Dueling History: An Affair of Honor

This is a story about two men on opposite sides of the coin. One, living in the past where honor and loyalty were everything, one living in his future with all its possibilities-except for death. Two worlds meet when they are forced to fight each other and ultimately must decide what their fate will be.𝔫

The “rules of dueling” are a set of rules that govern the conduct and behavior in a duel. The terms of the duel have been agreed upon by both parties involved before it begins.

Victorian men shooting each other illustration.

Chris Hutcheson and Brett McKay collaborated on this post as co-authors.

In today’s world, asking a guy to walk outside to solve an issue is often seen as immature and low-class behavior.

But, for many centuries, challenging another man to a duel was not only a mark of honor, but also a privilege reserved for the top crust, those judged genuine gentlemen by society.

“A guy has the same right to kill a man who intrudes on his character as he has to shoot a man who tries to break into his home.” Samuel Johnson (Samuel Johnson)

While dueling may seem brutal to contemporary men, it was a rite that made sense in a culture where male honor was prized above all else. The most important component of a man’s identity was his honor, which had to be preserved at all costs. Duels, which might draw hundreds of spectators, were a method for men to publicly demonstrate their bravery and manliness. In such a society, the courts could not provide true justice to a gentleman; the problem had to be settled via the loss of blood.

How did this heinous method of proving one’s masculinity come to be? Let us examine the history of the honorable affair and the code duello that regulated it.

Single Combat Origins

Each side would send out their “champion” as a representation of their respective armies, and the two men would fight to the death in the old practice of single combat. This combat would either resolve the dispute or serve just as a warm-up for the coming battle, indicating which side the gods preferred. The fight between David and Goliath in the Valley of Elah and Achilles’ struggles with both Ajax and Hector in Homer’s Iliad are two notable single combat engagements that have found their way into history and folklore. Single combat became less common as warfare progressed, but the spirit of the competition would inspire the gentlemen’s duel.

Girl seeing men with holding guns illustration.

Europe’s Dueling

“A coward, unable of either defending or retaliating, desires one of the most basic aspects of a man’s character.” The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith

Dueling started in ancient Europe as “trial by fight,” a kind of “justice” in which two disputants fought it out, with the loser being presumed guilty. These games evolved from judicial to spectator sports in the Middle Ages, with gallant knights facing off in tournaments for bragging rights and honor.

But it wasn’t until two kings got involved that dueling became really popular. Frances I challenged Charles V to a fight when the pact between France and Spain fell apart in 1526. Their willingness to fight toe to toe evaporated after a lot of back and forth haggling over the duel’s preparations. However, the kings were successful in making dueling popular across Europe. It was notably popular in France, where it is estimated that 10,000 Frenchmen perished during Henry IV’s ten-year reign. The monarch issued an order prohibiting the practice and instructing nobility to take their disputes to an honor tribunal for resolution. Despite this, dueling continued to be practiced, with 4,000 aristocrats dying as a result of it during Louis XIV’s reign.


Dueling in the United States

“Dueling is awful, and it’s been outlawed, but it’s nothing compared to the alternatives: revolvers, bowie knives, blackguarding, and street killings disguised as self-defense.” -Colonel Benton &

Dueling arrived on American beaches with the earliest inhabitants. In 1621, near Plymouth Rock, the first American duel took place.

In the South, dueling was significantly more important and prevalent than in the North. The duel was a method for gentlemen to show their status and honor in antebellum society, and it was a way for them to do so.

Lawyers and politicians fought the bulk of Southern duels. The legal profession was (and still is) fully saturated, with fierce rivalry for jobs and cases. In this dog-eat-dog world, jockeying for status and keeping a good reputation were crucial. To preserve face and one’s standing on the ladder to respect and success, any perceived slight or insult had to be responded to quickly and forcefully.

While we prefer to romanticize the past and depict present politics as uncivil, politicians of the time threw guns as well as dirt. Legislators, judges, and governors used the duel to resolve their conflicts, and political hopefuls discussed their views on the “field of honor.” Political showmanship at the time was scheduling a duel soon before an election and publicizing the outcome.

Violence and Dueling

Men seeing a death man lying on snow ground .

“The Earl’s ideals are Christian, but until society adopts some manner of frowning down the slanderer, who is worse than a murderer, all efforts to put down dueling would be in futile.” Andrew Jackson is a well-known actor who has been in a number of films.

