Prideful men could fluff their feathers without anyone ending up dead. If only the gun that Aaron Burr fired at Alexander Hamilton back in 1804 had been loaded with wax bullets—today, the world might be a different place.
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.
As it happens, for a moment back in the early 1900s, there was a sport that rendered such duels more or less benign while still guaranteeing a spectacle: wax bullet dueling. While it still involved men shooting firearms at one another, the difference here was that defeated parties could be “theoretically pronounced dead… and the supposedly fatal results created general merriment.”
That was how the New York Times reported on the first public exhibition of wax bullet dueling in America in 1909. The duels in question took place at Carnegie Hall, with participants drawn from the Carnegie Sword and Pistol Club. The men faced off 60 feet apart, outfitted in black robes and face masks. Their regulation .44 calibre French dueling pistols were loaded with French-imported wax bullets, and the novel display enjoyed a small audience.
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.
The sport shares many similarities with paintball, perhaps its most recognizable modern equivalent, which also requires strict protective gear. Paintball pistols might even allow for one-on-one dueling, although no one is trying to be sparing with their shots; everybody just wants to put more paint in the air.
While anyone can partake in paintball, wax bullet dueling required some skill and experience. In 1908, a wealthy British duelist by the name of Walter Winans said that only experts should take part, admitting the duels to be a trifle dangerous (the greatest danger, according to him, was a mix-up of gun cartridge contents). He also stated that impoliteness is best kept in check when the possibility of a duel—whether with sword or pistol—looms large.
But by the 20th century, gun technology had advanced past simple, single-shot, flint-lock pistols, rendering the act of dueling far more fatal than it had ever been before. The charade came to an end, even in the American South, which saw its last arrest-free duel in 1877.
Today, whether with wax or with lead, dueling is considered a ritual of the past. Many combatants who might have fired pistols at each other back in the 18th and early 19th centuries, to satisfy wounded pride, now pay lawyers instead.
While wax bullet duels have fizzled out, wax bullets themselves have prevailed. Although still obscure, they are sold on multiple websites, and you can even make them yourself. Sometimes even used in magic tricks, they are safer, quieter, and cheaper than regular bullets. Wax bullets are also preferred in fast draw competitions, which involve firing at targets, not humans.
THE DAYS OF DUELING ARE over, but the days of shootouts are not. Perhaps it would serve us well if we loaded more of our guns with wax.