest new players are better off starting with boules in the 70.5mm to 72mm range unless they have very large hands. Even then there’s no reason they can’t play the small boules for a while. I suggest it is better to start small and move gradually to larger sizes than it is to use the various selection guides to guess compromising sizes to suit an ideal skill level that players may attain in the future. The latter approach probably costs a player more money and accumulates more steel boules in their closets.

I can certainly identify with that last sentence. I have several sets of 76mm boules that are going up for sale on eBay one of these days.

In summary… There are good reasons to suspect that the traditional advice about boule size tends to steer players toward selecting and playing with boules that are too large. If you are having consistency or accuracy issues with your throwing, or are experiencing tiredness or soreness in your forearm, you should probably consider experimenting with a smaller size of boule.


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


Nails in the ground

The idea of driving a nail into the ground may seem like a strange one. But it is a traditional practice in petanque to drive nails into the ground to hold strings and backboards (boards for wooden surrounds) in place.

fanny_with_nailed_backstopOne of the grand traditions of petanque are pictures and postcards of Fanny. In this one, I’d like to direct your attention to the backboards on the ground. Note that they are being held in place by big nails.

rebar_terrainNow that we’re in the 21st century, rebar (with safety caps) seems to be replacing big nails as the fastener of choice for wooden surrounds.

Here is a video from Spain. Starting at the 1-minute mark, it shows them stringing a piste using red wooden pegs. Perhaps that’s the way they traditionally do it in Spain, but I’d call that a trip hazard. Better to lay out a piste with nails and string.

Petanque gloves for cold weather

In Washington DC, in January, when you get out there on the piste in 40-degree weather, those metal boules can get pretty cold.

My first impulse of course was to pull on my gloves. But there were problems with the gloves. They were nylon ski gloves. They were warm enough all right, but they were bulky. Between the thick insulation and the slippery nylon surface of the glove, I had no grip or feel for the boule; I couldn’t control it. It was hard pulling the gloves on and off, so I finally ended up playing bare-handed, despite the cold, stuffing my hands into my pockets when I could.

The other day I saw a friend wearing some unusual gloves, and then later the same day I found them in an appliance fix-it shop. (You can probably find them in a gardening shop or a hardware store.) So I bought them and thought I’d give them a try. They cost $5.
The gloves are Magid ROC40T-L The ROC Rayon Made from Bamboo Collection Nitrile Gloves, Mens Large by Magid Glove. I also found them at They are basically a sort of light cottony glove (I guess technically the are not cotton, but some sort of rayon made from bamboo.) They are not bulky at all, and they are slightly elastic, so they fit snugly but comfortably over your hand. Your impression is of a very thin glove — just the opposite of a bulky ski glove.

The palms and insides of the fingers are coated with some black substance (I guess it is called “nitrile”). It is flexible and sort of rubbery, with a surface that is not sticky, but not slippery either. With this kind of surface, I think you could actually get a good grip on a boule, with decent feeling. The reviewers of the glove say things like

  • These gloves are good for light to medium duty jobs that require more ability to use fingers.
  • These gloves work great for jobs where you need some “feel” for the work and a sensitive grip, like pulling weeds or picking up pine cones and small brush.

The gloves are meant to be light work gloves. The reviews mentioned that they aren’t very sturdy. But I figure that that shouldn’t matter if I’m going to be using them only for petanque.

So I bought a pair.

They are not very warm — they weren’t designed for warmth. But they are warm enough — the nitrile coating does indeed take the edge off of the temperature of a freezing boule.

The gloves don’t breathe; the nitrile coating traps perspiration. But my hands aren’t perspiring very much — they are cold. That’s why I’m wearing gloves in the first place.

Best of all, after a frame or two, I’m just playing normally. I’ve completely forgot that I’m wearing gloves.

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.
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 for several photos, including the next three.

One of the best comparison tools is a folding rule with an extensible end piece. This photo shows the correct way to hold the rule, with the butt against the boule and the slider extension toward the jack. The photo is wrong about one thing, though. The rule should be flipped over, so that you’re looking down on the plain, unmarked side of the ruler. That way the slider-control button will be facing upward. It will be easy to place your left thumb on the slider-control button, and to use your left thumb to slide the extension in and out.

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.

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. 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 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.

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 and carry on with the game.


  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

How to lay out a piste with strings

I’ve looked on the Web and in books, but I haven’t been able to find any instructions (in English) on how to lay out a piste with strings. So I’ve done a bit of experimentation, and I’ve found out a few things that seem to work.

Materials that you will need

You should be able to get all of this stuff at your local hardware store.

a roll of nylon string
for marking the sides of the piste.
for anchoring the strings that mark the sides of the piste. I’ve been using six-inch nails. Five-inch nails work too. If you want to go industrial strength, seven-inch nails (shown in the photograph, below) are great but probably overkill.

Tools that you will need

a long tape measure
preferably a 100-foot, fabric (not steel), crank-wind measure with metric markings.
an ordinary claw hammer
You can pound the nails into the ground with the hammer end of the head, and you can use the claw end to pull the nails out of the ground. For pulling the nails out of the ground, an ordinary set of pliers also works well.
Some tool for cutting the nylon string
a scissors or a pocket knife.

