Man Knowledge: An Affair of Honor – The Duel

by Chris on March 5, 2010 · 52 comments

in A Man's Life, Manly Knowledge

Editor’s note: This post was co-written by Chris Hutcheson and Brett McKay.

In our modern age, solving a problem by asking a dude to step outside is generally considered an immature, low class thing to do.

But for many centuries, challenging another man to a duel was not only considered a pinnacle of honor, but was a practice reserved for the upper-classes, those deemed by society to be true gentlemen.

A man may shoot the man who invades his character, as he may shoot him who attempts to break into his house.” -Samuel Johnson

While dueling may seem barbaric to modern men, it was a ritual that made sense in a society in which the preservation of male honor was absolutely paramount. A man’s honor was the most central aspect of his identity, and thus its reputation had to be kept untarnished by any means necessary. Duels, which were sometimes attended by hundreds of people, were a way for men to publicly prove their courage and manliness. In such a society, the courts could offer a gentleman no real justice; the matter had to be resolved with the shedding of blood.

How did this violent way to prove one’s manhood evolve? Let’s take a look at the history of the affair of honor and the code duello which governed it.

Origins in Single Combat

In the ancient tradition of single combat, each side would send out their “champion” as the representative of their respective armies, and the two men would fight to the death. This contest would sometimes settle the matter, or would serve only as a prelude to the ensuing battle, a sign to which side the gods favored. Prominent single combat battles have made their way into the records of history and legend, such as the battle between David and Goliath in the Valley of Elah and Achilles’ clashes with both Ajax and Hector in Homer’s Iliad. As warfare evolved, single combat became increasingly less prevalent, but the ethos of the contest would lend inspiration to the gentlemen’s duel.

Dueling in Europe

“A coward, a man incapable either of defending or of revenging himself, wants one of the most essential parts of the character of a man.” Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

Dueling began in ancient Europe as “trial by combat,” a form of “justice” in which two disputants battled it out; whoever lost was assumed to be the guilty party. In the Middle Ages, these contests left the judicial sphere and became spectator sports with chivalrous knights squaring off in tournaments for bragging rights and honor.

But dueling really became mainstream when two monarchs got into the act. When the treaty between France and Spain broke down in 1526, Frances I challenged Charles V to a duel. After a lot of back and forth arguing about the arrangements of the duel, their determination to go toe to toe dissipated. But the kings did succeed in making dueling all the rage across Europe. It was especially popular in France; 10,000 Frenchmen are thought to have died during a ten year period under Henry IV. The king issued an edict against the practice, and asked the nobles to submit their grievances to a tribunal of honor for redress instead. But dueling still continued, with 4,000 nobles losing their lives to the practice during the reign of Louis XIV.

Dueling in America

“Certainly dueling is bad, and has been put down, but not quite so bad as its substitute — revolvers, bowie knives, blackguarding, and street assassinations under the pretext of self-defense.” -Colonel Benton

Dueling came to American shores right along with her first settlers. The first American duel took place in 1621 at Plymouth Rock.

Dueling enjoyed far more importance and prevalence in the South than the North. Antebellum society placed the highest premium on class and honor, and the duel was a way for gentlemen to prove both.

The majority of Southern duels were fought by lawyers and politicians. The law profession was (as it is now) completely saturated, and the competition for positions and cases was acute. In this dog-eat-dog society, jostling for position and maintaining an honorable reputation meant everything. Every perceived slight or insult had to be answered swiftly and strongly to save face and one’s position on the ladder to respect and success.

And while we tend to paint modern politics as uncivil and romanticize the past, politicians of the day slung bullets in addition to mud. Legislators, judges, and governors settled their differences with the duel, and candidates for office debated their issues on the “field of honor.” Political showmanship of the day involved timing a duel for right before an election and splashing the results in the papers.

Dueling and Violence

“The views of the Earl are those of a Christian, but unless some mode is adopted to frown down by society the slanderer, who is worse than a murderer, all attempts to put down dueling will be in vain.” -Andrew Jackson

Despite putting on a courageous front, no gentleman relished having to fight a duel and risk both killing and being killed (well, perhaps with the exception of Andrew “I fought at least 14 duels” Jackson). Thus duels were often not intended to be fights to the death, but to first blood. A duel fought with swords might end after one man simply scratched the arm of the other. In pistol duels, it was often the case that a single volley was fired, and assuming both men had survived unscathed, satisfaction was deemed to be achieved through their mutual willingness to risk death. Men sometimes aimed for their opponent’s leg or even deliberately missed, desiring only to satisfy the demands of honor. Only about 20% of duels ended in a fatality.

