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NFL100: Why did officials use a pistol to signal the end of the quarter?

It seems strange today, but NFL officials used to fire a starter’s pistol to end each quarter.



It seems strange today, but NFL officials used to fire a starter’s pistol to end each quarter. It’s a mechanic that was first used in 1924 and lasted until the NFL discontinued the practice starting in 1994.

In the 1920s, procedures were standardized that the referee was the only official that had a whistle and was the only official who could declare a play dead. Other officials had horns to indicate penalties. The pistol was just another way to add a signal to the game with a different sound. Eventually, all officials had whistles and horns gave way to penalty flags in the 1940s, but the pistol actually still had a practical use.

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. (The American Football League had a rule that the stadium clock was the official time throughout its existence.) 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. The pistol mechanic continued well after the stadium clock became the official time in the NFL with the 1970 merger with the AFL. 

When the official time was kept on the field, there was often a discrepancy in the final seconds of the game. In the video below, with the Colts cruising to victory in the 1968 NFL Championship, it looks like officials called the game final with a 13 seconds remaining on the clock. This wasn’t a decision to just to get a head start to the locker room, but the stadium time was lagging behind the official time on the field. Also, a clip shows line judge Charles Stewart is seen firing the signal at the end of a quarter of a 1993 playoff game, shortly before this procedure was phased out. 

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.

This is an updated version of a previous post from 2018 for the #NFL100 series

Check out more in our #NFL100 series



Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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