Ray Ager writes:
CX COU, ATX, ITR3, hard, soft or semi-soft, carbon or stainless, smooth or striped? For a beginner – and sometimes even for more experienced players – choosing the right boules can be quite bewildering. Hopefully, these guidelines will help.
The first thing to know is that boules come in two main types:
- Leisure boules. These are the sets of boules you often find in gift shops or garden centres, sold in sets of 6 or 8. They are a family set, ”one size and weight fits all” and are usually packaged as pairs of boules, with different stripe patterns.
- Competition boules. These are only sold in sets of 3 and come in different weights and sizes, so that players can choose the correct boule for their hand and type of game.
If you’re just playing for fun the leisure sets are a low-cost way to start playing. If you’re a more serious player, especially if you want to play in competitions, you will need your own set of competition boules.
NB Leisure boules are usually sold in pairs. This means if you buy a set of 6, you’ll get 3 pairs of boules. The logical thing would be to have two sets of 3, i.e. for two people to play singles. Three pairs means that three players will often play ‘3 singles’ with 2 boules each, which totally destroys the basic structure and tactics of two opposing teams.
If you buy a set of 8, you will get 4 pairs. This means you can play doubles but with only 2 boules per player – you should have 3. You could play singles with 4 boules each. Most serious players consider triples to be the best format – it’s the most sociable and offers the most scope for team tactics, i.e. what makes pétanque a great game. In contrast, there is far less scope for tactics in a singles game – 4 boules does at least make for a better game.
If you do want to play triples with leisure boules, you’ll need two sets of six, i.e. 12 boules, but the limited stripe patterns mean that you may not be able to identify which boules belong to which team …
NBB Most leisure boules are 73 or 74mm in diameter, a fairly standard size for average hands. Beware that there are some sets of very small boules, about 67mm – fine for children but much too small for adults.
Competition boules are manufactured to much higher and rigorous standards. Permitted sizes: are 70.5 to 80mm diameter although the usually manufactured sizes are 72 to 76mm. As a rough guide, 73 to 74mm is an average size, 71 to 72mm for smaller hands, 75 to 76mm for larger hands. Permitted weights are 650 to 800g but the usually manufactured weights are 680 to 720g. Again, as a rough guide, 700g is a good middle-of-the-range weight, suitable for pointing and shooting.
Pointer, Shooter or Middle? Conventional wisdom is:
- Pointers play with a smaller, heavier, striped boule
- Shooters play with a larger, lighter, smooth boule
- Middle players play with a standard size and weight, single stripe
So, you might play with a 73mm, 710 to 720g, double stripe for pointing; 74mm, 700g, single stripe as middle; 75mm, 680 to 690g, smooth for shooting. The theory for the variations is that a smaller, heavier boule will roll truer on the terrain and be harder to displace from attack, while a larger, lighter boule is less tiring to throw.
Choosing the correct size
Boule manufacturers provide sizing charts to indicate the standard size of boule for your hand. The club has one for members to use. You should be holding approximately half the boule in your hand.
Holding a boule
If the boule is too small, you’ll find it harder to grip correctly and release, if too large, then you will need to grip it tighter to prevent it slipping out from your hand.
Choosing the correct weight. As stated above, 700g is a good average weight, suitable for all round play, 710 to 720g if you prefer a slightly heavier boule for pointing, 680 to 690g if you prefer a slightly lighter boule for shooting. However, bear in mind that a smaller boule feels heavier in the hand, a larger boule feels lighter. It’s always a good idea to try several different boules before buying your own set. The most important thing is that the boule feels comfortable in your hand.
Smooth or striped? Again, conventional wisdom is that pointers prefer a more heavily striped boule, shooters a smooth boule. The main purpose of the stripe pattern is to identify the different boules on the terrain and again, it really comes down to personal preference as to which you prefer. Some say that a more heavily striped boule grips the terrain better whereas a smooth boule allows a clean release from the hand when shooting. How much difference a stripe or two really makes is a matter for debate – play with what you feel comfortable with.
Carbon or Stainless? Most boules are either made from carbon or stainless steel, a few are made from a bronze alloy. There’s no difference in performance between carbon and stainless. The main differences are as follows.
