Pistol Dueling, Its Etiquette and Rules

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

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.”

This meant that great lengths were taken to avoid duels. 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.

Even when a pistol duel 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. The 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.” 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.”

Etiquette and rules for 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,'” 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.”
  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.”
  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,” 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.”
  7. The parties were to salute each other upon meeting “offering this evidence of civilization.”
  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,” 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.”
  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.”
  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 that 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.”


  • Dunster, Edward Swift, etal., International Record of Medicine and General Practice Clinics, Vol. 67, 1898
  • Hamilton, Joseph, The Only Approved Guide Through All the Stages of a Quarrel, 1829
    Macmillian’s Magazine, Vol. 76, 1897

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