Despite putting on a brave front, no gentleman enjoyed the prospect of having to fight a duel and risk both killing and being murdered (well, maybe Andrew “I fought at least 14 duels” Jackson). As a result, duels were often meant to be first-blood battles rather than contests to the death. A fight fought with swords might finish merely because one man scraped the other’s arm. In pistol duels, a single round was often fired, and providing both men lived unharmed, satisfaction was thought to have been gained via their mutual willingness to risk death. Men would occasionally aim for their opponent’s leg or even intentionally miss, all for the sake of honor. Only approximately a quarter of duels resulted in a death.

Duels based on more serious insults to a man’s honor, on the other hand, were often designated to go beyond first blood. Some were carried out with the idea that pleasure would not come until one of the men was rendered unconscious, while the most heinous of insults needed a fatal stroke.

To us, duels seem to be a senseless barbaric method to resolve disagreements; the chances of one or both men being injured or killed in a duel were around 100 percent. To add insult to injury, it’s possible that the innocent person was killed.

Even at the time, many detractors said that dueling was excessively violent, and that it went against morals, religion, common sense, and even the notion of honor itself. However, some people claimed that dueling really averted violence.


The concept was that solitary fighting fighters, like the Hatfields and McCoys, might prevent perpetual bloodshed between clans and families. These prospective feuds were nipped in the bud by the duels, which provided rapid restitution for insults and pleasure to both sides.

The practice was also supposed to improve society’s civility. Gentlemen were cautious not to offend or slight others in order to avoid being challenged to a duel. The dignified clothes, bowing, toasting, and flowery language associated with this historical period were intended to indicate noble intentions and avoid offending others. Jealousy and anger had to be suppressed and politeness had to be used to cover them up.

The author of The Art of Duelling, published in 1836, describes the pro-dueling viewpoint of the period with remarks that strike the contemporary ear as remarkable:

“Although all religious and thinking people condemn the practice, it has been rightly observed that “the great gentleness and complacency of modern manners, and those respectful attentions of one man to another, that at present render the social discourses of life far more agreeable and decent than among the most civilized nations of antiquity; must be ascribed, in some degree, to this absurd custom.” It is obviously upsetting and depressing to see a young person’s life cut short in a duel, especially if he is the father of a family; but, the loss of a few lives pales in comparison to the advantages to society as a whole.

Adopting any steps that would enforce the ban of dueling would be quite imprudent in the members of government, in my opinion… The guy who is slain in a duel and the one who is killed by a stage-coach accident are both unhappy victims of a practice from which we profit much. It would be insane to outlaw stage-traveling because an overturn does sometimes result in the loss of a few lives.”

Contrary to Popular Opinion, There Are Two Necessities

Vintage pair of pistols placed in box.

The gentleman’s duel’s components were often fairly diverse. The challenged side was frequently offered a variety of weapons to choose from, with the choices seemingly unlimited. Everything from sabers to billiard balls has been used in duels. A fight was once conducted above the skies of Paris, with the combatants attempting to burst one other’s hot air balloons with blunderbusses. The winner triumphed, sending the other guy and his buddy tumbling to their deaths, while the loser floated away triumphantly.

Swords were the preferred weapon until the 18th century, when pistols made dueling more democratic (fencing required skill—a man may challenge another to a duel, spend a year mastering swordsmanship, and then return to fight the duel). However, almost anybody could pull the trigger). As the practice of employing weapons became more popular, arms manufacturers started to produce sets of pistols designed expressly for dueling. The concept underlying this approach was straightforward. If two men were to fight in a duel, their “equipment” had to be as identical as possible to prevent one man from having an unfair edge over the other. As a result, by the late 18th century, fine weapons producers all around Europe were producing dueling pistol sets. Dueling pistols were often smooth bore handguns that fired big bullets. Calibers of.45,.50, and even.65 (caliber = inch of diameter) were widely used. The pistols were built to exacting standards and tested to ensure that their performance and look were as similar as feasible. Dueling pistols were a valued item, handed down from father to son as a heritage.


The Dueling Code: Code Duello

Men fighting with swords illustration.

“A duel was seen as an important element of a young man’s education… When men had a burning desire to succeed in all sorts of feats and exercises, they naturally believed that murder, done in an honest manner (i.e., without knowing which animal would be slain), was the most chivalrous and gentlemanly of all their achievements. No young man could complete his schooling without exchanging gunfire with some of his peers. ‘What family is he from?’ were the first two questions asked about a young man’s respectability and credentials, especially when he offered for a lady bride. ‘Did he ever blaze?” you may wonder. Duelist from Ireland in the nineteenth century

As weaponry and ideals of honor changed throughout the years, so did the dueling code. In the 17th and 18th centuries, books like Joseph Hamilton’s The Dueling Handbook and John Lyde Wilson’s The Code of Honor detailed proper dueling etiquette. While the dueling code changed according on the historical period and place, certain parts remained consistent.

