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Dispelling Some Myths: ‘Duelling’ pistols

Updated: Feb 18


The author recently watched a video on the Royal Armouries’ YouTube channel hosted by Jonathan Ferguson, Keeper of Firearms and Artillery, where some myths about ‘duelling’ pistols were exposed. Clicking the link to watch the video is highly recommended, but it got me thinking.


What is a duel?


Duels were arranged fights between two people, with matched weapons, in accordance with a set of agreed-upon rules. During the 17th and 18th centuries (and earlier), duels were mostly single combats fought with swords (the rapier and later the smallsword), but beginning in the late 18th century in England, duels were more commonly fought using pistols. Duelling was heavily influenced by a code of honour and duels were fought not so much to kill an opponent but rather to gain ‘satisfaction’ - to restore one's honour by demonstrating a willingness to risk one's life for it. Traditionally duelling was reserved for the male members of nobility but later this was extended to those of the upper classes more generally. On occasion, duels with swords or pistols were fought between women.


Early history


Resolving disputes through individual combat was common in many ancient societies that preserved a warrior tradition. In some respects this makes perfect sense. Few ancient armies were ‘professional’ in the modern sense. Most were comprised of men levied from a region, town or village(s) who had minimal formal training. Only a minority, most likely drawn from nobility or a wealthy elite, had the time and resources to gain fighting skills beyond the basics. So, rather than risk wasting lives on both sides, why not select champions to fight a duel the outcome of which decided the dispute. The Old Testament story of David and Goliath in the Book of Samuel is just one such example.


Giant slayer For forty days the armies of the Israelites and the Philistines had been facing off against each other in the Valley of Elah. Twice a day, morning and evening, the Philistine’s champion, Goliath [1], stepped out between the lines and challenged the Israelites to send out a champion of their own to decide the outcome in single combat. Intimidated by his stature, the Israelites refused each challenge. When David, a young shepherd boy who had been sent by his father to take food to his brothers, saw Goliath challenging the Israelites and realized no one had taken up the challenge, he volunteered himself. Saul [2], king of the Israelites, reluctantly agreed and offered David his armour which the boy declined. David and Goliath duly confront each other, Goliath with his armour and javelin, David with just his staff, a sling and five stones taken from a nearby brook. Goliath mocked the Israelites’ choice of champion and the weapon David carried. His mockery was severely misplaced as David hurled a stone from his sling that hit Goliath in the centre of his forehead instantly felling the giant. David decapitates Goliath and the Philistine army flees only to be pursued by the Israelites ‘as far as Gath and the gates of Ekron’. Goliath’s armour [3] becomes David prize while the giant’s head was taken to Jerusalem presumably to proclaim a great victory.


Like many comparable narratives, the story of David and Goliath possesses the same formula found in the Homeric epics where battles are similarly settled by single combat between champions. Indeed, the story of the young Nestor fighting and defeating the giant Ereuthalion in the Iliad, written circa 760–710 BC, clearly has shared roots. In both stories, each giant wields a distinctive weapon - an iron club in Ereuthalion's case, a massive bronze spear in Goliath's. Each giant, clad in armour, emerges from the enemy's massed array to challenge all the warriors in the opposing army. In each case the seasoned warriors are afraid, and the challenge is taken up by a stripling, the youngest in his family (Nestor is the twelfth son of Neleus, David the seventh or eighth son of Jesse). In both cases an older and more experienced father figure (Nestor's own father, David's patron Saul) tells the boy he is too young and inexperienced, but in both stories the young hero receives divine aid and the giant is left sprawling on the ground. Nestor, fighting on foot, then takes the chariot of his enemy, while David, also on foot, takes the sword of Goliath. The enemy army then flees, the victors pursue and slaughter them and return with their bodies, and the boy-hero is acclaimed by the people.


Ritualised combat If another later example were needed of duelling’s long antecedents then consider hólmganga, the ritualised duels practiced by early medieval Scandinavians as a legally recognized way to settle disputes. In theory, anyone offended could challenge the other party to hólmganga regardless of their differences in social status. Disputes could centre on a matter of honour, ownership of property, demand of restitution or debt, legal disagreement, or the intention to help a wife or relative or avenge a friend. Three to seven days after the challenge was issued, hólmganga were fought. If the person challenged did not turn up, then the other man was considered just in his challenge. If the offended party did not turn up for the hólmganga, they were deemed niðingr, and could have been sentenced to outlawry. Essentially Scandanavian societies believed that someone unwilling or unable to defend their claim had no honour. So, in cases where one party was clearly at a disadvantage, a more capable warrior - a champion - might volunteer to fight in their stead.



