For the basketball player, see Anton Gavel.

Wooden gavel
Classification Ceremonial mallet
Used with Sound block

A gavel is a small ceremonial mallet commonly made of hardwood, typically fashioned with a handle and often struck against a sound block, a striking surface typically also made of hardwood, to enhance its sounding qualities.

It is a symbol of the authority and right to act officially in the capacity of a chair or presiding officer.[1] The expression passing the gavel signifies an orderly succession from one chair to another.

A gavel is used to call for attention or to punctuate rulings and proclamations. According to tradition, Vice President John Adams used a gavel to call the very first Senate to order in New York in the spring of 1789. Since then, it has remained customary to rap the gavel against a lectern or desk to indicate the opening (call to order) and the closing (adjournment) of proceedings, giving rise to the phrase gavel-to-gavel to describe the entirety of a meeting or session. It is also used to keep the meeting itself calm and orderly.

The sound of the gavel strike, being abrupt to start and stop, and clearly audible by all present, serves to sharply define an action in time in a manner clearly perceivable by all, and to endow the action with practical as well as symbolic finality.

The gavel is used in courts of law in the United States and, by metonymy, is used there to represent the entire judiciary system, especially of judgeship; to bring down the gavel means to enforce or compel with the power of a court. On the other hand, in the United Kingdom, gavels have never been used by judges, despite many American-influenced TV programmes depicting them.[2][3]

In addition, auctioneers have used gavels to signal a sale.


In Medieval England, the word "gavel" could refer to a tribute or rent payment made with something other than cash.[4] These agreements were set in English land-court with the sound of a "gavel," a word which may come from the Old English "gafol" (meaning "tribute").[4] "Gavel" would be prefixed to any non-monetary payment given to a lord (e.g., "gavel-malt"). A "gavel" may also have referred to a kind of mason's tool, a setting maul that came into use as a way to maintain order in meetings.[4]

Use in meetings

A gavel may be used in meetings of a deliberative assembly. According to Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, the gavel may be used to signify a recess or an adjournment.[5][6] It may also be used to signify when a member makes a slight breach of the rules.[7]

Demeter's Manual of Parliamentary Law and Procedure states that, in addition to an optional light tap after a vote, there are three other uses of a gavel:[1]

  1. To attract attention and call a meeting to order. In most organisations, two raps raise and one rap seats the assembly; in others, two raps raise and three raps seat it.
  2. To maintain order and restore it when breached in the course of the proceedings. (Rap the gavel once, but vigorously.)
  3. To be handed over to successors in office or to officiating officers as ceremonials, etc. (Always extend the holding end.)

Improper uses include banging the gavel in an attempt to drown out a disorderly member.[7] In this situation, the chair should give one vigorous tap at a time at intervals.[1] Also, the chair should not lean on the gavel, juggle or toy with it, or use it to challenge or threaten or to emphasize remarks.[1]

The chair should not be "gaveling through" a measure by cutting off members and quickly putting a question to a vote before any member can get the floor (in this connection, the chair should not use the gavel to improperly signify the end of consideration of a question).[8]

In addition to the use above during business meetings, organizations may use the gavel during their ceremonies and may specify the number of raps of the gavel corresponding to different actions.[9][10]

United States Congress gavels

The unique gavel of the United States Senate has an hourglass shape and no handle. The gavel in current use was presented to the Senate by the Republic of India and first used on November 17, 1954. This gavel replaced an ivory gavel that had been in use since at least 1789 and had deteriorated over the years. In 1952, silver plates were added to both ends of the old gavel in an attempt to prevent further damage to it. In 1954, it broke when Vice President Richard Nixon used it during a heated debate on nuclear energy. Unable to obtain a piece of ivory large enough to replace the gavel, the Senate appealed to the Indian embassy. India presented to the United States the solid ivory replica still in use.[11]

In contrast to the Senate, the gavel of the United States House of Representatives is plain wood. Used more often and more forcefully in the House, it has been broken and replaced many times.[12]

In both houses, the gavel is generally sounded, that is, struck, once to mark the opening of the session, the adjournment, and to punctuate announcements of decisions by the body (that is, when the presiding officer announces that a resolution or motion is passed, the gavel is generally tapped once to declare the issue finished and to move on). Rather than shouting for order like in most Westminster style parliaments, the gavel, particularly in the House of Representatives, is often tapped repeatedly by the presiding officer to call the assembly to order or to restore order when cross-conversation has made it too noisy to proceed.

United Nations

In 1955 Icelandic sculptor Ríkarður Jónsson carved the Icelandic birch gavel and striking board used at the United Nations.[13]


  1. 1 2 3 4 Demeter, George (1969). Demeter's Manual of Parliamentary Law and Procedure, Blue Book, p. 39–40
  2. Marcel Berlins (23 November 2009). "Knock it on the head, BBC. Judges don't use gavels". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-06-09.
  3. "UK Judiciary Website: Gavels".
  4. 1 2 3 See dictionary definitions of "gavel" at Merriam-Webster, Oxford Dictionaries, and
  5. Robert, Henry M.; et al. (2011). Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised (11th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press. p. 232. ISBN 978-0-306-82020-5.
  6. Robert 2011, p. 242
  7. 1 2 Robert 2011, p. 645
  8. Robert 2011, p. 387
  9. "The Gavel". B.P.O.E. Retrieved 2015-08-03.
  10. "Illustrations of Masonry: Illustrations of Masonry: Opening the Lodge". Retrieved 2016-02-11.
  11. "Historical Minute Essays: 1941-1963: November 17, 1954: The Senate's New Gavel". Retrieved 2012-05-06.
  12. Larchuk, Travis. "Passing One Of Many, Many Gavels". Retrieved 2016-02-10.
  13. Baal-Teshuva, Jacob, Art Treasures of the United Nations, Thomas Yoseloff, New York, 1964 p.71 and Plate 34
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