little cubes

Moving a branch pointer in Git

Zach Olivare --

My struggles with a seemingly simple task

Branches are just pointers

Before reading this article (article may be a generous term for my ramblings), you should understand that in Git, a branch is nothing more than a pointer to a certain commit. There is very little difference between the name of a branch, and the commit hash that it points to.

* c5c2d07 (HEAD) Try different meta tags
* f3dfc69 (facebook) Add meta tags for facebook
* 04268d7 Allow opening of jeopardy category tile on mobile
* 8de6814 Add Jeopardy unanswered state

In the above commits, facebook, f3dfc69, and head^ are all equivalent to Git in most circumstances.

Why I want to move them

Often you’ll get into a situation where a remote branch gets updated, and then you have to move your local version. You could use pull, but pull has the potential to unintentionally merge, so I avoid it like the plague. Instead, I would like to so something like git move master origin/master to update my local master branch to point to the same commit that origin/master currently points to.

Writing a custom git command


# If there are 0 or 1 arguments
if [ $# -eq 0 ] || [ $# -eq 1 ]
    echo "Usage: git move <BRANCH-NAME> <BRANCH-POINTER>"
    exit 1

git branch -D $1
git branch $1 $2

echo ""
echo "Branch $1 moved to $2"

This solution worked fine for me for a long time, but there was always one problem that I didn’t even realize was coming from this script. When you delete a branch and create a new one of the same name, your new branch no longer tracks the remote branch that is used to.

Ok, no deleting

So I needed to figure out a way to do it without deleting the branch. The obvious solution seemed to be reset --hard, so I gave that a whirl.

    parseBranchName = !git branch | grep '*' | sed 's/* //' # Get the current branch name
    master = !git parseBranchName > b.txt && git checkout master && git reset --hard up/master && sed 's/ //' b.txt | xargs git checkout && rm b.txt # Move local master to point to up/master

I shied away from a bash script because looking up its odd syntax had proven to be a pain for me last time. But that left me with the limitation of writing a typical git alias. The largest problem here is that I wanted to keep the current branch checked out and not end up with master checked out after each time that command is run. Because of that I needed to first parse the current branch name, then pass that data along to the end of the script in order to re-checkout that branch.

The only way I could come up with to do that over several commands was to write it to a file, and then read and delete that file. That was annoying because sometimes when the command would fail for one reason or another, I would end up with a random b.txt file sitting in my repo. Also, even though the current branch was checked out in the end, I did checkout a different branch for a few microseconds, which was enough to trigger Visual Studio to think that it should reload.

How that monstrosity works

parseBranchName parses the output of git branch to fet the name of the current cranch you’re on (it looks for the branch name with a * in front of it). This branch name is then written out to a text file b.txt. This is all done to store your current branch so that you don’t end up on a different branch when the command is finished.

We then do the actual moving with checking out the master branch and resetting it to point to the same commit as up/master. We then read back in b.txt, use xargs to pass the stored branch name as an argument to git checkout, and finally delete the b.txt file.

Whew, that was a lot of work. When this script failed for some reason, you are left with a random b.txt file hanging around…which I may have committed more than once.


Finally, after going through all of this, I learned that git already has a built-in way of doing this (naturally).

    move = branch -f
    master = !git move master up/master

Git branch has a -f flag that will force the branch to be “created” even if the branch already exists, effectively moving it, keeping the remote tracking in tact. I learned a lot about it Git by going through this adventure, but the lesson in the end is clearly “google it before reinventing the wheel”.