At the 1908 Summer Olympic Games in London, it was possible for losing participants to be pronounced dead—theoretically, anyway.
For a fleeting period of time in the early 20th century, a form of pistol dueling grew in popularity by promising all the excitement of a fatal rivalry with none of the actual bloodshed. Duelists, armed with specially-made pistols and painful (but not deadly) wax bullets, faced off against one another in a mannered test of sidearm skill that encompassed not one but two Olympic Games.
Real dueling had very little to do with recognition of one’s skills and a lot to do with meting out justice among parties who felt wronged. The practice of resolving issues via combat was imported to America from Europe during the colonial period, with the first recorded duel on American soil credited to Massachusetts colonists Edward Doty and Edward Lester in 1621. (In this case it was a sword fight, and no mortal wounds were suffered.) In 1838, duels even received a formal code of conduct written by South Carolina governor John Lyde Wilson. If rivals couldn’t hash out their differences through a second, or mediator, they’d meet for satisfaction, most often with pistols.
Because weapons often misfired and because accepted rules meant duelists had to aim quickly—often in less than three seconds—deaths weren’t all that common. Alexander Hamilton was, of course, a notable exception.
Changing attitudes—shooting people dead in the street was, to some, in poor taste—saw a great reduction in dueling activity during and after the Civil War, but there was still an appetite for the morbid thrill of taking aim at another individual.
In 1901, a doctor and dueling aficionado named Paul Devillers developed an intriguing way to practice one’s dueling skills without committing homicide. He crafted a bullet made from tallow and baryta sulfate and then convinced pistol-making firm Piot-LePage to manufacture a gun that could fire the wax projectile.
This was no simple task. If gunpowder was used, the malleable bullet might disintegrate; Devillers’s ammunition was prone to overheating and was usually kept on ice along with the pistols prior to firing. But with a reduced charge without gunpowder and a special steel adapter in the chamber, the bullet could speed through the air and strike an opponent, who would typically be outfitted in a fencing-style chest protector and mesh mask. Hand guards around the pistol kept fingers from being struck; some participants wore protection around the throat.
The impact was largely for effect. As one reporter put it, “The bullets will be made of soft wax and instead of shrieking through the bodies of the duelists, they will yield up their fair young lives like tomatoes hurled against a barn door.”
Devillers was so excited by these advances that he formed the Société L’Assaut au Pistolet in France in 1904. The organization quickly grew to encompass the country’s dueling enthusiasts, including former French president Casimir Périer and American hotshot Walter Winans, an expatriate residing in England who had inherited a $15 million Baltimore estate and appeared to have enough leisure time to grow adept at shooting. Winans would become the public face for dueling as a competition just as it seemed like the Olympics would be the site for the world’s best pistol duelists to compete.
There would, however, be some caveats.
It was not unusual for Olympians to fire weapons during the Games. Activities involving marksmanship had been a part of the event since 1896, when the first modern Games in Athens, Greece, were held. The 1920 Antwerp Games included 21 different events involving pistols, rifles, or other firearms.
Of course, human targets were a different matter. But the 1906 Intercalated Games in Athens would prove to be an exception. The Athens Games—which were approved by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as a way of bridging the gap in the four years between the Summer Games and to pay tribute to Greece as the innovator of the contest—hosted an official competition for duelists in which they were able to fire not at each other but at plaster dummies who were, for verisimilitude’s sake, dressed in frock coats. The marksmen took aim from 20 to 30 meters away. Perhaps owing to his country’s early adoption of the competition, Frenchman Léon Moreaux took home the gold medal.
The recognition was only transient. The idea to hold another Olympics in Athens was dropped, and the 1906 event become an anomaly that was no longer recognized by the IOC.
Dueling at the Olympics, however, was not entirely a lost cause. In 1908, during the London Games and the Franco-British Exhibition, Winans invited some of the world’s best marksmen to participate in a public demonstration to coincide with the event. (Some of the participants were already headed that way: They doubled as competitive fencers.)
This time, they took aim at one another, splattering wax bullets onto each other's protective gear while standing on the fencing grounds. A total of 11 competitors from America, France, Russia, and Sweden took part.
As Nebraska's The Anoka Herald described it:
“Before the regular Olympic Games, a series of duels with pistols were fought in a secluded corner of the exhibition grounds. Nobody’s honor was at stake, yet several duelists were ‘killed’ while ‘wounds’ without number were dealt out.”
If Winans held any potential to be the Michael Jordan of pistol dueling, it was snuffed out when Major Ferrus of France scored a direct hit to the heart.
Out of Bullets
Winans used the Olympics as well as other public appearances to stress that wax duels, while seemingly innocuous, still carried an undercurrent of danger. Winans’s first-ever opponent, writer M. Gustave Voulquin, had lost the skin between his thumb and forefinger. Spectators, he said, could be struck by an errant or ricocheting bullet. Worst of all, the wax bullets bore a striking resemblance to actual bullets, meaning it was possible for someone to mix them up and render their opponent literally (rather than theoretically) dead.
Future Olympic engagements were not in the cards. While schools and groups began to appear in the U.S. and abroad, the outbreak of World War I largely put an end to simulated combat. When things settled down, pistol dueling was not one of the sports to reemerge. This likely pained Winans, who used his pulpit to stress that dueling, or the threat of it, seemed to improve manners.
“Dueling is a necessary evil, like war,” he said. “The invariable politeness noticed on the Continent is the result of dueling being allowed, as a man thinks twice before being rude if he thinks he will have to face a sword or pistol in consequence.”
Though dueling is no more, shooting remains a part of the Olympics. The very first medal awarded at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo will be in women’s rifle shooting—presumably a very polite affair.