Awasu » Git Guts: git references
Friday 7th January 2022 9:17 PM

References ("refs") are just aliases for a commit. For example, HEAD means "the commit I am currently on", and master means "the last commit on the master branch."

These are stored in files under .git/refs/:

  • the tip of each branch is stored under heads/
  • tags are stored under tags/
  • the tip of each remote branch that is being tracked is stored under remote/

Thankfully :-) , they're trivial to parse - they just contain the commit hash:

    def find_loose_refs( ref_type ):
        """Find loose references of the specified type."""

        # find loose references
        refs_dir = os.path.join( ".git/refs/", ref_type )
        if not os.path.isdir( refs_dir ):
            return []
        refs = []
        for fname in os.listdir( refs_dir ):
            fname2 = os.path.join( refs_dir, fname )
            with open( fname2, "r", encoding="utf-8" ) as fp:
                ref =
            refs.append( (
                fname, ref,
            ) )

        return refs

When a repo is packed, all the refs are gathered up and combined into a single file, at .git/packed-refs.

This is also pretty easy to parse. The only peculiarity is a line that starts with a caret (^), which means that the line is specifying the target commit for an annotated tag in the previous line:

    def find_packed_refs():
        """Find packed references."""

        # parse the packed refs
        fname = ".git/packed-refs"
        if not os.path.isfile( fname ):
            return []
        refs = []
        with open( fname, "r", encoding="ascii" ) as fp:
            for line in fp:
                line = line.strip()
                if not line or line[0] == "#":
                if line[0] == "^":
                    # the previous line is an annotated tag, this line is the target commit
                    refs[-1] = ( *refs[-1], line[1:] )
                    mo = "^([0-9a-f]{40}) (.*)$", line )
                    refs.append( (, ) )

        return refs

Source code

A new script will find and dump refs in a repo.

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