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Dueling in the Olympics?



There has long been the misconception that dueling was a sanctioned event at the Olympics in the early part of the 20th century. This is only partly true. While there was something similar in which one person dueled a dummy, the idea of two live people shooting at one another was never part of the Olympics.


The confusion comes from an actual event that was held at the same time as the 1908 Olympic Games in London. The timing was purposeful, as it was meant to draw in crowds already in town for the official games, but it was NOT part of the 4th Olympiad.


Walter Winans was one of the most accomplished competitive shooters in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and it was he who arranged for the duel in 1908. Interviewed by London’s Daily Express, he claimed, “There will be just enough risk in these duels to make them exciting, though not really dangerous.”

Walter Winans
Walter Winans

So how is it that shooting at someone could be described as “not really dangerous?” Simple: wax bullets. The projectiles used in dueling competitions were patented by Dr. Paul Devillers of France in 1901. The bullet was low-powered, being propelled only by the fulminate in the cap; no powder was used. The bullets’ composition had to be carefully crafted, so as to make it hard enough not to come apart when being fired, yet soft enough not to cause harm to the duelers.

Sport dueling pistols with hand guards and wax bullets, circa 1909.

It was a challenge to keep both the bullets and the guns in proper shooting condition during the event. In his book, “The Modern Pistol and How to Shoot It,” Walter Winans notes that to do so, “[t]he pistol barrel has to be kept cold. When it gets hot after a few shots, the bullet will partly melt and get soft and then it does not take the rifling. The usual way is to have a sort of champagne cooler full of ice and to ice the loaded pistols for a few minutes before shooting them.”


Protective clothing was also worn, which was described in a 1908 article for New Zealand’s Star as being “thick, monkish-looking cloaks and … helmets … with half-inch plate-glass before the eyes and a flap of thick leather to protect the throat.”

Sport dueler wearing protective clothing, circa 1909

It’s at this point where we have to mention that nothing is perfect, and the wax bullets really could - and did - hurt someone. Winans noted in a 1908 article for The Pittsburgh Press that “[w]hen I first tried it, several years ago, I shot out the soft piece of flesh connecting the thumb and forefinger of the right hand of Mr. Gustave Voulquin, the well-known sporting writer; and he tells me it still pains him when he has a lot of writing to do.”


Wax bullet dueling eventually made its way to the United States, and it had some of its first public demonstrations in what today would be considered a most unlikely of places: the Panzer Gymnasium at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, where it was hosted by the Carnegie Sword and Pistol Club. It was at these New York City demonstrations that the most famous photos of the sport were taken, and they are the ones most often mistakenly attributed to the non-existent event at the Olympic Games of 1908.


Nonetheless, the art of nonlethal dueling was very much real, and it maintained its popularity in the US and Europe through the early decades of the 20th century. However, wax bullet dueling was just one of the many things brought to an end by the outbreak of The War to End All Wars in 1914. Notably absent, however, would be the end of wars.


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