Duels founded on greater insults to a man’s honor, however, were often designated to go well beyond first blood. Some were carried out under the understanding that satisfaction was not gained until one man was incapacitated, while the gravest insults required a mortal blow.

To us, duels seem like a pointlessly barbaric way to settle disputes; going into a duel the odds were nearly 100% that one man or both would be wounded or killed. And, adding insult to injury, it could very well be the innocent party who was slain.

Even at the time, there were many critics that argued that dueling was unnecessarily violent and contrary to morality, religion, common sense, and indeed, antithetical to the very concept of honor itself. But there were also those who argued that dueling actually prevented violence.

The idea was that single combat warriors averted endless bloody feuds between groups and families ala the Hatfields and McCoys. The duels nipped these potential feuds in the bud as insults were given immediate redress, with satisfaction given to both parties.

The practice was also thought to increase civility throughout society. To avoid being challenged to the duel, gentlemen were careful not to insult or slight others. The courtly, formal manners this time period is famous for-the stately dress, the bowing, toasting, and flowery language-were designed to convey honorable intentions and avoid giving offense. Jealousies and resentments had to be repressed and covered with politeness.

In the 1836 manual, The Art of Duelling, the author summarizes the pro-dueling perspective of the time with comments that seem remarkable to the modern ear:

“The practice is severely censured by all religious and thinking people; yet it has very justly been remarked, that ‘the great gentleness and complacency of modern manners, and those respectful attentions of one man to another, that at present render the social discourses of life far more agreeable and decent, than among the most civilized nations of antiquity; must be ascribed, in some degree to this absurd custom.’ It is certainly both awful and distressing to see a young person cut off suddenly in a duel, particularly if he be the father of a family; but the loss of a few lives is a mere trifle, when compared with the benefits resulting to Society at large.

I should consider it very unwise in the members of government, to adopt any measures that would enforce the prohibition of duelling…the man who falls in a duel, and the individual who is killed by the overturn of a stage-coach, are both unfortunate victims to a practice from which we derive great advantage. It would be absurd to prohibit stage-travelling-because, occasionally, a few lives are lost by an overturn.”

Dueling Necessities

The components of the gentleman’s duel were often quite varied. The challenged party was usually given the choice of weapons, and the possibilities were endless. Duels have been fought with everything from sabers to billiard balls. A duel was once even fought over the skies of Paris, with the participants utilizing blunderbusses in an attempt to rupture each other’s hot air balloons. One succeeded, sending the opposing man and his comrade plummeting to their death, while the winner floated triumphantly away.

Swords were the weapon of choice until the 18th century, when the transition to pistols made dueling more democratic (fencing took skill-a man might challenge another to a duel, spend a year learning swordsmanship, and then return to fight the duel. But nearly anyone could pull a trigger). As the practice of using guns grew in prominence, arms makers began to create sets of pistols specifically built for dueling. The idea behind this practice was simple. If two men were going to engage in a duel, their “equipment” needed to be as similar as possible so as not to give one man an unfair advantage over the other. Thus, by the latter 18th century, sets of dueling pistols were being produced by fine arms makers throughout Europe. Dueling pistols were often smooth bored pistols, and usually fired quite large rounds. Calibers of .45, .50, or even .65 (caliber = inches of diameter) were in common usage. The pistols were made to exact specifications and were tested to ensure that they were as equal in performance and appearance as possible. A man’s dueling pistols were a prized possession, an heirloom passed down from father to son.

Code Duello: The Dueling Code

“A duel was indeed considered a necessary part of a young man’s education…When men had a glowing ambition to excel in all manner of feats and exercises they naturally conceived that manslaughter, in an honest way (that is, not knowing which would be slaughtered), was the most chivalrous and gentlemanly of all their accomplishments. No young fellow could finish his education till he had exchanged shots with some of his acquaintances. The first two qualifications always asked as to a young man’s respectability and qualifications, particularly when he proposed for a lady wife, were ‘What family is he of? And ‘Did he ever blaze?” -19th century Irish duelist

Dueling code evolved over the centuries as weapons and notions of honor changed. Proper dueling protocol in the 17th and 18th centuries was recorded in such works as The Dueling Handbook by Joseph Hamilton and The Code of Honor by John Lyde Wilson. While the dueling code varied by time period and country, many aspects of the code were similar.

