As reported in the Chicago Tribune in 1909, a French inventor created bullets made of wax that worked in dueling pistols and the Army's standard-issue revolvers. Duelists wore loosely fitting garments and wire-and-glass masks for protection. Pistols were fitted with hand shields.
Opponents faced each other, at a distance of 25 paces (60 feet apart). A director barked the command: "Fire!" Officials were on hand to judge the accuracy of the shots.
That same year, there was a New York Times account of a bloodless duel at the Panzer Gymnasium at Carnegie Hall, the city's Athletic Club. Two men — wearing long black gowns and protective masks — faced each other in the gymnasium. "All agreed," the paper reported, "that it was a fine shooting game."
Prideful men could fluff their feathers without anyone ending up dead.
Such pistol duels were explosive gestures of pride. Often, however, the two opponents entered their duel under a mutual agreement to shoot into the air or at the ground; even if they aimed for each other, their guns were often so unpredictable that fatalities were unlikely.
The practice of dueling held sway from words to swords to guns, well into the history of the American South, where it remained so popular for so long that legislators had to step in.
Wax bullet duels appear to have first emerged in France, and in the early 1900s, a “School of Dueling” was established in Paris. At the elite academy, practice duels employed wax bullets, and trainee duelers wore protective face masks, but in every other way, they followed the rules and honor codes of classic dueling.
A version of the sport was even featured as a demonstration event at the 1908 London Summer Olympics, in addition to its inclusion at international pistol and revolver championships.
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.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.