Thursday, May 17, 2012

Code Duello: The Rules of Dueling

I've always found dueling fascinating! As if you couldn't tell from my books. :-)  It was such a barbaric practice, yet quite often it was the more refined gentlemen who took part in it.  The practice began in the Middle ages, grew in popularity, and spread to America where it survived quite nicely until the late 19th century!

In fact, many of America's most important citizens defended their honor by dueling. One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Button Gwinnet, was shot down by General Lachlan McIntosh in a duel. Commodore Stephen Decatur of the United States Navy, an experienced duelist, died in a duel with Commodore, James Barron. And Abraham Lincoln narrowly averted a battle with swords by apologizing to an Illinois state official he had ridiculed in a local newspaper.

The most famous American duel was the one held between Vice President Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton (who was on track to becoming President) in 1804, where Aaron Burr shot and killed his opponent  

In a typical duel, each man had a friend or acquaintance act as a second. The seconds' main duty was to try to reconcile the parties without violence. The offended party sent a challenge through his second. If the recipient apologized, the matter was over. If, however, he chose to fight, the recipient was allowed to choose the weapons and the time and place of the duel. Up until that determining moment, apologies could be given and the duel stopped. After combat began, it could be stopped at any point after honor had been satisfied.

Duels were fought for honor and if a man refused to fight when challenged, he was often shamed in public, his name printed in the newspaper. A refusal  could essentially ruin him and his career.

Most duelist chose pistols over swords. Flintlock pistols were known for their inaccuracy so choosing them might prolong one's life!

By the time of the Civil War, dueling was in decline, mainly due to preachers tirades and public opinion against the barbaric practice. I'm surprised it lasted that long!

Dueling was a deadly sport. And like any sport, it had rules. The following rules, called The Code Duello, were created in 1777 by a group of  gentlemen-delegates for general adoption throughout Ireland. I thought you might like to browse through them. They are quite interesting and even morbidly amusing.

Rule 1. The first offense requires the first apology, though the retort may have been more offensive than the insult. Example: A tells B he is impertinent, etc. B retorts that he lies; yet A must make the first apology because he gave the first offense, and then (after one fire) B may explain away the retort by a subsequent apology.

Rule 2. But if the parties would rather fight on, then after two shots each (but in no case before), B may explain first, and A apologize afterward.

N.B. The above rules apply to all cases of offenses in retort not of stronger class than the example.

Rule 3. If a doubt exist who gave the first offense, the decision rests with the seconds; if they won't decide, or can't agree, the matter must proceed to two shots, or to a hit, if the challenger require it.

Rule 4. When the lie direct is the first offense, the aggressor must either beg pardon in express terms; exchange two shots previous to apology; or three shots followed up by explanation; or fire on till a severe hit be received by one party or the other.

Rule 5. As a blow is strictly prohibited under any circumstances among gentlemen, no verbal apology can be received for such an insult. The alternatives, therefore -- the offender handing a cane to the injured party, to be used on his own back, at the same time begging pardon; firing on until one or both are disabled; or exchanging three shots, and then asking pardon without proffer of the cane.

If swords are used, the parties engage until one is well blooded, disabled, or disarmed; or until, after receiving a wound, and blood being drawn, the aggressor begs pardon.

N.B. A disarm is considered the same as a disable. The disarmer may (strictly) break his adversary's sword; but if it be the challenger who is disarmed, it is considered as ungenerous to do so.

In the case the challenged be disarmed and refuses to ask pardon or atone, he must not be killed, as formerly; but the challenger may lay his own sword on the aggressor's shoulder, then break the aggressor's sword and say, "I spare your life!" The challenged can never revive the quarrel -- the challenger may.

Rule 6. If A gives B the lie, and B retorts by a blow (being the two greatest offenses), no reconciliation can take place till after two discharges each, or a severe hit; after which B may beg A's pardon humbly for the blow and then A may explain simply for the lie; because a blow is never allowable, and the offense of the lie, therefore, merges in it. (See preceding rules.)