Despite our romanticized notion of duels as being fought only over the most grievous of disputes, duels could often arise from matters most trivial-telling another man he smelled like a goat or spilling ink on a chap’s new vest. But they were not spontaneous affairs in which an insult was given and the parties marched immediately outside to do battle (in fact, striking another gentleman made you a social pariah). A duel had to be conducted calmly and coolly to be dignified, and the preliminaries could take weeks or months; a letter requesting an apology would be sent, more letters would be exchanged, and if peaceful resolution could not be reached, plans for the duel would commence.

The first rule of dueling was that a challenge to duel between two gentleman could not generally be refused without the loss of face and honor. If a gentleman invited a man to duel and he refused, he might place a notice in the paper denouncing the man as a poltroon for refusing to give satisfaction in the dispute.

But one could honorably refuse a duel if challenged by a man he did not consider a true gentleman. This rejection was the ultimate insult to the challenger.

The most common characteristic of a duel between gentlemen was the presence of a “second” for both parties. The seconds were gentlemen chosen by the principal participants whose job it was to ensure that the duel was carried out under honorable conditions, on a proper field of honor and with equally deadly weapons. More importantly, it was the seconds (usually good friends of the participating parties) who sought a peaceful resolution to the matter at hand in hopes of preventing bloodshed.

Once the challenge to duel was given, several issues had to be settled before the matter could be resolved. The challenger would first allow his foe the choice of weapons and conditions of the combat, and a time would be set for the event. Seconds were responsible for locating a proper dueling ground, usually a remote area away from witnesses and law enforcement, since dueling remained technically illegal in most states, though rarely prosecuted. Duels were sometimes even fought on sandbars in rivers where the legal jurisdiction of the time was hazy at best.

Honor was not only given for showing up for the duel-proper coolness and courage under fire was also required to uphold one’s reputation. A gentleman was not to show his fear. If he stepped off the mark, his opponent’s second had the right to shoot him on the spot.

The End of the Dueling Age

Many modern men mistakenly believe that dueling was a rare occurrence in history; a last resort only appealed to in the case of serious matters or by two overly hot-headed men. In fact, from America to Italy, tens of thousands of duels took place and the practice was quite common among the upper classes.

But dueling’s popularity eventually waned at the end of the 19th century, lingering longer in Europe than America. Stricter anti-dueling laws were passed, and sometimes even enforced.

The bloodshed of the Civil War on this continent, and the Great War on the other, also dampened enthusiasm for the duel. Despite our modern romanticism for dueling, it was a practice that hewed down young men in the prime of their life. Having lost millions of their promising youth in battle, felling those who remained became distasteful.

Additionally, Southern society was vastly transformed in the aftermath of the Civil War. The aristocracy was shattered; busy with Reconstruction and rebuilding, there was less time and inclination to duel. A man’s prestige and position in society became less about his family, reputation, and most of all, honor, than it did about cash. Disputes were taken not to the field of honor but to the courts, with vindication given by “pale dry money instead of wet red blood.”

Read part two of this series: Man Knowledge: Dueling Part II – Prominent Duels in American History

Sources and Further Reading

Gentlemen’s Blood by Barbara Holland. An absolutely delightful book. Covers a serious topic in a strangely breezy and humorous way that really works and is full of truly interesting stories and insights. (The last quote is from this book)

The Art of Duelling by The Traveller. A readable contemporary manual on the ins and outs of dueling. Reading up the author’s tips and advice for those going into a duel gives an interesting window to the time.

Code Duello: The Rules of Dueling. Take a look at the very specific rules which governed the duel.


{ 51 comments… read them below or add one }

1 America's 1stSgt March 5, 2010 at 2:22 am

Great article! Hopefully in part two we’ll get to hear about the Blacksmith’s Duel. It’s a great story.

2 Michael March 5, 2010 at 2:32 am

Good work, Chris and Brett! Looking forward to part 2 – I only recently read the full story of the Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr duel and other tales would be welcome.

