American handball
American handball is a sport in which players hit a small rubber ball against a wall using their hands.


Handball was brought to the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 by Irish immigrant Brendan Hart. The earliest records of the game being played in the country list two handball courts in San Francisco in 1873. In Ireland, the sport of handball was eventually standardized as Gaelic handball
Gaelic handball
Gaelic handball is a sport similar to Basque pelota, racquetball, squash and American handball . It is one of the four Gaelic games organised by the Gaelic Athletic Association...


Sports involving striking a ball with a hand have existed since ancient times. References to games in which a ball is hit or thrown extend as far back as Homer and ancient Egypt. A game similar to handball was played by the northern and central Americans from 1500 B.C., most famously by the Aztecs as the Mesoamerican ballgame
Mesoamerican ballgame
The Mesoamerican ballgame or Tlatchtli in Náhuatl was a sport with ritual associations played since 1,000 B.C. by the pre-Columbian peoples of Ancient Mexico and Central America...

. None of these reference a rebound game using a wall, however, and these ancient games resemble a form of hand tennis.

The first recorded game of striking a ball with a hand against a wall was in Scotland
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

 in 1427, when it was recorded that King James I ordered a cellar window in his palace courtyard blocked up, as it was interfering with his game. In Ireland
Republic of Ireland
Ireland , described as the Republic of Ireland , is a sovereign state in Europe occupying approximately five-sixths of the island of the same name. Its capital is Dublin. Ireland, which had a population of 4.58 million in 2011, is a constitutional republic governed as a parliamentary democracy,...

, the earliest written record of a similar ball game is contained in the town statute
A statute is a formal written enactment of a legislative authority that governs a state, city, or county. Typically, statutes command or prohibit something, or declare policy. The word is often used to distinguish law made by legislative bodies from case law, decided by courts, and regulations...

s of Galway
Galway or City of Galway is a city in County Galway, Republic of Ireland. It is the sixth largest and the fastest-growing city in Ireland. It is also the third largest city within the Republic and the only city in the Province of Connacht. Located on the west coast of Ireland, it sits on the...

 of 1527. American handball today is seen predominantly in parks and school yards in Brooklyn, NY Queens, NY and Lynbrook, NY.


American handball is played on a court 40 by 20 ft (12.2 by 6.1 m) with either a single (front) wall, three walls, or in a fully enclosed four-wall court (the most common). 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 of the court lies the 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 and scorer, and also spectators. A few courts have a glass back wall and/or glass side walls to allow for a better view of the match. (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 "cut-throat" (three players rotating one-against-two). (In "cut-throat" handball, one server plays against two receivers, until he or she is put out. Then, the left-most receiver serves, and so serves rotate in this way until one player scores 21 points and wins.) The "cut-throat" mode of play is also known as "triangles".

The ball is "served" by one player/team standing in the service zone, 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, but must bounce 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". All these are service faults. If the server gets 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 his/her back to a side wall in a service box, marked by a parallel line 18 inches (45.7 cm) from the side wall, until the ball passes the short line.

The receiver must stand at least 5 feet (1.5 m) behind the short line, indicated by dashed lines extending 6 inches (15.2 cm) from each side wall, while the server has the ball. 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 racketball). 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 alternatively 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 and/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. So, only the server/serving team can score points. The game goes to the player/team to score 21 points first, and 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, 2 sides, and no back wall. It is played very much like an indoor four-wall court only with the challenge of returning the ball without any backwall rebound. The long line at the forty foot mark is considered "in" if the ball hits it when hitting the floor.


A one-wall handball court has 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 in the next section "Equipment"). 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, it is estimated that there are 2052 public handball courts in the five boroughs
Borough (New York City)
New York City, one of the largest cities in the world, is composed of five boroughs. Each borough now has the same boundaries as the county it is in. County governments were dissolved when the city consolidated in 1898, along with all city, town, and village governments within each county...



A typical outfit worn during the game includes protective gloves, sneakers
Athletic shoe
Athletic shoe is a generic name for the footwear primarily designed for sports or other forms of physical exercise but in recent years has come to be used for casual everyday activities....

, athletic shorts
Gym shorts
Gym shorts are an article of clothing typical worn by people when exercising. They are typically made out of fabrics that allow for maximum comfort and ease, such as nylon. Brands such as Nike, Under Armour, and Reebok all make gym shorts. Cotton gym shorts were made popular by a cheerleading brand...

, and goggles
Goggles or safety glasses are forms of protective eyewear that usually enclose or protect the area surrounding the eye in order to prevent particulates, water or chemicals from striking the eyes. They are used in chemistry laboratories and in woodworking. They are often used in snow sports as well,...

. Eye protection
Eye protection
Eye protection is protective gear for the eyes, which comes in many types depending upon the threat that is to be reduced. The threats can be particles, light, wind blast, heat, sea spray or some type of ball or puck used in sports...

 is required in tournament handball, as the ball moves at high speeds and in close range. It is rarely used in "street" handball, however, where the softer "big blue" ball is usually used.

