When the Olympics included pistol dueling competitions

Since Pierre de Coubertin recovered in 1896 the Olympic Games that were in Ancient Greece, they are held almost continuously every four years (the exceptions were those of 1916, 1940 and 1944 due to the world wars) and changes are usually considered in each edition. and additions to the list of admitted sports, whether competitive or exhibition. A look at the history of that event reveals that some of those included were once as amazing as the Olympic duel, a recreation of the typical pistol challenges of another era.

Months ago we published an article here in which we reported that between 1912 and 1948 the Games included competitions in architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture, and there was even talk of expanding them to include dance, cinema, photography and theatre, although in the end only added -ephemerally- mountaineering and aeronautics. The truth is that, although this list will be unusual for many readers, the surprise will be even greater knowing that in the 1906 and 1908 Olympics there were several pistol shooting events in which the target was not a target but a mannequin shaped human in one case and, what is even more unheard of, a real adversary in the other.

Honor casts have been a way of settling differences for centuries, at least since XV as we know them (previous challenges would have somewhat different characteristics). They were gentlemen’s stuff (the future Spanish minister Indalecio Prieto declined one, humorously claiming not to be a gentleman) and so they were surely allowed, or at least turned a blind eye even when the authorities forbade them. There were also ladies duels, although much less frequent. Therefore they continued to be practiced legally or illegally and in the 19th century they experienced a resurgence, in part because the custom left its aristocratic corset to spread to other social strata.

Politicians and journalists, for reasons derived from their profession, began to star in most of the duels and some newsrooms even had -or had contracted- a room set up to practice fencing (the case cited of Prieto was when he was an editor in The Liberal and had already gone through the same thing in its beginnings in The Voice of Biscay). And it is that sabers and swords resisted -although more and more hurriedly-, with the tendency to be displaced by firearms. And that situation lasted much longer than one might think, since duels were not prohibited in Europe until 1905, in Spain ten years later and in America the last recorded date was 1971 (in Uruguay; and let us remember that the Chilean Salvador Allende was fought in 1952 with the opponent Raúl Rettig).

Many of these situations were resolved in private, but others, fundamentally those that derived from a public challenge (for example, those made by deputies in Parliament or through the media), brought together a good number of onlookers. Hence, after the ban -carried out at an international press conference held in Liège-, a certain void remained that the Olympic Committee proposed to remedy the following year with inclusion in the Intercalated Games in Athens.

The Intercalated Games weren’t exactly the Olympics. The IOC (International Olympic Committee) created them in 1901 as a way to honor the Greek capital -the venue would always be there- and to celebrate, as its name indicates, between two official editions. The fact that the 1900 Paris Olympic Games were quite unsuccessful also had something to do with it, in part because they coincided with the Universal Exhibition and a public unaccustomed to sport mostly opted for it. However, between the fact that Pierre de Coubertin did not like the idea, that the Greek political context was not the most conducive to the event and that staging it every two years was impractical, both for the organizers and for the athletes, in the end There were only a few Intercalated Games, those of 1906.

Paradoxically, they were very successful and established some moments that today are part of that show, such as the opening and closing ceremonies, the parade of the participants or the raising of the flag of the winning country of each event. They were also the ones who hosted, we said, the first Olympic duel tests, because by then a French doctor named Villiers had written for the National Federation of Ethical Societies and Salle de Armes de France a regulation that turned the sets of honor into a bloodless sport, considering that in a certain way, pistol confrontations were a modern vision of fencing and this had already been included in the Olympics held up to that moment on the initiative of Coubertin himself, who he was a fencer.

Olympic dueling pistols with their wax ammunition and hand guards/Image: Library of Congress

The Villiers rules did not substantially change the development of traditional duels, except that lead bullets were replaced by wax balls, which the contestants would shoot at the referee’s signal, being separated by a distance of between 18 and 23 meters and wearing the corresponding protections, given that the projectiles came out at 87 meters per second: a bowl attached to the pistol for the hand, a mask for the face, a helmet on the head and a kind of black coat for the body -up to below the knee- that allowed the point of impact to be seen with respect to a previously marked target at chest height, thus determining the score. The result was similar to that of a paint ball current.

