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Today's Tidbit... A Report On The Official's Gun
I enjoy coming up with punny Tidbit and article titles, and one of my all-time favorites was When Football Officials Tooted On The Field, which covered the evolution of whistles, horns, bells, guns, and other noisemakers used on the field by football officials. Officials began blowing whistles in 1887, and they initially did so to signal the end of a play and that a foul occurred (in the days before penalty flags). However, players became confused since the blown whistle signaled both that play should stop and continue. That led to a 1904 rule that only the referee would use a whistle while the other officials would use horns or bells.
The change helped tremendously but did not solve every signaling problem. Recall that before the early 1920s, football teams did not huddle. Instead, one play ended, and the teams lined up for the next, called the signals at the line, and snapped the ball. The combination of the rapid pace of play, crowd noise, and low-volume horns (most were kazoos), the teams and referees did not always hear the field judge or timekeeper's signal to end the quarter or game.
To solve the problem, football officials out West borrowed a tool from basketball whose timekeepers often used a gong or starter's pistol to signal when the clock ran out. The first reference for the pistol's use in football is from a 1916 game between Occidental and Whittier in California. In a contest ending in a 13-13 tie, the Whittier Poets had the ball inside Occidental's 10-yard line and were readying for a crack at the end zone when the gun sounded, ending their hopes for victory.
However, using a pistol was not without problems, as shown when an inadvertent pistol shot stopped a potential touchdown run midway through a play in a 1919 Montana Tech-Montana Wesleyan game. Of course, the gun normally worked well, and the NCAA made it an optional part of the Field Judge’s kit in 1924. Still, it was not until 1930 that the rule book noted the signal should sound only after the play was dead:
If the Field Judge uses a pistol shot to notify the Referee of the expiration of time, the pistol must not be fired until the ball has been declared dead.
1930 Rule Book
A 1924 Big Ten committee required the home team to provide a pistol and holster for the field judge, though some officials continued packing their own. Decades later, that choice created problems with airport security, so the requirement for home teams to provide pistols also became an NFL requirement.
Over time, advances in scoreboard clocks allowed them to be used as the official timer for games, and they were synchronized with loudspeaker horns to signal the clock hitting zero. The pistol was still mentioned in the 1948 rule book and was not in the 1950 rule book. Since I am missing the 1949 version, it could have been eliminated then.) Some crews continued using pistols after the NCAA dropped mention of them, while NFL officials holstered their pistols for the last time in 1994.
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