This ancient form of settling differences lead to
the modern-day use of the pistol for target shooting.
Article One of the Royal Code of Honor: “No duel can be considered justifiable, which can be declined with honor, therefore, an appeal to arms should always be the last resource.”
It is estimated that eight out of 10 potential duels were avoided through the negotiations faithfully carried out by the principals’ seconds. If not, well, according to Ireland’s code duello of 1777, The Practice of Dueling and the Point of Honor, Rule XVI: “The challenged has the right to choose his own weapon, unless the challenger gives his honor he is no swordsman; after which, however, he cannot decline any second species of weapon, proposed by the challenged.”
Rule XVII continues “The challenged chooses his ground; the challenger his distance, the seconds fix the time and terms of firing.”
The seconds also were required to load the pistols in the presence of each other and were permitted to check the other’s charged piece with a ramrod.
The curious fact about seconds is that while they were required to resume negotiations after each exchange of fire, they, too, because of some disagreement on the field, could become duelers. This is addressed in Rule XIV: “Seconds to be of equal rank in society with the principals whom they attend; inasmuch as a second may either choose or chance to become a principal, and equality is indispensible.”
Formalized forms of dueling emerged in mid-17th century Europe and extended well into the latter half of the 19th century. Some say the practice continues to this day, and there’s some evidence of that.
Writing in a 1950s issue of True magazine, gun editor, Lucian Cary, tracked down J.J. Renaud of Paris, a known director of duels. As reported, their conversation went as follows with Cary’s leading question:
“What about the law?”
“There is no law against dueling in France,” Renaud said.
“What if a man is killed in a duel?”
“Under the law that is murder and the seconds are accomplices—just the same as in the United States.”
“What happens is that the police are presented with a corpse and an account of the accident. Those who were present say it is true we were practicing with pistols. Unfortunately, this man who is dead stepped in front of a pistol at the wrong moment.”
“But suppose the police do not believe this story which they must have heard before?”
“If such a case comes to trial and the court is satisfied that the duel was properly conducted according to the code, there is always an acquittal.”
When Renaud was asked which weapon was most popular—the pistol or the sword—he indicated the sword overwhelmingly was the weapon of choice because you could easily draw blood without mortally wounding your opponent.
A) Robert Scott of Forfar, Scotland, made this cased set of dueling pistols originally as a flintlock pair. Sometime later they were converted to percussion. The cased Scott duelers are sequentially numbered 250 and 251. B) The Scott duelers were originally flintlocks as evidenced by the plugged holes on the lockplate. C) The locks of Scott’s duelers feature sliding hammer safeties. Gunmakers lavished their work on locks and triggers to insure reliability. D) While duelers were fitted with sights, the top flat of their octagonal barrels was a fast and natural aiming plane. E) Using the finger spur pulls the grip firmly into the hand and enhances trigger control. Practical duelers were not highly embellished but lightly engraved. Single set-triggers were not uncommon on dueling pistols.
In England, Ireland and the United States, it was the pistol, which was the weapon of choice for a duel held in accordance with the rules of the code duello.
The typical dueling pistol in the English-speaking world was a smoothbore of .50 caliber and part of a cased, matched set of two. A smoothbore was considered more “sporting” and could be loaded with a tight, bare, unpatched ball. Under the code duello, foreign material attached to the ball and carried into the wound was prohibited because it leads to deadly infections. (This doesn’t make any sense to me since the ball would have to punch through clothing to be effective, but I suppose the emphasis was on “foreign.”)
That is not to say, there wasn’t some cheating going on. Even the prominent London gunsmith, Joe Manton, turned out a dueling pistol or two in which the rifling was terminated short of muzzle and not easily detected. On the other hand, in France, it was common to see a rifled dueling piece of .44 caliber or so. The .46-caliber French dueler pictured here in the article is typical.
The French dueler features a ball or cap compartment within the grip.
Dueling pistols like this .64-caliber Scott (above), were normally smoothbore and fired an unpatched lead ball. Rifled duelers, like this .46-caliber Parisian (below), were often made under 50 caliber.
