American handball

American handball is a sport in which players use their hands to hit a small rubber ball against a wall such that their opponent cannot do the same without it touching the ground twice. The three versions are four-wall, three-wall and one-wall. Each version can be played either by two players (singles), three players (cutthroat) or four players (doubles).


Handball court
One-wall handball court with two games in progress

Games in which a ball is hit or thrown have been referenced as far back as Homer and ancient Egypt. A game similar to handball was played by Northern and Central Americans from 1500 BC,[1] most famously by the Aztecs as the Mesoamerican ballgame. However, no references to a rebound game using a wall survive. It is thought that these ancient games more closely resembled a form of hand tennis. Further examples of similar games include the European-originated games of Basque pelota (or Jai-alai), Valencian fronto, International fronton and Welsh handball.[1]

The first recorded game of striking a ball against a wall using a hand was in Scotland in 1427, when King James I ordered a cellar window in his palace courtyard to be blocked up, as it was interfering with his game.[2] In Ireland, the earliest written record of a similar game is in the 1527 town statutes of Galway, which forbade the playing of ball games against the walls of the town. The first depiction of an Irish form of handball does not appear until 1785.[3] The sport of handball in Ireland was eventually standardized as Gaelic handball. By the mid-19th century, Australians were playing a similar game, which developed into the modern sport of Australian handball.[4]


In "Treacherous Beauty," by Mark Jacob and Stephen H. Case about the Arnold-Andre conspiracy, Major John Andre and General Sir Henry Clinton are said to have played a game called handball during the American Revolution. The earliest record of the modern game in the United States mentions two handball courts in San Francisco in 1873.[1] The sport grew over the next few decades. By the early 1900s, four-wall handball was well established and a one-wall game was developed in New York City by beach-goers who hit bald tennis balls with their hands against the sides of the wooden jetties that lined beaches. This led to a rise in one-wall handball at New York beaches and by the 1930s, thousands of indoor and outdoor one-wall courts had been built throughout the city.[5] American handball is seen predominantly in parks, beaches, and high school yards in New York, Chicago and other large urban areas.

National Championships

National championships in handball have been held annually in the United States since 1919. These championships were organized by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) until 1950, when their control was transferred to the newly formed United States Handball Association (USHA).[6]

Influence on racquetball and wall paddleball

The sports of racquetball, squash, fives, four-wall and one-wall paddleball were heavily influenced by handball. Four-wall paddleball and one-wall paddleball were created when people took up wooden paddles to play on handball courts. Four-wall paddleball was invented in 1930 by Earl Riskey, a physical-education instructor at the University of Michigan, when he came up with the idea of using paddles to play on the school's handball courts. Racquetball was invented in 1949 by Joe Sobek in Greenwich, Connecticut, when he played handball using a strung racquet.[7]


Dimensions of a typical handball court

American handball is played on a walled court, 40 by 20 feet (12.2 m × 6.1 m), with either a single (front) wall, three walls, or in a fully enclosed four-wall court; four-wall courts typically have a ceiling while three-wall courts may or may not. The four-wall court is a rectangular box. The front wall is 20 feet (6.1 m) square, and the side walls are 40 feet (12.2 m) long and 20 feet (6.1 m) high.

In the middle of the floor lies a short line, dividing the floor into two 20 feet (6.1 m) squares. Also along the floor is the service line, which is 5 feet (1.5 m) in front of the short line. The service zone is the area between these two lines. The back wall of the court is usually 12 feet (3.7 m) high, with an above gallery for the referee, scorekeeper and spectators. Some courts have a glass back wall and glass side walls to allow for better viewing. (In three-wall court handball, the court often has a front wall and two full side walls, or the front wall is flanked by two triangular wings.)


Handball may be played as singles (two players against each other), doubles (two teams of two players), or "cutthroat" (three players rotating one against two). In cutthroat handball, one server plays against two receivers, until he or she is "put out." Then, the left-most receiver serves. Serves rotate in this way until one player wins by scoring either 7, 11, 15, or 21 points. Should both teams reach a score 1 below the winning score, the game can be continued by 'win-by-two' or 'straight'. In 'win-by-two', the winning score is increased by 2 points. In 'straight', the score remains the same and cannot be pushed. When a tie of 20 is reached in a 21-point match, a common decision is 'straight 25', where the winning score is set to 25 and cannot be changed. The cutthroat mode of play is also known as "triangles."


The ball is "served" by one player standing in the service zone. The server begins by dropping the ball to the floor of the service zone and striking it on the bounce with the hand or fist so that it hits the front wall. The ball must hit the front wall first; it may then hit at most one side wall; the served ball must pass the short line before the first bounce on the floor, but must bounce on the floor before reaching the back wall. When the served ball lands in front of the short line, it is called a "short," while a serve which reaches the back wall without bouncing is called "long," and a serve which hits both side walls before bouncing is called a "3-wall."

