Bowls (also known as Lawn Bowls or Lawn Bowling) is a precision sport in which the goal is to roll slightly radially asymmetrical balls (called bowls) closest to a smaller white ball (called the "jack","kitty", or "sweetie"). It is played outdoors on grass or artificial surfaces and indoors on artificial surfaces.

Bowls belongs to the boules sport family, and so is related to bocce and pétanque. It is most popular in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and in other Commonwealth nations.


It has been traced certainly to the 13th century, and conjecturally to the 12th. William Fitzstephen (d. about 1190), in his biography of Thomas Becket, gives a graphic sketch of the London of his day and, writing of the summer amusements of the young men, says that on holidays they were "exercised in Leaping, Shooting, Wrestling, Casting of Stones [in jactu lapidum], and Throwing of Javelins fitted with Loops for the Purpose, which they strive to fling before the Mark; they also use Bucklers, like fighting Men." It is commonly supposed that by jactus lapidum, Fitzstephen meant the game of bowls, but though it is possible that round stones may sometimes have been employed in an early variety of the game - and there is a record of iron bowls being used, though at a much later date, on festive occasions at Nairn, - nevertheless the inference seems unwarranted. The jactus lapidum of which he speaks was probably more akin to the modern "putting the weight," once even called "putting the stone." It is beyond dispute, however, that the game, at any rate in a rudimentary form, was played in the 13th century. A manuscript of that period in the royal library, Windsor (No. 20, E iv.), contains a drawing representing two players aiming at a small cone instead of an earthenware ball or jack.

Another manuscript of the same century has a crude but spirited picture which brings us into close touch with the existing game. Three figures are introduced and a jack. The first player's bowl has come to rest just in front of the jack; the second has delivered his bowl and is following after it with one of those eccentric contortions still not unusual on modern greens, the first player meanwhile making a repressive gesture with his hand, as if to urge the bowl to stop short of his own; the third player is depicted as in the act of delivering his bowl. A 14th century manuscript, Book of Prayers, in the Francis Douce collection in the Bodleian library at Oxford contains a drawing in which two persons are shown, but they bowl to no mark. Strutt (Sports and Pastimes) suggests that the first player's bowl may have been regarded by the second player as a species of jack; but in that case it is not clear what was the first player's target. In these three earliest illustrations of the pastime it is worth noting that each player has one bowl only, and that the attitude in delivering it was as various five or six hundred years ago as it is to-day. In the third he stands almost upright; in the first he kneels; in the second he stoops, halfway between the upright and the kneeling position.

As the game grew in popularity, it came under the ban of king and parliament, both fearing it might jeopardise the practice of archery, then so important in battle. Statutes forbidding it and other sports were enacted in the reigns of Edward III, Richard II and other monarchs. Even when, on the invention of gunpowder and firearms, the bow had fallen into disuse as a weapon of war, the prohibition was continued. The discredit attaching to bowling alleys, first established in London in 1455, probably encouraged subsequent repressive legislation, for many of the alleys were connected with taverns frequented by the dissolute and gamesters. The word "bowls" occurs for the first time in the statute of 1511 in which Henry VIII confirmed previous enactments against unlawful games. By a further act of 1541 - which was not repealed until 1845 - artificers, labourers, apprentices, servants and the like were forbidden to play bowls at any time except Christmas, and then only in their master's house and presence. It was further enjoined that any one playing bowls outside his own garden or orchard was liable to a penalty of 6s. 8d., while those possessed of lands of the yearly value of £100 might obtain licenses to play on their own private greens.

In 1864 William Wallace Mitchell (1803-1884), a Glasgow Cotton Merchant, published his "Manual of Bowls Playing" following his work as the secretary formed in 1849 by Scottish bowling clubs which became the basis of the rules of the modern game. Young Mitchell was only 11 when he played on Kilmarnock Bowling green, the oldest club in Scotland, instituted in 1740. The Scottish Bowling Association was the very first one to be established in 1892, although there had been a failed attempt 1n 1848 by 200 Scottish clubs. Today the club is played in over 40 countries with more 50 member national authorities. The home of the modern game is still Scotland with the World Bowls centre in Edinburgh at Caledonia House,1 Redheughs Rigg, South Gyle, Edinburgh, EH12 9DQ.


