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A Matter of Honor: The History of the Duel


A handsome pair of .45 caliber percussion cap pistols in their original case by Deboubert of Paris. Circa 1830

A handsome pair of .45 caliber percussion cap pistols in their original case by Deboubert of Paris. Circa 1830


In 1804, when the Secretary of the Treasury, General Alexander Hamilton, referred to the Vice President as the "embryo Caesar of the United States," Aaron Burr took the only appropriate action...he challenged Hamilton to a duel.


The two arrived on the duelling ground as scheduled and measured a distance of 10 paces. The signal was given and the two men fired. Hamilton fell mortally wounded, the second in his family to die in a duel. And, though the affair was conducted to the letter of the "code," Burr was branded a heel and Hamilton a hero.


Indeed, for centuries, the duel was the preferred method for resolving conflict and breeches of honor and today few antiques evoke the same emotion as the duelling pistol. Beautifully crafted and handsomely cased, it cannot be forgotten that these were weapons of the highest order, ones that made legends of the ordinary men who participated in what can best be described as an act of unsurpassed courage.




The Deboubert dueling pistols (above)

The Deboubert dueling pistols (above)


William the Conqueror introduced the duel as the means of judicial trial around 1066. Combatants used wooden staves and leather shields, or if the matter was one of chivalry, swords and lances. The judicial duel eventually lost favor but those fought for the sake of honor remained quite fashionable.


The introduction of firearms in the 17th century further elevated the duel's popularity. Virtually any slight was cause for a challenge and the duelling pistol became a required part of any well-to-do gentleman's belongings. The wealthy Creoles of New Orleans, in particular, embraced the practice with an almost reckless abandon. As one 18th century city reporter put it, "The least breech of etiquette, the most venial sin against politeness, the least suspicion thrown out of unfair dealing, even a bit of awkwardness, are causes sufficient for a cartel, which none dares refuse."


So prevalent was the duel, it was governed by very detailed regulations and if followed to the letter, no charges would be pressed against either of the antagonists. (Many American states outlawed the duel in the early 1800s, though the laws were loosely enforced.) The "code duello" most often required that the two participants stand 10 to 15 paces apart, or back to back to march off the paces. At the signal, they would turn and fire. If neither man was an accomplished shot, both lived and honor was served. If both hit their target and both died, honor was served. Most often it was one who fell dead or wounded and another who stood victorious. According to the code, however, if one fired and missed, the other was within his rights to shoot to kill or to simply fire his pistol in the air, signifying that he felt his honor was redeemed.



Outstanding craftsmanship and condition distinguish this handsome pair of percussion dueling pistols by F. Ulrich of Stuttgart, Germany

Outstanding craftsmanship and condition distinguish this handsome pair of percussion dueling pistols by F. Ulrich of Stuttgart, Germany


The Duelling Pistol

For hundreds of years duels were fought with swords. The introduction of the duelling pistol, however, levelled the playing field greatly. Bullies could no longer make challenges simply because they were bigger or stronger. The pistol paid no attention to a man's size or strength.


Specialized weapons, those crafted especially for the purpose of the duel, were soon developed and beautifully cased sets became the fashion ensuring that one would not be left in a pinch were he to challenge or be challenged to a duel.


Gunsmiths were called upon to create a weapon that was at once deadly accurate and free from the chance of misfire of malfunction, either of which could cost a man his life. They rose to the task and the duelling pistol was made to excruciatingly exact standards and today can be considered the finest examples of 18th and 19th century firearms. Most duellers were cased in pairs and included accessories such as a bullet mold, powder measure and ramrod.


While London was the center of duelling pistol manufacture, many fine smiths were also at work on the continent, most notably in France and Germany. Innovations, decoration and cases varied slightly, but the premise of creating weapons of the highest standard remained constant.


Upon examination, one might first note the relatively light weight of the duelling pistol and the way it fits the hand comfortably. The butt and stock were specially formed so that when the pistol was held level, it was on target, almost without aiming. Such a feature made split-second reactions much more accurate. The butts on many duellers were checkered or carved to provide a better grip and the barrels were most often blued or browned to reduce glare.


The first pistols crafted for the purpose of duelling appeared around 1760s and were of the flintlock variety, using a flint to strike sparks against a steel plate in order to ignite a powder charge. The later percussion firearm used a disposable metal cap containing a small amount of explosive.


duellingpistolCollecting Duelling Pistols

To be certain, the appeal of these incredible guns is many-fold. The weapons enthusiast is impressed with their outstanding workmanship. The historian is seduced by their romantic history. And all are engaged by what they once symbolized: honor above all else.


Today, matched pairs of duelling pistols retaining their fitted cases are true rarities. Improper storage, mishandling and the corrosive effects of gunpowder have left many examples in extremely poor condition. Look for pairs that have been properly handled and stored, and those that are clearly marked by the maker. Early flintlock examples are seldom found in good condition, making those that are, very scarce.


Ornamentation, importance of maker, condition, quality of materials, craftsmanship and, of course, provenance, are primary considerations when acquiring a set of duelling pistols. Fortunately for collectors, a few lucky gentleman were never called upon to use their pistols, and thus their guns remain in absolute mint condition, though these examples are very rare.


Andrew Jackson, may very well wish he were not called upon to use his duelling pistol. But when a Nashville lawyer made unflattering remarks about Mrs. Jackson, the future president stepped in to defend her honor. The two men met on the duelling field in 1806. Jackson raised his weapon, fired and watched as Dickenson fell to the ground, dead. Jackson was seriously wounded both physically and politically, though the scandal was eventually forgotten.


More and more the duel had become a scandalous event and public opinion began to wane in its defense. By the mid-1800s the day of the duel and the great duelling guns had faded away leaving behind legendary stories of intrigue and heroism.


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