Rules governing the jack

COMING SOON… An update of this article to cover the 2016 version of the rules.
Over the years, the  jack has changed and evolved. It is about to change again, so let’s look at where it has been and where it is going. (See also our earlier post on Resin Jacks.)

  1. The rules governing jacks
  2. Synthetic jacks
  3. Magnetic jacks
  4. The weight of jacks
  5. What (if anything) is wrong with paramagnetic jacks?
  6. What is wrong with metal jacks?


The rules governing jacks ▲

The specifications for jacks are contained in two separate documents. The first is the set of official rules. The second is called Fabricants de Boules: Labels des Boules et Buts agréés en compétition. It is a list of certified manufacturers, boules, and synthetic jacks.

Here is a summary of the changes to the specifications for the jack, from the founding of the FIPJP through the year 2010.

1957 and 1962
Jacks are made of wood. Their diameter should be between 25mm (minimum) and 35mm (maximum).
Les buts seront en bois. Leur diamètre doit être compris entre 25 mm (minimum) et 35 mm (maximum).
1959 and 1964
Jacks are made of wood. (Jacks made of metal are officially forbidden.)
Les buts seront en bois. (Les buts métalliques sont formellement interdits.)
Jacks are made exclusively of wood. Wooden jacks that are painted white are permitted.
Les buts sont exclusivement en bois. Les buts en bois peints en blanc sont autorisés.
Jacks are made exclusively of wood. Wooden jacks that are painted (whatever the color) that permit better visibility on the terrain are permitted.
Les buts sont exclusivement en bois. Les buts en bois peints (quelle que soit la couleur) permettant une meilleure visibilité sur le terrain sont autorisés.
Jacks are made exclusively of wood. Jacks that are painted – whatever the color – are permitted.
Les buts sont exclusivement en bois. Les buts peints – quelle que soit la couleur – sont autorisés.
Jacks are made of wood, or of a synthetic material bearing the manufacturer’s trademark and having obtained the FIPJP’s approval in line with the precise specification relating to the required standards. Jacks that are painted – whatever the color – are permitted.
Les buts sont en bois, ou en matiére synthétique portant le label du fabricant et ayant fait l’objet d’une homologation de la F.I.P.J.P. en application du cahier des charges spécifique relatif aux normes requises. Les buts peints – quelle que soit la couleur – sont autorisés.
The list of approved boules and manufacturers was modified so that a synthetic jack manufactured by the company VMS was licensed.
Les buts portant le label “VMS” sont agréés.
Jacks are made of wood, or of a synthetic material … Their diameter must be 30mm (+/- 1mm). Painted jacks are permitted, but must not be able to be picked up with a magnet.
Les buts sont en bois, ou en matière synthétique … Leur diamètre doit être de 30mm (tolérance: + ou – 1mm). Les buts peints sont autorisés, mais ne doivent pas pouvoir être ramassés avec un aimant.

Note that —

  1. In the 1960’s, jacks made of metal were prohibited. In 1970 the prohibition was replaced by a requirement that jacks be made exclusively of wood. In 2002, jacks made of synthetic material (i.e. plastic) were also allowed. I will talk more about that in a moment.
  2. Jacks were originally unpainted wood. In 1979, painted jacks were permitted, as long as they were painted white. In 1984, any color was permitted.
  3. Originally the jack could be any size from 25mm to 35mm in diameter. (This allowed for a lot of variation in the size of the jack.) In 2008 the size of a jack was set at exactly 30mm, plus or minus 1mm. (This put an end to the big variations in the size.)
  4. The prohibition on “magnetic” jacks is not a long-standing tradition. It first appeared in the rules in 2008.
  5. The rules did NOT specify the kind of wood that the jack was to be made of.
  6. The rules did NOT specify the jack’s weight.

Traditionally, jacks are made of boxwood (buis) or beechwood. A jack made of boxwood is heavier (14-15g) than a jack made of beechwood (9-10g). Before 2008, differences in wood along with differences in size permitted a wide variation in the weight of the jack— from small light beechwood to large heavy boxwood.


Synthetic jacks ▲

The jack began to see dramatic changes starting in 2002, when for the first time the rules allowed jacks to be made of plastic.

VMS_tortue_bouleThe change was initiated in 1996, by a boutique manufacturer of petanque boules, VMS.

VMS (now MS Petanque) is probably best-known for its distinctive tortue (“tortoise”) boules, designed to resemble the old wooden “nailed” boules (boules cloutées). VMS introduced its new line of boules in 1996, and — as a marketing gimmick — simultaneously brought out a new line of colorful epoxy resin jacks. The design of the resin jacks, like the design of the new boules, was meant to suggest the appearance of the old nailed boules — they were… bumpy.

