How Duels Work

Dueling represents the masculine instinct to compete. See more pictures of guns.
Dueling represents the masculine instinct to compete. See more pictures of guns.
Photo courtesy JRTC and Fort Polk

"Pistols at dawn!" The challenge is issued. To turn it down would leave you marked as a coward for life. You meet at the chosen spot, facing your opponent at a distance of 20 paces. Your dueling pistols are loaded. One or both of you could be severely wounded or killed today. Doctors are standing by to mend the damage if possible, while your friends eye each other warily. Why is all this happening?

Because you made fun of his hat.


Dueling, a one-on-one showdown typically with swords or guns, was a major part of many societies, shaping the lives (and deaths) of tens of thousands of rich nobles, crusading knights, prominent politicians and dusty Wild West cowboys. But for all its importance, dueling also represents the masculine instinct to compete and defeat others driven to an absurd extreme -- men willing to kill or die for the most inconsequential reasons, all at the drop of a glove.

In this article, we'll learn the rules of dueling, examine the reasons people dueled and see how dueling hasn't really disappeared at all -- it has merely evolved into other forms of combat.

Dueling Basics

A duel is a fight, but it is a very controlled sort of fight. In a duel, two men face each other on equal terms (only on very rare occasions did women duel). Duels follow an agreed upon set of rules, begin at a specified time and are held at a specific place. The word itself comes from the Latin term duellum, a contraction of duo (two) and bellum (war).

Usually, duels didn't happen spontaneously. One man would issue a challenge to another, who would often respond by directing further matters to his second. A second was a friend who came along to help prepare your weapons, make sure the other duelist wasn't going to ambush you and make sure the rules of the duel were being followed. Seconds were also supposed to try to defuse the situation that led to the duel by getting an apology from one party or another. In truth, seconds often ended up fighting each other alongside the main duelists. Sometimes there were thirds and fourths along for the fight as well. In any event, after one man issued a challenge, the seconds would arrange all the details. The process could take days.


When a duel was declared, any weapon could be used, with either the challenger or his opponent given the choice depending on which set of dueling rules was in use. The dueling code of 1777 (which we'll discuss in more detail in the next section) provided that:

The challenged has the right to choose his own weapon, unless the challenger gives his honor he is no swordsman; after which, however, he can decline any second species of weapon proposed by the challenged.

For many centuries, the choice was limited to various types of swords. Later, when guns were used in duels, certain sets of rules indicated that only smooth-bore barrels were acceptable, as opposed to rifled barrels that cause the bullet to spin and give it greater accuracy and range (Holland, pg. 84). Many of the rules of dueling seem designed to prevent death and injury, or at least to reduce the likelihood thereof. For example, duelists were sometimes required to face away from each other, only turning to fire when the proper signal was given. This didn't give them enough time to properly aim their weapons.

The loser of a duel was ultimately at the mercy of the winner, who could choose to spare his opponent's life or slaughter him. Dueling etiquette also gave the winner the right to desecrate the body of his rival in any way he chose. This often took the form of decapitation and the posting of the head in a public place.

Dueling Rules

In 1777, a committee of Irishmen drew up the dueling code that would come to be used widely throughout Europe and America. The 1777 Irish code was called the Code Duello, and you can read the complete set of rules at Code Duello. This code was so popular that people worldwide came to see it as the "official" rules of dueling. In fact, the U.S. Navy included the text of the Code Duello in the midshipman's handbook up until dueling by naval officers was finally banned in 1862 (Holland, pg. 142).

Highlights of the rules include the steps of an apology, might call off the duel; proper dueling etiquette in terms of dignified behavior; the role of seconds; and what constitutes the end of a duel.



An apology on the part of the challenged could avert a bloody duel if delivered properly. Keep in mind that most duels were carried out when one man offended another's honor. As such, the proper apology would logically help solve the problem, even once the duel had already begun. The Code Duello dictates a complex method of deciding who should apologize first:

Rule 1. The first offense 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 offense, and then (after one fire) B may explain away the retort by a subsequent apology.

The rules also dictate when an apology can be accepted, thus preventing the duel, and when no verbal apology will be sufficient:

Rule 5: As a blow is strictly prohibited under any circumstances among gentlemen, no verbal apology can be received for such an insult. The alternatives, therefore -- 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 are disabled; or exchanging three shots, and then asking pardon without proffer of the cane ...

Dueling Etiquette

A duel is not a brawl. It is a controlled battle between gentlemen of honor. As such, a certain level of dignity was expected of all participants. Rule 13 is one that describes dignified dueling behavior. It is also one that was frequently broken, since many duelists did not really want to die, kill or maim. They only wanted to defend their honor. Rule 13 states:

No dumb shooting or firing in the air is admissible in any case. The challenger ought not to have challenged without receiving offense; and the challenged ought, if he gave offense, 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.