Lawn bowls is usually played on a large, rectangular, precisely leveled and manicured grass or synthetic surface known as a bowling green which is divided into parallel playing strips called rinks. An indoor variation on carpet is also played. In the simplest competition, singles, one of the two opponents flips a coin to see who wins the "mat" and begins a segment of the competition (in bowling parlance, an "end"), by placing the mat and rolling the jack to the other end of the green to serve as a target. Once it has come to rest, the jack is aligned to the center of the rink and the players take turns to roll their bowls from the mat towards the jack and thereby build up the "head".

A bowl may curve outside the rink boundary on its path, but must come to rest within the rink boundary to remain in play. Bowls falling into the ditch are dead and removed from play, except in the event when one has "touched" the jack on its way. "Touchers" are marked with chalk and remain alive in play even though they are in the ditch. Similarly if the jack is knocked into the ditch it is still alive unless it is out of bounds to the side resulting in a "dead" end which is replayed though according to international rules the jack is "respotted" to the center of the rink and the end is continued. After each competitor has delivered all of their bowls (four each in singles and pairs, three each in triples, and two bowls each in fours), the distance of the closest bowls to the jack is determined (the jack may have been displaced) and points, called "shots", are awarded for each bowl which a competitor has closer than the opponent's nearest to the jack. For instance, if a competitor has bowled two bowls closer to the jack than their competitor's nearest, they are awarded two shots. The exercise is then repeated for the next end, a game of bowls typically being of twenty one ends.

Lawn bowls is played on grass and variations from green to green are common. Greens come in all shapes and sizes, fast, slow, big crown, small crown etc.


Scoring systems vary from competition to competition. Games can be decided when:

  • a player in a singles game reaches a specified target number of shots (usually 21 or 25).
  • a team (pair, triple or four) has the higher score after a specified number of ends.

Games to a specified number of ends may also be drawn. The draw may stand, or the opponents may be required to play an extra end to decide the winner. These provisions are always published beforehand in the event's Conditions of Play.

In the Laws of the Sport of Bowls the winner in a singles game is the first player to score 21 shots. In all other disciplines (pairs, triples, fours) the winner is the team who has scored the most shots after 18 ends of play. Often local tournaments will play shorter games (often 10 or 12 ends). Some competitions use a "set" scoring system, with the first to seven points awarded a set in a best-or-three or best-of-five set match. As well as singles competition, there can be two (pairs), three (triples) and four-player (fours) teams. In these, teams bowl alternately, with each player within a team bowling all their bowls, then handing over to the next player. The team captain or "skip" always plays last and is instrumental in directing his team's shots and tactics. The current method of scoring in the professional tour (World Bowls Tour) is sets. Each set consists of nine ends and the player with the most shots at the end of a set wins the set. If the score is tied the set is halved. If a player wins two sets, or gets a win and a tie, that player wins the game. If each player wins a set, or both sets end tied, there is a 3-end tiebreaker to determine a winner.

Bias of bowls

Bowls are designed to travel a curved path because of a weight bias which was originally produced by inserting weights in one side of the bowl. This is no longer permitted by the rules and bias is now produced entirely by the shape of the bowl. A bowler determines the bias direction of the bowl in his hand by a dimple or symbol on one side. Regulations determine the minimum bias allowed, and the range of diameters (11.6 to 13.1 cm), but within these rules bowlers can and do choose bowls to suit their own preference. They were originally made from lignum vitae, a dense wood giving rise to the term "woods" for bowls, but are now more typically made of a hard plastic composite material.

Bowls were once only available coloured black or brown but they are now available in a variety of colours including a range of fluorescent hues. They have unique symbol markings engraved on them for identification. Since many bowls look the same, coloured, adhesive stickers or labels are also used to mark the bowls of each team in bowls matches. Some local associations agree specific colours for stickers for each of the clubs in their area. Provincial or national colors are often assigned in national and international competitions. These stickers are used by officials to distinguish teams.