One bit of trivia I remember was that there was often an accepted signal that you were not about to shoot your adversary, and when he saw the signal it was part of the code of honor to miss as well. Also I recall that death from a duel was often not exactly quick and usually due to blood poisoning.

I wonder whether there might be a link to what we think of as “traditional” dueling and Old West gunfights…

3 Michal March 5, 2010 at 7:11 am

In Poland, there is “Codex of honor” from 1919 written by Edward Boziewicz.
It is modern and complete set of rules of and solving insults and disputes trough duel.

It was in practical use until the end of Second World War, afterwards there weren’t many honourable men left… But in is still in use when it comes to setting degree of insult.

4 bondChristian March 5, 2010 at 8:10 am

Wow, I actually had a conversation about dueling a couple days ago. We were talking about how important it was back in the day and how the rules of honor played into how one fight – it wasn’t just a matter of survival (if it were, they wouldn’t be dueling in the first place).

Thanks for the roundup. I’ll have to check out the further resources… it’s definitely a lost art, both from applied and the historical perspective.

-Marshall Jones Jr.

5 Perry Clease March 5, 2010 at 8:26 am

Check out the movie The Duelists, starring Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel. It is about two officers in Napoleon’s army who engage a life series of duels with each other.

6 Mike Chaplin March 5, 2010 at 8:51 am

Yes the Duelists was a great film… Harvey Keitel is great villain in that movie… Its too bad we couldn’t bring back modernized style of dueling.. not to the death obliviously but something where you could fight it out with a weapon of some sort and after that Honor would be satisfied… Too many people run to the courts these days and look for big daddy government to settle their problems.. Which results in frivilous law suits and tying up the courts time.. Greedy people would rather gain money from their disagreements rather than defend their honor. How may court shows are on TV everyday? People need to man up and defend themselves.. Honor is lost in this day and age..

7 Greg Throne March 5, 2010 at 9:07 am

“The Balcksmiths Duel”? Isn’t hat the one where a short statured Louisiana state legislator challenged a much taller ex-blacksmith? And the challenged party chose as weapons sledgehammers in 6 feet of water?

8 Warren March 5, 2010 at 9:32 am

The strange thing is, me and my friends, often jokingly challenge each other to duels, happens almost once a week.

after the initial challenge is issued and the receiving party accepts and chooses pistols at dawn, the whole affair is forgotten about.

9 Kuzari March 5, 2010 at 9:39 am

For one of the greatest stories ever written about dueling (or ever written, period), read “The Shot” by Alexander Pushkin.

10 Charlie March 5, 2010 at 10:01 am

Awesome topic! But, hey, didn’t duels often cause more feuds than they prevented? Wasn’t the satisfaction achieved often nebulous? Wasn’t that one of the reasons it was put down – you’re a second for your buddy, or a friend of the duelist, and then they duel, and you’re still mad, so you challenge his friend, and so on and soon whole families are involved ala gang wars?

11 Charlie March 5, 2010 at 10:02 am

Some great descriptions of dueling in the Master and Commander series, by the way!

12 Autobraz March 5, 2010 at 10:17 am

I find this as strange and disgusting as the coming of age rituals of tribes we learned about in a previous post. Interesting nonetheless, so thanks for posting it.

13 John March 5, 2010 at 10:26 am

I’d like to learn more about the culture of the duel in Kaiser-era Germany and Prussia, where it seems to have gone completely over the top: young men in military academies with sword-scarred faces, etc. While the tone of AoM is generally one of wanting to recapture the best of traditional codes of manliness, would it be good to also examine times and places when these codes were exaggerated past the point of benefit?

14 DJ Wetzel March 5, 2010 at 11:02 am

It is very apparent to me in our society that we need to bring back some sort of dueling system that can be used to decide arguments. Like one of AoM’s previous articles on Manly rites of passage, this is another lost piece of society that should be brought back in a more, non-lethal form.

I propose Pugil Stick battles. The Marines use it and I can guarantee it is very effective Heck, the American Gladiators even used them!

15 Eamon Bisbee March 5, 2010 at 11:27 am

John, young men in Germany had a very specific dueling practice: they would use swords with a sharpened tip and give each other scars on the face as you described. I believe it happened up until World war two at least, if it isn’t still happening. Look up Otto Skorzeny, he was in seven (I think) such duels before becoming an elite Nazi commando.

