Pistols at Dawn – Officers, Gentlemen and the Deadly Tradition of Duelling

Duelling fatalities was a leading cause of death for officers in some 18th and 19th century militaries. Some generals broke subordinates who partook in duels.

Duelling fatalities were a leading cause of death for officers in 18th and 19th century peacetime militaries. Many generals broke subordinates who partook in such contests.

“The Duke of Wellington ruthlessly cashiered officers caught duelling during the Peninsular War, but even his iron will could not stamp out the practice entirely.”

By John M. Danielski

THE MUSICAL Hamilton is the toast of Broadway and has renewed interest in the life of America’s first Secretary of the Treasury. But quite as remarkable as Alexander Hamilton’s life was the manner of his death. He perished in 1804 in the most famous duel in American history.

Hamilton’s untimely demise stimulated noisy if unsuccessful calls for the end of the practice of duelling once and for all, even though it had long been illegal in both the United States and Great Britain.

Duelling existed outside the law; it provided quick, dramatic, and effective remedies that were either unavailable in courts or simply beyond their purview. Duels were for private quarrels involving gentlemen. No low born man dared issue a challenge nor would he ever receive one; horse-whippings or canings administered by one’s social betters sufficed as impromptu justice for the riff-raff. On the other hand, a duel furnished a gentleman a chance to publicly display his resolve, sang froid and courage in the defence of that most sacred of well-born causes: personal honour. How a man performed in a duel could make or break his reputation. A woman of substance might well ask a man she was considering as a husband, “have you blazed yet, sir?”

A gentleman’s personal honour could be easily transgressed by a wide variety of offences. Usual causes of duels were perceived slanders, libels, disrespectful language or simply careless words delivered in a public venue. Alcohol was often a factor; heavy drinking was common among gentlemen. A slight might be ignored if the offender were falling down intoxicated; “in wine” was the contemporary term. Call a gentleman a coward, a cheat, a liar or a scoundrel to his face or in print and that individual would have no recourse but to issue a challenge. The same would apply if those insults were directed toward a man’s family, a good friend, or woman of quality. Even subtlety implying the honour of a gentleman or his in-laws was tarnished in any way, would likely result in the speaker being called out.

Before the advent of duelling pistols, feuding gentlemen used swords to settle disputes regarding matters of honour. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Before the advent of duelling pistols, feuding gentlemen used swords to settle disputes regarding matters of honour. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Officers and Gentlemen

Military officers whose guiding ideal was to be the classic sans peur et sans reproache leader were even punctilious about honour than civilian gentlemen. Although routinely threatened with courts-martial and cashiering for a practice long considered injurious to military discipline, officers still contrived to fight frequent duels. Accusations of cowardice and battlefield incompetence were the chief causes but non-combat issues figured in as well; cheating at cards, unpaid gambling debts, adultery with the wrong woman, or sexual deviancy.

The Duke of Wellington ruthlessly cashiered officers caught duelling during the Peninsular War, but even his iron will could not stamp out the practice entirely. In the U.S. Navy of the late 1790’s, the leading cause of death of midshipmen was from duels.

It was the height of insubordination and folly to challenge a commanding officer, yet a few did so. Colonel Josiah Snelling of the 5th U.S. Infantry was challenged by one of his lieutenants over an unflattering remark about his character; blurted out during an alcohol-fuelled a game of cards. Rather than summarily arresting the lieutenant, as would have been normal practice, the combative Snelling accepted the invitation. The duel was called off when Snelling showed up too fuddled to stand. He suffered from painful, unhealed wounds from the War of 1812 and overmedicated himself with laudanum balls on the day of the duel.

A duellist is shot dead in a pre-dawn confrontation.

A duellist is shot dead in a pre-dawn confrontation.

Duels were also fought over arguments which seem shockingly trivial to the modern perspective; whether a horse could be trained in three days or if a parrot understood what it spoke. When two Newfoundland dogs got into a fight in Hyde Park, their owners, Colonel Montgomery of the British army and Captain MacNamara of the Royal Navy argued violently as to which of the beasts had started the affray. A challenge was issued and Colonel Montgomery died in the duel. Macnamara was prosecuted but acquitted in court. One of his character witnesses was Lord Nelson.

A duel was fought between a Captain Smith and a General Barry over a goblet of wine. While on board a packet crossing the Irish Sea, Barry declined Smith’s offer of wine, believing his sea sickness would be worsened by alcohol. Smith believed the real reason was that Barry considered him of too low a character to drink with, which naturally demanded a challenge. Both pistols fortunately misfired when the duel was fought.

Lord Kilmours, a hard of hearing Englishman, talked loudly in a French theatre at the height of a performance. An annoyed French officer asked him several times to be quiet. When the Englishman did not respond, the French officer issued him a challenge after the performance. Despite the friends of both men trying to explain Kilmours deafness, neither man would back down. The duel was fatal to Kilmours.