Bowls have symbols unique to the set of four for identification. The side of the bowl with a larger symbol within a circle indicates the side away from the bias. That side with a smaller symbol within a smaller circle is the bias side toward which the bowl will turn. It is not uncommon for players to deliver a "wrong bias" shot from time to time and see their carefully aimed bowl crossing neighbouring rinks rather than heading towards their jack.

When bowling there are several types of delivery. "Draw" shots are those where the bowl is rolled to a specific location without causing too much disturbance of bowls already in the head. For a right-handed bowler, "forehand draw" or "finger peg" is initially aimed to the right of the jack, and curves in to the left. The same bowler can deliver a "backhand draw" or "thumb peg" by turning the bowl over in his hand and curving it the opposite way, from left to right. In both cases, the bowl is rolled as close to the jack as possible, unless tactics demand otherwise. A "drive" or "fire" or "strike" involves bowling with force with the aim of knocking either the jack or a specific bowl out of play - and with the drive's speed, there is virtually no noticeable (or, at least, much less) curve on the shot. An "upshot" or "yard on" shot involves delivering the bowl with an extra degree of weight (often referred to as "controlled" weight or "rambler"), enough to displace the jack or disturb other bowls in the head without killing the end. A "block" shot is one that is intentionally placed short to defend from a drive or to stop an oppositions draw shot. The challenge in all these shots is to be able to adjust line and length accordingly, the faster the delivery, the narrower the line or "green".

Variations of play

Particularly in team competition there can be a large number of bowls on the green towards the conclusion of the end, and this gives rise to complex tactics. Teams "holding shot" with the closest bowl will often make their subsequent shots not with the goal of placing the bowl near the jack, but in positions to make it difficult for opponents to get their bowls into the head, or to places where the jack might be deflected to if the opponent attempts to disturb the head.

There are many different ways to set up the game. Crown Green Bowling utilises the entire green. A player can send the jack anywhere on the green in this game and the green itself is more akin to a golf green, with lots of undulation.

Singles, triples and fours and Australian pairs are some ways the game can be played. In singles, two people play against each other and the first to win to either 21, 25 or 31 shots (how many bowls of ones are closest to the white jack or kitty are shots). The controlling body sets the game to either 21, 25 or 31. An additional scoring method is set play. This comprises two sets over nine ends, an end being the completion of both players delivering all their bowls. Should a player win a set each, they then play a further 3 ends that will decide the winner.

Pairs allows both people on a team to play Skip and Lead. The lead throws two bowls, the skip delivers two, then the lead delivers his remaining two, the skip then delivers his remaining two bowls. Each end, the leads and skips switch positions. This is played over 21 ends or sets play. Triples is with three players while Fours is with four players in each team and is played over 21 ends.

Bowls are played by the blind and Paraplegic. Blind bowlers are extremely skilful due to their extreme sense of hearing and feel . The world's best are a match for the best club level sighted bowlers .


Lawn bowlers use a variety of terms to describe certain aspects of play. Most of these terms are recognised by lawn bowlers in countries where the game is played.

The Absolute: A draw shot which finishes close to the jack and then rolls over to touch it. It is also used to describe a bowl which undoubtedly the closest to the jack.


Bowls is popular in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and parts of the United States. It is also gaining momentum in Japan. Because of its competitiveness, skill and the fact that it is a non-contact sport, the game suits people from teen years through to their nineties. However, there is a considerable professional competition with many younger men and women playing. Since the early 2000s, the sport has developed in Denmark as well . The World Championships held in the UK annually is a £100,000 competition and is watched by 3 million viewers via BBC TV .

Another phenomenon is barefoot or corporate bowls, where established clubs in Australia open their greens to paying customers who are organised into teams for a social few hours on the green.

Bowls is played at the Commonwealth Games; the last being held in Melbourne Australia, where Kelvin Kerkow (Australia) and Siti Zalina Ahmad (Malaysia) won the singles Gold Medals. 2010 sees the Games in Delhi, India.

