When Pistol Duels were Fought at the Olympic Games

The decline of duelling coincided with the rise of modern mass spectator sport. For some enterprising Edwardians, the opportunity to combine the two was simply too tempting to resist

Michael Noble
May 29, 2018 · 7 min read

England’s last fatal duel, fought purely as a matter of honour, was contested on the 19th October 1852. The duellists, Frenchmen both, had developed an enmity while living in exile from the Second Republic of Napoleon III. More proximately, and perhaps more relatable to modern readers, Duellist 1, Emmanuel Barthélemy, had heard that Duellist 2, Frederic Cournet, had made unpleasant remarks about his, Barthélemy’s, ex-girlfriend. Barthélemy duly sought satisfaction.

Now this was, on the face of it, definitely a Bad Idea. Barthélemy may have been ‘a murder-loving revolutionary’, but Cournet was a professional soldier, calm and cool-headed, and had survived no fewer than fourteen duels, hitting his opponent on each occasion.[1] On the chosen day, Barthélemy could be forgiven for electing to wear pantalon marron, he fully expected to die in a battle that was likely to be closer to an execution than a contest. Luck, however, had different ideas. Cournet, who as the challenged party, had the right both to select the weapons (pistols) and to shoot first, found that his weapon misfired on the first attempt and the bullet skied off harmlessly into the air. Barthélemy, finding himself with the the chivalric equivalent of a free kick, took his aim and pulled the trigger.[2]

A pair of Gastinne-Renette duelling pistols

When Frederic Cournet died in agony from his single bullet wound, he did so without the comfort of knowing that he’d earned himself a place as a minor footnote in history. Although duelling continued sporadically throughout the twentieth century (it remained part of Uruguayan statute law until 1971),[3] the tradition was, by the late nineteenth century, on the way out. Legislation was made to outlaw the practice as public opinion altered to view single combat as a relic of an earlier age. However, the fact that it took so long to fully disappear meant that it had enjoyed a significant temporal overlap with a rising tradition: mass spectator sport.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, a Parisan doctor by the name of de Villiers took it upon himself to draw up the rules for sport pistol duelling. Recognising his sport’s kinship with fencing (itself a non-lethal simulation of single combat), he did so under the auspices of the Federation Nationale des Sociétés d’escrimes et Salle d’Armes de France.

De Villiers’ rules were fairly straightforward. Two competitors, each armed with a pistol, stood at a distance of twenty or twenty-five yards (18–23m). An umpire would call ‘ready’, at which each man would raise and aim, then call ‘one, two..’, with each duellist entitled to make a single shot before the word ‘three’ had been uttered.

Of course, even these reckless Belle Epoque battlers didn’t use real bullets. They opted instead for small wax pellets inserted into a genuine cartridge. Fired with a standard charge the sticky pellets would rush towards the opponent at a speed of 87m/s and expand on contact, leaving a large splat on the human target, rather like a paintball.

Wax they may have been, but those things could hurt. Protective clothing was necessary. Duellists would wear a bulky face mask or helmet with a heavy plate glass visor held in place by a hard rubber nose piece and topped with a heavy enamel cap that, pleasingly to these late period medievalists, looked rather like old-fashioned mail. The pistols themselves were adorned with a heart-shaped steel shield to protect the shooter’s hand. Competitors would also don goth-like long black overcoats, which doubled as scoring systems -outlines of vital organs were drawn on them with chalk and the duellist declared the winner would be he whose shot landed nearest to some life-sustaining guts.

The sport seemed popular in a mild sort of way. It was competed at the 1906 Athens Olympics[4] in a craven variant that used dummy targets. Of course, these odd-shaped bullseyescouldn’t shoot back. Where, asked the bloodthirsty audiences of the early 1900s, was the fun in that?

Two years later, full contact duelling was included as a Demonstration sport for the Olympics. Then, as now, the Demonstration sports were held as a sort of semi-competitive side event to the main Games. Participants get to have a go, but no official medals are awarded and their results don’t count towards the final tally. They are sometimes used to show off a traditional sport local to the host city which, in 1908, was London.

Looking like armed warehousemen, two duellists compete at the 1908 Olympics

These Games were held at the White City Stadium in Shepherd’s Bush, an arena that had been specially built for the events. The Olympics were, however, not the first event held there; in July of that year White City played host to the Franco-British Exhibition, a ‘celebration of colonialism’, back in the days when it was still considered deserving of celebration. Among the 14,000 exhibits and events designed to showcase the French and British empires was a demonstration of sport duelling.