A Major Green of the British army landed in New York in 1818 on his way to garrison duty at Fort York in Upper Canada. On his first night in the city, he visited a theatre owned by a certain Mr. Price. The major ignored the performance of Macbeth, and spent most of his time lasciviously eyeing the women in the audience. Price cautioned him after the performance that while such behaviour may be acceptable in England, it was not welcomed in the United States. Green politely apologized, saying he was unacquainted with the customs of the country.

The major proceeded to his Canadian posting, but months later word reached him that Price had been boasting to friends that he had overawed a pompous British officer and taught him a lesson in manners. Green’s fellow officers said such an insult should not be left unanswered.

Green journeyed back to New York and issued a challenge to Price. The first shots were fired from fifteen paces, but both parties missed. Green asked through his seconds if the next shot might be fired from six paces. Price’s seconds agreed. Price fell dead during the next exchange, shot through the head.

A late 18th Century English duelling pistol. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A late 18th Century English duelling pistol. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Choose Your Weapons

Swords and pistols were the preferred weapons but in theory almost anything could be used if the principals agreed. Duels were fought with such odd things as billiard balls, crossbows, and even muskets loaded with buckshot.

The most extraordinary duel occurred over the skies of Paris and involved duellists in separate hot air balloons each wielding a blunderbuss. One duellist punctured his adversaries’ balloon and sent his opponent plunging 8,500 feet to his death. Swords were considered the more aristocratic weapons and were favoured in the 17th century, but as pistols shrank in size and increased in efficiency, “barking irons” largely supplanted blades by the mid 18th century.

The classic duelling pistol had a curved butt with a checkered grip, was roughly 16 inches in length, and weighed in the neighbourhood of 2.5 pounds. The Damascus steel barrel was generally 9-10 inches long; octagonal, unrifled, and usually, though not always, bereft of sights. Rifling and sights were considered unnecessary since a duel was usually fought at between ten and fifteen paces distance; roughly 25 to 38 feet. Calibers varied, but most were between .50 and .60. In the early 19th century, double set triggers began to appear; Alexander Hamilton had one on his pistol and his inexperience with it may have caused his weapon to discharge prematurely.

Duelling pistols were superbly balanced. Aiming for more than three seconds was considered bad form so pistols were designed to come quickly and easily to the point. Such pistols were tributes to a gunsmith’s skill as well his artistic aspirations; some featured gold chasing on the barrels, elaborately engraved brass escutcheon plates, and stocks of exotic woods such as ebony. Pistols were made in pairs to ensure that both men using them in a duel had exactly the same weapons. Cases for pistols and their accoutrements such as powder flasks, cleaning rods, shot holders, and measuring cups, were usually of fine mahogany lined with green baize. Possession of such a case marked a man as a gentlemen and it became a prized heirloom to be passed to future generations.

The most famous duel in American history: Alexander Hamilton vs. Aaron Burr.

The most famous duel in American history: Alexander Hamilton vs. Aaron Burr.

Rules of the Game

Duels followed a strict code of etiquette. Despite being illegal, juries were reluctant to convict duellists of murder as long as proper forms had been scrupulously followed. The Code Duello, penned in Ireland in 1777, merely formalized and put to paper what had long been done in practice. Ireland was an unsurprising choice for such a written code since duelling there was almost a national mania. The towns of Tipperary, Roscommon and Sligo had refined the art of pistol duelling to perfection, while Galway had done the same for swords.

When a gentleman felt insulted, the code decreed that he should react with cool restraint rather than rippling anger. Needless to say, this ideal was often ignored. In theory, the wronged gentleman would offer his offender an opportunity to retract, recant or apologize. Failing that, he could issue a challenge directly and with manly dignity. Slapping a man in the face with a glove is a Hollywood trope and would have indicated the challenger was acting from hot, fevered blood rather than cool, informed honour. It was considered even more gentlemanly to simply inform the offender that he would soon be called upon by the offended person’s second. This gave time for tempers to cool.

The aggrieved’s second would inform the challenge of the exact nature of the offence and ask him if differences might be reconciled. If not and the challenge was accepted, the seconds of both parties would meet to work out the details of the duel.

The challenged had the choice of weapons and location; the challenger had the choice of the distance over which the duel would be fought. If the challenged specified swords and the challenger could legitimately state he had no skill with them, seconds usually worked out some form of accommodation.

The seconds were also charged with making sure a qualified surgeon was present to immediately attend to any wounds.

A dramatization of a 18th century duel, from the 1998 television series Hornblower. (Source: Youtube)

Duels were usually fought in the early morning and in out of the way locations to escape the attention of the law. Every city had its unofficial duelling grounds. For New York, it was Weehawken Heights in New Jersey; Alexander Hamilton fell there. For Washington D.C., it was the village of Bladensburg; Commodore Stephen Decatur, the U.S. Navy’s brightest light, was fatally wounded there. For New Orleans, arguably the duelling capital of the United States, it was beneath the towering oaks of Bayou Metaire. Between 1834 and 1844 scarcely a day went by when a duel was not fought there.