Mike Pegg writes —

clearing_the_circle_02These 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 to purchase and of course, as is the way with these things, the market was flooded with resin jacks. Instead of banning them the FIPJP decided to approve them … but sadly without any real investigation.

As soon as people started using the synthetic jacks, they started having problems with them.

First of all, the synthetic jacks are hard. In pictures, they look like they might be rubbery, or at least hard/rubbery like a golf ball. But the epoxy resin material is very hard, like a billiard ball or a bowling ball. And the resin jacks are heavy. A boxwood jack might weigh 15g, but (for example) the “black ball” synthetic jack that Obut introduced in 2013 weighs just under 18g.

The hardness and heaviness are features that Obut actively promotes, saying that they give a player better control when throwing a jack (which is probably true). But the hardness means that if a synthetic jack is hit by a boule, it is likely to fly farther and faster than a wood jack would. This means that it is more likely to fly far enough to hit a player or a spectator. And the weight, in conjunction with the hardness, means that if you get hit with a synthetic jack, it is going to hurt more.

Almost immediately, many national organizations, including the FPUSA, banned the resin jacks.

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.

Mike Pegg writes —

The English Petanque Association and many other European nations have either banned them or restricted their use. The FIPJP allow only wooden jacks to be used at the World Champs. [That is, the FIPJP does NOT allow synthetic jacks to be used at the World Championships.]

The issue we and other nations have with the resin jack is two-fold.

  1. They are far more dense (they don’t even float) than a wooden jack, causing more injury if you get hit by one.
  2. When they break (hit by a boule for example) they shatter into pieces which can be sharp.

There are a number of reported incidents where players have been hit on the arm causing a severe bruise. More worrying was a player hit in the face near his eye receiving a nasty cut. Our insurers advised us as we know these jacks can cause an injury we could negate our policy cover if we allowed them to be used.

And on petanque forums on the web, players chimed in with other objections.

  • The dimples on the VMS synthetic jack might make measuring a problem in very tight situations.
  • The rules say that a puddle is terrain interdit if it is deep enough to float a jack — but what if the jack is so dense that it doesn’t float!?
  • The rules require that a synthetic jack carry the manufacturer’s label, but (said one commenter) if you play ONE time with a VMS jack, the “VMS” wears off and the jack (at least technically) becomes illegal.

And so on.


Magnetic jacks ▲

And so matters stood, until January 2013.

In January 2013 French players opened up their copies of the new 2013 Obut catalog and saw this. (Well, something like this. This is actually from the 2015 catalog. Or perhaps they visited the Obut online store, and saw this.)


The catalog said that these new, black jacks (buts noirs) were ramassables par aimant — could be picked up by a magnet — AND that they were approved by the FIPJP. But surely that was impossible! Since 2008 the rules had specifically said that “Jacks are made of wood, or of a synthetic material … Painted jacks are permitted, but must not be able to be picked up with a magnet.”

To verify that their memory wasn’t playing tricks on them, the players checked the text of the rules. That clause was still there. And then they checked the list of approved manufacturers, boules, and jacks, and to their surprise found that the list of approved jacks now included Obut’s new black jack. And as if to deliberately compound the confusion, the specification that “Painted jacks are permitted, but must not be able to be picked up with a magnet” had been copied from the rules, added to the list of approved jacks, and highlighted in bold type.


This caused a lot of confusion among ordinary players and umpires alike. Questions, answers, and comments flew on petanque forums such as Boulistenaute.

The first confusion was about whether the new jack was magnetic or paramagnetic. A material is magnetic if it carries a persistent magnetic field. A material is paramagnetic if it does not carry a magnetic field itself, but is attracted by an externally applied magnetic field. Ordinary steel hardware, for example, is paramagnetic. Nuts and bolts aren’t themselves magnets, but they can be picked up with magnets.

The answer is that the Obut black jack contains iron oxide particles embedded in the synthetic material. That means that the jack is paramagnetic — it is not a magnet itself, but it can be picked up by a magnet. Il n’est pas aimanté, il peut-être aimanté.

The second problem was how to reconcile the approval of the black jack with the fact that the rules explicitly say that “Painted jacks are permitted, but must not be able to be picked up with a magnet.”

It turned out that the official position was (as it still is, as of February 2015) that the subject of the sentence is “painted jacks”, so the rule says only that PAINTED jacks may not be capable of being picked by a magnet. It says nothing about UNPAINTED jacks (such as the synthetic Obut jacks), and so allows unpainted jacks to be capable of being picked up with a magnet.

