The Rules of Cockfighting

The following is the oldest known set of Rules for Cock-fighting yet to be discovered. These ‘Rules relating to the Matching & Fighting of cocks in London’ appear in Heber’s Sporting Calendar for 1751, published by Reginald Heber of London and printed in 1752. They have been reproduced in various forms in a number of works, and have been sold in the original form as a fine art print by Francis Blackburn, a well-known British sporting print-maker from Cumbria. In Heber’s original document it states that these Rules have been in use since the time of Charles II, who reigned from 1660.

IMPRIMIS.  It is agreed, that every man having cocks to fight, shew and put them into the pit, with a fair Hackle, not too near shorn or cut, or any other Fraud under pain of forfeiting, for every time so offending, Three Shillings and Four Pence;  and his cock to be put by from fighting that year.

2.  Item.  That every cock matched, shall fight as he is first showed in the Pit, without sheering or cutting any feathers afterwards to a disadvantage, without the Consent of both Parties who made the Match, upon pain of forfeiting, for every time so offending; Ten Shillings.

3.  Item.  That when two Cocks are set down to fight, and one of them run away before they have struck three Mouthing Blows, it is adjudged no Battle to the Bettors.

5.  Item.   When a Battle shall come to setting too, and both Cocks refuse to fight ten times, according to the Law, then a fresh cock to be hovell'd and set to each Cock;  and if one fight and the other refuse then the fighting Cock to win the Battle, but if both fight , or both refuse, there to be a drawn Battle.  Item.  That the crowing of a Cock, or mouthing in his Battle, shall be adjudged no fight;  and if both be blind, although they peck and fight, yet they shall be set too telling the law betwixt every time.

6.  Item.  That when Cocks are far spent, and come to setting too together, it is ordered, that they shall be set too as followeth, (that is to say) Bill to Bill, if they both see, but if either be blind, then the blind cock to touch, if either be drawn necked, then his head to be held fair and even with the other cock, so that the Party do his best in setting too, to make his Cock fight.  Provided that, after they came to be set thus, as aforesaid, between every setting too, they shall stay till on tell Twenty before they set too again, until the Law of two times are forth, and then to tell ten but ten times.

7.  Item.  It is ordered That when a Cock is so hurt that any of the Pit shall lay ten pounds to five shillings, that after the Cocks fighting shall be told twice Twenty, and then no Man will take that day, then the Battle to be adjudged won on the Cock's side the odds is on.

8.  Item.  That no Man shall make any cavil or speech about Matching of Cocks, either to the Matchers, or the owners of the cocks after the Cocks be once put together, upon pain of forfeiting Five Shillings for every time so offending.

9.  Item.  That all losses in the cockpit be presently paid down at the end of every Battle, before any other be fought; or else that the Party winning be satisfied before the Party losing go out of doors; and also that every man pay good current Money.

10.  Item.  Whosoever they be which shall put any day or Bett to judgement, being in Variance they both shall stake down the Money laid on either side, and six-pence a piece over, and the Party that is adjudged to be in the wrong shall pay his Bett, and lose his six-pence; Provided that every man speak freely, before Judgement is given, what he thinks thereof, and if any man speak afterwards, he shall, for every such offence in speaking pay six-pence.

11.  Item.  That all Betts made either within or without the Pitt, shall stand good; and that one cannot go off without consent of the ruler' and all Betts undemanded before the next Battle fights, to be lost.

12.  Item.  If any an have made a Lay or Bett and cannot tell, or call to mind, with whom he laid or Betted such a Lay, then if he desire openly in the Pit, that the Party with whom he laid would give him one half of the same, if he doeth not confess it, and give him the one half of the same, then it is allowed, anyone who knows the Bett to declare it, and the Party so refusing to confess it shall pay the whole Bett;  Provided that no Man may tell before the Party said he is contented to take as a foresaid, but if any man do tell him before the Party said he is content to take Half of his Bett, then the Party so telling is to pay the said Lay or Bett.