The qualities looked for in a fine dueling piece were balance, reliability and “pointability.” The comment often appearing in the texts is that the dueling pistol should be a “natural extension of the pointed arm when the arm is raised to shoulder height.” Although dueling pistols sported front and rear sights and often-set triggers, there wasn’t time to take a leisurely aimed shot, particularly when you were being shot at. The top flat of an octagonal barrel was a natural aiming plane since it was parallel to the bore, and gunmakers went to great lengths to keep it that way, even tapering the barrel and balancing the pistol by taking metal off the bottom flat only. When raising a dueling pistol to shoulder height, it should be dead-on at 12 or 15 yards.
Dueling pistol stocks took several forms. A common English shape, seen here on the Scottish cased set, is a sharply curved but comfortable grip, often compared to the head of a cane and after about 1770, well checkered. The French duelers exhibit a slightly tighter radius in the curve and sport a longer, target-type grip. In the late stages of the English guns, the grip tended toward a saw-handled design, with an extension coming across the top of the hand.
Another “gripping” feature of most 19th century duelers is a curved spur at the bottom of the triggerguard. When engaged by the shooter’s middle finger, the grip is pulled back firmly into the holding hand. Trigger control is also enhanced.
Reliability was essential in a dueling pistol. Rule XX of the 1777 code states “In all cases, a miss-fire is the equivalent to a shot and a snap, or a non-cock, is to be considered a miss-fire.” In the Ten Commandments of Dueling from The History of Dueling this rule is moderated somewhat and stated as, “A misfire is considered a shot, unless stipulation to the contrary has been made.” In short, your pistol better be reliable and fire when the trigger is pulled, or you’ll be standing there defenseless awaiting your opponent’s shot. Subsequently, gunmakers lavished great attention on their locks, triggers and ignition channels to insure their dueling pistols would fire without fail on the field of honor.
Practical dueling pistols were not highly embellished. They were simply highly tuned to be the deadliest handguns available. Robert Wogdon was considered to be London’s premier dueling pistol maker. In fact, duels were commonly referred to as “Wogdon affairs” and Wogdon pistols were used in 1804 by the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton and by the Vice-President, Aaron Burr, when they faced off in Weehawken, New Jersey. A typical Wogdon dueling pistol is about as plain Jane, vanilla-flavored-looking pistol as you can find. The devil was in the details. Highly embellished cased sets of dueling pistols, which today have a high survival rate, were created more as presentation sets and state gifts.
There was one great benefit to the dueling era, which remains with us today. Dueling created the sport of target shooting with a handgun. If you were a member of the gentry, a politician, an officer and even a journalist, you were a potential duelist and were encouraged to hone your shooting skills. Consequently, shooting galleries sprang up, target-shooting manuals were published and shooting clubs were founded. Thank you, Duelists.
The dueling pistols pictured consist of a cased set by James Scott of Forfar, Scotland, and a Number 2 pistol from a set made in Paris. The Scott brace is .64 caliber. They were originally flintlocks converted at a later date to percussion and are sequentially numbered 250 and 251. The locks are marked “Thomson.” The Scott pistols reflect the English school of dueling pistol design.
The No. 2 Parisian pistol is typical French in style. It’s a .46 caliber with the single-set-trigger. I shot this pistol in 25-yard, bull’s-eye competition for a number of months. The accuracy load consisted of 25.0 grains of Schuetzen 3Fg, a .457-inch ball, a 0.014-inch-thick linen patch lubricated with Shenandoah Valley lubricant. From a rest at 25 yards and without cleaning, the pistol is capable of grouping five shots into 1-1/2 inches.
Does dueling according to the code still exist? Apparently, it does in France. Donned in facemasks and heavy protective coats, duelists let fly with wax bullets at each other in a formal setting according to code. Fencing matches would be another contemporary example of ersatz dueling. And if you want to shoot the arms of the era, Pedersoli offers some great reproduction dueling pistols like their LePage and Mortimer. The “code duello” survives.
In its heyday, dueling followed the strict rules of the “code duello”
The French-style grip was longer and formed on a tighter radius.
The American Gun: Spring 1961, Hardbound, 96 pages, Out-of-print. Try www.abebooks.com
The Dueling Handbook: 1829, by Joseph Hamilton, Softcover, 167 pages ©2007, $7.46, from: Dover Publications, www.doverpublications.com
By Holt Bodinson