Since the holding of the duel itself would usually be enough to satisfy honor, duelists might use dummy bullets, or declare ahead of time that they would fire their weapon into the air or at a non-vital area of their opponent's body. The Code Duello frowned on this.

The Code also encourages duelists to sleep on their wounded pride and then duel with a calm demeanor the next day: Rule 15 states:

Challenges are never to be delivered at night, unless the party to be challenged intend leaving the place of offense before morning; for it is desirable to avoid all hot-headed proceedings.


The role of the seconds is spelled out in several rules. (Note Rule 18's reference to smooth-bored guns as opposed to rifled weapons.)

  • 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 21. Seconds are bound to attempt a reconciliation before the meeting takes place, or after sufficient firing or hits, as specified.

The Code Duello acknowledges that the seconds might get involved in the fight themselves, as mentioned in the previous section. The Code is highly specific as to how this involvement might occur:

  • 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.

When a Duel is Over

Dueling "to the death" is not considered desirable in the Code Duello, although this may have been the ultimate end to many duels. Remember: Dueling is about recovering honor, not about killing. Rule 5 states:

... If swords are used, the parties engage until one is well blooded, disabled, or disarmed; or until, after receiving a wound, and blood being drawn, the aggressor begs pardon.

Rule 22 addresses the issue as well:

Any wound sufficient to agitate the nerves and necessarily make the hand shake, must end the business for that day.

Perhaps one of the most important rules of dueling does not involve the mechanics of the duel itself, but rather who is allowed to duel. In medieval Europe, dueling was the sport of noble-born men. Although commoners did fight and certainly did face each other in contests that could be called duels, an actual, honor-bound duel had to be conducted between two men of noble rank. One reason for this was economic -- swords are expensive weapons, and not every peasant had one. But it was also a means of distinguishing the upper and lower classes. Many countries had laws forbidding commoners to fight amongst themselves, while dukes, princes and even kings were expected to duel each other.

What reason did nobles have for constantly fighting each other to the death? Read the next section to find out.

Dueling Nobles

Dueling presentation at the 16th Century English village at the Ohio Renaissance Festival
Dueling presentation at the 16th Century English village at the Ohio Renaissance Festival
Photo courtesy Morguefile

Dueling is very much entwined with honor. However, the concept of honor in centuries past is very different from what most people think of as honor today. For one thing, the socially accepted concept of honor had very little to do with being a "good" person. It was tied directly to nobility -- if your family was rich and had the favor of the king, as well as a noble title of some kind (Duke, Prince, Earl, etc.), then you had honor.

If you were a noble, you had to constantly protect your honor against various challenges to it -- and not just your own honor, but your entire family's honor, for several generations forward and back. There were several ways to lose honor, but the most common and most important was to be considered a coward. The best way to avoid being considered a coward was to challenge anyone who insulted you to a duel and to accept any dueling challenges offered to you. To refuse would mean that your opponent could publish an account of your cowardice, report it in church or simply spread the word to all his friends.


This loss of honor was not a completely abstract concept. Under some kings, failure to uphold a dueling challenge could result in a loss of noble ranking. Some countries even had laws that punished "cowards" with excommunication from the church, the loss of voting rights or outright imprisonment (Holland, pg. 31). To these men, it was better to die respectably in a duel over an insult than to live on without honor.

One aspect of being noble is that you were not allowed to work or to buy or sell anything (this would result in a loss of honor). Nobles were expected to live off the rents from their family's huge tracts of land. One result of all this not working was boredom. As the centuries went on, dueling became almost like a sport for young, bored noblemen. Sometimes they would intentionally insult people or cause trouble, then claim that they were "insulted" because someone bumped into them. If all else failed, they would throw down the gauntlet simply because another noble wasn't polite enough. When a noble was in the company of a lady, her honor was considered so fragile that anyone who did anything the least bit impolite within sight of the lady was liable to end up in a duel (Holland, pg. 38).

Another important factor is the belief that the winner of a fair fight was a superior person to the loser. He wasn't just a better or stronger fighter, he was better all around -- more honorable, wiser, and most important, favored by God.

Dueling Commoners

Nobles weren't the only ones participating in duels. Some of the earliest legal systems relied on dueling to determine guilt or innocence. Prior to the 11th and 12th centuries, someone accused of a crime would have to go through a trial or ordeal of some kind [ref], and one form of trial was the trial by combat. They might have to face their accuser or a trained dueling expert appointed by the court. Winning a duel was a sign that God favored you, therefore proving innocence.

Many duelists (including nobles) issued challenges for pragmatic reasons, as well. For a man who was confident in his own skill at dueling, it was the solution to virtually any problem. Debts could be erased by finishing off the creditor. Land disputes were settled in a similar manner. Rivals for jobs or political appointments were all potential dueling partners, while elections could be decided with swords or guns rather than votes.


