Pistol Dueling, Its Etiquette and Rules

Duels of the seventeenth and eighteenth century were conducted primarily with swords, although by the late eighteenth century they were fought with pistols. Fortunately, pistol dueling fell out of fashion by the mid-nineteenth century. However, prior to its demise a “Royal Code of Honor” existed and was adhered to by dueling Principals and Seconds. The code stated, “No duel can be considered justifiable, which can be declined with honor, therefore, an appeal to arms should always be the last resource.”[1]

Portrayal of Fictional Pistol Duel Between Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky, Written By Alexander Pushkin, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Portrayal of fictional pistol duel between Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

This meant that great lengths were taken to avoid pistol dueling. For instance, if a gentleman experienced violence or abusive treatment, he was to seek redress for the abuse or assault through the Courts of Law. Or if a the challenged party refused to provide satisfaction, then a notification in a public journal was to be considered more “creditable” than personal violence. Additionally, every apology proposed was to be dignified and every attempt made to avoid further or unnecessary degradation of an adversary was to occur.

Almost anyone could be a dueler. For instance, America’s Vice President Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, the former Secretary of the Treasury, dueled at Weehawken, New Jersey, on 11 July 1804 and Burr shot and killed Hamilton. There was also a famous Regency duel at Chalk Farm between John Scott, the editor of The London Magazine and Jonathan Henry Christie, lawyer, literary dilettante, and son-in-law of Sir Walter Scott. Although Napoleon Bonaparte didn’t duel, he supposedly owned dueling pistols, which were said to be discovered in his abandoned traveling carriage at Waterloo.

Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton duel. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When a pistol dueling was undertaken, it was expected that after each discharge of the pistols there would be attempts to resolve the issue. However, when a duel did occur, duelers were expected to behavior appropriately and duelers were to use the utmost delicacy and politeness at every stage because as one author noted, “the first essential of a duel is a perfect correctness of behaviour.”[2] Rules for pistol dueling were so important, the Royal Code of Honor noted that “should any individual attempt to deviate from [the] rules … his adversary will be justified in refusing to recognize him as a gentleman.”[3]

Etiquette and rules for pistol dueling included the following:

  1. No duels were to be fought on Sunday, on a day of a Festival, or near a place of public worship.
  2. A gentleman, who valued his own reputation, would not fight a duel with, nor act as a Second to, a person who aggravated and increased discord or violence by striking someone with his fist, a stick, or a glove or called the person a liar, coward, or any other irritating name.
  3. The Second was to be “a ‘man who [was] not passion’s slave,'”[4] and no gentleman was to accept the position of a Second, “without first receiving from his friend, a written statement of the case upon his honor.”[5]
  4. When “bosom friends, fathers of large, or unprovided families, or very inexperienced youths … [were] to fight, the Seconds [were to] … be doubly justified in their solicitude for reconciliation.”[6]
  5. A Principal was not to “wear light coloured clothing, ruffles, military decorations, or any other … attractive object, upon which the eye of his antagonist [could] … rest,”[7] as it could affect the outcome of the duel.
  6. The time and place were to be as convenient as possible to surgical assistance and to the combatants. The Royal Code of Honor noted that “special precaution should invariable be used, to prevent … carrying wounded gentlemen over walls, ditches, gates, stiles, or hedges; or too great a distance to a dwelling.”[8]
  7. The parties were to salute each other upon meeting “offering this evidence of civilization.”[9]
  8. As there were always unexpected advantages — the terrain or light — advantages were to be “decided by the toss of three, five, or seven coins … carefully shaken in a hat,”[10] and the challenged party was entitled to the first toss, the challenger to the second, and so on until the advantages were decided.
  9. No gentleman was allowed to wear spectacles unless they used them on public streets.
  10. There was to be at least 10 yards distance between the combatants.
  11.  The Seconds were to present pistols to Principals and the pistols were not to be cocked before delivery.
  12. The combatants were to present and fire together without resting on their aim at the agreed upon signal.
  13. After each discharge the Seconds were to “mutually and zealously attempt a reconciliation.”[11]
  14. Each combatant would fire one shot and if neither was hit but the challenger satisfied, the duel was declared over. However, if the challenger was unsatisfied, the duel continued. But no more than three exchanges of fire were allowed, as to exchange more shots was considered barbaric.
  15. The offended party determined what conclusion was acceptable and there were three possible outcomes: 1) first blood (the duel ended when one combatant was wounded); 2) the duel continued until one combatant was physically unable to proceed; or 3) death, a combatant was fatally wounded.
  16. Neither the Principal nor the Second were to abandon an injured gentlemen “without … securing for him a proper conveyance from the field.”[12]
  17. After the duel was over, the Seconds were to remind friends and relatives of the combatants, that the slightest indiscretion could renew the breach and Principals were also to abstain from conversation upon the subject so as not to reopen closed wounds.

One nineteenth century article concluded:

“[Dueling] is not only a useful method of resenting an injury, it is an admirable school of manners as well. Its effect upon the seconds is no less beneficial than its effect upon the combatants. While these require courage and address, those are lost without vigilance and tact; and the law which blinks at the illegal duel so long as it is fought in strict accord … would instantly punish an accident.”[13]


  • [1] Hamilton, Joseph, The Only Approved Guide Through All the Stages of a Quarrel, 1829, p. 1.
  • [2] Macmillan’s Magazine, Volume 76, 1897, p. 383.
  • [3] Hamilton, Joseph, p. 12. 
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 15.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 15-16.
  • [10] Ibid. p. 16.
  • [11] Ibid. p. 21.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 22.
  • [13] Macmillan’s Magazine, p. 383.

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  1. 2171652 on April 28, 2022 at 11:43 am

    This was helpful! Thanks

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