N.B. Challenges for undivulged causes may be reconciled on the ground, after one shot. An explanation or the slightest hit should be sufficient in such cases, because no personal offense transpired.

Rule 7. But no apology can be received, in any case, after the parties have actually taken ground, without exchange of fires.

Rule 8. In the above case, no challenger is obliged to divulge his cause of challenge (if private) unless required by the challenged so to do before their meeting.

Rule 9. All imputations of cheating at play, races, etc., to be considered equivalent to a blow; but may be reconciled after one shot, on admitting their falsehood and begging pardon publicly.

Rule 10. Any insult to a lady under a gentleman's care or protection to be considered as, by one degree, a greater offense than if given to the gentleman personally, and to be regulated accordingly.

Rule 11. Offenses originating or accruing from the support of ladies' reputations, to be considered as less unjustifiable than any others of the same class, and as admitting of slighter apologies by the aggressor: this to be determined by the circumstances of the case, but always favorable to the lady.

Rule 12. In simple, unpremeditated recontres with the smallsword, or couteau de chasse, the rule is -- first draw, first sheath, unless blood is drawn; then both sheath, and proceed to investigation.

Rule 13. No dumb shooting or firing in the air is admissible in any case. The challenger ought not to have challenged without receiving offense; and the challenged ought, if he gave offense, to have made an apology before he came on the ground; therefore, children's play must be dishonorable on one side or the other, and is accordingly prohibited.

Rule 14. Seconds to be of equal rank in society with the principals they attend, inasmuch as a second may either choose or chance to become a principal, and equality is indispensible.

Rule 15. Challenges are never to be delivered at night, unless the party to be challenged intend leaving the place of offense before morning; for it is desirable to avoid all hot-headed proceedings.

Rule 16. The challenged has the right to choose his own weapon, unless the challenger gives his honor he is no swordsman; after which, however, he can decline any second species of weapon proposed by the challenged.

Rule 17. The challenged chooses his ground; the challenger chooses his distance; the seconds fix the time and terms of firing.

Rule 18. The seconds load in presence of each other, unless they give their mutual honors they have charged smooth and single, which should be held sufficient.

Rule 19. Firing may be regulated -- first by signal; secondly, by word of command; or thirdly, at pleasure -- as may be agreeable to the parties. In the latter case, the parties may fire at their reasonable leisure, but second presents and rests are strictly prohibited.

Rule 20. In all cases a miss-fire is equivalent to a shot, and a snap or non-cock is to be considered as a miss-fire.

Rule 21. Seconds are bound to attempt a reconciliation before the meeting takes place, or after sufficient firing or hits, as specified.

Rule 22. Any wound sufficient to agitate the nerves and necessarily make the hand shake, must end the business for that day.

Rule 23. If the cause of the meeting be of such a nature that no apology or explanation can or will be received, the challenged takes his ground, and calls on the challenger to proceed as he chooses; in such cases, firing at pleasure is the usual practice, but may be varied by agreement.

Rule 24. In slight cases, the second hands his principal but one pistol; but in gross cases, two, holding another case ready charged in reserve.

Rule 25. Where seconds disagree, and resolve to exchange shots themselves, it must be at the same time and at right angles with their principals, thus:

If with swords, side by side, with five paces interval.

N.B. All matters and doubts not herein mentioned will be explained and cleared up by application to the committee, who meet alternately at Clonmel and Galway, at the quarter sessions, for that purpose.


  1. Thurs May 17th,
    "Morning, MaryLu."
    Well ... as to the 'detailed list' of "Rules for Dueling" ... clearly ('as clear as mud'), methinks AFTER reading the 'rules', the two dueling parties should be scratching their heads and pondering: "Remind me again, WHY are we here, and WHAT were we arguing about ?" Truly, this sounds WAY too complicated ... and I could barely understand half of the rules myself !!! Wow ... so specifically detailed (like a maze of words), and, truly overwhelming !
    Trying to even 'understand' this gi-normous listing of rules, one would require intelligence ... which is the irony of it all. For if they were indeed 'intelligent' ... one would think the argument would not have succumbed to 'a duel' in the first place !!! My goodness !!!
    Thanks again for sharing, MaryLu. Very interesting, for sure !
    Take care, and, God Bless,
    In Him, Brenda Hurley

  2. Okay, this actually gave me a headache. lol
    Dueling is so dumb. This is a lot of information that I never knew. Thanks for sharing.