16 J. W. March 5, 2010 at 11:32 am

Good show!
I very much enjoyed the article and am looking forward to the sequel! I would however like to point out that Achilles and Ajax did not fight each other. Rather Hector fought both Ajax and Achilles, separately of course.

17 Ian March 5, 2010 at 12:16 pm

For anyone interested, there is a great book on the subject called “Gentlemen’s Blood” by Barbara Holland. It is less a history of dueling, as it is billed, and more a collection of interesting, entertaining, and terrifying dueling anecdotes.

18 Ian March 5, 2010 at 12:18 pm

oops, i just noticed that it was already pointed out at the end of the article… Sorry.

19 Nokware Knight March 5, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Don’t think I’ve ever been that entertained by a history lesson.

20 Lewis March 5, 2010 at 1:39 pm

I can see it now: “Shop Duel-tech for all your dueling needs. Dueling AK-47′s we got em’…” How absurd would it be if that tradition continued? I would have to agree that it would definitely prevent someone from dishonoring you. Today people get away with way too much. I guess every now and then people get what they have coming…but for the most part people have a free pass to be complete and udder narcissistic twits…not condoning violence or anything…I’m just sayin’

21 Carson March 5, 2010 at 2:25 pm

A couple bits of trivia: First would be the verb “to delope,” which means “to purposefully turn aside one’s pistol in a duel.” Learned that one from George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman (a good read, by the way).

Second, the US Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), which was (I think) last revised in the 50′s, still includes a prohibition on dueling as Article 114: “Any person subject to this chapter who fights or promotes, or is concerned in or connives at fighting a duel, or who, having knowledge of a challenge sent or about to be sent, fails to report the fact promptly to the proper authority, shall be punished as a court-martial may direct. ” I’m not sure if anyone’s ever been prosecuted under it.

22 Tim Lebsack March 5, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Men still duel today but they do it with conscripts.

23 Brucifer March 5, 2010 at 4:39 pm

“Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”
~ Robert E. Howard

Asking a dude to “step outside” generally IS an immature, low class thing to do. It is most often presaged by copious douchebaggery on the part of both the challenged and the challenger. Likewise, the perception of “Disrespectin” common to certain social classes, is generally caused by insecurity and unwarranted machismo. There is no Code of Honor involved in either circumstance.

That said, socially-sanctioned dueling might have some modern utility in curbing the excesses of incivility so common to our ‘common’ era. Politicians, talk show hosts, celebrities and the like might keep a more civil tongue in their heads.

Moreover, an instated Code of Honor would do much toward teaching MEN what true honor is actually about.

As was posted on these pages not long ago;

“A gentleman will not insult me, and no man not a gentleman, can insult me.”
~ Fredrick Douglas

I’d like to plaster this quote all over the black community. Perhaps it would cut-down on them shooting each other over perceived and minor slights of “disrespectin.”

Fredrick Douglas knew what respect is. Today’s clowns do not.

24 Gus March 5, 2010 at 6:48 pm

A great book, of at least regional interest, is Savannah Duels and Duelists by Thomas Gamble. Gamble was a multi term Mayor and local historian. The Art of Dueling by “A Traveller” mentioned in this article is an interesting read. Wilsons Code was written for the Low Country Areas (Savannah/Charleston) code duelo. Wilson was the Governer of South Carolina. Because of a duel, a man named Button Gwinnetts signature is worth more than George Washingtons. There are only six known to exist, to include the Declaration of Indipendence.

25 Robert Black March 5, 2010 at 8:05 pm

This article was so much more than about duelling. I came to a thunderbolt realization of my lack of courtesy, chivalry, and simple honor. It’s easy to fall into the crass culture of poking fun at your coworkers and brazenly thinking soley of yourself rather than treating everyone you are with the way you wish to be treated. I have pledged to rectify this deficiency in my character and I would challenge the rest of the male species to give some thought to our collective thoughtlessness and laziness which draws us away from kindness and pushes us to corrosivness of personality.

26 Phil March 5, 2010 at 10:28 pm

The taking of a life does no one honor. Kwai Chang Cain

27 Jason March 6, 2010 at 3:44 am

I wasn’t aware that dueling was so common. I suppose I’d simply label every challenger as “not a true gentleman.”

