A French Balloon Duel

Frenchmen were well-known for defending their honor by dueling. In fact, according to one historian:

“Duels did not always end in death, although too often they did. The practice among the nobility of wearing swords as everyday dress facilitated these kinds of encounters. The slightest pretext was used as an excuse for a duel of honor. The practice became very popular in France … [where] during the reign of Henry IV, more than 4,000 French ‘gentlemen’ lost their lives in an eighteen-year period. During the reign of Louis XIII it is reported that the ordinary conversation in the morning was: ‘Do you know who fought yesterday?’ and after dinner. ‘Do you know who fought this morning?’ In a twenty-year period 8,000 pardons were issued for murders associated with duels.”[1]

So, with all the duels, perhaps, the most bizarre duel that ever occurred between Frenchmen happened in 1808 when Napoleon Bonaparte was Emperor.

A Duel In The Bois De Boulogne, Near Paris, Courtesy of Wikipedia

A duel In the Bois De Boulogne, near Paris. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The duel was not an ordinary one as it was to take place midair with each man firing from his own balloon. However, the reason for the balloon duel was ordinary. It originated over a celebrated opera dancer at the Paris Opera named Mademoiselle Tirevit. She was being kept by Monsieur de Grandpré but became involved with Monsieur le Pique. Both men laid claim to Tirevit’s heart, and it was decided the only way the men could resolve the situation was with a balloon duel. 

To ensure it was fair, the men constructed identical balloons. They also decided to use blunderbusses, and instead of firing at each other, they decided to fire at the balloon themselves. The idea was that the shot would hit the balloon, which in turn would cause the balloon’s gas to escape and bring down the balloon.

French Bluderbuss from the 1760s, Called an Espingole, Courtesy of Wikipedia

French Bluderbuss from the 1760s, called an Espingole. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

On 3 May 1808, the day appointed for the balloon duel, the two duelers entered their respective balloon cars accompanied by their seconds. At nine o’clock in the morning the cords securing the balloons to the ground were cut. The balloons then ascended from the gardens of Tuileries surrounded by a crowd of curious onlookers. At the time, many of the onlookers thought they were observing a balloon race and sent the balloons off with cheers.

As the balloons ascended, the wind was blowing moderately from the northwest. The balloons rose to a height of about a half a mile and were separated at a distance of about eighty yards apart when a predetermined signal was given from below and the duel commenced.

Le Pique fired the first shot and missed. Grandpré then fired. Grandpré’s shot hit its mark and le Pique’s balloon collapsed and descended with “fearful rapidity.” It was a terrible end for both le Pique and his second: When the balloon at last fell, they were “dashed to pieces on a house top.”[2]

Balloon Duel, Public Domain

Balloon duel. Public domain.

The victor, monsieur Grandpré celebrated. He went “aloft in the grandest style,” and some seven leagues from where the balloons ascended, Grandpré and his second landed safely. Defeating le Pique meant Grandpré also won Tirevit’s heart, or at least that is what the two men believed as they thought Tirevit would “bestow her smiles on the survivor.”


  • [1] Roth, Ariel A., The Dishonor of Dueling, 1989.
  • [2] “A Balloon Duel,” in Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, 25 April 1863, p. 2.

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