Shorts and longs are types of service faults, or errors. If the server hits two faults in a row, he or she is out and becomes the receiver. If a serve hits the ceiling, floor, or a side wall before hitting the front wall, the server is out (no second serve allowed). In doubles, the server's teammate has to stand in the service area with their back to a side wall in a service box, marked by a parallel line 18 inches (46 cm) from the side wall, until the ball passes the short line.


While the server has the ball the receiver must stand at least 5 feet (1.5 m) behind the short line, indicated by dashed lines extending 6 inches (15 cm) from each side wall. Once the ball is served, he or she must hit the ball either directly ("on the fly") or after the first bounce so that it bounces off the front wall. However, if the receiver chooses to take the serve on the fly, he or she must first wait for the ball to cross the short line (the dashed line, in racquetball).

The ball must not bounce off the floor twice. Nor can any player during a return hit the ball off the floor before it touches the front wall. The server then hits the ball on the rebound from the front wall, and play continues with the opponents alternately hitting the ball until one of them fails to make a legal return. After the serve and return, the ball may be played from anywhere and may hit any number of walls or the ceiling, so long as it hits the front wall before bouncing on the floor. Players cannot "hinder" (block) their opponents from hitting the ball. If the server fails to make a legal return, he or she is out and becomes the receiver. If the receiver fails to make the return, a point goes to the server, who continues to serve until he or she is out. Only the server/serving team can score points. The game goes to the player/team first to score 21 points. A match goes to the player/team to win two out of three games; the third game goes to 11 points.



A three-wall handball court is an outside court with a front-wall, two side-walls (these may be "full" or "half"—half being a pair of sloping side-walls), and no back-wall in the play area. It is played very much like an indoor four-wall court, only with the challenge of returning the ball without any back-wall rebound. The long line at the forty foot mark is considered in if the ball hits it when hitting the floor.[8]


One-wall handball courts have a wall 20 feet (6.1 m) wide and 16 feet (4.9 m) high. The court floor is 20 feet (6.1 m) wide and 34 feet (10.4 m) long. When not played as part of tournament or league play, the one-wall game typically uses the bigger ball called "the big blue" (described below in the "Equipment" section). The main difference between one-wall handball and other versions is that the ball must always be played off the front wall. One-wall handball can be watched by more people than a four-wall game. The court is also cheaper to build, making this version of handball popular at gymnasiums and playgrounds. In New York City alone, an estimated 2,299 public handball courts occupy the five boroughs.


A typical outfit includes protective gloves, sneakers, athletic shorts and goggles. Eye protection is required in tournament handball, as the ball moves at high speeds and in close proximity to the players. It is rarely used in "street" handball, however, where a softer "big blue" ball is usually used.

The black or blue rubber ball weighs 2.3 ounces (65 g) and is 1.875 inches (4.76 cm) in diameter (smaller, heavier and harder than a racquetball), is hit with gloved hand (open palm, fingers, fist, back of hand) (informal games often don't include gloves).

Small ball versus big ball

A true handball is referred to as an "ace ball" or, in earlier days, "blackball". A racquetball used to play handball is called a "big ball" or "big blue". A small ball is hard and bounces higher. Types of small balls include the Red Ace (for men) and the White Ace (for women).

A big ball bounces lower and slower than a small ball and is softer and hollower.

Four-wall games use the small ball almost exclusively. Three-wall and one-wall games use both balls. Formal one-wall games, such as tournaments or school competitions, use only the small ball. Informal games, or "street handball," use the big ball most often. Both balls are used extensively in New York City, with formal tournaments for big ball – NYC Big Blue, for example. The International One Wall presence uses the big ball.