28 Sir Lancelot March 6, 2010 at 5:52 am

@ Robert Black:

I was thinking just that yesterday (maybe I was being unconsciously influenced by this article?). We don’t even realize how carelessly we use insults and offenssive words without even meaning it and how we can hurt others so unnecessarily.

29 James G March 6, 2010 at 6:08 am

It’s a shame that two men cant take it outside anymore, these days if you even challenged another man to a fight they would call the police or a lawyer. Just another example of how today’s men might as well just put on a dress.

~James G

30 Michal March 6, 2010 at 12:15 pm

“I suppose I’d simply label every challenger as “not a true gentleman.””
You cannot do that, without loosing your own honor. There is a list in of men who can take part in a duel. If man is educated, and is not a criminal, alcoholic, notorius liar and so on, you HAVE to challenge him when offended by him, and you have to accept challenge if you were the one who committed a offence.

James G – going outside never was a real honourable duel. When offended you challenge a man(in person, and in writing), and than place and rules of duel had to be written down. You cannot start duel right away.

31 LB March 6, 2010 at 9:00 pm

Duelling is still going strong and healthy at Heidelberg University in Germany. It is more about showing your courage than avening your honour, but you can still challenge people. There is a particular type of duel which has fascinated me, where one does not strike back. One person makes several cuts at the other, including one on the face (to scar). The ability to take the blow without flinching is considered more manly than pure aggression. The resultant wound onthe face has salt applied in order for it to scar. It is then known as a renommierschmiss, which would mean ‘courage scar’ in English. I am intending to go through the ritual myself at some point.

32 Mike M. March 6, 2010 at 11:34 pm

Excellent summary. I’m a fairly serious student of the subject (comes from having a background in fencing and in shooting muzzle-loading pistols), and you’ve boiled it down nicely.

A major purpose of duelling was to prove one’s character. This is why wars were Very Bad for duels – you just could not accuse a man who had fought honorably in wartime of cowardice. It’s also why customs evolved over the years to reduce risk. Sword duels to first blood. Pistol duels with percussion guns fought at 50 yards. I won’t even mention the number of ways the seconds could doctor a pair of flintlock duelling pistols to ensure that both principals went home safely.

For those of you interested in German student duels, Google for “mensur”. Very controlled, very formalized, and set up to get you a nifty scar but little else.

33 John March 7, 2010 at 11:55 am

Excellent article!

34 Mahan March 7, 2010 at 6:04 pm

If you watch the movie “The Life And Times Of Colonel Blimp” (about the life of a British officer from 1900 until WWII), you can see an excellent example of a German-style duel in action at the beginning.

Being able to “stand fire” in a duel in 19th Century American society was *very* important; you were a coward, otherwise. In fact, in the early USN, two officers who were good friends were joking with one another, and one called the other a “fool” in the hearing of the wardroom; the other officers declared that there thad been an insult given, even though both officers insisted that none was intended. As a result, the officer who’d been “insulted” felt he had to challenge every officer in the wardroom to a duel with a pistol, with his friend as a second, to prove his courage. He survived the experience with two bad wounds to the legs, and wounded two of the other officers as well.

35 Jeff March 8, 2010 at 3:57 pm

I think we should bring back dueling, but make the weapons be old, squishy tomatoes. The first one to giggle at its absurdity loses the duel.

36 Josh March 8, 2010 at 10:16 pm

LB you go for it, as for myself, I got enough scars just from ordinary living. I can see the day coming in about 10 years when the glove gets through down for the use of the car on saturday night (I am an Epeeist and my son has started learning the foil).

Excellent article. I have also studied sword dueling for a number of years and the most intriguing thing is that I don’t think we will ever find an definitive history of dueling. It weaves through so many different cultures and nations that none has the monopoly on its origins. It is interesting to note that dueling did not necessarily involve only single combat. It was also common in Europe for the seconds to get involved. Until the French monarchy made a concerted effort to stamp out dueling in early 1600s (it is estimated that over 4000 “nobles” killed each other in the preceding 100 years in Paris alone) seconds would often square off against each other as the principles settled their differences. Resembling more of a squad action than a duel. With the outlawing of dueling to the death, first blood became the norm, with the second then being “strictly” involved with the enforcement of the “traditions” and “honor” of the duel.