13.  Item.  If any Man lay more Money than he hath to pay, or cannot satisfy the Party with whom he hath laid, either by his credit or some friends word;  the which if he cannot do, then he is to be put in a basket to be provided for that purpose, and to be hanged up in that basket in some convenient place in the Cockpit, that all men may know him during the time of play that day; and also the Party so offending never be permitted to come into the Pit,  until he hath made satisfaction.

14.  Item.  That if any man in a pit shall proffer a Bett, and the Party that lays with him say done, and he answers Done to him again, it shall be judged a lawful Bett.

15.  Item.  It is ordered that Persons of the better rank and Quality of the cockers, Cock Masters, and Gamesters, such as are appointed to Set too Cocks, and put them fair in and no others (without permission of the master of the Pit) shall set in the lower Ring; and that the said Masters of the Pit shall have Authority at all times to remove such as he thinks not meet to set in the lower or second ring; and also to make room for those who are of the better sort, and to place them there at his pleasure, according to his own Discretion.

16.  Item.  It is ordered that all Controversies which arise, or come by means of the Sport of Cockfighting, upon any of the Orders above written, or otherwise between Party and Party, shall be committed or the Party so offended.

19.  Item.  It is ordered that the Forfeitures above shall be equally divided, the one Moiety thereof to be paid to the use of the Poor of the Parish, and the other Moiety to be distributed and disposed of, as the Master of the Pit think fit, unto such Feeders, and ancient Breeders of Cocks as are or shall be decided.

As has already been pointed out, this work is not a history of cockfighting, it is about cockfighting as it is in Britain today. That being the case, there is little object in repeating various other sets of rules that can be found in other works which are not in current use. The rules that are in current use are principally the Westminster Pit Rules, the modern version of the above, and two sets of rules imported from America, the McCall Rules and the Wortham Rules. In both cases, the American Rules are available in booklet form, and both deal with the matching systems known as Mains, Tournaments, and Derbies respectively. The Tournament and the Derby are American phenomena which have not gathered currency in Britain. British gamefowl are fought either with spurs in Mains, or without spurs in ad hoc naked-heel matches. British and American strains are fought with spurs, whilst Oriental crosses are fought without.

The difference between the two types of contest is total. Fights with spurs, known as ‘steel matches’ can be over in seconds as the birds fly and drive their spurs into each other. Fights without spurs, known as ‘naked-heel’ or ‘bare-heel’ matches, can last several hours. The Oriental birds used by the naked-heel fraternity are much bigger and heavier than English and American strains, and after flapping up at each other a few times they prefer to walk. They circle each other with their heads guarded by a wing looking for an opportunity to peck their opponent squarely on the head. Eventually one bird will knock the other unconscious. These birds are rarely killed in battle whereas in steel matches there is an attrition rate of about one third of the partici­pants. Only two thirds live to fight another day.

Naked-heelers withstand the attack of their opponent for so long partly due to their different physiology. The normal British cock has a comb along the top of its head, and wattles hanging from the sides. In steel matches the birds have the comb and wattles removed in a process known as ‘dubbing’. This is normally carried out after the bird’s first moult, but there is a good deal of disagreement and variations in practice around the country. The reason for dubbing is simple. If it is not done the other cock can use the comb as a place to get a good grip with its beak. Having got a grip it can then use it as an aiming-mark for its spurs, which can then be accurately driven into the opponent.

The situation with naked-heel birds is different. Instead of the conventional single line of comb along the top of the head, Oriental strains have a more solid mass of comb material known as a ‘pea-comb’ or ‘rose-comb’. This acts as a cushion, absorbing some of the shock of the impact of the other bird’s beak. That is why naked-heel contests take so long.

These physical and fighting differences mean that steel and naked-heel matches are organised differently. Naked-heel contests are usually over a few hours with only two or three pairs of birds fought. Steel matches involve many pairs of birds fought in Mains.

A Main is a contest between a given number of cocks on each side matched in pairs. The number of pairs should be uneven, so that there must be a cocker who has more winning birds than his opponent. The minimum Main is thus three, and the maximum is unlimited, restricted only by the availability of birds. Birds are matched by weight so that no bird fights a bird more than two ounces heavier than itself. The winner of the Main is the man with most winning birds. That is the simplistic background against which the rules are set.