The contest was heavily trailed in the press. Newspapers ran explanations of the rules alongside interviews with the competitors. One plucky pistolman announced his intention to forego head protection, preferring to rely on the gentlemanly honour code that meant it was considered ‘bad form’ to aim for the head. Quite what the form was for accidental mis-aiming, wind effect or simply being a poor shot, remains a mystery and it is equally unclear whether this bloke actually made good on his crazy plan (or indeed whether or not he had some sense shot into him).

A degree of cavalier abandon seemed to have been de rigeur. Among the duellists was Russian-born American Walter Winans, a man who had the Teddy Roosevelt attitude of never knowingly seeing anything he didn’t, deep down, really want to shoot. Over a lengthy career, Winans shot deer, rabbits, birds and wild boar, leaving a trail of blood, viscera and spent cartridges wherever he went.[5] For Winans, graduating to shooting people was not so much the ‘final taboo’ as ‘the final item on his checklist’. Of course, for a man like Winans, the fact that this particular big game could return fire only made it more sporting.

Walter Winans, a ‘believer in the duel’

He took up wax bullet duelling with the sort of carefree abandon that meant it was probably a good idea that he was only using soft pellets. One of his first opponents was his friend, sports journalist Gustave Voulquin who, it appeared, wasn’t quite as well protected as he might have been. ‘I shot out the soft piece of flesh connecting the thumb and forefinger of his right hand’, recalled Winans, ‘and he tells me that it still pains him when he has a lot of writing to do’. For his part, Voulquin got one back and Winans himself sustained a ‘slight flesh wound’ in his right arm.[6]

Both men were lucky that Winans himself had so little control over the arrangements for the sport. He claimed that he’d have much preferred to have used live ammunition, dismissing its risks with a macho casualness that suggests that, for all its reputation for polite gentility, the Edwardian era was an age of epic casual violence. Winans noted that ‘spectators might lose their eyes by a stray or ricochet bullet’, as though enucleation was all part of the fun. And that’s without the ‘great danger that a cartridge loaded with a lead bullet and powder charge’ somehow got ‘mixed amongst the ammunition’, as though there were so much ballistic equipment lying around that it was a simple error that anyone could make.

Winans declared himself a ‘believer in the duel’ as a necessary evil, like war, that kept people polite. In an inversion of twenty-first century cultural stereotypes, this gun toting American huntsman looked fondly at continental Europe for the way in which they used the constant threat of gun violence as a means of ensuring that society remained safe and polite. ‘Duelling is to the individual’, claimed Winans, ‘what war is to the nation’.[7] This was, of course, before the wars of the twentieth century when armed conflict in their own cities still seemed to Europeans like a good, and even necessary, idea.

Ultimately, it was those wars that put paid to this tradition. The romance of combat was mortally wounded on the battlefields of the Western Front where old-fashioned notions of chivalry ran headlong into the cold reality of mechanised warfare. The lives of young military officers became too valuable to discard over relative trifles and the concept of duelling, in blood or in sport, lost its appeal. In the words of historian V.G. Kiernan, ‘the First World War may not have been the war to end all wars, but it was perhaps the duel to end all duels’.[8]

[1] Kingston, C, The Careers of Some Notable Criminals of Europe and America. London: John Lane, 1921.

[2] Kingston, C, The Careers of Some Notable Criminals of Europe and America. London: John Lane, 1921.

[3] Parker, David S. “Law, Honor, and Impunity in Spanish America: The Debate over Dueling, 1870–1920.” Law and History Review 19, no. 2 (2001): 311–41

[4] At this time there was a plan to hold biennial Games in Athens, interpolated with the quadrennial touring events, which were held in St Louis in 1904 and London in 1908. The idea never really took off and the 1906 series was the only such contest ever staged

[5] Winans, W Practical Rifle Shooting, New York: The Knickerbocker Press 1906

[6] ‘What it Feels Like to be Shot at’ The Sketch, 5th August 1908

[7] Winans, W The Modern Pistol and How to Shoot it, New York: The Knickerbocker Press 1919

[8] Kiernan, V.G. The Duel in European History: Honour and the Reign of Aristocracy, Oxford University Press, 1988

The History Foundry

Digging the Past

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store