The exact rules varied from place to place and changed over time, but before each hólmganga the duellists determined and agreed the permissible weapons, who was to strike first, what constituted a defeat or forfeiture, and what the winner received. Duels were fought either on a pre-specified plot or in a traditional place regularly used for the purpose. At first hólmganga were probably fought to the death or incapacitation of one combatant. Importantly, killing an opponent did not constitute a murder and therefore did not lead to outlawry or payment of weregeld [4]. Later rules turned hólmganga into a more ritualistic direction.


Judicial duels


Hólmganga is just one example of a method in Germanic law to settle accusations in the absence of witnesses or a confession. Essentially the two aggrieved parties fought in single combat, with the winner proclaimed to be legally justified. As a means of settling disputes judicial duels, or ‘trial by combat’, continued in use throughout the European Middle Ages only disappearing during the 16th century. With the advent of the Holy Roman Empire (AD 962 to 1806) Germanic tribal law continued to exert an influence at the regional level even if such things as trial by combat did not figure in the Roman law codes which had been adopted and were championed by the Roman empire’s successor, the Catholic Church. For the next three hundred years there remained a tension between the traditional regional laws and ‘imperial’ Roman law.


The persistence of judicial duels is exemplified in the Sachsenspiegel [5] of 1230 that recognised trial by combat had an important role in establishing guilt or innocence in cases of insult, injury, or theft. Depicted right is an example judicial combat from the Dresden codex of the Sachsenspiegel (early to mid-14th century). It illustrates the provision that the combatants must ‘share the sun’, that is they align themselves perpendicular to the Sun so that neither has an advantage. The manuscript also records that the:


‘…combatants are armed with swords and shields and may wear linen and leather clothing, but their heads and feet must be bare and their hands only protected by light gloves. The accuser is to await the accused at the designated place of combat. If the accused does not appear after being summoned three times, the accuser may execute two cuts and two stabs against the wind, and his matter will be treated as if he had won the fight.’


Despite proscriptions, judicial duels continued to be popular throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. Indeed the German influence on trial by combat is notable from depictions of the techniques to be applied in such duels in the Fechtbücher (‘fight books’) written by the fencing master, Hans Talhoffer. His writings cover a wide assortment of weapons, including the arming sword, buckler, crossbow, dagger, flail, long knife, long shield, longsword, mace, poleaxe, spear, and unarmed grappling, often both armoured and unarmoured, on horse and on foot, and in scenarios including tournaments, formal duels, and unequal encounters implying urban self-defence. Other Fechtbücher such as that of Paulus Kal and the Codex Wallerstein depict similar material.


Great Britain and Ireland


Strangely, given that much of common law in England has its roots in Anglo-Saxon law, which was clearly based on Germanic custom, trial by combat seemingly was not practised. With the arrival of the Normans, however, the ‘Wager of battle’, as trial by combat was called in English, was introduced into the common law of the Kingdom of England and remained in use for the duration of the High and Late Middle Ages. In Scotland and Ireland, the practice continued into the 16th century.


Middle Ages As with the earlier hólmganga, there were rules governing who could and who could not issue a challenge. The wager of battle was not always available to a defendant in an appeal against a charge of murder. An accuser could not be challenged by the defendant if:


• The defendant had been taken in the act of committing his crime,


• The defendant had attempted to escape from prison,


• Or there was such strong evidence of guilt that there could be no effective denial.


Similarly, if the plaintiff was more than 60 years of age, or a woman, a minor, lame or blind, then they could decline a challenge (or hire a champion to fight for them). In most instances, the case would be determined by a jury. Indeed, around 1219 trial by jury was beginning to replace trials by combat or ordeal. Moreover, the 13th century saw the emergence of the legal profession and lawyers more likely to steer clients away from the wager of battle thereby preserving their client’s safety (one wonders whether this neatly avoided any ‘no win, no fee’ clause 😉). Likewise, there was an increase in the number of legal fictions devised to allow litigants to choose a jury trial.


Seconds The practice of engaging a second, or ‘squire’, appears around this time. The squire’s role was to assist the person facing trial by combat and agree the particulars of the fight with the opposing squire. Over time, squires would meet and resolve disputes during their negotiations. Indeed, any opportunity to resolve a disagreement to avoid death or injury to either party while preserving their honour makes eminent sense. Ploys to create ample time for dialogue might include checking the saddle and bridle of horses for prayer scrolls and enchantments, requiring litigants to exchange gloves (the origin of Late Mediæval ‘throwing down the gauntlet’), and sometimes to go to separate churches to donate five pence (for the five wounds of Christ) to the church.