One can say two things about this official position.

  1. It is absurd. As Eli Nielsen wrote: Do you really believe, that those who wrote the rules meant, that only painted jacks were not to be picked up with a magnet, but any other jack could legally be picked up with a magnet. What is the point?
  2. Grammatically speaking, it is correct. The rule as it is worded says exactly what the official position interprets it as saying. All that this demonstrates, however, is that this rule — like many other rules — is sloppily written.

After these issues had been resolved, and people correctly understood the situation, there was almost universal disapproval of the FIPJP certification of the Obut magnetic jack. A few people noted that paramagnetic jacks might be helpful to handicapped players who use magnetic boule lifters. Several commenters voiced the opinion that the approval showed that it is really Obut, not the FIPJP, that writes the rules. Some voiced the opinion that the approval was a disgraceful sellout by the FIPJP.


The weight of jacks ▲

And so matters stood for about a year, until February 2014.

On February 7, 2014, a seminar for international umpires was convened in Tolouse. It was attended by Claude Azéma, President of the FIPJP, as well as the presidents of both the FIPJP and FFPJP Umpires Committees. One topic of discussion was the Obut paramagnetic jacks. [This English translation of the meeting notes was supplied by the FIPJP. In places, the recorded remarks of the speakers don’t make much sense. It isn’t a translation problem — the remarks don’t make sense in French, either.]

The President [of the FIPJP, Claude Azéma] first explained why the Obut jack, which could be picked up with a magnet, had been approved. In fact, the wording and effect of the relevant sentence of article 3, which says that jacks should not be capable of being picked up by a magnet, concerns only painted jacks. The Obut jack is not painted but dyed in bulk. In any case, as it only contains a few oxide particles, there is no risk of electrolysis. [The last sentence may reflect a confused understanding of the fact that ferrites are electrically nonconductive.]

A number of umpires drew attention to the danger of jacks that were too heavy. The President also raised the problems posed by jacks that were too light, in terms both of throwing them and of their behavior, which had led the FIPJP to impose wooden jacks at the world championships.

It will therefore be proposed to state in the regulations that jacks, whatever they are made of, must weigh between 10 and 18 grams, and that this restriction can be retroactive for synthetic jacks that have already been approved. That would be added to the rules of play and to the manufacturing specification.

I actually find plausible M. Azéma’s assertion that it was problems with light jacks at the world championships that motivated the creation of rules about the weight of jacks. That would be completely consistent with the way that changes to the FIPJP rules have come about in the past. Historically, the biggest stimulus for rule changes has been problems that the international umpires themselves personally experienced at the world championships — witness the rule on completely clearing the circle.

In any event, M. Azéma was as good as his word. The Umpires Seminar took place in February 2014. Less than a year later, at the end of January 2015, International Umpire Mike Pegg noted that

At the World Congress [January 24-25, 2015, in Nice] it was announced that these [paramagnetic] jacks are permitted…. but a new weight limit is also being introduced for all jacks. By December 2017 the only jacks permitted will be those with a diameter of 30mm + or – 1mm and weigh between 10g and 18g.

So there you have it… the next step in the evolution of the jack. Starting in 2018, (at least at FIPJP-sanctioned events) jacks must weigh between 10g and 18g.

The new rules governing the weight of jacks don’t address the real problem with synthetic jacks, which is not the weight, but the hardness of the material. As long as jacks are made of epoxy resin, they may still shatter into sharp shards if they break. Because the epoxy resin is so hard, such jacks will still fly like bullets when they are shot by a boule, and they will still hurt like hell when they hit somebody.

My personal opinion is that the future of the jack is almost certainly a synthetic jack. Just as metal boules replaced boxwood boules, so synthetic jacks will replace boxwood jacks. But I also think that the synthetic jack of the future will not be an epoxy resin jack. The trick will be to find a synthetic material that provides something closer to the weight and hardness of a traditional boxwood jack. If that can be done (and I think it probably can) then I think synthetic jacks should be easier and cheaper to manufacture than wooden jacks. Their size and weight will likely be very consistent and uniform. Without a coat of paint to chip off, they should be more durable. And they should allow us to quit murdering innocent boxwood plants. (Over-harvesting of boxwood roots to make the old wooden nailed boules was an important contributing factor in the development of the all-metal boule.)


What (if anything) is wrong with paramagnetic jacks? ▲

In all the hubbub over paramagnetic jacks, nobody has ever provided a good answer to the question “What’s so bad about paramagnetic jacks? Why are were paramagnetic jacks forbidden?”

