August 01, 2022
Dueling all but disappeared within the last hundred years. Until that time, among certain classes, it was a socially accepted activity. The last recorded duel took place in France with épées in 1967. The last notable duel fought with pistols occurred between a U.S. Senator and a former California Chief Justice in 1859.
As long as human beings have had the facility to take umbrage, there have been duels. The practice undoubtedly started in pre-history with the principal weaponry being stones, bones and clubs. Technology progressed through swords, axes, flails and lances, and finally reached its pinnacle with the development of exquisitely fashioned, purpose-built handguns.
This is not to say that in a pinch many other types of firearms haven’t seen use in settling affairs of honor; rifles, revolvers and shotguns have all appeared on fields of honor. But for efficiency and style, high-grade dueling pistols were the principal tools preferred by the gentry for settling otherwise irreconcilable differences through the mid-18th century.
Several centuries prior to that time, the most popular arm used in dueling was the rapier, saber or other extended-blade weapon. To be a facile swordsman took much training and practice, as well as a good degree of athleticism. This changed when reliable, finely tuned flintlock ignition systems became available around the middle of the 18th century, and the utilitarian greatcoat and holster pistols of the time began to evolve into more elegant bespoke machines specially designed for one-on-one personal combat. Swords were still seen on the dueling field, particularly in France, into the early years of the 20th century, but they had definitely fallen to second place as the dueling pistol gained ascendency.
To be sure, if one was intent on being a respectable dueler, practice with his pistols was necessary and prudent. Still, handguns unquestionably leveled out the field, and it was now even possible for less-fit individuals to make a decent show against their adversaries. Because of this, in some respect, it might be seen that some phlegmatic types were less than cautious when making or accepting challenges, and while ability with one’s pistols was a considerable advantage, the outcome of a duel was by no means predictable..
Today, it is tempting to look upon dueling as a quaint, sometimes risible activity, a capricious, comic-opera confrontation brought about by perceived slights. But let there be no mistake, it was a deadly undertaking that was taken seriously by the principals.
As the frequency of dueling increased, rules were established to govern its undertaking. The Code Duello, or “Rules of Dueling,” first officially set down procedures around 1777. Modifications of these rules were numerous, but in the main similar in many details. Usual variances were due to where and when they were established. These were not “laws,” per se, but sets of mutable instructions and practices agreed on with changes dictated by circumstances and agreement.
Despite its apparent acceptability, dueling was an illegal act in most countries and subject to severe penalties — at least on paper. As many individuals involved in “affairs of honor” were men of power, circumstance and influence, authorities often looked the other way or exacted token penalties. Accordingly, prospective consequences were simply ignored by the actors, or venues changed to locations where things might not be quite so “technical.”
Formal dueling was not limited by nationality, however. Some, particularly the British and the French, seemed to take to it with greater zeal than others. How was a pistol contest normally conducted during the era of dueling in the 19th century? Understanding that there could be lesser or greater variations on basic themes, here’s a look at a reasonably typical example: After an affront was received, the challenge made and affirmatively responded to, one or two “seconds” were selected by each side. A second was much like a duelist’s “best man.” Seconds arranged for the types of weapons, place and time of the meeting, as well as other matters. A surgeon was called in to attend, also. Each combatant brought his own set of pistols, normally a pair cased with accessories, too. The guns were carefully loaded with each duelist using one of his own arms. They would have been of a similar configuration to that of his adversary.
Shooters stood on pre-measured spots across from one another at ranges from 12 to 20 yards. The distance depended on a previous agreement.
In the early days, some duels were conducted with each man shooting in turn, the order determined by lots. This eventually changed and it became more usual for both duelists to fire on signal, popularly a dropped handkerchief or, less commonly, on a verbal command. Customarily, the shooter stood sideways to present as small of a target as possible. His gun was held down at his side and raised to fire, one-handed, as soon as the direction was given. Though most dueling pistols were equipped with sights, one’s best interest was served to snap-shoot and pull the trigger as soon as it was felt a decent target had been achieved — often in as little as three or four seconds.
Should no one be injured, the decision had to be made to continue the duel or not. The parties were asked whether their honor had been satisfied. This not being the case, the second pistol of each pair was called into play and the whole procedure repeated. If there still were no hits, the guns could be reloaded and the duel carried on until one or both of the contestants had been hit or it was agreed to halt proceedings (oft-timed grudgingly), make amends and call it a day.
If during a duel one shooter fired before a signal was given, his opponent was provided with the chance to take a shot at his leisure, greatly increasing the chance of delivering a serious or fatal wound. Deloping, French for “intentionally firing safely in the air or to the side,” was frowned on and considered bad form. The thought was that if one took the affair lightly and did not wish to cause harm to his adversary, the duel should have never been arranged in the first place.