Funny how dueling was only supposed to be reserved for conduct between “social equals”; so why is it that “social equals” are always the ones most insulted by each other?

For more information I would recommend two outstanding books:
“By the Sword” by Robert Cohen
“The Encyclopedia of the Sword” by Nick Evangelista

37 Mark March 9, 2010 at 2:35 am

I wish they would bring back single combat as a method of settling disputes clichéd as that idea is.

38 Mark March 9, 2010 at 2:38 am

By the way, almost every culture I’ve read of has or has had a form of duelling.
We will never know the full history, a lot is up to speculation.
But what we do know is fascinating.
Great article.

39 Tyler Logan March 9, 2010 at 4:24 am

Interesting post. I’ve only really seen of duelling in films and never took the time to figure it all out – nice job on listing the info here. However redundant I suppose the same thing still goes on but under a different context – most likely sport. We’re all barbarians. :)

40 Tom March 9, 2010 at 6:21 pm

Just another point in fact of the stupidity of men. James G., If you want to lose your life in such idiocy, then go ahead and do so. And not all men are barbarians. What a pathetic article.

41 Tristan March 9, 2010 at 9:44 pm

The problem is, as I believe the article said, there are so few men of honor left. One might challenge to a fight someone who has given insult, but what he will find instead of an ordered one-on-one affair is the challenged and a whole mess of friends waiting to assault him, likely with weapons.

42 John March 12, 2010 at 4:19 am

Duels have a long and bloodstained tradition here as well (I live in Norway), “Holmgang” being the most known version of it. This involves two men being put on a small rock somewhere out in the ocean, each of them with a sword. Only one of them came back to shore. Also some places in Norway the left hands of the duelists were bound together, and a knife placed in the right. These fights usually didn’t last long..:)

One other thing of interest though, is “Svikarring” (the ring of traitors). When a group of people (most often a clan) were deemed by the lawgivers to be unfit for normal life (most often from slaughtering another clan without any proper cause), they put them all in a huge horse containment ring, and they fought one on one until only one man was left alive. Good warriors were important, and the best were allowed to live.

The thing that puzzles me the most about these pistol dueling traditions, is that there really is no honor involved. I mean, I can understand honor being used about fist fights, swordfights/fencing and even the modern day “UFC”-style tournaments and Martial Arts. But using a gun being perceived as honorable!?! Come on. A six-year old could pull the trigger and hit a man.

No, bring back the good old first-blood sword duels, and I’ll be in on the fun. I actually believe that the gun-swinging duel tradition would make wonders for turning a whole people into cowards, in the first place since they would kill off most people brave enough to be involved in the stupidity, and second, because they would bestow false honor upon the wrong type of men.

You do not prove your manliness by pulling a trigger, pushing a button, or giving an order.

My two cents.

43 Brett March 12, 2010 at 7:04 am

Everyone who hasn’t read about Jim Bowie’s “Sandbar Fight,” where he served as a second for Samuel Levi Wells III, should go and find out more about this story. It is really an amazing story of an American duel, and the event that first made Bowie really famous. Also, it was perhaps the debut of the Bowie Knife.

44 Michael March 14, 2010 at 6:38 am

For those who seek a thorough and authoritative analysis of the culture of honor (and the significance of dueling) in early America, I *highly* recommend Joanne Freeman, _Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic_ (Yale UP, 2001). Professor Freeman received her Ph.D. at UVA, and is currently a member of the history department at Yale.

Professor Freeman would probably amend this article’s contention that “the courts could offer a gentleman no real justice; the matter had to be resolved with the shedding of blood.” As her book convincingly argues, the purpose of a duel was not to shed blood–even the smallest amount–but rather to prove a man’s *willingness* to suffer injury or death in defense of his words and his reputation. The duel was only the culmination of a long, ritualized script which governed affairs of honor in early America. “Men of the sword” more often found satisfaction in challenging another man to a duel, and then negotiating the dispute in letters and meetings without ever resorting to gunplay.

The book is smart and sophisticated. Highly recommended for anyone who is man enough to handle academic historical writing.

45 Buck Six March 18, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Kentucky recently had a bill submitted in its capitol to remove the dueling portion from its constitution. “Since 1849 the Kentucky Constitution has required anyone holding any “office of honor or profit” to swear that they have never fought or otherwise participated in a duel.”
full story here:

46 Mark W March 19, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Interestinly enough, the Uniform Code of Military Justice still has dueling on it’s books. Great read, Brett.

