THE SHARP EDGE OF DUELLINGby Cara King
Duelling is one of the most romanticized aspects of the old gentlemanly code of honor. From its origin in medieval trial by combat, it evolved into a test of personal courage and an enforcer of honorable behavior. A gentleman who insulted another was truly taking his life in his hands.
By the time of the Regency, the duel had long been illegal, though this rarely deterred a gentleman from defending his honor. The law did not distinguish between killing in a duel and murder. In many novels, it is implied that a man who kills another in a duel has no choice but to leave the country if he is to to escape prosecution for murder. In reality, that option was not open to everyone, and many others chose not to exercise it.
Juries were often reluctant to convict duellists; if the duel seemed to have been conducted fairly, the man on trial was usually (though not always) acquitted. Lord Cardigan fought a duel in 1841, for example, and was tried and acquitted in the House of Lords. In 1803, Lieutenant-Colonel Montgomery of the 9th Regiment of Foot and Captain Macnamara of the Royal Navy duelled over an insult to the latter's dog. Captain Macnamara killed Montgomery in a duel held at 7 o'clock in the evening near Primrose Hill. Macnamara was tried for murder, and defended himself by asserting that his behavior was gentlemanly and honorable. He was acquitted, though juries were not always so easy to sway. When Major Alexander Campbell of the 21st Regiment killed Captain Alexander Boyd in a duel in 1808, he was convicted and hanged. He had, however, fought on the same day as the insult, and without seconds, which may have thrown doubt on any courtroom plea that his behavior followed the gentleman's code.
Officers were particularly given to duelling. Indeed, under the Mutiny Act, an officer could be cashiered for not defending his honor. In 1803, a naval lieutenant and an army captain dueled with pistols in Hyde Park at a distance of six paces, which was close enough that the captain's seconds initially protested. Both parties fired at the same time, and the captain shot off two of the lieutenant's fingers on his right hand, his gun hand. The parties refused to reconcile, so the lieutenant switched his gun to his left, shots were again fired, and the wounded lieutenant killed his opponent with a shot to the head. Before dying himself from a shot he took to the chest, he declared that this was the happiest he had ever been.
Through most of history, the duelling weapon of choice was the sword, which a gentleman carried at all times, the better to defend both his person and his honor. In the 18th century, the most commonly used weapon was the small-sword, a shorter and lighter descendant of the Renaissance rapier, designed to be easily carried, and often richly decorated. Broadswords, sabers and spadroons were also used. In the late 18th century, the wearing of swords went out, and the pistol replaced the sword as the chief duelling weapon, though sword duels still occurred.
The pistol was a more democratic weapon than the sword. It could take years to make a good fencer; the basics of handling a pistol could be mastered in a few hours. The pistol rewarded nerve as much as skill: a steady hand was needed to hit a target, not easy when the target was at the same time aiming at you. In the 1836 book "The Art of the Duel" (by "A Traveller"), the proper technique is described: "A person should stand with his right and left shoulder in a line with the object he wishes to hit...let him raise his right arm steadily into a line with the object, bring that part of the arm between the shoulder and elbow close to the side—throw out the muscle strongly, and let it cover the breast as much as possible."
Duelling pistols were usually made in matched pairs. They were designed for accuracy, with long barrels, sights, and hair triggers: the hair trigger required little pressure to pull, thus minimizing the disturbance to the aim. Earlier pistols were flintlocks; later in the Regency, pistols with percussion caps became available, much more reliable in a duel where a misfire counted as a shot. While rifled pistols were also available, they were rarely used in duels; instead, smooth barrels were used, often with a polygonal cross-section.
Strict rules surrounded a duel. According to the most common codes, a challenge should never be given at the time of the insult, or in person; instead, it should be sent by letter the next day, giving hot heads time to cool. All negotiations were carried out through appointed seconds, who agreed on the time and place of the duel; the weapons; the number of shots and the distance between the duellists (if pistols were used), and whether the participants would fire simultaneously or take turns receiving fire. To "stand fire" coolly was the ideal; needless to say, it was often difficult. Some duellists were more afraid of disgracing themselves than of dying.
The primary duty of the seconds was to achieve a reconciliation without the need to fight. Most duels never took place; instead, one or the other party apologized, with honor satisfied. Some seconds, however, seemed positively bloodthirsty in their desire to see their principals in the greatest possible danger. Sir Lucius O'Trigger, in Sheridan's "The Rivals," is a caricature of this sort of second. Some insults also could not be apologized for. A physical blow was unforgivable. Some codes allowed the offending party to apologize and offer his opponent a cane to beat him with; but it is doubtful that many would submit to so humiliating a procedure, however at fault they might be. Next to a blow, the most serious insult was "giving the lie." A gentleman's word was considered sacrosanct; to question it was to deny his honor. Duels were only between gentlemen. To accept a challenge from an inferior could be as disgraceful as refusing one from an equal.
Different levels of offense required different numbers of shots, and different levels of apology. In his memoirs, Sir Jonah Barrington quotes from one Irish duelling code. An ordinary insult could be satisfied by either an apology (admitting wrong) or a single exchange of shots followed by an explanation (not admitting wrong). The lie direct required the aggressor to beg pardon in express terms; or an ordinary apology after two shots; or an explanation after three. Of course, the more shots, the more likely a hit. Sometimes seconds could not agree on terms, and fought a duel of their own; such duels were fought simultaneously with the duel of the principals, the two pairs standing at right angles to each other like the arms of a cross.
In fiction it is common to see a participant in a duel "delope:" deliberately firing wide or into the air. This is presented as a particularly noble act; but the duelling codes of the times roundly condemned the practice. Rather than deloping, the party should have apologized (if he was the one challenged) or not have offered the challenge in the first place, either way avoiding the duel. In theory, an honorable apology was always considered better than a duel, though there were always those who were eager to fight and impatient with apologies. The Irish in particular had this reputation; it was sometimes said that an Irish officer left more vacancies in his regiment's mess than the enemy did.
Women duellists were rare, but not totally unknown, both with the sword and the pistol. A number of women in history have fought with men and come out victorious; and a few duels between two women are also recorded, such as that between Lady Almeria Braddock and Mrs. Elphinstone, who fought with both pistols and swords in 1792. Needless to say, such behavior was quite scandalous. In the accepted codes of the time, a woman could not defend her own honor, but must rely on her husband or a male relative to do so. Even if a woman were willing to fight, few gentlemen would agree to meet her.
Duelling did not survive in England much beyond the Regency. Public opinion turned increasingly against the practice, making it more likely for duellists to be convicted of assault or murder; and the seconds and other participants might be tried as well, as accessories. By the late nineteenth century duels were a thing of the past. Richard Burton, the explorer, lamented their demise as bringing a less gallant, ruder age: "Our England has abolished the duello without substituting aught better for it: she has stopped the effect and left the cause."
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Last updated 26 July 2005.
All text and images copyright 2005 by Cara King