How to nail a string to the ground

Start by driving the nail into the ground, but not all of the way— leave about one inch exposed. Wind the end of the string around the nail about 4 times. Then pound the nail all the way into the ground.

Note that you don’t need to tie the string to the nail. Just the pressure of the dirt on the string and nail will be enough to hold the string in place. Note also that you should drive the nail all of the way into the ground, so the head is flush with the surface of the ground, or a little below. Do NOT leave the nail sticking up above ground level. If you do, people will trip on the nail head.

The easiest way to pull a nail out of the ground is with a locking pliers. Grab the head of the nail with the pliers, twist and pull and the nail will come out easily. If the idea of driving a nail into the ground seems strange, see our post Nails in the ground.

How to lay out the piste

Determine the approximate location of the 4 corners of your piste. Drive a nail into the ground at the location of the first corner.

Using your tape measure, lay out one of the long sides of the piste. Measure off 15 meters and drive another nail into the ground at that spot, leaving an inch of the nail still exposed. Pull the string taut. Just as you did with the first nail, wind the end of the string around the nail four times and drive the nail into the ground until it is flush. Cut off the string from the roll, leaving a free tail of string about 6 inches long. (The tail won’t hurt anything, and it may help later, if you want to extract the nail from the ground.)

At this point, you have created the first side of your piste. Now make the other 3 sides in the same way, so that you create a rectangle 15 meters (50 feet) long and 4 meters (13 feet) wide.

Where to put the nails

There are several different ways to string the piste. They all work. Do whatever feels good to you.

  • You can make the 4 sides using 4 separate pieces of string and 8 nails (shown on the left, below).
  • You can use 4 nails for the corners, and a single length of string running around all four sides of the piste (shown in the center, below).
  • A third style (shown on the right, below) is often used when the piste is enclosed in a wooden border. The strings extend beyond the sides of the piste, all of the way to the wooden border — usually 30 to 50 centimeters (one to two feet). One advantage of this style is that it keeps the nails away from the normal area of play, especially if they’re tucked up against the wooden border.

How to make right-angles at the corners of the piste

To make a piste whose corners are perfectly “square”, your most important tools are your tape measure and your knowledge that a 3-4-5 triangle is a right triangle. So let’s start to lay out a competition-size piste — 15m x 4m.

[1] To start, use string to lay out one of the long sides. It is 15 meters.

[2] Pick one end of the long side that you’ve just laid out. Let’s call that end (A).

[3] Take your tape measure. Starting from (A) measure back along the side for a distance of 3 meters and mark the point. Call this point (B). how_to_lay_out_a_rectangular_piste_1

Now we use our tape measure to draw two arcs.

[4] Starting at (A) use your tape measure to sweep a segment of a circle with a length (a radius) of 4 meters.

[5] Starting at (B) use your tape measure to sweep a segment of a circle with a length (a radius) of 5 meters, so that it intersects with the arc you drew in the last step. Call the spot where the two arcs intersect (C).

You now have all of the three points of a 3-4-5 right triangle ABC. AB is the 3-meter leg of the triangle. AC is the 4-meter leg of the triangle. And BC is the 5-meter leg of the triangle, the hypoteneuse.


[5] Lay out a string from point A to point C. You’ve just strung the end of your piste.

You can use the same procedure to lay out a short side at the other end of the long side. Then simply connect the two short sides with a second long side to finish enclosing your piste. Voilá, your piste is now a perfect rectangle.

If instead of a 4m x 15m piste, you want to lay out a 3m x 12m piste, you can use the same procedure — just make AB the 4-meter side, and AC the 3-meter side.

Open terrains

The most enjoyable way to play petanque is to play it on an open, natural, unmarked terrain.

Here are pétanque terrains and players in Collioure, France (courtesy of Homage to Barcelona blog). 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.

Click on the picture to view it full-size.Pétanque courts and players in Collioure, France

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.
Click on the picture to view it full-size.

The Cote d’Azur.

One of the most pleasant places I’ve ever played — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.
Click on the picture to view it full-size.

Reid Park, Tucson, Arizona, USA.
Click on the picture to view it full-size.

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.

Petanque scoreboards

A board with numbers and two colored clothes pins! Courtesy of the FPUSA video “How to Play Petanque” on YouTube. The video was shot on the terrains of the National Capitol Club de Petanque, in Arlington, Virginia. I believe that this scoring board was created by Joseph Acciardi.

Recently I saw a picture of a similar scoreboard at Rick Armstrong’s private terrain, near Austin. Note the use of multiple clothespins. They provide a record of the scores of the last few ends (rounds, frames) that each team has won. Neat!
scoreboard_austin_rick_armstrong There doesn’t seem to be any generally accepted convention about whether the numbers should run from top to bottom, or bottom to top.

These scoring clocks are standard fixtures in the boulodrome in Nyons, France. They are smaller than they appear in the picture— they are no more than a foot high.

devices_scoring_flipchartHere’s another simple scoring device that I saw recently. Flipcharts with numbers.