47 Chris | Martial Development March 21, 2010 at 10:35 pm

It is great to read an article about dueling that mentions some of its positive aspects! It may sometimes be more humane to draw blood, than to sue a person into bankruptcy for example.

48 jack skysail May 14, 2010 at 10:22 am

Heidelberg is not the only univerity where students are in “schlagenden Verbindungen” on my alma mata they where also present, like on many others. One have to be a member of a student corps, which menas he/she have to study ther and be inscribed at this univerity. it is a very ritualizied prozess, and have in my humble opinion nothing to do whit duelling as such. both partys wearing extensive body and head protection, only the face(cheeks) are exposed, both contahend strike on command in given static positions. it have nothing to do whit art of fencing as such. as mentioned on other place, the only, to me visible reason, is that somebody have the bravery to stand and deliver. but this can be proofed way better in other ways, which really require mental strnght. skydiving for instnce. standing in the door 1500 meter over ground and jump requires more willpower then striking whit a sword, knowing all vital parts are protected.
that is where the expression “rennomierschmiss” is comming from. somebody get a light scarve just to show he was duelling, rennomieren= to brag
i tend to be for the duelling. it would bring politeness back to our society if one need to be aware that showing a finger, or insulting somebody by intension or by highly unfair/ foul behaviour, he need to be aware to find himself some times later on the banks of the river or some other duel ground at 6 in the moring. i guess 95% of this ppl would need tied on hand and feet to be brought there. just consider how often one is biteing his knuckles because some “gentleman” is misusing his positon and we cant reply properly. any other person who is in a postion of power where we can not do anything then file him, which usually cost a lot of money, time, effort and is very often even not possible. how much easier is to say, “dear friend, we will solve this matter in 3 weeks on the riverpond”
car accidents killing each year the hedcount of a medium city, so a few dead in duel would be a small price to bring back politeness to society.
assertion of honor can be allways given if one realizes it was overdone or by missunderstanding, plus, not each duell need to be a deadly one. ther are more ways to duel, then just kill each other.
a viennese professor challenged his opponent for a bicycle race on a hill near VIenna. i challenged a person for swimming whit bound feet, the winner of the contest was allowed to cut the underware (undies) of the opponent publicly into stripes.

49 Connor September 30, 2012 at 11:49 am

Hey guys, I’m new- this is my first comment. just btw if you ever get into an argument and you feel the need to gain satisfaction there are three types of modern duels you can use for fun.
1. Thumb war. Make sure you have honest seconds for this duel.
2. Mentally challenging board game. (RISK, chess or scrabble) again, some games need an honest second.
3. Physically challenging activity. Challenege someone to see who can do the most push-ups or crunches, or who can hold a physically straining position for 15 minutes.- if you both can then you are either satisfied or you can carry on until someone drops.
*Obviously don’t do dangerous things, it’s immature and un-gentlemanly.

50 Kyle A. October 4, 2012 at 8:45 pm

When you think about it, how manly is it to duel with pistols when the goal is defending one’s honor? Both men have a 50% chance of killing the other man. Don’t get me wrong, it takes courage to turn around at 15 paces and get shot at while you try and draw a bead on your opponent but no tremendous feat is accomplished by being the better shot. Dueling with swords? Uber manly.

51 Bryan November 30, 2013 at 5:16 pm

The “duel to first blood” was roundly and soundly denounced by experts on honor. If all you were going to do was go to “first blood”, there was no point to dueling in the first place. I rather liked one dueling manual I came across, in which a challenged party could forcibly humiliate a challenger by demanding swords. The challenger could refuse–but he would have to admit that “he was no swordsman”. Also, it is quite wrong to say that the challenged party had choice of weapons. That is an English tradition. On the Continent, the tradition is that the challenger names weapons.

The fact that German Mensur fraternities do not duel has already been mentioned. Mensur has been heavily regulated since the 19th century and was not a duel. It is essentially a form of fencing wherein letting blood is acceptable. That being said, supposedly, the Iron Chancellor (Bismarck) said on one occasion, when confronted by a young man so very proud of his Mensur scar, “In my day, we learned to parry”.

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