World Indoor Singles Champions

1979 David Bryant England
1980 David Bryant England
1981 David Bryant England
1982 John Watson Scotland
1983 Bob Sutherland Scotland
1984 Jim Baker Ireland
1985 Terry Sullivan Wales
1986 Tony Allcock England
1987 Tony Allcock England
1988 Hugh Duff Scotland
1989 Richard Corsie Scotland
1990 John Price Wales
1991 Richard Corsie Scotland
1992 Ian Schuback Australia
1993 Richard Corsie Scotland
1994 Andy Thomson England
1995 Andy Thomson England
1996 David Gourlay Scotland
1997 Hugh Duff Scotland
1998 Paul Foster Scotland
1999 Alex Marshall Scotland
2000 Robert Weale Wales
2001 Paul Foster Scotland
2002 Tony Allcock England
2003 Alex Marshall Scotland
2004 Alex Marshall Scotland
2005 Paul Foster Scotland
2006 Mervyn King England
2007 Alex Marshall Scotland
2008 Alex Marshall Scotland

Wins by country: Scotland (16), England (9), Wales (3), Ireland (1), Australia (1)

World Bowls Championship Titles

This Championship is for the predominately outdoor sport, between national bowls organisations affiliated to World Bowls Ltd.

First held in Australia in 1966, the World Championships for men and women are held every 4 years. From 2008 the men's and women's events are held together. Qualifying national bowls organisations (usually countries) are represented by sides of 5 players, who play once as a single and a four, then again as a pair and a triple. Gold, silver, and bronze medals are awarded in each of the 4 disciplines, and there is also a trophy for the best overall 5-player side — the Leonard Trophy for men and the Taylor Trophy for women.

The next World Bowls Championships will be held in Adelaide, Australia from 24 November – 9 December 2012.


Year Venue Singles Champion Fours Champions *
1966 Kyeemagh, NSW, Australia
1972 Worthing, England
1976 Johannesburg, South Africa
1980 Frankston, Victoria, Australia
1984 Aberdeen, Scotland
1988 Auckland, New Zealand
1992 Worthing, England
1996 Adelaide, South Australia
2000 Johannesburg, South Africa
2004 Ayr, Scotland
2008 Christchurch, New Zealand

Year Pairs Champions * Triples Champions * Leonard Trophy
1984 **

* Team order is Skip to Lead ** replaced for the 1984 pairs final


Year Venue Singles Champion Fours Champions *
1969 Sydney, Australia
1973 Wellington, New Zealand
1977 Worthing, England
1981 Toronto, Canada **
1985 Melbourne, Australia
1988 Auckland, New Zealand
1992 Ayr, Scotland
1996 Leamington Spa, England
2000 Moama, Australia
2004 Leamington Spa, England
2008 Christchurch, New Zealand

Year Pairs Champions * Triples Champions * Taylor Trophy

* Team order is Skip to Lead.

** may have played as a replacement in the 1981 Fours final.


Country Men
7 9 16
4 9 13
9 3 12
5 7 12
6 4 10
4 6 10
2 2 4
2 2 4
2 0 2
1 0 1
1 0 1
1 0 1
0 1 1
0 1 1

Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake is famous in bowls folklore: he is said to have insisted on completing his game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe before setting sail to confront the Spanish Armada in 1588. It is unsure whether he won or lost this game of bowls, but he did go on and defeat the Spanish Armada.

References in popular culture

  • Blackball – a 2003 comedy film about a young bowls player, based upon Griff Sanders.
  • Crackerjack - a 2002 Australian comedy film about a wisecracking layabout who joins a lawn bowls club in order to be allowed to use a free parking spot but is forced to play lawn bowls with the much older crowd when the club enters financial difficulty.
  • Bowling was popularised in St Kilda, Victoria due to the success of the television show The Secret Life of Us.
  • In the Borat Segment of the Ali G show, where the fictional Kazakhstani reporter repeatedly asks the bowls coach he's interviewing 'and when will Jack come?'

See also


External links

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