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Officials used to use a gunshot to signal the end to a quarter or half



Line judge Charles Stewart fires the end of half gun in 1993 (screen grab from NBC Sports)

It seems strange today, but NFL officials used to fire a starter’s pistol to end each quarter. It’s a mechanic that dated back to the start of pro football up until the NFL discontinued the practice starting in 1994.

When the NFL was in its infancy and up through the 1960s, stadium clocks were not the official time and officials kept time on the field. It used to fall to the back judge to keep time. When the NFL expanded to six-man crews in 1965, the line judge took over timing duties. A member of the chain crew would normally carry the gun during much of the game and hand it to the official as time wound down. When time expired and there wasn’t a foul or any other situation that would extend the period, the timing official fired the pistol (video of line judge Charles Stewart firing the pistol at the 1:35:28 mark of the clip). The pistol mechanic continued well after the stadium clock became the official time in 1970. 

When the official time was kept on the field, there was often a discrepancy in the final seconds of the game. For example, with the game in hand in the 1968 NFL Championship, it looks like officials called the game final with a few seconds remaining on the clock, but the stadium time was lagging behind (at the 47:15 mark of the clip below).

Now, the side judge keeps time on his watch as a back-up to the stadium clock in case of an error or clock malfunction.

As you can imagine, NFL officials have several amusing stories about the starter’s pistol.

The officials used to carry their own pistol to each game. But, starting in 1970, federal regulators banned passengers from carrying firearms on a commercial jetliner (in response to a rash of hijackings). Beginning in 1970, the home town chain gang supplied the starter’s pistol.

The 1970 flying rules put a young line judge named Red Cashion in a pickle one preseason game. The NFL was playing a preseason game in Tampa Bay before the Buccaneers franchise existed. According to Cashion’s book, when he met the local chain gang, he asked them if they had a starter’s pistol. They did not. A police officer wanted to be helpful and offered to loan Cashion his .357 service revolver for the game. He warned Cashion to aim the gun straight up because it carried live ammunition. Cashion thanked the officer but said they would not be using a gun for the game.

The late AFL and NFL referee John McDonough once officiated a game with president Richard Nixon in attendance. McDonough’s line judge that day was Tommy Miller. During a TV timeout McDonough asked Miller to look up at the president. Both noted that the Secret Service agents guarding the president looked alert and intense. McDonough chided Miller that he’d better not shoot his gun in the air or the Secret Service would shoot him. While mostly a joke, Miller took the chiding seriously. McDonough wrote in his book that at the end of the quarter, Miller turned his back on the president, pointed the gun at the ground and fired.

Gene Barth told Referee Magazine that when he was a line judge, the auxiliary down box man handed him the pistol toward the end of a quarter. Barth put the gun in his back pocket. When the quarter ended he reached into his back pocket to pull out the gun and the firearm went off. He said the mishap flash burned his posterior.

Before making his mark as an umpire, Jim Quirk, Sr., was a line judge. He told a story about using the gun to dissuade an argumentative defensive coordinator named Bill Belichick. According to the book, The Third Team, Quirk made a controversial call against the New York Giants. Belichick started jogging down to Quirk’s position to deliver a final salvo as time expired. Quirk saw him coming, took out his starter’s pistol, extended it toward Belichick and fired. Quirk “apologized” to the nearly deaf coach for not seeing him standing there.

Win or lose, George Halas always enjoyed working (or tormenting) the officials during a game. Norm Schachter recounts in his book that back in the 1960s, Stan Javie felt Halas’ wrath in the first half. As time wound down to end the half, everyone started jogging off the field. As Halas was jogging off the field, Javie ran up behind him, and scared an unsuspecting Halas to death when he fired the pistol to officially end the first half. The officiating crew had a good halftime laugh in the locker room.

While I’m sure many NFL officials have candidates they’d like to “shoot” every week, they are most-likely glad that they don’t have to be responsible to carry out an old-fashioned mechanic.

Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"