top of page

Duelling Pistols at the 1908 Olympics

Duelling Pistols was a short-lived sport at the start of the 20th century, in which two heavily protected competitors faced off and shot wax bullets at each other. It is often stated that this shooting sport of bloodless duelling was a part of the Olympic Games in 1908, however, it wasn't even an official demonstration sport. This duelling competition was held at a similar time to the Olympics in 1908 by enthusiasts of the new sport, demonstrating the emerging French sport to the people of London.

In this version of pistol duelling, the competitors were protected by heavy clothing and a metal mask with goggles. Their pistols were modified with a hand-guard to protect their fingers and they fired wax bullets instead of lead. No gunpowder was used in the pistols in order to reduce the velocity of the ball of wax.

The wax bullets, however, were not entirely benign. Without adequate protection, and at closer quarters, the bullets could still lop off bits of the body, and spectators needed to be wary of any stray bullets, especially in the vicinity of their eyes.

The sport shares many similarities with paintball, perhaps its most recognizable modern equivalent, which also requires strict protective gear. Paintball pistols might even allow for one-on-one duelling, although no one is trying to be sparing with their shots; everybody just wants to put more paint in the air.

While anyone can partake in paintball, wax bullet duelling required some skill and experience. In 1908, a wealthy British duellist by the name of Walter Winans said that only experts should take part, admitting the duels to be a trifle dangerous (the greatest danger, according to him, was a mix-up of gun cartridge contents). He also stated that impoliteness is best kept in check when the possibility of a duel—whether with sword or pistol—looms large.

But by the 20th century, gun technology had advanced past simple, single-shot, flint-lock pistols, rendering the act of duelling far more fatal than it had ever been before. The charade came to an end, even in the American South, which saw its last arrest-free duel in 1877.

Today, whether with wax or with lead, duelling is considered a ritual of the past. Many combatants who might have fired pistols at each other back in the 18th and early 19th centuries, to satisfy wounded pride, now pay lawyers instead.

While wax bullet duels have fizzled out, wax bullets themselves have prevailed. Although still obscure, they are sold on multiple websites, and you can even make them yourself. Sometimes even used in magic tricks, they are safer, quieter, and cheaper than regular bullets. Wax bullets are also preferred in fast draw competitions, which involve firing at targets, not humans.

The days of duelling are over, but the days of shootouts are not. Perhaps it would serve us well if we loaded more of our guns with wax.

bottom of page