bowler icon The Game

Page last reviewed: 29/04/22

Lawn bowls, is a sport in which the objective is to roll biased balls so that they stop close to a smaller ball called a "jack" or "kitty". It is played on a bowling green.

Lawn bowls is played on a large, rectangular, carefully levelled and manicured grass or synthetic surface known as a bowling green which is divided into parallel playing strips called rinks. Opponents decide who wins the "mat" and begin 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 centre 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 at the end of the rink 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 if they get into 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 centre 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 opponent'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.

Bowls is generally played in a very good spirit, even at the highest professional level, acknowledgment of opponents' successes and near misses are quite normal.


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. The insertion of weights 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.

bowl showing bias

Bowls were once only available coloured black or brown, but they are now available in a variety of colours. 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 on specific colours for stickers for each of the clubs in their area. Provincial or national colours 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".

Team Roles


The role of the Lead is to:

  • Place the mat as directed by the Skip.
  • Deliver the jack and ensure that is centred before delivering the first bowl of the end.
  • Help to return the bowls to a safe position behind the mat at the conclusion of each end.
  • Leads are required to draw their bowls as close to the jack as possible.

Leads shoud ignore what the opposition Lead is doing and play their bowls to achieve their objective.

a standing man bowling


The Second must be a versatile player for defence, attack or recovery. They should be able to:

  • Draw on either hand to the jack or to a position designated by the Skip.
  • Be able to play on-shots to trail the jack to designated lengths.
  • Rest on or wrest out bowls from the head.
  • When the Lead has failed, re-establish the Leads obligation at the head.
  • Assist in moving the bowls back behind the mat at the conclusion of the each end.
man kneeling bowling


The Third works in harmony with the skip and other members of the team.

  • Be in charge of the head when Skips are bowling or in absence of the Skip.
  • If delegated, to measure for shot and decide with the opponent the number of shots. Signal the result to the Skip and the Second.
  • Help return bowls to a safe position behind the mat at the conclusion of each end.
  • Must be able to identify team and opponents bowls.
  • Answer the Skips queries correctly and politely
  • Apart from being experienced in all shots from the draw to the drive, the Third must also be able to quickly indicate the position of the head or bowls when asked for this information.

The Third should not attempt to control the skips play, and refrain from offering advice unless it asked for by the Skip.

man bowling

Other attributes:

  • Must be able to act as the director of the head.
  • Be able to determine the shot quickly when asked.
  • Able to indicate the up or down position after the Skips bowls comes to rest.
  • Should always know who holds second and third shots.
  • Must always be aware of the position of bowls in the head when its their turn to play but under no circumstances pre-empt the Skips instructions.
  • Must observe all shot measurements and where in doubt recheck the measurement.
  • It is vital that the Third has a thorough knowledge of the laws of the game, conditions of play and the etiquette of the game.

Etiquette: The Third should discourage any interruption by the Lead or Second when directing or measuring at the head.


The skip is in charge of the team and carries the responsibility and duties for the team. Therefore the skip must be supported by the team.

  • Delegate duties and notify opponent when necessary.
  • Instruct the team members which shot to play as appropriate.
  • Make decisions with the opponent to to ensure compliance with the rules the game and the conditions of play.
  • Ensure that the score card is returned to the Second.

When building the head, the Skip should know his players strengths and weaknesses and the bias dimensions of their bowls.

In Pennants the Skip should be aware of the accruing score on the main scoring board, and remember that the team has a responsibility to the side and therefore should not adopt an over zealous attitude to the situation that will endanger the sides result.


  • The Skip should endeavour not to display disappointment if a player performs a bad shot, but should always commend a player who plays a good shot.
  • Try not to look worried in trying situations.
  • Should not raise their voice aggresively.
  • Not move around at the head when a player is on the mat.
  • Cast shade over the head.


  • Ensuring the team understands the game plan.
  • Carry out team debriefings.
  • Confirm appropriate hand signals with the team.
  • Being positive with instructions.
  • Keep directions short, simple and indicate correctly.
  • Constructing a game plan before the game.
  • Being able to read the head.
  • Know the strengths and weaknesses of the team.
  • Ensure you have control over mat placement and jack length.
  • Know and employ the tactics of the game.
  • Know when to play the opposition hand or shot.
  • Observe and where possible counter the tactical moves of the opposition.