Wagers of battle were fought in a judicial list, a square measuring 18 m x 18 m (60’ square), where the protagonists might employ a variety of weapons, particularly for knights who had access to swords, maces, axes, polearms and so on. Commoners were more likely to fight with war hammers, cudgels, or quarterstaffs with sharp iron tips. Commoners were also allowed a rectangular leather shield and could wear leather armour, bare to the knees and elbows, covered by a red surcoat of a lightweight silk called ‘sendal’ [6] (cf. the Sachsenspiegel description above). The litigants were to appear in person, yet the hiring of paid champions, while technically illegal, is evident in contemporary accounts. Fights were to begin before noon and be concluded before sunset. During this time either combatant could end the fight and lose his case by crying out the word ‘Craven!’, which came from the Old French word cravanté meaning ‘defeated’. By so doing either party was acknowledging they were beaten. The party who did so, however, whether litigant or champion, was punished with outlawry, once again echoing the hólmganga, and the declaration of niðingr. Fighting continued until one party was dead or disabled, with the victor winning his case. If the accused was defeated but still alive, they were hanged on the spot. If he defeated his accuser, or if he were able to fend off his opponent until sunset, then the defendant would go free.


Modern era It is uncertain when the last actual trial by battle in Britain took place, although the last recorded judicial duel appears to have been fought in Scotland in 1597 when Adam Bruntfield accused James Carmichael of murder and killed him in battle. It is certain that proposals to abolish trial by combat were made both in the 17th century, and twice in the 18th. Such moves were unsuccessful until in February 1819 the British Parliament finally abolished wager of battle. Even so, this simply made judicial duelling illegal, it did not stop gentlemen issuing challenges to settle disputes and fighting one-on-one duels.


Smallswords


Echoing the Viking-era hólmganga, the idea of duelling to ‘first blood’ - cutting your opponent and drawing blood to satisfy honour, continued into the 18th century. By this time, it had become fashionable for gentlemen to routinely carry smallswords both as a status symbol but also to defend themselves. Smallswords are light and reasonably unobtrusive, but wielded by a skilled swordsman they are fast and deadly in a fight.


The smallsword and its method of use had been developed by the French fencing masters in the mid-1600s. Compared to its predecessor the rapier, the blade of this civilian sword was much shorter in length and lighter in weight. The earliest forms of the weapon had diamond cross-section rapier type blades. At the height of its popularity in the 18th century the typical smallsword blade had a hollow-ground triangular cross-section and the weapon was used purely for thrusting as documented in the fighting treatises of the time. While other blade types were also in use, the triangular blade is the one that is most closely associated with the typical smallsword. Hilts consisted of a shell guard, arms of the hilt, quillon block with quillon and knuckle-bow attached, grip and pommel. The small size of the hilt, its parts, and configuration were designed to balance the lighter blades and enhance manoeuvrability. The training tool for this weapon was the foil (‘fleuret’). Its blade was always rectangular with a point terminating in a nail-head shape, but the guard varied in form, ranging from a series of bars resembling a crown to a hollow figure-eight shape, as well as other styles.


As already mentioned, 17th and 18th century duels were usually fought to ‘first blood’ to satisfy the injured party’s honour - cut your opponent to draw blood and everyone could agree to go about their business alive. However, it was not unknown in more heated exchanges for multiple cuts or multiple penetrating stab wounds to be inflicted. Clearly this would make the duel a bloody affair, but it was also highly likely that one of the protagonists might be mortally wounded without first realising it. Moreover, where more than one stab was inflicted, the injured party could succumb simply to blood loss, with fatal results. Given that duelling was illegal, should they die, then the ‘winner’ risked arrest and jail.


Pistols


In the 1760s swords began to give way to pistols. The term ‘duelling pistol’, however, was not used until 1785, some fifteen years later. It seems most likely that the term was a colloquialism and an obvious marketing ploy by gunsmiths. According to Jonathon Ferguson, most of the features attributed to ‘duelling’ pistols are simply functional and largely the same for many other firearms. This makes identifying a particular pistol or pair of cased pistols were intended for duelling fraught with difficulty.


A boxed pair of pistols are, if you will excuse the pun, a case in point. In nearly all movie or TV depictions of duels, a brace of pistols is shown, which the seconds have usually loaded and prepared for the protagonists to each choose one. All of which makes perfect sense, but it does not necessarily mean that the gunsmith had made the pistols purely for the purposes of duelling. While it is true that pistols were indeed fashioned specifically with duelling in mind, it is unlikely that a gentleman of the appropriate means would have bought a brace of pistols, plus accoutrements as shown above, on the off chance they had to fight a duel. That said, there is a logic in buying a matched pair, since two pistols means one had two shots with which to defend yourself. Indeed, an article in ‘The Field’ discussing the duelling pistols made by London gunsmith Robert Wogdon states [7]:


‘Contrary to popular belief, duelling pistols were made as a cased pair, not to provide a weapon for each adversary but rather so each adversary could have a second pistol if a second shot was required. A serious pistol shot would practise with his own pair and would be reluctant to provide one of his pistols to his adversary. Where neither principal owned a pistol, then a pair might be produced to be shared.’