There are a few variations on the basic theme. A Devonshire Main is where birds are fought by predetermined set weights, from four pounds up to five pounds, with a pair being fought at each ounce weight in between. It is easy to imagine how many birds a cockfighter needs to keep in order to produce seventeen cocks in ascending order of one ounce weights.

The Welsh Main , described by the Rev. Samuel Pegge in~ A Memoir on Cockfighting , published by the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1786, as “a disgrace to us Englishmen”, is different again in that cocks are fought more than once. It is a knockout competition, between any number of birds from sixteen to thirty two. Battles are to the death in every case. The survivors of each round fight each other until only one remains alive. This means that the winner of a thirty two bird Welsh main has had to kill five opponents.

There is an even worse contest called a Battle Royal . In this contest any number of birds are placed in the pit simultaneously with no regard to weight or anything else. It is just a free-for-all with the winner being the bird left standing at the end. Historically Welsh Mains and Battles Royal were very popular, but I have no evidence of their continuance at present. Conventional Mains are the order of the day amongst steel matchers.

McCall's Rules of the Cock Pit


1.         A single judge, agreeable to both parties, to be hereinafter known as and called The Referee, shall have complete and entire charge of the fighting at all times.

2.         The Referee shall be in the pit during the  entire progress of each battle.

3          The Referee shall see that the Rules are strictly adhered to; shall direct all handles;  shall do all counting and shall stop any fight that shows plainly is being fraudulently conducted and declare the battle lost tot he offending pitter

4.         The Referee shall instruct a pitter who does not know the rules and protect his interest.


5.         The Pit may be square, with corners broken, hexagon, octagon, or circular in shape, but should  have a minimum measurement of sixteen feet across.  A centre line shall be drawn through the pit.  Three feet on each side of this centre line, and parallel with it, draw two more lines to be known a "Scores".


6.         1 1/4" Regulation Gaffs;  Strips of kid or chamois skin may be used but not more than two thicknesses of this material may be wrapped around the cocks leg about or below the spur.  No 'bolstering' of gaffs out from the cock's leg by any means will be permitted.

7.         1 1/2" Gaffs:  All gaffs that are round from socket to point and measure 1 1/2" in a straight line from top front edge of socket to point are permitted.

8.        Long Gaffs:  All gaffs that are round from socket to point are permitted.


9.         Cocks shall be fought in full feather at all times.  There shall be no "trimming out" of hand, hackle or body feathers, only long tail feathers and end of wing feathers, and a little fluff around the vent may be cut.  Cocks with ragged feathers, not purposely made so, may be fought.

10.       Cocks weighing within tiwo ounces of each other are matched.  Cocks weighing over 6.06 are 'Shakes' and match at 'catch' weights.  Blinkers and Stags are allowed four ounces by a perfect cock.  Blinker cocks and Stags match at equal wight, give or take two ounces.  In Mains the top and bottom weight cocks shall not weigh even a fractional part of an ounce more than the weights stipulated in the agreement.

11.       The Referee shall re-weigh all cocks, except Shakes, at the pit side and in the presence of both pitters after they are heeled, and allow one ounce for heels and packing.

12.       The Referee shall examine heels of both cocks in the presence of both pitters; weights and heels found to be correct, the battle shall proceed.

13.       In Mains should a cock weigh more than weight specified, plus one ounce allowed for heels and packing, the Referee shall order the pitter to produce a cock of the specified weight.  If he is unable or refuses to do so within fifteen munutes the battle shall be declared lost to the offending pitter.  In Tournaments or Derbys a pitter who cannot, or who claims he cannot make the specified weight,  the Referee or some club official shall go to the entry's cock house and weight all cocks that he has banded, and if any cock is found that can make this specified weight he must be fought or if he refuses to fight any cock making the weights then he shall be declared the loser on a forfeit.

14.       Should the gaffs on either cock he found not to meet the agreed specifications, the Referee shall order the pitter to produce proper gaffs of proper requirements and should he be unable or refuse to do so within fifteen minutes the battle shall be declared lost to the offending pitter.

15.       The weight of cocks and the gaffs being acknowledged correct by both pitters and Referee, there shall be no contention from these sources after the battle has begun.

