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Duelling at the Olympics

“Bloodless duelling at the Olympics – one of the most curious contests at the Olympic Games.”

This was the caption to a photograph in the London magazine, The Sketch in July 1908. The fact that a competitive event that involved an actual duel was associated with the Olympics is frankly amazing to us today, but at the turn of the 20th century it was viewed differently, being thought of as a worthy spectator sport.

It was widely held that such an event was in fact part of the Olympic Games, especially the belief that a duelling competition using wax bullets was part of the 4th Olympiad held in London in 1908. This was not the case, as we shall see later on. That a duelling competition was competed for, there is no doubt and as Walter Winans, the noted pistol shot and author stated in an interview, prior to the event, for the Daily Express newspaper in May 1908:

“There will be just enough risk in these duels to make them exciting, though not really dangerous”.

How to shoot someone safely

So, what was wax bullet duelling? This section could also be titled ‘How to shoot someone safely’ as it is about the development of the Devillier’s wax bullets, the pistols and the associated duelling competitions.

It was in Paris at the turn of the century that the sport of duelling was evolving and it was evolving in a completely different direction to the disciplines that had been shot for in the Olympic Games of 1896 and 1900. In 1901 Dr. Paul Devillers both a doctor and a target shooter, who was also a keen ‘duellist’, designed a new innovative wax bullet for duelling practice. He designed it so that it would not shatter from the discharge or in the barrel, but that it would be soft enough not to bruise the person who was the intended target. The ball he designed was made from tallow and baryta sulphate – a combination intended to mark the target without hurting the opponent. It was also protected by a French patent, no.312320 of 1901. When used it was found that in hot weather, common in the Paris summer, the balls would become soft so in order to counter this the balls would be stored, in tubes, in large glass jars of water to keep cool. Walter Winans also described the problems of soft bullets in his 1919 book ‘The Modern Pistol and How to Shoot It‘:

“The 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.”

With this new bullet perfected, a pistol was required, but it was not until 1903 that Devillers persuaded the Parisian gun making firm of Piot-Lepage to make sets of special wax bullet duelling pistols.

The company subsequently become the official armourer of Devillers’ new society devoted to duelling; ‘Societie L’Assaut au Pistolet’ that he founded in 1904. This new society drew up the rules for the new sport of wax bullet duelling, authorised equipment and arranged matches; these were often held in the Champs Elysee every Friday and must have drawn curious crowds of spectators to watch men ‘shoot’ each other. Devillers idea was to prepare gentleman for when they had to defend their honour — duelling then still being viewed as acceptable in France.

By 1905 the society had over a hundred members including the French ex-President Casimir Perier, the eccentric English knight Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon and particularly the great Anglo–American pistol shot and marksman, Walter Winans, who would become the great champion of this new sport and would become central in the story of duelling at the 1908 London Olympiad.

The practice of wax bullet duelling required some special equipment. The pistols for this new sport were not only specially made by Piot-Lepage but also by such firms as ManuFance and Ancion-Marx in Belgium. These pistols, usually made as a pair, are single shot, of .44 inch calibre, centrefire and usually modelled upon the standard muzzle-loading dueling or target pistol of the day, but with the addition of a large sheet metal handguard. The system employed consists of fitting a special steel cartridge—or adapter in the breech. The fore part of this is hollowed out to accommodate the wax bullet. The charge employed is of necessity very light, and consists of a special .22 calibre cap, which is loaded into the base of the steel cartridge. In order to make this cap centrefire, two projections of the shell are doubled back inside it in such a manner as to form an anvil. The wax bullet, weighing less than 1 gram, is then pressed lightly into a cup on the opposite side of the adapter and the whole combination being inserted in the pistol. Contemporary catalogues that sold these pistols advertised them for around 150 French francs a pair, quite a sum in 1908.

There was also a need for special protective equipment. It was recommended that, apart from the handguard fitted to the pistol, a heavy long waxed or leather coat and a mask, similar to fencing mask, but with closer mesh and a heavy glass eye screen be acquired. This is necessary as even though innocuous, when its flight is arrested by a coat, the wax bullet is still quite powerful enough to bruise a chest or break a finger. Contemporary sales catalogues show what equipment was available. The cost in 1906 for a mask and coat was 60 francs. A leather throat protector could also be worn and was highly recommended by none other than Walter Winans, who always wore one. Despite being wax, the balls packed a considerable punch and could hurt.

So, was duelling actually part of the IV Olympiad in London in the summer of 1908? No, it was not, it was not even an associated sport. But a demonstration did take place and this is its story.

Walter Winans, the most romantic of marksmen, was enormously enamoured and excited by the new sport of wax bullet duelling and having spent the last three years as a member of the L’Assaut au Pistolet’ society in Paris practicing the sport, he wanted to demonstrate it to the world. Therefore, in 1908 a number of the world’s deadliest revolver and pistol shots, including some of the crack shots from Belgium and France, were persuaded by Winans to come to London to give a public exhibition of the new sport of duelling.

The connection to the Olympics was purely coincidental as in fact Winans organised the demonstration in connection with the concurrent Franco–British Exhibition, not the Olympics as has traditionally been thought, that was held at White City in West London. The Franco–British Exhibition was being held both in conjunction with the Olympic Games and to celebrate the Entente Cordiale that had been signed four years earlier.

In fact a number of the duellists would already be in London to compete in fencing for their various countries; particularly the Briton, Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, and the Frenchmen, Jacques Rouvcanachi, Joseph Marais, the Comte de Montford (renowned as the best shot in France), M. Gustave Voulquin, and of course Walter Winans. On the appointed day, July 13 1908, the duellists assembled at the ‘fencing grounds’ that had just been prepared for the Olympic fencing competition that would subsequently take place on the 24 July.

Then in front of invited guests and excited press representatives, both national and international including The Sketch and the Daily Express, they proceed to demonstrate the sport of duelling by shooting at each other with wax bullets while wearing their long protective coats and wire masks.

Prior to The Great War the brief popularity of this new and innovative sport even spread across the Atlantic with the Carnegie Sword and Pistol Club in New York and the New York Athletic Club, in particular, sponsoring competitions.

Unfortunately, as a sport it did not survive for much longer, The Great War saw to that, as it did for many other activities and pastimes. It would not appear again.

As a postscript, it is interesting to note that in a poll conducted before the 2000 Sydney Olympics 32 percent of respondents said they would like to see duelling with pistols reinstated as a sport. Unfortunately, they were misled as it cannot be reinstated as it was never there in the first place. It was really only a whimsical demonstration of a niche shooting discipline by a group of keen sporting shots, who believed in a personal code of conduct that was soon to be crushed in the mud of war.

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