Just weeks before student athletes begin competing in outdoor track and field events across Ohio, officials are scrambling to find a solution to their gun problem.

Just weeks beforestudent athletes begin competing in outdoor track and field events across Ohio, officials are scrambling to find a solution to their gun problem.

For the first time that many can remember, they can't buy blank cartridges for their starting pistols.

The pistols are used to start races, syncing the runners with timekeeping devices. Middle school events typically use a .22-caliber shell for the shot, while high school races use the louder .32 caliber.

This year, as demand for actual bullets continues to rise, ammunition manufacturers aren't focused about blanks. Instead, their efforts are going toward making the bullets, leaving officials wondering how they'll start races this season.

Dale Gabor, director of track and field officiating development for theOhio High School Athletic Association, said he usually buys several boxes of shells, making them available to officials who need them.

Last year, Vance Outdoors, his normal supplier, told him to place his order several months early because of the shortage.

"We were pretty much assured, 'You will get them,' " he said. "Then a year came by, and here it is in March and I still don't have them."

Vance's supplier, Winchester Ammunition, made it clear to gun manager Rick Burns that they weren't concerned about the blanks.

"Every time we inquire about them, we basically hear that they're not producing them right now," he said. "They've got other priorities."

Gabor was even more blunt than Burns.

"Frankly, they don't care," he said. "It's 'You need them? Too bad.' "

Representatives from Winchester could not be reached for comment.

Burns said he is well aware of the issues track and field organizers are having. He said of all the calls he gets about blanks, they're "mostly track and field coaches," and as soon as Vance's gets any in supply, they fly off the shelves.

"We hardly ever get enough to put out on a shelf," he said. "These guys take (them)."

Burns said there aren't many alternative uses for the blanks. He said "nobody wants them anymore," and could only think of "scaring people away" -- which he "strongly" cautioned against -- as another use.

Years ago, the blanks problem would have been the schools' responsibility. But somewhere along the way, Gabor said, it became understood that officials would be the ones to bring the equipment.

Leonard Krsak is secretary of the Track Registry Central Ohio Association and chairman of multiple officiating committees.

Krsak said officials stick together; they tend to network and take every opportunity to find what they need.

"They're just making every contact possible and trying to find a supplier," he said. "They're getting on the Internet and going around. When I find an answer or a potential source, I pass them around. ... That's the only thing we can do."

Gabor also is scrambling.

He said he's looked high and low for shells, but is accustomed to the reliableWinchesters. With another type, results may vary.

"The thing that scares me is I don't know what kind of quality they are," he said of officials buying shells elsewhere. "For something like the state meet or something, we don't want shells that work half the time or don't work. So I'm trying to be a little bit careful of the quality we can find."

But officials have to do something, because they're tasked with finding a way to start a race.

"They're going to source them somehow, even if they have to share what they have with someone else," Krsak said.

"I've gotten a couple emails ... about potential people to buy from. By the time they get to these people, they may be out of them also. And there's no master list you can go to down the line. A lot of these guys just got on the Internet and started exploring."

As for what happens when no one can find blanks, Krsak said that's a "good question."

Officials will start using .22-caliber rounds rather than .32-caliber rounds. They'll work, but will be quieter in an often-loud environment.

Electric starters are one alternative, but because of the blanks shortage, they are back-ordered by most suppliers until the summer. In some cases, schools wouldn't pay the money required to buy the starters anyway.

Gabor said he'll simply struggle through this year and order significantly more than what he needs in the future, in hopes of creating a reserve.

"It's become a horrible, terrible inconvenience for everybody," he said. "We'll figure out a way to make it through, but the thing that's really annoying is that if people had known beforehand, they would have started planning a long time ago."

@ThisWeekAndrew