  3. So is this what men did before there was football:)

    Alexander Hamilton vs. Aaron Burr

    A.H. wrote a personal letter that included how he felt about A.B. The letter ended up getting published in a paper, causing A.B. to hate A.H. more than he already did. A duel was set for July 11, 1804. The place of the duel was Weehawkin New Jersey - the same place where A.H.'s son was wounded in a duel.
    A.H. choose to miss A.B. because he would not take a man's life. So A.B. shot A.H. who then died at two o'clock in afternoon. He was surrounded by his wife and children.
    Aaron Burr was a grandson of Jonathan Edwards.
    I love historical fun facts!

    Thank you for sharing. What I did understand I will tuck away for when I pick up a book where a duel arises.
    P.S. You mentioned the decline happeing by the Civil War, but wasn't there a time when it was illegal? If it started in the Middle Ages, how popular was it in Europe and how long did it last there?

    1. If that's the case with Alexander Hamilton, then he violated rule 13.

  4. This is very fascinating. It is a big part of history that we see and over look it.
    I too love duels and swords fights like this. It is really interesting to see, but often I don't think about what it all involves.
    Thanks for sharing this piece of history with us, MaryLu.
    It is fun learning new things.
    God bless.
    Have a good week.

    Shelby Z.

  5. Wow, that's a lot of rules! Thanks for sharing - I've been curious what sorts of rituals and traditions went into it.

    As a fencer myself, I have great respect for the men who risked their lives in a duel to defend the honor of a lady or settle an important issue...and a great lack of it for the men who turned petty squabbles into mortal combat. :-P

  6. This is very interesting! Thanks for sharing! :D

  7. LOL, I agree, Brenda.. very confusing, indeed. I wonder how many actually read the rules and gave up before they started!

    Debbie.. I agree..a headache is the appropriate response

    Jennie.. Love the football comment! And thanks for the bit of history on the most famous duel in America! Yes, I believe dueling was outlawed in several states prior to the civil war.. just not all of them. And I have n idea how long it lasted in Europe. that's a great question! I'll have to look that up.

    Shelby. I love sword fights too.. mainly because they are cool to watch.. but these rules make one realize that this was a very serious sport to most men. And deadly!

    Well said Sapphire.. so many duels were fought by stupid men and their stupid pride.

    Thanks Heather!

    Glad you all enjoyed this.. it was fun doing research on it.

  8. Wow, these rules are ridiculous. I can't even understand half of them. Like Brenda said, you would think by the time they actually got to the duel they would be wondering, why in the world are we doing this?! And stop.

    That last rule cracked me up, though - "Where seconds disagree, and resolve to exchange shots themselves, it must be at the same time and at right angles with their principals." Really? You're going to have a duel over a duel?!

    I do love the Princess Bride pic you chose :)

  9. I thought the rules logical for the 17th/18th century, and had no trouble understanding them...

  10. dueling was illegal during the time that hamilton and burr had there duel. atleast in the north american states. Burr was charged with murder and fled to his daughters house in the south. The charges against him were eventually dropped and he returned to finish his term as senator or w/e his job was.

  11. Its the twenty-five duel commandments!

  12. I just wanted to say that Alexander Hammillton was my hero and this duel was a man of greatest not allowing himself to be pressured into breaking his long lived rule of no suisides thus dying early yet he had produced already quiet the Honored reputation. and let me state that in this small area of these United States. This group of settlers together worked with the indigenous personal both found a unque mix of freedom the tribes found that their voting was changed to a real form of dishing out freedom in a manner that created the rightousness of mans need for fair governing and a honorable legal system that gave both sides a just system very unique and rewarding!!! .