However, the IOC considered that this image could be too strong for the Olympics and instead of shooting each other, the shooters did so on neutral targets or dummies. Two tests were established, differentiated by the distance at which the shot was fired (one was 20 meters and the other 25) and by the time available to make each shot, so that in the first it was greater than in the second, in the that each shot had to be made when ordered by the referee and also all the participants did it simultaneously. In the 20-meter test, the main target had a diameter of 19 centimeters, although there were another ten one-centimeter secondary ones to add points. The gold went to the Frenchman Léon Moreaux with 242 of the 300 possible points, the silver for the Italian Cesare Liverziani with 233 and the bronze for another Frenchman, Maurice Lecoq, with 231.

In the 25-meter test, carried out with pistols with a caliber between 7.5 and 12 millimeters and a barrel of a maximum of 30 centimeters, a 1.57-meter-tall anthropomorphic plaster figure was shot at, placing the target on its chest. with a size of 7.5 x 10 centimeters. As in the previous case, up to 30 shots could be fired to get the points in the running, which here were half, 150. To the delight of the public, the Greek Konstantinos Skarlatos won with 133, completing the podium with the Swedes Johan Hübner von Holst and Gustaf Vilhelm Carlberg with 115 each. Some progress had been made, taking into account that in Paris there was a shooting test on live birds in flight that led to the death of three hundred pigeons.

A duelist in full competition / Image: Library of Congress

However, the journey of the Olympic duel did not end there. In 1908, London hosted the IV edition of the Olympic Games and was once again a present discipline, although as a demonstration sport, that is, those modalities that the IOC includes from time to time, partly to promote them and partly to honor the country organizer when it is in it where they are practiced especially. In the London case, the duel was not something typical but the bike-poloa variant of polo that used bicycles instead of horses and was also designated ad hoc.

What happens is that there was a novelty: this time the Olympic duel was more like reality because the competitors were not shooting at dummies, but at each other. They used the aforementioned wax bullets and protections, but even so gossips said, half seriously half jokingly, that it was done to make it more morbid for the public. The competition took place in the White City Stadium of Shepherd’s Bush, a district of the London municipality of Hammersmith and Fulham, where that same year a Franco-British exhibition had been held that included precisely Olympic duel exhibitions. But, being a demonstration sport, the results did not count towards the final medal table, just as today the IOC does not take into account the medals of the Intercalated Games.

An Olympic dueling competition / Image: Library of Congress

This did not prevent a good handful of shooters from signing up. As in Athens, many were military; but there were also varied people and surely none comparable to the gold winner, Walter Winans, an American hunter and adventurer who had been Olympic swimming champion and who in Stockholm 1912, at the age of 60, would return to the top of the podium in the sculpture competition.

Winans was slightly injured in one of the tests, although it was worse for his rival -and friend-, the sports journalist Gustave Voulquin, to whom one of the wax bullets half tore off the thumb of his right hand; luckily for him live ammunition was not used, as Winans would have preferred, who after all thought that “mourning is to the individual what war is to the nation”: that is, a necessary evil.

Those accidents could have increased with at least one other competitor, who announced that he intended to do without a helmet and mask because he trusted the chivalry of his rivals so that they would not aim at those parts, given that the target was located on the chest. It is not known if he was allowed, although it seems unlikely because other variables were involved in the shots apart from that code of honor, due to the wind, a punctual error or simply bad aim.

Walter Winans with his medal

In any case, the thing did not have a greater journey, nor did the Olympic duel itself, which did not form part of the Olympic Games again; at least with those characteristics of personal confrontation. Various types of shooting tests on artificial targets, either static or mobile (skeet shooting, for example), did last, some with rifles, others with handguns (initially revolvers and pistols, although in the long run only this one would remain).


When pistol duels were fought at the Olympic Games (Michael Noble in Medium)/The extinguished flame. Olympians killed in The Great War (Nigel McCrery)/The 1906 Olympic Games. Results for all competitors in all events with commentary (Bill Mallon)/The first London Olympics: 1908 (Rebecca Jenkins)/Wikipedia.

Back to top button