In antebellum Missouri, the political duel became a way of life. According to Dick Steward in "Duels and the Roots of Violence in Missouri," [The duelist's] immediate objective was ... the elimination of a political rival. The duel, therefore, became one upper-class tool in political clashes. From the territorial elections of 1816 through 1824 the code became legitimized as never before or after." In fact, Peter Burnett, the first governor of California, once said of Missouri politics, "It becomes desirable to kill off certain aspirants, to get them out of the way." (Steward, pg. 43).

In the next section, we'll look at the history of dueling.

The Evolution of Dueling

Jousting knights
Jousting knights

Dueling is closely related to the jousting competitions of the middle ages. The development of dueling codes may be related to the Chivalric code of honor practiced by noble knights. A joust is basically a duel on horseback. Formal rules required that jousting competitors be of noble birth. When two knights approached each other at the beginning of a competition, etiquette required that they raise the visors of their helmets, revealing their identities to one and other. This helped assure that only nobles were participating in the fight. This gesture lives on today -- it eventually evolved into the military salute.

The introduction of firearms to European battlefields led to the eventual extinction of heavily armored knights, since no armor was really bullet-proof. Since massive swords were no longer needed to bash through plate armor, this led to the development of lighter swords that could be wielded with more finesse.


As sword fighting shifted to lighter, more skill-oriented weapons, some duelists began to practice the art for sport rather than honor. It became a contest, not to the death, but to a certain number of points. Injuries were still common, even after the Italians started placing a button on the tips of their swords, but fatalities dropped dramatically. The art of swordplay was practiced as the sport of fencing.

Opening day of the Fencing Grand Prix 2004 in Athens, Greece
Opening day of the Fencing Grand Prix 2004 in Athens, Greece
Photo courtesy ANA/Alexandros Vlachos

As guns became more common weapons in Europe, they affected another major change in dueling -- now, anyone could duel. Buying a pistol was much less expensive than buying a sword. Costly training with an Italian fencing master was not necessary to participate in a pistol duel. This democratized dueling. It was no longer something done only by barons and princes. Dueling filtered down throughout society.

In the United States, doctors, newspaper editors, politicians and lawyers dueled one and other. The breakdown of the "dueling class" was complete -- America didn't have kings or dukes. Duels soared in popularity throughout the United States and Europe until the 20th century.

The Death of the Duel

Dueling didn't die out because of sudden opposition to the practice. In fact, there have been calls to ban dueling dating back centuries. Christian leaders disliked dueling because it clearly violated one of the commandments. They also were against it because "legal ordeal" dueling took power away from church officials, who would have preferred to judge such cases themselves. Church opposition to dueling continued from the middle ages until dueling's eventual demise. Kings and military leaders opposed dueling at times because it cost the noble classes so many young men who might otherwise have filled the officer ranks in the military.

In the 1800s, politicians, judges and writers were very vocal in their desire to see dueling banned. Mark Twain was against dueling (Holland, pg. 214), and both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin found dueling a waste of human life [ref]. Many states passed laws against dueling, but for many years juries refused to find anyone guilty of the crime.


The ultimate demise of dueling was due to a complex set of cultural factors. It had survived for centuries as something carried out by noble men to help keep themselves distinct from the lower classes. Once dueling had spread to every stratum of society, it no longer served this function. At that point, the destructive nature of dueling began to have an impact on public opinion. Also, some historians speculate that the great wars of the 19th and 20th centuries exposed people to the horrors of combat while simultaneously killing off a large portion of the younger generation. The Civil War in the United States and World War I in Europe mark rough points at which dueling began to decline in the respective cultures.

Today, dueling still exists, but it has taken less bloody forms. In the purest sense, one-on-one contests such as boxing and wrestling capture the spirit of dueling, while fencing as a sport descends directly from duels. Almost any head-to-head showdown guided by very specific rules of etiquette can be considered a modern-day duel and may show up anywhere -- at the poker table, in the corporate boardroom, on the tennis court or in video games.

For more information on dueling and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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  • Cohen, Richard. "By the Sword." Random House, 2002. 0-375-50417-6.
  • Holland, Barbara. "Gentlemen's Blood: A History of Dueling." Bloomsbury, 2003. 1-58234-366-7.
  • McAleer, Kevin. "Dueling: The Cult of Honor in Fin-de-Siecle Germany." Princeton, 1994. 0-691-03462-1.
  • Poliakoff, Michael B. "Combat Sports in the Ancient World." Yale University Press, 1987. 0-300-03768-6.
  • Steward, Dick. "Duels and the Roots of Violence in Missouri." University of Missouri Press, 2000. 0-8262-1284-0.