Duellists knew fragments of wool or cotton forced into a body by a bullet were the chief causes of sepsis and so usually wore shirts of silk. Silk carried far less risk of infection and its threads were easier to locate with a surgeon’s probe. White was the preferred colour since blood stood out in bold relief and wounds could be quickly identified.

Before the duel commenced, seconds asked the parties one final time if they could not compose their differences. Occasionally they did and the duel ended before it started. But usually, this was merely a formality and the contest would continue unchecked.

The seconds of both duellists loaded the pistols in sight of each other to ensure there was no cheating. They then handed the weapons to their principals. A few duels were fought in the Hollywood manner; duellists starting back to back with pistol arms raised then marching ten paces in opposite directions to a cadence carefully called by one of the seconds. At the count of ten, both men turned and fired.

Most duels simply had the men stand at a prearranged distance, facing each other. At a signal, such as the dropping of a handkerchief, both men fired. If one or both men fell, the duel usually ended there. A clean miss on the part of both parties might occasion a second firing if that had been agreed upon by the seconds in advance. A misfire counted as a shot and it was considered unsporting to re-cock a piece and try a second time.

A man who wished to show courage, satisfy honour, yet not injure his opponent would delope; simply fire his pistol into the air or ground. If the other duellist had not yet fired, he would usually return the compliment by following suit. Only a vindictive and ungallant opponent would shoot to kill.

The odds of surviving a duel were rather favourable. Guns often misfired and shooters frequently missed.

The odds of surviving a duel were rather favourable. Guns often misfired and bullets frequently went wide.

Odds of Survival

Modern statistical analysis shows only about 20 per cent of duels resulted in fatalities. Most duels ended after one exchange of fire or when blood was first drawn. According to The Duelling Handbook published in Britain in 1829, a duellist had a one-in-six chance of being wounded and a one in 14 chance of dying.

Most gentlemen never fought a duel and those who did typically fought only one or two. A few developed a taste for it and constantly provoked opportunities to display their courage and skills. These professional duellists inspired fear from most, admiration from some and scorn from contemporary moralists. They bore nicknames such as Hundred Duel Dick, Blazing Bob, and Feather Spring Ned. The foremost duellist in the United States, a man named McClung, triumphed in more than 150 encounters, but saved the last bullet for himself, dying by suicide.

By the mid-19th Century duelling became universally rejected. Only outlaws and gunslingers on the margins of society indulged in what was by that time seen as a savage practice. Image source: WikiCommons)

By the mid-19th Century, duelling became almost universally reviled. Only outlaws, gunslingers and those on the margins of society indulged in what was by that time seen as a savage practice. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Last Bullet

What killed the duel once and for all was the triumph of Victorian morality in Britain and the United States. Growing religiosity, reformist zeal, a rising secular nationalism, and an increasingly effective and far reaching government all militated against personal violence and special modes of justice. Laws formerly circumvented came to be enforced vigorously; courts firmly demanded gentlemen settle their differences with words not weapons. Duels were reckoned immoral, wasteful, unpatriotic affairs that robbed a country of power by stealing some of its most stalwart hearts. Fighting for honour became the sole province of properly enlisted military forces opposing foreign enemies. Private violence could no longer be allowed to impair public safety and or vitiate the primacy of the state. The good of the many finally came to outweigh the honour of the few.

Duels lost their glamour and stylishness. They became hopelessly déclassé and the antithesis of conduct expected of a proper Victorian gentleman. By the late 1860’s, the few on both sides of the Atlantic who fought duels were seen as outlaws; selfish ruffians rather than men of honour. Offenders were quickly identified and successfully prosecuted. The last vestige of the duel, the classic fast draw face-off on a long dusty street in the Old West, was largely a myth created by film makers; only one well documented historical instance can be found. Personal honour brought the duel into existence, but a widespread commitment to a well ordered national honour sealed its extinction.

w2edqzJohn Danielski is the creator of the Captain Tom Pennywhistle trilogy, a series of historical novels set during the Napoleonic Period. These include: Active’s MeasureThe King’s Scarlet and the forthcoming Blue Water, Scarlet Tide.Danielski has worked as a living history interpreter at Fort Snelling, a journalist and has taught history at both the secondary and university levels.

1 comment for “Pistols at Dawn – Officers, Gentlemen and the Deadly Tradition of Duelling

  1. b P m
    6 November, 2016 at 10:19 am

    1st Bn 9th Marines . Viet Nam 65-66 the walking dead 619 KIA out of 800 in Bn. +Wounded and replacements

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