16.       If an even number of cocks should match in Main, the side winning his half first shall be declared the winner of the Main.  For instance if twelve pairs are matched the first side to win six is the winner of the Main.

17.       The use of any foreign substance o a cock's feathers, before or after being brought to the pit, is prohibited.

18.       Cocks may be fought over in main or Hackfight at any time.  To fight a cockback in Tournament or Derby he must be re-banded before taken out of the pit and his new number added to his list.

19.       A pitter can sponge head and legs, or moisten cock's throat with water or saliva between pittings, nothing but plain water to be used and both pitters shall take water from the same container.

20.       Pitter may clean gaffs, remove blood, dirt or feathers from cock's mouth or head between pittings.  An assistant may hand sponge and water to pitter from outside of the pit, but is to perform no other duties and shall not enter pit.

21.       Pitters are not allowed to clap hands, cluck to cocks or make any noise to wake cocks up or to attract their attention.  A broken gaff cannot be removed or replaced during battle.  Cutting off comb or gills, or broken wings, or feathers off a broken wing of cock during battle is prohibited.


22.       After cocks are weighed at pit-side and gaffs examined and all is found to be correct the pitters shall advance to centre pit and allow their cocks to bill a few times, then retire to their "Scores".  The Referee shall command "Get Ready" and about five seconds later shall command "Pit".

23.       Should a cock in main refuse to fight at commencement of battle he loses the battle.  Should a cock refuse to fight at commencement of battle in Hack Fight, the battle and all bets are off.  Striking, striking at, pecking, pecking at, holding onto or chasing opponent is fighting.

A typical Cockpit by Hogarth

(Known as the Pit Ticket, showing the blind Lord Albermarl Bertie being robbed; it is here where the Wesminster Rules were applied)

Note: The modern cockpit may be a stable, a barn or simply an enclosure made by stacking straw bales into a square. It is usually a temporary affair which can be removed quickly. Some of the enthusiasts have a permanent structure made of wood or corrugated sheets.

24.       Cocks must be pitted squarely on their feet at all times, facing and directly opposite each other.  A pitter shall not advance on or walk around his cock until a blow has passed.  Cocks are to be pitted on their "Score" six feet apart except as specified in TIME and COUNT.  When cocks are pitted on Scores, pitters can use both hands.  Pitter must not shove or hold his cock, but release him promptly when commanded by the Referee to "Pit".  Pitters must step back quickly after pitting their cocks and stand four feet from them during the fight;  should the cocks advance on the pitter he shall immediately step back to the required distance of four feet.

25.       When cocks are pitted "Beak-to-Beak" the pitter shall use but one hand,  and it under the cock, the other hand entirely away from the cock.  When pitted "Beak-to-Beak" cocks shall be placed squarely upon their feet beak-to-beak and not sideways or out of distance to peck.

26.       When a cock is hung in himself, the other cock, the ground or side of the pit, the Referee shall promptly call out "Handle".  Pitters cannot handle until told to do so by Referee.  When cocks are lying together and gaff, or gaffs, are hidden under feathers making it impossible to see if they are hung, Referee shall order "Handle".

27.       Pitter shall always pull the gaff out of his own cock.  He shall catch the other cock by the leg below the knee while the cocks are held steady (on the ground).  Should a pitter have occasion to put his hand on opponent's cock, he must do so with open hand.

28.       The "Rest" after handling between pittings is twenty seconds.  During the "Rest" pitters shall hold the cocks so that the Referee can see them at all times.

29.      Cocks cannot be given a "wing" or turned over when on their side or back.  A blind cock is pitted at all times exactly the same as a cock that can see.


30.       Three "Tens" and one "Twenty".  The Referee shall do all counting and in a distinct voice, having each "Ten" cover ten seconds and the "Twenty" count twenty seconds as near as possible.  The Referee shall point with his hand to the pitter who has the Count and say "One for Mr………Two for Mr……Three for Mr………";   then pit beak-to-beak for "Twenty" count.  The pitter can call for the count when his cock fights last, but must do so within five seconds after his cock stops fighting.  Referee is to be the sole judge of the time taken to ask for "Count".  If the pitter of cocks fighting last does not call for "Count" within five seconds the Referee shall put "Time" on.