History of the Game

Bowls is a variant of the Boules games (Italian Bocce), which, in their general form, are of ancient or prehistoric origin. Ancient Greek variants are recorded that involved throwing light objects (such as flat stones, coins, or later also stone balls) as far as possible. The aspect of tossing the balls to approach a target as closely as possible is recorded in ancient Rome. This game was spread to Roman Gaul by soldiers or sailors. A Roman sepulchre in Florence shows people playing this game, stooping down to measure the points.

Bowls in England has been traced certainly to the 13th century, and conjecturally to the 12th century. 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 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 refers to an early variety of bowls, possibly played using round stone; there is a record of iron bowls being used, though at a much later date, on festive occasions at Nairn. On the other hand, the jactus lapidum of which he speaks may have been more akin to shot put!

men in historical costume playing bowls

It is clear, at any rate, that a rudimentary form of the game was played in England in the 13th century. A manuscript of that period in the royal library, Windsor Castle, contains a drawing representing two players aiming at a small cone instead of an earthenware ball or jack. The world's oldest surviving bowling green is the Southampton Old Bowling Green, which was first used in 1299.

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 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 today. 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.

The game eventually 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.

Erasmus referred to the game as globurum. The name of bowls is implied in the gerund bowlyn, recorded in the mid-15th century. The term bowl for "wooden ball" is recorded in the early 1400s. The name is explicitly mentioned, as bowles, in a list of unlawful games in a 1495 act by Henry VII (these were Tenys, Closshe, Dise, Cardes, and Bowles). It occurs again in a similar statute by Henry VIII. 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.(6 shillings and 8 pence), while those possessed of lands of the yearly value of £100 might obtain licences to play on their own private greens.

In 1864, William Wallace Mitchell, a Glasgow Cotton Merchant, published his "Manual of Bowls Playing" following his work as the secretary of his club, formed in 1849 by Scottish bowling clubs, which became the basis of the rules of the modern game. Young Mitchell was only 11 years old when he played on Kilmarnock bowling green, the oldest club in Scotland, instituted in 1740.

The patenting of the first lawn mower in 1830, in Britain, is strongly believed to have been the catalyst for the worldwide preparation of modern-style greens, sporting ovals, playing fields, pitches, grass courts etc. This, in turn, led to the codification of modern rules for many sports, including lawn bowls, most football codes, lawn tennis and others.

National Bowling Associations were established in the late 1800s. In the then Victorian Colony (now the state of Victoria, Australia), the (Royal) Victorian Bowling Association was formed in 1880. The Scottish Bowling Association was established in 1892, although there had been a failed attempt in 1848 by 200 Scottish clubs.

world bowls association logo

Today, bowls is played in over 40 countries with more than 50 member national authorities. The home of the modern game is still Scotland with the World Bowls Centre in Edinburgh at Caledonia House.

Club Competitions (.PDF Download)

Social Bowls

Whilst the game of 'Lawn bowls' is usually a friendly game, it can be qute long. This is particularly true when groups of three of four people are playing. There are a number of alternative shorter lawn bowls games which are great for social games and/or practice: Australian Pairs, Scroungers, short mat bowls and spider bowls are examples.

Australian Pairs

Australian pairs is a variaton that allows four people to play against each other. The players are first divided in two a pair of pairs: A pair and B pair. The A pair and B pair will start by playing four bowls each. Then, each pair will play just two bowls.

Then, these pairs will be shuffled: the players from the A pair will play at the very start and the very end, with the players in the B pair throwing their bowls in the middle segment.

For the next set, the B pair will get the first and last show, and the A pair players get the middle turns.


Scroungers is a shorter version of lawn bowls, hence it is played as part of a larger event such a charity event, and the prize money is customarily donated to the sponsored charity by the winner.

Scroungers can take up to four players, and each one will get 3 bowls. The main modification introduced in Scroungers is that whenever any player’s bowl is declared 'dead' because they touched the jack, the player will take a penalty of two points.

The game usually ends at 18 ends, or under a time limit decided by the controlling body.

Short Mat Bowls

Short mat bowls is similiar to regular lawn bowls. However, short mat bowls are played indoors, alongside rectangular sections of green cement. The game also uses a uses a smaller jack to mark the target.


In spider, up to four players are placed around the greens, one on each side. The number of shots per player may vary, but it is rarely more than three. This game also requires a referee, who will sound a whistle at the start of each show. Here, all players will roll their bowls at the same time. Whoever delivers the bowl closest to the jack wins the whole game.

The game of spider.