Despite our idealized perception of duels as being fought exclusively over the most serious of disagreements, duels might occur over the most little of concerns, such as telling another man he smelled like a goat or spilling ink on a gentleman’s new waistcoat. However, these were not spontaneous events in which an insult was delivered and the participants immediately marched outside to fight (in fact, striking another gentleman made you a social pariah). To be respectable, a duel had to be performed quietly and coolly, and the preparations may take weeks or months: a letter seeking an apology would be written, other letters would be exchanged, and if a peaceful conclusion could not be achieved, duel preparations would begin.

The first rule of dueling was that a challenge to duel between two gentlemen could not be turned down without losing face and honor. If a gentleman challenged a guy to a duel and he declined, he may publish a notice in the newspaper calling the individual a poltroon for declining to settle the quarrel.

If challenged by a man he did not consider a genuine gentleman, however, one may honorably decline a duel. The challenger was treated with the worst contempt by this denial.

The presence of a “second” for both sides was the most usual feature of a duel between gentlemen. The seconds were gentlemen selected by the main players, whose task it was to make that the duel took place under honorable circumstances, on a respectable field of honor, and with equally lethal weapons. More crucially, it was the seconds (typically close friends of the people involved) who worked to find a peaceful solution to the problem in order to avoid bloodshed.

Before the dispute could be decided, various matters had to be handled once the duel challenge was issued. The challenger would first provide his opponent a choice of weapons and fighting circumstances, as well as a time limit for the contest. Dueling remained legally illegal in most states, though it was seldom punished, thus seconds were in charge of finding a suitable dueling venue, generally in a secluded location away from spectators and law enforcement. On sandbars in rivers, where the legal authority at the time was foggy at best, duels were occasionally fought.


Honor was not just bestowed to those who showed up for the duel; appropriate composure and bravery in the face of danger were also essential to maintain one’s reputation. Fear was not to be shown by a gentleman. His opponent’s second had the right to shoot him on the spot if he stepped off the mark.

The Dueling Age Has Come to an End

Many contemporary men think that dueling was a rare occurrence in history, that it was only used as a last choice in critical situations or by two highly enraged men. Indeed, tens of thousands of duels were occurred from America to Italy, and the practice was quite popular among the higher classes.

However, dueling’s popularity faded by the end of the nineteenth century, lasting longer in Europe than in America. Anti-dueling rules were tightened, and they were occasionally implemented.

On one continent, the violence of the Civil War and on the other, the Great War, diminished enthusiasm for the duel. Despite our present romanticization of dueling, it was a practice that took the lives of young men in their prime. After losing millions of their young youth in combat, it became unappealing to kill those who remained.

In addition, following the Civil War, Southern civilization underwent significant changes. The aristocracy was devastated; they had less time and interest to duel since they were preoccupied with Reconstruction and rebuilding. A man’s social standing and status became less about his family, reputation, and, most importantly, honor, and more on money. Disputes were settled in the courts rather than on the field of honor, with “pale dry money instead of wet crimson blood” providing vindication.

Part two of this series may be found here: Part II of Man Knowledge: Dueling – Famous Duel in American History

Additional Reading and Resources

Barbara Holland’s Gentlemen’s Blood This is a lovely novel. Covers a serious subject in an oddly light and hilarious manner that works, and is full of very fascinating anecdotes and ideas. (This book is where the final quotation comes from.)

The Traveller’s The Art of Duelling A clear, up-to-date guide on the ins and outs of dueling. Reading the author’s instructions and guidance for individuals about to engage in a duel provides a fascinating glimpse into the period.

The Rules of Dueling are outlined in the Code Duello. Take a look at the intricate regulations that regulated the duel.




The “how to challenge someone to a duel” is a difficult task. It requires both parties consent and proper etiquette, but it can be done.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an affair of honor duel?

A: An affair of honor is a duel fought to settle a point of honor.

How many times was Hamilton involved in affairs of honor before the duel with Burr?

A: Hamilton is only involved in affairs of honor once, during the duel with Burr.

Did duels really happen in England?

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