The black or blue rubber ball, 2.3 ounces (65.2 g) in mass/weight and 1.875 inches (4.8 cm) in diameter (smaller, heavier, and harder than a racquetball), is hit with the gloved palm (informal games often don't include gloves).

Small ball versus big ball

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

A big ball bounces lower and slower than a small ball, is softer, and is more hollow.

Four-wall games use the small ball almost exclusively. Three and one wall games use both balls. For one wall, formal games, such as tournaments and school competitions, involve the use of the small ball only. Informal games, or "street handball," use the big ball most often. Both balls are used extensively in New York City and formal tournaments are starting to appear for big ball – NYC Big Blue, for example. In addition, there is now a very active International One Wall presence and they are using the big ball.

Terms and techniques

A serve in which the retriever is not only unable to return the ball, but is also unable to touch the ball. Same concept as in Tennis. In some games, any return from a serve which 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 hand is turned inwards and across the body. The arm is swung away from the body. This technique is usually used by players who have a weak off-hand or when the ball comes towards the midline of the body and the person doesn't have time to get into position.
  • Ball on/in
A term used when another ball interferes with the game. The rally is replayed after the ball is removed from the court.
  • Block
A term used when the ball hit by the receiver doesn't reach the wall, but instead directly hits another player.
  • Bullet
A term in which the ball does not bounce.
  • Moving block
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.
  • 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
A situation in which the ball hits a physical crack on the Court. In outdoor handball courts, there are typically grooves approximately one inch wide that are coterminous with the lines on the court, including the side lines, the short line and the long line. Some of the grooves are deep or uneven, and thus when the ball hits these lines, it sometimes bounces erratically. In street handball, a ball hitting a crack does not affect play, though it can significantly disrupt the shot of the player who is trying to return the shot. (On a serve, a ball hitting the crack on the short line is a short serve but only because the ball did not go past the short line and land in the service box.)
  • 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 rhythm of hitting the ball.
  • Double-down
A term which means both players in a doubles game lose their serves. A street handball rule which is invoked when the wrong player on a team serves.
  • Fist shot
A way of hitting the ball so that the ball contacts off the knuckles. It is done by closing one's fingers to make a fist. The hard surface created by the fist gives the hitter a harder and faster hit, though sometimes less control. This shot is also referred to as "punching" the ball.
  • Flags
A block that is right after a serve. The server or teammate waves his hand through or near the ball's trajectory thus blocking and interfering with the receiver, which is deemed a down.
  • Fly shot
An advanced shot where instead of letting the ball take a bounce, the ball is stroked while it's still in the air - similar to a volley
Volley (tennis)
A volley in tennis is a shot in which the ball is struck before it bounces on the ground. Generally a player hits a volley while standing near the net, although it can be executed farther back, in the middle of the tennis court or even near the baseline....

 in tennis.
  • Hook
A serve that is whipped so that after bouncing on the floor, it does not continue in a straight path, but veers off to one side. Hooks can be done to either the left or right no matter which hand is used to serve. Often used in small ball, as the ball can gain a greater momentum. A good hook will make the person who returns the ball have to make a quick change in their form so that he doesn't mis-hit the ball.
  • Killer
A shot (usually side-arm or underhand) in which the player hits the ball so low that it just barely touches the wall first before hitting 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 a very risky shot for there is a chance of missing and hitting the floor. Thus, there is little room for error. A variation of the killer is the corner-kill. A corner-kill is a killer 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 under-hand 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 over-hand shot, must be hit near the top of the wall, and does not go any higher, unlike the lob.
  • Man-on-court
When a person is on the court while the ball is in play.

In one-wall handball, any shot that hits over the outline on the wall and lands anywhere on court. Even though it hits inside the outline on the ground, it is still considered an out.
  • Pass shot(corner shot)
A shot where the ball passes an opponent fairly low and fast near one of the side walls, out of the opponent's reach, thus winning the rally.
  • Pick-up
A "pick-up" is when you hit the ball before it bounces a second time.
  • Pop (choke)
A shot that touches both the floor and the wall simultaneously. The ball may either pop high up or bounce away from the wall momentarily and then come to an immediate halt. It is considered "out" and usually occurs when a player is attempting a kill. This shot is considered good in Chinese handball.
  • Power side
The side with which the player is most comfortable. This term mainly applies in "doubles," in which each player guards his or her own side. The power side for right-handed players is the left side, with respect to facing the wall. The power side for left-handed players is the right side. The reason for this is that a player who stands on his "power side" will be able to take most of the shots that occur in the center with ease.
  • Roller
Similar to a killer but instead of having any bounce, the ball rolls off the floor right after touching the very base of the wall. This shot takes tremendous skill and practice to pull off, and is impossible to pick up, since the rally is already over once the ball touches the ground.
  • 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.
  • Tree-top
In one-wall handball, the handball might hit the very edge of the top of the wall and pop up higher than normal. Even if the ball lands within the parameters of the court, it's still considered an "out."
  • Screen serve (under-leg)
Only on a serve, if the ball passes under the server's legs, is it regarded as bad, and the server receives an automatic screen. Two consecutive screens make one full fault. Two faults and the server is "down" and becomes the receiver.
  • Slicey
An effective but difficult move, the slicey is when the ball is hit close to the ground and really quickly. A notably fast slicey is called a sonicboom.
  • Whip
A way of hitting the ball so that it is not simply slapped back to the wall. Instead, the player will put his hand in a cup shape so that the ball just glides off of his hand. The whip is an integral part of the hook serve. It can also relieve some of the pain that one would feel if simply slapping the ball (often the ace ball).
  • Waterfall
When the first player serves, and the ball hits a high point on the wall, resulting in a fault.
  • Underline
When the ball is served too low.


