Hexham Elvaston Bowling Club

Bowls - a Beginner's Guide

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Ever wondered what bowls is all about? Read our basic guide and come to "terms" with the game.

On this page:

Bowls in a Nutshell

And if you like this, you may also want to look at...
our blog on various aspects of the game - what to do and what not to do on the green.

Bias marks on bowls

In a Nutshell

Bowls is played between competing individuals or teams. Points ("shots") are scored according to how many bowls the person or team has nearest the white ball (“jack”) after each “end”.  In singles matches the winner is usually the first to score 21, while team matches are played for a set number of ends (15, 18 and 21 are the most frequent).

At the start of a match the first team to play is decided by the toss of a coin.  There may be one or more trial ends, to allow players to adjust to the green. Thereafter, the team which wins each end rolls the jack and can choose the length. 

The jack has to go a minimum distance (23 metres) but must also be at least two metres from the far ditch. A bowling green is divided into a number of rinks (usually six), and the jack is placed on the centre line of the rink.  The jack and all bowls must finish inside the side markers of the rink.

The bowls have a bias which causes them to swing on a curve. All bowls have a small circle marked on one side and a larger circle on the other.  The bias is always on the side with the small circle. Some bowls are bigger than others, and some have a more pronounced bias or swing - this is a matter of players’ preference. 


One of the nice things about bowls is the range of competition for different formats.  You can have teams of two (Pairs), three  (Triples), or four (er… Fours).  Since the game  is played on what is called a rink, a team of four is sometimes known as a rink – a good example of this usage is seen in our list of Friendly matches. 

In Singles and Pairs, each player has four bowls; in triples each has three; and in fours (rinks) each has two.  In singles there will be a marker to keep score, advise players of the positions of bowls, and to measure any close decisions. In team matches the players do this themselves.  

 (In our informal Club sessions we normally play triples or fours.)

Team members have different roles – for example, one player from each team is in charge of any measuring, and so on.  In terms of actual play the lead (the first to play) has the job of bowling as close to the jack as possible and setting up a good position; the team captain (“skip”) is always last to play and may well have to play more attacking shots.  And you can always blame the skip when things go wrong!    

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Bowls delivery


The most basic shot in bowls is the “draw”, which brings the bowl to rest as near as possible to the jack.  Sometimes players will add some weight to the shot, maybe to dislodge and/or rest on another bowl close to the jack, or perhaps to take the jack away (to “trail” it). 

 At the far extreme from the curving draw is the straight drive, where the player aims to disrupt the “head” (the group of bowls around the jack) by hitting them at speed - here the  force of the shot will largely overcome the curve effect.  This is also known as “firing” - very exciting to watch, but a difficult shot with a high risk element.

If a bowl touches the jack in the course of being rolled up the green it is called a “toucher”, and is indicated as such by a chalk mark.  The main point of this is that whereas bowls which go into the end ditch normally become "dead" (cease to count) this doesn't apply to touchers.  So if the jack is later hit back towards (or into) the ditch any touchers in the ditch will still count as "live" bowls.  


Bowls is a great game for tactics, especially in team matches - it isn’t just about bowling close to the jack.  Sometimes players will deliberately play to place a bowl some distance away - maybe several yards behind, in case an opponent moves the jack by firing.  At other times players may play a deliberate short bowl as a "blocker" - though this is a surprisingly difficult shot.  Such “positional” shots are an important part of the tactics.  As in most sports, there is room for attacking and defending – and the best players are those who can spot the best times for each.

So there you have it. The summary may make it sound easy, but bowls is hugely enjoyable for players of all abilities, both for competition and socially.  We hope you’ll come along and try.  You’ll never look back!

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