Beginning around the 1770s, purpose-built dueling pistols began to evolve. The main credit for this was given to English gunmaker John Twigg. Twigg modified the lines, mechanics and balance of his more workaday pistols to more adequately accommodate personal combat. As time progressed, other master makers such as Durs Egg, John Manton, Robert Wogdon and H.W. Mortimer added their refinement, resulting in arms considered by many authorities to represent some of the finest examples of British make.
Space does not permit a detailed discussion of the nuances of wares developed by various makers, however, we can give a basic listing of some similarities while understanding that within the thousands of such arms produced, many proprietary differences were inevitable. Given the seriousness of their purpose, dueling pistols were of the highest quality and, like modern shotguns, often built to accommodate the anatomy and stylistic and decorative desires of the buyer.
Calibers varied, but all were of a size appropriate to take down an adversary at close-range. The usually octagon barrels were smooth-bored, and had simple notch rear and bead-style or bladed front sights. Locks, originally flint and later — beginning in the 1820s — percussion cap, were understandably of the highest quality. Stockwork — originally full length — eventually became attenuated. Butts varied in shape depending on the period and maker, and metal butt caps were dispensed with as time progressed. Various styles of grip cross-hatching and checkering were also developed. Furniture, normally steel, could be upgraded to silver or gold, depending on the buyer’s whims and pocketbook. It was not uncommon for guns to be numbered “1” and “2” to eliminate errors in the field.
Pistols were made in pairs and housed in fabric-lined cases along with a selection of accessories that could include (but not limited to) a bullet mold, powder flask, powder measure, turnscrew, mainspring vice, patch cutter, wadcutter, brush, vent pick, oil bottle cleaning rod and tools such as a nipple wrench (later guns).
Of course duelers were made in other lands, most notably in France and Germany, though superb examples emerged from Russian workshops and other European countries. Quality American dueling pistols were also seen and were highly regarded by their users.
As noted, duels were traditionally (but not always) conducted by the upper classes. Some had more or less historical significance and personal consequence. Notables include John Wilkes vs. Samuel Martin (1763); William Pitt vs. George Tierney (1798); Alexander Hamilton vs. Aaron Burr (1804); Andrew Jackson vs. Charles Dickinson (1806); Stephen Decatur vs. James Barron (1820); Henry Clay vs. John Randolph (1826); Duke of Wellington vs. Earl of Winchilsea (1829); Alexander Pushkin vs. Georges d’Anthès (1837); Édouard Manet vs. Edmond Duranty (1870); Marcel Proust vs. Jean Lorrain (1897); and Georges Clemenceau vs. Pail Dérouède (1892), to name just a few. As can be seen by this abbreviated list, politicians and military men are conspicuous, but my research also discovered that writers, painters, composers, and journalists were represented.
The French particularly had an avidity for dueling that was no less passionate than that of their British counterparts, though the use swords continued for a longer period. French pistols had their own style, perhaps a bit more ornate than the reserved British pieces, but nonetheless just as deadly. English dueling pistols have, through the years, achieved more press and general interest than French, but Gallic efforts should by no means be discounted. Accordingly, I’ll now slip across the Channel.
For a time, French duelers proceeded more or less along the lines of the British pieces. With the rise and fall of Napoléon Bonaparte, and his declaring himself in Emperor of the French, a distinct “Empire style” began to emerge in all facets of French life, not excluding firearms design.
This was especially notable in the exquisite work of Parisian gunmaker Nicolas-Noël Boutet. Though Boutet could create more mainline products, as gunmaker to Napoleon he was responsible for some of the finest dueling pistols ever made; many exhibited superb engraving, chiseling, stockwork and embellishments with precious metals. Boutet promoted a look that would remain typical of French hanguns for a considerable time, with deeply curved grips terminating in flat butts, they were not uncommonly finished off with decorated caps. Rifled barrels were often used in these pistols and, unlike British smoothbores, became a common tradition in later-made French duelers.
After the restoration of King Louis XVIII, Boutet, along with Jean André Prosper Henri Le Page, continued as royal makers. As time progressed, other superb French makers, including Louis-François Devisme and Gastinne Renette, to name just two, also provided wares. The quality was every bit the match for British guns.
With the introduction of the percussion system and the waning influence of Napoleonic styles on French dueling pistols, which, like many Brit pairs, are often referred to as “target” or “duelers,” began take more fluid lines. Generally, there was a constrained degree of stock carving, engraving and gold or silver work. (I’m not taking into account some spectacular exhibition-grade guns.) Barrels could be octagonal or sometimes fluted, and were commonly rifled. Like British pistols, they were cased with accessories. However, rather than separate compartments favored by English makers, French casing usually featured depressions form-fitted to the guns and accessories.
Hair triggers were the usual, as were front and rear sights. It is normal to find French dueling accessories to include mallets and rods to allow slightly oversized bullets to be hammered down a pistol’s bore to more positively engage the rifling. This was not an innovation but a practice that had been used with military and civilian-rifled arms, at least as early as the 18th century.