31.       When count of first "Ten" is completed, cocks are to be handled, rest twenty seconds and pitted on their "Scores".  Referee shall immediately begin to count the second "Ten".  If second "Ten" is completed the pitters shall handle, rest twenty seconds and pit on "Scores".  Referee shall count third "Ten" rest twenty seconds and pit beak-to-beak and count the "Twenty" count.  If the cock that is being counted out has not fought during the count of these three "Tens" and "Twenty" he loses the fight.

32.       Should the cock that has the count hang in his opponent the Referee shall stop counting and call out Handle and as soon as the gaffs are drawn Referee shall order cocks re-pitted from the same place pitted before, either at the Score line or beak-to-beak (no rest) and the count continued.  Example:  if count has reached seven when cock hangs the Referee will start at eight, nine, ten or to twenty as the case ma be.  When cocks are pitted after releasing:  if cock hangs again he shall be released and pitted as before.  A pitter whose cock is not fighting cannot call for count nor can he force his opponent whose cock is fighting or fought last to take the count.


33.       If the cock that is being counted out fights during the count of first, second, or third "Ten", the "Count" is broken and the cocks are pitted on first scores when again handled.  When "Count" or "Time" is broken and given again it must be commenced over again with the first "Ten" in "Count" or the first "Time" in "Time" as the case may be.  If the cock that is being counted out fights during the count of "Twenty" the "Count " is broken but the cocks are pitted beak-to-beak to end of battle.  Cocks once pitted beak-to-beak through "Time" or "Count" must be so pitted to end of battle.

34.       If the cock that has the "Count" runs away, the Referee shall immediately give the "Count" to his opponent, if  he is not a run-away also.  If he is a run-away the fight is a draw.

35.       Should the cock that has the "Count" walk away from his opponent and his opponent be too weak to break the "Count" the Referee shall continue the "Count" to the end;  then immediately order the gaffs cut off the walking cock and have a fresh cock pitted beak-to-beak with him.  If he then does not show fight the opponent cock is declared the winner, if he is a living cock at the end of the "Count" and is not a run-away.  Should the cock being counted out die before completion of "Count" and the walking cock not show fight at test, the fight shall be declared a "draw".


36.       When both cocks stop fighting and neither has the "Count", the Referee shall give "Time" of twenty seconds three times with no rest.  The Referee shall call out "Time on" and at the end of the twenty seconds call "Handle" and immediately have the cocks pitted beak-to-beak for a second "Time", and so on to the conclusion of the Third.  If both cocks have a hold to his opponent it will be the duty of the Referee to start "Time" and have the cocks repitted from the same position as before.

37.       If neither cock fights during the three "Times" the fight shall be declared a "draw".  If one of the cocks fights before the competition of "Time" then "Time" is broken and "Count" is given.  No "Time" can be given at beginning of battle before cocks strike a blow.  If one cock dies before completion of "Time" the living cock wins if he is not a run-away.  If he is a run-away the fight shall be declared a "draw".  If both cocks are running at the completion of "time" the battle is a "draw".

The Wortham Rules are so broadly similar that they do not bear repeating at length here. Earlier versions of cockfighting rules pro­vided for two judges as well as a Referee.

It can be seen from the nature of these rules that they are not in any way designed for naked-heel contests. So far as I have been able to ascertain there are no written rules for this type of contest in existence. One Cambridgeshire enthusiast puts it like this:

Well, there aren’t any rules as such, it’s just the way we do it. Two birds are put in the pit and they batter each other until such time as one of them has had enough. It’s pretty easy to see when one of them is out of it because he’s lying knackered on the ground. Don’t take no special rules to tell us which one is the winner! We try to bring them round with cold water, but we know when enough’s enough because we don’t want to kill them. We’re not murderous buggers like the steelers.


A blinkered Kelso-Hatch Stag stands on his tepee, showing a simple but effective type of field shelter for a cock. This bird was Lot No. 13 in Sir Mark Prescott’s Sale on 26th May 1991.
(Photograph: Vincent Oliver. Reproduced by kind permission of Sir Mark Prescott).

To Chapter 4