Irish Code Duello or the Irish Dueling Code

Firearm duels became popular in the eighteenth century and even more so after the adoption of what became known as the Irish Code Duello. The Irish dueling code was a set of rules adopted at the Clonmel Summer Assizes in 1777 by gentlemen from the counties of Tipperary, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Roscommon. These rules were deemed so important it was said that ignorance of the rules could not be pleaded and all gentlemen needed to “keep a copy always in their pistol-cases.”

Irish code duello

Example of a firearm duel of the 1700s. Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library.

The Irish Code Duello consisted of 25 rules. Here they are in their entirety:

  • Rule 1. The first offence requires the first apology, though the retort may have been more offensive than the insult. Example: A tells B he is impertinent, etc.; B retorts that he lies—yet, A must make the first apology, because he gave the first offence; and then (after one fire) B may explain away the retort by subsequent apology.
  • Rule 2. But if the parties would rather fight on, then, after two shots each (but in no case before), B may explain first, and A apologize afterwards. Note: The above rules apply to all cases of offences in retort, not of a stronger class than the example.
  • Rule 3. If a doubt exist who gave the first offence, the decision rests with the seconds; if they won’t decide, or can’t agree, the matter must proceed to two shots, or to a hit, if the challenger require it.
  • Rule 4. When the lie direct is the first offence, the aggressor must either beg pardon in express terms, ex change two shots previous to apology, or three shots, followed by explanation; or fire on until a severe hit be received by one party or the other.
  • Rule 5. As a blow is strictly prohibited under any circumstances amongst gentlemen, no verbal apology can be received for such an insult; the alternatives therefore are—the offender handing a cane to the injured party, to be used on his own back, at the same time begging pardon ; firing on until one, or both, is disabled; or exchanging three shots, and then asking pardon, without the proffer of the cane. If swords are used, the parties engage till one is well blooded, disabled, or disarmed ; or until, after receiving a wound, and blood being drawn, the aggressor begs pardon. Note: A disarm is considered the same as a disable; the disarmer may (strictly) break his adversary’s sword; but if it be the challenger who is disarmed, it is considered ungenerous to do so. In case the challenged be disarmed, and refuses to ask pardon, or atone, he must not be killed, as formerly, but the challenger may lay his own sword on the aggressor’s shoulder, then break the aggressor’s sword, and say, “I spare your life!” The challenged can never revive that quarrel—the challenger may. 
  • Rule 6. If A gives B the lie, and B retorts by a blow (being the two greatest offences), no reconciliation can take place, till after two discharges each, or a severe hit, after which B may beg A’s pardon humbly for the blow, and then A may explain simply for the lie; because a blow is never allowable, and the offence of the lie, therefore, merges in it. (See preceding rule.) Note: Challenges for undivulged causes may be reconciled on the ground, after one shot. An explanation, or the slightest hit, should be sufficient in such cases, because no personal offence transpired.
  • Rule 7. But no apology can be received in any case after the parties have actually taken their ground, without ex change of fires.
  • Rule 8. In the above case, no challenger is obliged to divulge his cause of challenge (if private), unless required by the challenged so to do before their meeting. 
  • Rule 9. All imputations of cheating at play, races, etc., to be considered equivalent to a blow, but may be reconciled after one shot, on admitting their falsehood, and begging pardon publicly. 
  • Rule 10. Any insult to a lady under a gentleman’s care or protection, to be considered as, by one degree, a greater offence than if given to the gentleman personally, and to be regulated accordingly. 
  • Rule 11. Offences originating or accruing from the sup port of ladies’ reputation, to be considered as less unjustifiable than any others of the same class, and as admitting of slighter apologies by the aggressor, this to be determined by the circumstances of the case, but always favorably to the lady. 
  • Rule 12. In simple unpremeditated rencontres with the small sword, or couteau-de-chasse, the rule is—first draw, first sheathe; unless blood be drawn ; then both sheathe and proceed to investigation. 
  • Rule 13. No dumb shooting or firing in the air admissible in any case. The challenger ought not to have challenged without receiving offence; and the challenged ought, if he gave offence, to have made an apology before he came on the ground ; therefore, children’s play must be dishonorable on one side or the other, and is accordingly prohibited. 
  • Rule 14. Seconds to be of equal rank in society with the principals they attend, inasmuch as a second may either choose or chance to become a principal, and equality is indispensable. 
  • Rule 15. Challenges are never to be delivered at night, unless the party to be challenged intend leaving the place of offence before morning; for it is desirable to avoid all hot-headed proceedings. 
  • Rule 16. The challenged has the right to choose his own weapon, unless the challenger gives his honor he is no swordsman; after which, however, he cannot decline any second species of weapon proposed by the challenger. 
  • Rule 17. The challenged chooses his ground; the challenger chooses his distance; the seconds fix the time and terms of firing.
  • Rule 18. The seconds load in presence of each other, unless they give their mutual honors they have charged smooth and single, which should be held sufficient. 
  • Rule 19. Firing may be regulated—first, by signal ; secondly, by word of command; or, thirdly, at pleasure—as may be agreeable to the parties. In the latter case the parties may fire at their reasonable leisure, but second presents and rests are strictly prohibited. 
  • Rule 20. In all cases, a miss-fire is equivalent to a shot, and a snap or a non-cock is to be considered as a miss-fire. 
  • Rule 21. Seconds are bound to attempt a reconciliation before the meeting takes place, or after sufficient firing or hits, as specified. 
  • Rule 22. Any wound sufficient to agitate the nerves, and necessarily make the hand shake, must end the business for that day. 
  • Rule 23. If the cause of meeting be of such a nature that no apology or explanation can or will be received, the challenged takes his ground, and calls on the challenger to proceed as he chooses ; in such cases, firing at pleasure is the usual practice, but may be varied by agreement. 
  • Rule 24. In slight cases the second hands his principal but one pistol; but in gross cases two, holding another case ready charged in reserve. 
  • Rule 25. Where seconds disagree and resolve to exchange shots themselves, it must be at the same time, and at right angles with their principals…If with swords, side by side, with five paces interval. Note: All matters and doubts not herein mentioned, will be explained and cleared up by application to the committee, who meet alternately at Clonmell and Galway, at the Quarter Sessions, for that purpose. 

There were also two additional Galway Articles for the Irish Code Duello. They were:

  • Rule 1. No party can be allowed to bend his knee or cover his side with his left hand; but may present at any level from the hip to the eye.
  • Rule 2. None can either advance or retreat, if the ground be measured; if no ground be measured, either party may advance at his pleasure, even to touch muzzles; but neither can advance on his adversary after the fire, unless the adversary steps forward on him. Note: The seconds on both sides stand responsible for this last rule being strictly observed; bad cases having accrued from neglecting of it.

Despite these rules supposedly being adopted in 1777, an independent researcher by the name of Dianne L. Durante notes that the first time these rules were published was in 1827 in Personal Sketches of His Own Times by Sir Jonah Barrington.

If you are interested in reading about some duels, here is a duel between Chevalier de Morande and Reverend Henry Bate-Dudley, the last fatal duel in England, and probably the most unusual duel ever, a French balloon duel.


  • Hooper, George W. and John Lyde Wilson, Down the River, 1874.

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