- won’t rust, needs little if any maintenance
- more expensive
- slightly slippery feel
- Needs wiping with an oily rag to keep the rust at bay, especially if boules are left for any length of time
- better grip
Once again the difference is grip is usually only slight and is down to personal preference.
Hardness. Last but not least, boules are either hard, soft or semi-soft. They all feel pretty hard if you drop one on your foot but they are manufactured to a different degree of hardness. So, what’s the difference:
- last longer
- better for softer, sandy terrains
- better for pointing
- usually cheaper
- lower bounce, lower rebound
- better for shooting, more chance of a carreau
- better for pointing on harder, stony terrains
- mark more and don’t last as long
- usually more expensive
- basically a good all round compromise
- lower bounce, lower rebound
- won’t last as a long as a hard boule but will last longer than a soft boule
- usually more expensive
Low bounce means that when the boule hits the terrain, it will bounce less than a hard boule. This gives an advantage to pointers especially on more difficult, stony terrains. Low rebound means that when you shoot, your boule is more likely to stay near the target boule. This gives an advantage to shooters and increases the chance of a carreau – the perfect shot where the shooter’s boule takes the place of the target boule.
Markings. Leisure boules have no markings, other than the stripes. Competition boules must be marked with:
- the manufacturer’s name
- the model of the boule
- the weight
- a unique identifying number
NB The name, model, weight and number must be legible for the boules to be valid competition boules. Boules, especially soft boules, do gradually wear over time and the engraving will eventually become illegible.
In addition, you are allowed to have your name or initials engraved on the boule, to help identify your own set – useful when everybody is playing with smooth boules. (A nice birthday present 🙂 NB This can only be done at the factory.
How many sets of boules do you need?
How long is a piece of string! Many (sensible?) players only use one set. Others have several and will change boules according to what position they play in the team, pointer, middle or shooter and the type of terrain, hard or soft, smooth or stony.
Manufacturers invariably bring out ‘new’ boules every couple of years, usually with an even lower bounce and rebound that before, invariably at a higher price!
The experienced player will tell you ”it’s the arm” that makes the difference, not the boule. It’s usually a mistake to continually change boules in the hope you’ll (eventually) find the perfect set that will miraculously change your game.
All boules are a compromise between price, performance and longevity. For many players semi-soft boules are a good choice.
Personally, I mostly play with a 76mm, 700g boule, currently CX COU – a very nice, semi-soft, carbon steel boule. If I’m the pointer with a couple of good shooters, i.e. I know I probably won’t have to shoot very often, I play with a 75mm, 710g boule. If I’m going to be the shooter, I prefer a 680g boule.
All very confusing for the beginner! Best advice is:
- start with the correct size boule for your hand
- chose a middle of the range weight
- choose a stripe pattern that you like
- avoid any extreme choices, i.e. 71mm + 800g or 80mm + 650g, etc.
After you’ve been playing for a while and gain experience, you can think about a second set, especially if you want to be more of a specialist pointer or shooter. Until you have gained sufficient experience, you won’t really have the knowledge to choose a different set anyway.
NB A 1mm difference is diameter is very small (but the circumference is bigger), a 5 or 10g difference in weight hardly noticeable.
Did You Know?
Steel boules are made in two halves, welded together – the boules are hollow.
Bronze boules are cast in a single mould: they are not welded together and usually have a ‘ring’ to them, when hit. Bronze has a warmer feel, in contrast to cold steel.
Boules used to be wooden, covered with nails to provide strength and weight. These are now quite collectable.
Some of the cheaper leisure boules are made with thinner metal and filled with industrial waste to make up the weight. That’s why they rattle after some time. Yes, I have cut one open to verify this is correct.
Surface colour: some boules are coloured, usually black, blue or blue-grey. This is just a surface coating, mainly to protect the boules from rust before they are sold, also to make them look nice 🙂 The coating will gradually scuff off over time and the boules will have the colour of the underlying metal.
Soft boules will mark when hit or when used on a rough, stony terrain. They will wear more than a hard boule and the markings will gradually become illegible.
If you have them, a good party trick is to take a small boule and a large boule, both weighing the same. Ask somebody to close their eyes and put one boule in each hand and ask which is heavier. Invariably, they will say the smaller boule!
A vous de jouer! You to play 🙂