Using an unfamiliar pistol supplied by a third party, however, could have unfortunate consequences. An account of duel in Paris in 1825 between two Irishmen illustrates the danger. One of the protagonists had brought his pair of English Wogdon & Barton pistols, the other had a more-accurate pair of French pistols with rifled barrels and finely set triggers (‘hair-triggers’). Despite the obvious disparity, both men were intent on using their own weapons. Their seconds, however, intervened and decided that only one of the pairs would be used despite one duellist being disadvantaged by handling a pistol he had never fired before. The toss of a coin determined the French pistols would be used. The owner of the English pair, unused to the French pistol's hair-trigger, accidentally fired before he was ready. He then had to stand still while his opponent spent over a minute taking careful aim. Whether by design or not, the latter’s shot missed.


Back-to-back There is something of a myth, encouraged by movie depictions of duels, that the combatants would stand back-to-back with pistols raised, walk ten paces, turn and fire. What is being shown is the ‘French method’ of duelling. In Britain, the preference was for the duellists to stand still at an agreed distance and when given a signal, pistols would be levelled and fired. There is a further type of duel, known as a barrier duel or a duel à volonté (‘at pleasure’) which involved the duellists walking towards each other. As the distance closed, they could fire at will, but if the first to fire missed, he was required to stand still and wait for his opponent's shot. Presumably there was an agreed minimum distance from where that shot had to be taken otherwise one could simply fire at point blank range. While that would pretty much guarantee a kill, pistol duels were really all about satisfying the protagonists’ honour rather than killing.


Accuracy Duels were generally fought at short distances which were paced out between stationary opponents, so extreme accuracy was not deemed necessary. An account [8] of the fatal shooting of one Dr Hennis in a pistol duel in 1833 states the duellists ‘took their ground at fourteen paces distance.’ Where the average male step length (one ‘pace’) is approximately 38 cm or 15 inches, fourteen paces would mean the duellists were separated by just over 5 m (17½ feet).


The short range makes sense when one considers that most English pistols had smooth bores that lacked any rifling [9]. Pistols with rifled barrels had much improved accuracy, but many English duellists considered them unsporting (although if pistols were identical, there was little unfairness). Bearing in mind that for many the aim of duelling was to satisfy honour rather than to kill, less-accurate, smooth-bore weapons may have been preferred as they introduced a greater chance of survival. In continental Europe, however, the use of smooth-bored pistols was considered cowardly, and rifled pistols were the norm. Of course, improved accuracy at the short range most duels took place meant their use substantially increased the chances of a fatality.


Added inaccuracy Until the advent of the cartridge, firearms used measured quantities of loose gunpowder ignited by a burning match (‘matchlock’), a steel wheel rotating against iron pyrite to cause a spark (‘wheellock’), a flint striking a steel to produce a spark (‘flintlock’) or, by the 19th century, a percussion cap struck by a hammer. Possibly less so in the case of the percussion cap, all of the other ignition methods introduce a miniscule delay between pulling the trigger and the flash that sets off the main charge. The induced delay is not long enough for an opponent to dodge the bullet but unless care is taken to control the muzzle in the heat of the moment, the shooter may shift their point of aim just enough to miss their target. While this might hamper accuracy for target shooting (or shooting to kill), it was probably acceptable in a duel where, ironically, it improved the odds of survival.


Aware of the mechanical limitations in the design, gunsmiths such as the aforementioned Robert Wogdon introduced refinements to make pistols more reliable and accurate. Purpose-built duelling pistols had longer and heavier barrels. The former extends the time the chamber pressure has to act on the projectile's mass increasing its exit velocity and its effective range. The added weight helps steady aim and reduce recoil. While earlier guns had cylindrical barrels, later ones tended to be octagonal like the brace of pistols shown right. As one can see in the two examples, pistol barrels typically had a blued or browned finish to reduce glare [10]. Also shown are spurs added to the trigger guards. These began appearing from around 1805 onward for the shooter to rest their middle finger on thereby improving grip and steadying their aim [10]. Other features were ‘saw handles’ as shown in the cased pair of pistols above, platinum-lined touch holes and the previously mentioned hair triggers. All component parts were manufactured, hand-finished and then adjusted with great care and precision making duelling pistols much more costly than standard firearms. The extra care, attention to detail and expense were all justifiable to improve the gun’s reliability. The duellist had to be confident their pistol will fire first time. If it failed to do so, then the rules of the time (the ‘code duello’) said they were not permitted to re-cock the pistol and try shooting again as they had already taken their shot.


