Saturday, April 8, 2017

People Used to Duel with Wax Bullets for Fun from the Early 20th Century

In the first decade of the 20th century, the age-old custom of pistol dueling was briefly resurrected as a non-lethal sport, even making it into the 1908 Olympics as a side event.

The classic pistol duel, at close range with unpredictable firearms, were often for show. (Pushkin Museum/Public Domain)

Dueling: a contest that, even at the height of its popularity, was outlawed in most of the United States and British North America. To take part in a duel was to stand by your convictions in the most definitive way possible; to risk life and limb to show your opponent that you disagree with them on such a fundamental level that you’re willing to die for your beliefs.

Of course, dueling was more formality than anything. A challenge was meant more to test one’s mettle and character than to harm your opponent. More often than not, duels ended in a draw or with a mutual agreement.

And then there’s wax bullet dueling – stripping the honor, conviction, and bravery, but leaving in the part where you shoot each other.

Photographs of two wax bullet duelists at the 1908 Olympics.

The bloodless duels made a brief cameo at the 1908 Olympics.

In 1909, Carnegie Hall became the first American site to host this spectacle. Well-to-do young men from the finest dueling club in New York faced off with the finest dueling equipment known to man – which they then proceeded to strip of its function and replaced with peacockesque displays of male strutting. The bullets – the element of the duel that could strip away a person’s life and thus made the endeavor a risky and honorable one – were replaced with wax.

They measured themselves against one another by showing off how well they could use their guns. Mimicking the dueling rituals of yesteryear, the two young boys would face off by whipping out their weapons on each other, shooting back and forth until finally one boy released his load on another, proving himself victorious, having made fun out of something that was once a noble and dangerous activity.

While duelists of the past weren’t exactly the most upright, well-composed men of the age, they at least had something to lose when they stepped on the field.

Wax dueling has often been compared to paintball, but this comparison is entirely apples and oranges. Paintballers go in for the thrill of the game and never once fool themselves into thinking that their prowess at the sport speaks to the content of their character. This is more like if civil war re-enactors displayed their prop war medals on their living room wall because ‘hey, they earned those.’

Dueling with wax bullets, New York, 1909. (Library of Congress)

Note the handguard on the pistol’s grip to shroud the shooter’s exposed hand. The wax bullets used in 1909 were just less-than lethal. (Library of Congress)

Pistols and waxed bullets used in the New York duels. (Library of Congress)

Opponents stood 60 feet apart in full-body protective gear. (Library of Congress)

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