Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Do That Anymore: Dueling Etiquette

Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr fight their famous duel
(Alexander Hamilton is the hottest founding father, please discuss.)

Duels were a popular way of hashing out ones differences from the Middle Ages to the late 1800s. During that period, guns became much more accurate and thus you were more likely to actually DIE during a duel. Also, people started going to law school when they didn’t know what to do after graduation, leading to more lawyers who could resolve our differences in a courtroom rather than on a field of honor.

Dueling worked like this:

A gentleman insulted another gentleman and that second gentleman challenged the first to a duel. Each chose a “second,” a person to act as their representative and make sure the fight was fair. The seconds would actually do a lot of the work. They did all the negotiating and trying to calm everyone down, then when that failed, they loaded the guns, counted out the paces, and signaled to fire.

There were several ways to end a duel which had to be agreed on before beginning. It could end at first blood, when one party was too injured to continue, death, or after each man had fired one shot. They could even agree to purposefully miss- apparently in their famous duel, Alexander Hamilton  purposefully missed (or deloped) Aaron Burr. Either Aaron Burr didn’t get the memo or was a true cad because he (obviously) shot to kill. Though, some duelists felt that this practice  implied that you thought the other guy was not worth shooting and was thus even more of an insult.

Some fun dueling etiquette facts:

  • There were several published codes of dueling. The Code Duello in Ireland in 1877 and the Wilson Code by a South Carolina governor in 1838

  • Duels usually took place at dawn in some hidden location like an island in a river to help avoid arrest because you a) can’t be seen and b) the jurisdiction over strange locations is often hazy.

  • Only gentleman were allowed to duel, because you had to have a certain level of honor before it could be insulted. “Lower class” men had different ways of resolving their differences.

  • If a man refused a duel, he might be “posted” meaning a poster would be placed in a public place calling him a coward or some other foul thing until he was SO insulted that he would have to accept the duel.

  • The goal of a duel was not necessarily to kill but to gain satisfaction and show that you were brave enough to face death for your honor.

  • One statistic says that between 1700 and 1845, in England, dueling had a 15% death rate.

  • Back when duels were fought with swords, women would fight topless. The reason for this was so that if they were stabbed, the sword wouldn’t push any of their clothing into the wound, causing infection. Men had never thought of this and many wounded duelers died of sepsis.

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