Survival Statistically you were more likely to survive a pistol duel since, by the early 1770s, ‘the purpose had shifted from wounding or killing your opponent with a sword to demonstrating that, as a man of honour, you were prepared to risk your life to defend your reputation, or that of your family or your regiment’ [7]. So, satisfaction could be attained by wounding the opponent or simply by showing the courage to turn up and take part in the duel. Survivability was equally improved as it was frowned upon for ‘duelling’ pistols to have sights meaning the shooter had to aim instinctively. For most duellists this increased the risk of a miss but likewise lessened the risk of a killing shot. Moreover, given the changed nature of duelling, if the opponent’s shot misses, the other shooter has a choice whether to take deliberate aim to kill, wound or miss.


The skill or not of the individual shooter, the inherent ‘flaws’ in early gun designs and the likelihood of a miss, all meant pistol duels were, perhaps surprisingly, considered more ‘humane’ than sword duels. Yet that is little comfort for either party if shot. Fortunately attitudes were changing. By the 1770s, the practice of duelling was increasingly condemned by many sections of enlightened society as a relic of a more violent medieval past. Moreover, as Britain began to industrialise, benefitting from urban planning and the introduction of police forces, the culture of street violence in general began to slowly wane. The growing middle class maintained their reputation with recourse to the law bringing charges of libel or defending their honour and resolving conflicts through correspondence in fast-growing print media of the early 19th century.


By 1840, in the early part of Queen Victoria’s reign, duelling had declined dramatically and fights to the death had mostly ceased by the late 19th century. Even in the military, which had actively encouraged officers to fight duels to satisfy personal and regimental honour, began to frown on duelling. By the start of World War I the practice was widely thought of as an anachronism. Duels had been largely fought by officers, but these men were now being trained at government expense in military academies. The reality dawned that officers killing or disabling one another placed a strain on the military’s finite leadership and perhaps most significantly an avoidable financial burden on the state. Duels quickly became a thing of the past. One unintended consequence of duelling’s demise, linking back to its beginnings, saw the end of the dress sword as an indispensable part of a gentleman's wardrobe.

 

Endnotes:


1. 1 Samuel 17:4-6: ‘A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. His height was six cubits and a span.’


2. According to the Hebrew bible, Saul was the first monarch of the United Kingdom of Israel whose reign is traditionally placed in the late 11th century BC.


3. 1 Samuel 17:4-6: ‘He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armour of bronze weighing five thousand shekels; on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels. His shield bearer went ahead of him.’ 


4. Weregild is sometimes referred to as ‘man price’ or ‘blood money’. It was a principle in early Germanic legal codes where a monetary value was established for a person's life that would be paid as a fine or as compensatory damages to the person's family if said person was killed or injured by another. The concept still exists in Islamic law where diya is the financial compensation paid to the victim or heirs of a victim in the cases of murder, bodily harm or property damage by mistake. 


5. The Sachsenspiegel (literally ‘Saxon Mirror’), dated to between AD 1220 and AD 1235, is a record of existing local traditional customary laws and rulings compiled during the Holy Roman Empire. It was used in places until as late as 1900 and some of the legal principles in the book are still reflected in the laws of some European countries today. 


6. A tabby-woven, light-weight silk cloth, but also available in heavier weights. It was the least expensive and most common silk cloth of the Middle Ages, known in Europe since Carolingian times and by the 13th century woven in most of Europe's major silk-weaving centres, especially in Italy. 


7. The Field, (2020), ‘Robert Wogdon: duelling pistols’, Available online (accessed April 12th, 2023). 


8. Cornforth, D., (2005/7), Exeter Memories, ‘The Duel of Doctor Hennis - 1833’, Available online (accessed April 13th, 2023). 


9. Rifling is machining helical grooves into the internal (bore) surface of a gun's barrel to spin a projectile about its longitudinal axis. Gyroscopic forces spin-stabilize the projectile throughout its flight improving accuracy compared to smoothbore designs. Some early English-made pistols had ‘scratch rifling’, a subtle form of rifling difficult to see with the naked eye. 


10. Kinard, J., (2003), ‘Pistols: An Illustrated History of Their Impact’, Santa-Barbara: ABC-CLIO, pp. 29-30. 

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