  • School handball is a extended version of American handball played at schools across the nation. It has three ways of play: freestyle, old school, and new school.
  • Chinese handball
    Chinese handball
    Chinese handball , is a form of American handball popular on the streets of New York City, Philadelphia, and Bridgewater, NJ during the 1960s,'70s, and '80s and is still played today, mostly in New York City, Philadelphia, and San Diego. Different variations are played around the world...

     is a street game form of American handball played against one wall, except the ball must hit the floor before hitting the wall. It is like an upside down version of American Handball.
  • Wall ball is a generic name for a variety of similar street games played by adolescents, often with tennis balls.
  • Prison Handball is a simplified version of American handball popular in North American prisons.
  • Frisian handball
    Frisian handball
    Frisian handball is a traditional Frisian sport, related to American handball and fives, that is most commonly practiced by people from the northern Dutch province of Friesland . It is believed to be one of the oldest ballgames and was an unofficial Demonstration sport at the 1928 Summer Olympics...

    , in Dutch known as kaatsen.

Notable players

Notable players include:
  • Albert Apuzzi
    Albert Apuzzi
    Albert Apuzzi is a pharmacist and one wall handball player notable for being a champion at the sport. His seven consecutive national doubles championships made him a USHA record holder. His play was noted for power, speed and stamina. He won two national singles titles before a career ending arm...

  • Paul Haber
    Paul Haber
    Paul Haber was an American one, three, and four wall National Handball Champion. Haber is credited with being the first player to use the ceiling offensively and did so very effectively. He was inducted into the United States Handball Association Hall of Fame in 1983.Haber's peak years for national...

  • Vic Hershkowitz
    Vic Hershkowitz
    Vic Hershkowitz was a dominant handball player who played from the early 1940s to the early 1960s. He won 23 amateur national titles. He was a New York City fireman. His accomplishments include winning forty national and international handball titles, including nine consecutive Three-Wall Singles...

  • Joe Platak
    Joe Platak
    Joseph Platak was a leading handball player in the 1930s and 1940s. He was inducted into the United States Handball Association's Hall of Fame in 1954, the first year in which players were selected....

  • Jim Jacobs
    Jimmy Jacobs (handballer)
    James Leslie 'Jimmy' Jacobs was an American handball player, boxing manager, Academy Award nominee and comic book and fight film collector.-Handball:...

  • Fred Lewis
    Fred Lewis (handball)
    Fred Lewis is an American former handball player.Lewis is Jewish, and was born in The Bronx, New York. Both of his parents played handball, and he learned to play handball by playing it off building walls in the Bronx. He grew up primarily playing 1-wall handball, and played his first tournament...

  • Oscar Obert
    Oscar Obert
    Oscar Obert was an American one, three, and four wall National Handball Champion. Obert has won 42 open national and world titles , more than any other player in the history of the sport...

See also

  • Suicide (game)
    Suicide (game)
    Suicide , or otherwise referred to as "wall-ball", is a game typically played by children and teenagers. The rules vary widely from place to place; those given below are not necessarily a "standard" form of the rules.-Setup:...

  • United States Handball Association
    United States Handball Association
    The United States Handball Association is the national governing body for American handball in the United States, a game played mostly in that country...

  • Basque pelota
  • Gaelic handball
    Gaelic handball
    Gaelic handball is a sport similar to Basque pelota, racquetball, squash and American handball . It is one of the four Gaelic games organised by the Gaelic Athletic Association...

  • Valencian fronto
    Valencian frontó
    Frontó is a modified Valencian pilota version of the original Basque Pelota game. The name frontó refers both to the game and the playing area...

  • U.S. intercollegiate handball champions
  • Fives
    Fives is a British sport believed to derive from the same origins as many racquet sports. In fives, a ball is propelled against the walls of a special court using gloved or bare hands as though they were a racquet.-Background:...

External links

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