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A starting pistol or starter pistol is a handgun (typically a specially designed revolver) or electronic toy weapon that is fired to start track and field races, as well as competitive swimming races at some meets. The loud report of the gun going off is a signal to the athletes to begin the event. Usually a cloud of smoke can be seen when shot. Blank shells or caps are used to prevent injury. Starting pistols may be modified versions of standard pistols incapable of firing bullets, most commonly achieved by welding obstacles into the barrel. When electronic timing is used, a sensor is often affixed to the gun, which sends an electronic signal to the timing system upon firing. For deaf competitors or for modern electronic systems, a light may be used instead.
An issue with the use of starting pistols is that, since the report of the pistol is carried to the competitors at the speed of sound, which takes about 3 milliseconds to travel one metre, positions nearest the starter hear the report a few milliseconds before further positions. This issue is exaggerated in races where the runners begin in a stagger, putting a significant distance between the nearest and furthest runners. To avoid this problem, the pistol is sometimes wired with a microphone that transmits the sound virtually instantaneously to loudspeakers directly behind each competitor.
With security after the September 11 attacks on the US becoming prevalent, causing issues with starting pistols, a trend developed to use electronic starting systems that do not use pistols, but use obviously toy weapons that are wired to the timing system. When the starter presses the button, they emit a signal to play a simulated gunshot that is broadcast to loudspeakers behind each lane, show a flash, emit simulated smoke, and start the timing clock. Many venues have switched to the new format. Beyond the security concerns, it has also been observed that even with the use of loudspeakers, some competitors still wait for the actual sound of the gun to reach them, and since the new all-electronic starting pistols have no such problems, they have become the official way of starting games at the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Some pistols converted to fire blanks only can be converted back to fire live ammunition. Some pistols manufactured specifically to fire blank cartridges are designed to resemble real weapons. Criminals use such weapons both to intimidate due to their appearance, and as actual firearms.
In the United Kingdom blank-firing pistols must be brightly coloured to comply with the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, so that they do not look like real weapons and cannot be used for intimidation.