One theory is that the prohibition on paramagnetic jacks was really meant as a prohibition on metal jacks. That’s just silly. First, there is no reason for the FIPJP to use such a backhanded way to prohibit metal jacks. They could simply prohibit metal jacks, like they did in some early versions of the rules. Second, metal jacks already were prohibited… in the specification that jacks must be made of wood or some approved synthetic material. Third, prohibiting paramagnetic jacks won’t prohibit metal jacks — it would be easy to make a metal jack out of a non-paramagnetic metal such as the bronze-aluminum alloy that was used to make the first all-metal boule, the Boule Intégrale.

boule_lifter_magnetic_obut_telescopicAnother theory is that some players use their telescoping magnetic boule lifters as measuring devices. Using a boule lifter in this way is possible only because the magnetic end of the boule lifter will not attract the (non-paramagnetic) wooden jack. This theory holds that paramagnetic jacks were prohibited in 2008 because — if such jacks ever were to be developed — their use might interfere with this practice. But frankly… Is it really plausible that in 2008 the International Umpires Committee, while crafting rules for the use of hundreds of thousands of players world-wide, felt a sudden need to create a new rule to protect the convenience of the vanishingly small number of old duffers (like me) who occasionally kludge their telescoping boule lifters into measuring sticks? If that really was a concern, it would be much more typical of the FIPJP to prohibit telescoping boule lifters from being used to measure, in just the same way that the rules insist that measurements must be made with appropriate instruments and explicitly forbid using the feet to make measurements.

Another theory is that if the jack were to be paramagnetic, then a player might be able to cheat by placing a magnet in his shoe and surreptitiously moving the jack with his foot. This is silly. Just think about it for a second. Having a magnet in your shoe would actually make it harder, not easier, to cheat by moving the jack with your foot.

And stuffing your boules with magnets wouldn’t be a good idea, either.

In the end, one suspects that there never was a good reason to forbid paramagnetic jacks. Instead, the reason (whatever it was) probably lay in a limited understanding of the physics of magnetism and a vague suspicion that a paramagnetic jack might somehow lead to problems.

And we are left with mysteries.

  1. If the FIPJP has good reasons for prohibiting paramagnetic painted jacks, why is it NOT prohibiting paramagnetic synthetic jacks? Or, to put it the other way around…
  2. If paramagnetic synthetic jacks are OK, then why are paramagnetic painted jacks prohibited?
  3. Historically speaking, why, in 2008, did the FIPJP amend the rules to add the prohibition on painted paramagnetic jacks? What was it — at that particular point in time, 2008 — that caused the Umpires Committee suddenly to consider paramagnetic jacks such a problem that they had to add a rule covering them?


What is wrong with metal jacks? ▲

Finally, I think it is worth asking “What’s wrong with metal jacks? Why are they forbidden?” I can think of three reasons.

  1. Tradition. Traditionally, jacks are made of wood.
  2. Safety. A metal jack would be hard, heavy, and dangerous.
  3. There were no compelling technological/economic reasons to switch from wood to metal.
    In this matter, jacks were different from boules. In the case of boules, the development of new technology permitted the manufacture of all-metal boules. Metal boules were cheaper and easier to manufacture than the old nailed boxwood boules. They could be manufactured to more precise and consistent specifications. Metal allowed the weight of a boule to be decoupled from its size. And the switch to metal reduced the demand for boxwood roots, which were being over-harvested. None of these reasons applied (or applied as strongly) to jacks.

In terms of tradition and safety, synthetic jacks aren’t significantly different from metal jacks. So why are we seeing the adoption of synthetic jacks, when we’ve never seen the adoption of metal jacks? I think the reason is that the technology and economics of epoxy resin make it a more compelling replacement than metal. So jacks are now following the same evolutionary path that boules followed in the 1920s.

  1. Technological advances permit the use of new materials. Economic advantages encourage use of the new material (all-metal boules 1920s, synthetic jacks 1995).
  2. The new material is adopted (all-metal boules 1925, synthetic jacks 2002).
  3. It is discovered that the new material can be manufactured to more precise and consistent standards than the old material.
  4. The rules introduce new, more precise specifications.

Consistent with this evolutionary pattern, over the last few years we have seen a tendency toward more precise specifications for jacks — for size in 2008, and for weight in 2018.


Finally, just for fun, here is a curious object that I found on the Educanaute-Infos web site, in a post dated November 2013 — a jack filled with metal washers (rondelles)! I have no idea who made it, or why. Perhaps is was made as a joke.



A vendor in France.  Photo courtesy of Arsene Dupin of the Heart of Texas Petanque Club.

A vendor in France. Photo courtesy of Arsene Dupin of the Heart of Texas Petanque Club.