Terms and techniques

Term/Technique Description
Ace A serve in which the retriever is not only unable to return the ball, but is also unable to touch the ball. In some games, any return from a serve that does not make it back to the wall is called an ace.
Backhand A technique of hitting the ball with the palm of the strong hand so that the palm faces the body. The arm is swung away from the body. This technique is usually used when players who have a weak off-hand or when the ball comes towards the mid-line of the body, and the person lacks the time to move into position.
Block Occurs when the ball hit by the receiver doesn't reach the wall, but instead directly hits another player, or when the enemy player is directly in the path of the ball that the receiver is unable to see and hit. Should the ball hit a partnering player in a doubles game before the first bounce it results in a down. Should the ball hit any player after the first bounce, it results in a take-two.
Block (Moving) A call from the receiver to indicate that an opposing player interfered in the receiver's ability to reach and return the ball during a rally. It results in a take-two.
Carry An illegal move made by a player who cups the ball and moves towards the wall by 'carrying' the ball without actually gripping the ball.
Ceiling shot A defensive play in a four-wall court in which a player hits the ball hard and upward, so that it first contacts the ceiling and then the front wall, usually forcing the opponent to go to the back of the court to make a return.
Crack When the ball hits a crack in the ground and moves in an erratic direction. In some games it is considered a live ball that can still be hit like a normal exchange, in others it results in take-two.
Cut/chop/slice A shot in which the player puts a heavy spin on the ball, causing the ball to bounce off the wall in an erratic motion. To perform a cut, the ball must be struck by a sudden twist in the hand and/or fingers. The main purpose of these shots is to throw off the opponent's hitting rhythm.
Down Term used for when the ball hits the floor before the wall. Also refers to serving two 'shorts' or 'longs' in a row. It is commonly used for any mistake in-play as well. It is an error, ends the rally and results in a point or change of server.
Fist A shot made by hitting the ball with a closed fist. It can launch the ball in very different directions due to the bone shape of the hand. It often puts more force into the ball as opposed to the regular slap, keeping the momentum of the ball continuous. It is often considered illegal to fist a serve.
Flag To distract the opponent by creating unnecessary noises or movements in front of the other player. A flag is often a physical distraction by making large movements around the vicinity of the ball blocking the opponent's view of the ball. Such movement is considered a flag when the it occurs closer the ball, but distant from the opposing player, as there is much time to hit the ball after the flag, wheres a block occurs instantaneously leaving no time to prepare. A take-two may be called, but is not necessary.
Hook A shot with spin that veers off to one side.
Kill A shot (usually side-arm or underhand) in which the player hits the ball so that it hits very low on the front wall, causing the ball to rebound low to the ground. This shot can end a rally, although it is possible to pick up a kill. Although it helps the player win the rally immediately, it is risky given the chance of missing and hitting the floor. A variation of the killer is the corner-kill. A corner-kill is a kill shot that is aimed at the extreme left or right of the wall. In one-wall, this shot has more risk than a normal kill because the player runs the risk of hitting the ball out. A corner-kill is often more difficult to pick up because players usually occupy the center of the court, making the shot harder to reach.
Lob (overhead shot) In one-wall handball, an underhand shot in which the player hits the ball to the wall in a high arc such that the ball is launched back high above the top of the wall through a parabolic path that results in the ball landing near the long line. This tactic is mainly used against short players or players who hover near the front of the court. An overhead shot is similar, but can be used with an overhand shot, must be hit near the top of the wall, and does not go any higher, unlike the lob.
Long When the ball is served over the long line.
Pass shot (corner shot) A shot where the ball passes an opponent low and fast near one of the side walls, out of the opponent's reach.
Pop Occurs when the ball is hit at a 45 degree or similar angle to bisect the right angle of the wall and floor. Hitting the ball to cause a pop results in the ball 'popping' upwards. It is often identified on court by a distinct popping noise and sometimes the occurrence of dirt flying upon hitting the wall and floor, even leaving a mark on the ball as a result. A pop results in a down.
Roller A shot where the ball is hit towards the very bottom of the wall leaving little space for the ball to bounce, causing it to instead roll. It is a guaranteed end to the rally as it is impossible to pick up due to the ball rolling instead of bouncing.
Short When the ball is served before the short line.
Shot-out A challenge play where a player (in a singles match) or team (in a doubles match) attempts to score a set amount of points without allowing the opposing party to score. A shot-out is used to end a game early in 11, 15, or 21 point matches, with the shot-out score often being 7. In such case, it is referred to as a 7-Zip Shot-out.
Spike Similar to that in volleyball, the spike is a shot in which the player slams the ball down from a high altitude to hit the base of the wall. Doing so forces the ball to bounce up much higher than it usually would.
Take-One A call made in doubles games. At the start of a game, if the serving team does not score a certain amount of points (often three), the defending team may call take-one to become the serving team. This skips the second-man serve bringing the defending team to the front to serve.
Take-Two A redo of the rally. No points are given and no penalties occur.


Notable players

See also


  1. 1 2 3 "US Handball Association - History of Handball". United States Handball Association. Retrieved 2011-07-15.
  2. Crego, Robert (2003), Sports and games of the 18th and 19th centuries, Greenwood Publishing Group, ISBN 978-0-313-31610-4
  3. The History of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Canada By John O'Flynn, Ainsley Baldwin Trafford Publishing, 2008 p176
  4. "Handball" (article), The World Book Encyclopedia - Australasia 1970, Field Enterprises Educational Corporation, Chicago Illinois, (fieldwork assistance by Field Educational Enterprises of Australasia Pty. Ltd., North Sydney, Australia, p. 370
  5. "US Handball Association - Growth of Handball in NY". United States Handball Association. Retrieved 2012-01-28.
  6. "US Handball Association - National Champions". United States Handball Association. Retrieved 2012-01-27.
  7. David, Walker (1999). Skills, Drills & Strategies for Racquetball. Scottsdale, Arizona: Holcomb Hathaway, Inc. p. 112. ISBN 1-890871-17-6. Walker.
  8. "US Handball Association - Four-Wall Rulebook". United States Handball Association. Retrieved 2011-06-23.
  9. "Handball - the 'Corny' Game - Loyola School, Jamshedpur". Retrieved September 2015. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  10. "Wall Ball Rules". May 9, 2015.
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