Handball is a game in which a ball is hit with the hand against a wall alternately by opposing players. Singles handball is played by two opponents; doubles handball is played by two teams of partners. The modern version of the sport is thought to have been introduced into the United States by Irish immigrants in the 19th century. Now played outdoors and indoors, handball is one of the most popular participation sports in the nation.

 Handball Courts

Handball may be played on a one-wall, three-wall, or four-wall court. The one-wall court involves only a front wall, 20 ft (6.1 m) wide by 16 ft (4.88 m) high. The remaining court boundaries are two sidelines, each 34 ft (10.36 m) long, and a connecting, 20-ft back line. A line known as the short line is drawn straight across the floor, 16 ft from the front wall; this line separates the frontcourt from the backcourt. Service markers, 9 ft (2.74 m) in back of the short line, extend 6 in (15.24 cm) into the court from each of the sidelines. The area between the short line and the service markers, called the service zone, is where a player must stand when putting the ball into play. The sidelines extend 3 ft (0.91 m) behind the back line; this area, known as the apron, is necessary to retrieve shots that bounce within the boundary lines very near the sides or back of the court.

The three-wall court consists of a front wall, 20 ft wide by 20 ft high, and two sidewalls, each jutting perpendicularly off opposite ends of the front wall and running back a distance of 40 to 44 ft (12.19 to 13.41 m). The short line is 20 ft from the front wall, and the service line is 15 ft (4.57 m) from the front wall. Some three-wall courts exhibit variations such as tapered-down walls, modified sidewalls coming back only 20 or 25 ft, and, in some cases, a partial ceiling.

The so-called four-wall court, which actually has five walls, involves a front and back wall, two sidewalls, and a ceiling. The walls have been standardized to 20 ft wide and 20 ft high at the front, 40 ft wide and 20 ft high at the sides, and a minimum of 14 ft (4.27 m) high at the back. The lower back wall allows spectators to view the game. Court ceilings have recessed lighting to eliminate any possibility of accidental interference on ball bounces. The short line, the service line, and the service zone are located exactly as on a three-wall court. The small rectangular area formed at each side of the service zone is called a service box; in doubles, the partner of the server stands in the box during the serve.

Glass-walled courts were introduced in 1945. Today many courts have back and sidewalls made of glass, allowing spectator galleries.

 Equipment and Special Terms

The ball used in the game is made of rubber or synthetic material. The ball is hollow-centered, its total weight usually being 2.3 oz (90.72 g). It is 1Q in (4.76 cm) in diameter, with a > in (.08 cm) allowable variation.

Handball players wear form-fitting gloves, usually made of soft leather. The gloves serve to protect the hands and to prevent moisture on the hands from making the ball slippery. Players also wear shoes with good traction to prevent them from slipping or falling.

Like that of most sports, the language of handball has some special terms. A hinder is an interference with the flight of the ball. When a hinder is called, the play goes over-that is, play is repeated. A handout is the transfer of the serve to the opposing team. A short occurs when a served ball fails to rebound from the front wall behind the short line. Hitting the ball on the fly means playing the ball before it strikes the floor.

 Playing Rules and Penalties

The purpose of the game is to hit the ball against a wall with either hand in such a way that the opponent or opponents cannot return the ball-that is, drive the ball back against a wall, before it has hit the floor twice. The open palm or the clenched fist may be used in hitting the ball. A point is awarded to the server if the ball is missed by the receiver; points can be scored only by the server. If during the volley the server misses a return, the opponent, rather than gaining a point, becomes the server. The achievement of 21 points wins a game. Usually the best of three games wins a match.

The play begins with the serve of the ball by a player standing in the service zone. In serving, the player drops the ball to the floor and on its rebound strikes it with one hand so that it hits the front wall and rebounds on the court behind the short line; in four-wall games the ball may hit one sidewall en route before hitting the floor or being played on the fly by the receiver. On the serve the receiver may choose to return a short serve. If a server hits two consecutive shorts, however, the serve is lost.

The volley commences after the legal serve is made. The receiver must return the ball to the front wall off one bounce, or on the fly, without allowing the ball to touch the floor a second time. The receiver can return the ball straight to the front wall or use any combination of walls or ceiling. In turn, the server must do the same, and the volley ensues until one player is unable to make the return.

Handball rules assure the players both ample view of the ball and freedom in making shots. Referees are instructed to call a hinder when the view or maneuverability of a player is obstructed. In such a hinder call the play goes over. If, in the opinion of the referee, the player moves into the way of the receiving or shooting of the ball and could have moved sufficiently to allow such freedom, then an avoidable hinder is called, resulting in a handout or point, as the case may be. If the player is hit by a shot by an opponent in any part of the court before the ball legally reaches the front wall, it is also a hinder and play goes over. If on the serve the server is hit with the ball on the fly, it is a handout. If, in doubles, a player hits a partner on the fly while serving, it is a hinder and play goes over. If the ball is hit on the wrist or forearm, it is a handout or point, as the case may be.

 Important Skills

Basically, the skills of handball may be broken down into mastery of the many types of shots, close control of the rebound, and strong, skillful use of either hand. The ball can be stroked overhand, sidearm, or underhand. In the sidearm stroke, the player should be low, parallel to the floor, to achieve the most effective shot. The development of the offhand shot, that is the weaker left-hand stroke of a right-handed player, is important. It is advantageous, too, to control or direct the ball to the offhand of the opponent, thus forcing a weaker return.

  •  Excerpts from Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia



The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition.  2001.
indoor or outdoor game played by striking a ball against a wall or walls with the palm of the hand. Play may be for singles or doubles (four players) on a court with one, three, or four walls. The court is typically 20 ft (6.1 m) by 34 ft (10.4 m) with a short line, from behind which the ball is served, marked off 16 ft (4.9 m) from, and parallel to, the front wall, which is 16 ft high. Players hit the ball against the front wall before or after it has struck the floor once. The object is to keep the ball out of the opponent’s reach but within the bounds of the court. In the three-wall game, the side walls are also in play, in the four-wall version the back wall also. In all versions, rallies are won when opponents cannot return the ball—made of hard black rubber, 17/8 in. (4.76 cm) in diameter—to the front wall on the fly. Points are scored only when the server wins a rally; the serve changes hand when the receiver wins. Twenty-one points wins a game. Special gloves are used to protect the hands. Although the U.S. Handball Association conducts national and regional championships, the sport, once very popular in YMCAs and public parks, has lost much of its constituency, except in some cities, to racquetball, a four-wall game, invented in the 1950s, that has similar rules but employs short-handled rackets and a fast-moving hollow rubber ball.
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Copyright 2001 Columbia University Press.