Though dueling in Britain began to trail off as the 19th century neared its conclusion, the French and other European countries continued in the practice well into the 20th century. In fact, there were dueling competitions in the 1906 and 1908 Olympic games. In ’06, competitors fired at a frock-coated plaster dummy at a distance of 20 to 30 meters. In the 1908 contest, opponents shot wax bullets at one another while standing apart at 20 meters and wearing heavy padding, masks and hand guards.
As late as 1919, famed marksman Walter W. Winans, in his book “The Modern Pistol and How to Shoot It,” was championing dueling and gave an excellent description of how it was conducted in France. Some of the basic details of seconds, shooting style, and more, hearken back to the older codes, but he noted that ranges were increased to up to 25 meters, undoubtedly due to the rifling. Principals were not to use their own firearms but “regulation pistols” (i.e., muzzleloaders and round balls) supplied from a gunmaker who loaded them in the presence of the seconds and then sealed in their cases. In the field, the pistols were apportioned by lots and then the seals broken and given. Winans recommended Parisian maker Gastinne Renette as a prime source. Renette enjoyed a thriving business and, like other makers in Britain and on the Continent, had superb ranges in which pistol shooters could obtain instruction and be allowed to practice.
Apparently the hiring of arms was not always the case as in the Musée Clemenceau in Paris where a set of cased French percussion duelers is displayed. They were used in a famous duel by future-French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau in 1892. Nicknamed Le Tigre (the tiger), he was skilled with both the épée and pistols. During his long lifetime, he engaged in a number of contests of honor.
Shooting a French Dueler
I have fired flintlock and percussion smoothbore English duelers, and I was impressed by their reliability and accuracy. Using patched balls, it was relatively easy to keep deliberate shots within 6- to 8-inch groups at 15-yards.
Until recently, I had not had the opportunity to try French rifled pistols. I was able to secure a pair of lovely Gastinne Renette percussion target/duelers of typical configuration for their period, 1850 to ’60.
The Renettes, as per custom, were contained in a nice walnut case lined in purple velvet with spaces for the usual complement of accessories. Among other pieces included was a mallet and rod for hammering balls down the bore, along with a small powder flask and a dainty measure. Curiously, the flask threw a charge of 4 grains of FFFg blackpowder, as did the measure — neither by itself adequate for a proper load for the .512-caliber round ball cast by the included mold.
Unfortunately, loading directions for these types of arms are somewhat scarce. Punches for wads and patches were not in the case, so it was necessary to do a bit of extrapolation based upon past experience and by studying other French dueling pistol cases with a greater selection of tools.
I have read that bullets were hammered in patched and un-patched. I decided to try both techniques. The bullets, as noted, measured .512 inch while the lands of the multi-groove bore ran .500.
Wads were simple: .54 Ox-Yoke Wonder Wads serving the purpose beautifully. I had on hand some un-lubricated .40-.49 .010-inch Ox-Yoke Original patches, which, after some experimentation, proved to the best size for our purpose — allowing bullets to be easily started in the bore with a mallet and then after engagement of the rifling had been achieved, to be seated on the wadded charge.
Because of the age and value, I decided not to use the original mallet and loading rod, opting to fabricate my own. They were more prosaic than the beautifully fashioned Renette implements, but served the purpose.
The guns were typical of their time and origin. Elegant, balanced, and of the highest quality. The jewel-like lock was of the French humped-back style of the time, so shaped to allow free movement of the internal tumbler.
The pistols’ stocks, formed to allow for natural pointing and rapid sight acquisition, had a moderate amount of floral carving and fluted grip. Both of which, as well as being pleasing to the eye, provided for a good, positive hold. The plain octagon barrels were nitre-blued. The remaining French-gray metal parts were covered by attractive, delicately engraved floral designs. Not surprisingly, the guns were equipped with hair triggers that could be adjusted by a small pierced screw at the front of the trigger. As supplied, the pulls measured a crisp 23/4 pounds.
After some experimentation, 25 grains of Goex FFFg black powder was providing the best performance. I shot groups from a rest and offhand. The only range available was 25 yards, but this distance was not out of the line for duelers equipped with rifled barrels.
Accuracy with both patched and un-patched bullets was good, however, the former had a slight edge. Rested groups were excellent, coming in close to point of aim at an average of 33/4 inches with one 2½-inch, five-shot spread featuring three balls almost within the same hole. Using a one-handed dueling stance, groups ranged in the 5- to 6 1/2-inch range, slightly high and to the right. Now, whether I could maintain such accuracy should I find myself facing a shooter with deadly intent is an entirely another matter, and one I, fortunately, will never have to find out.
Unquestionably, the Renettes proved capable of performing the job. Today, the deadly activity of dueling has rightly been relegated to the pages of history. Still, it offers a vicarious fascination that is unmatched by many other shooting activities. The firearms used may be appreciated as some of the finest examples of the gunmaker’s art extant.
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