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So, you’ve been challenged to a duel. What are the rules?

It happens. Maybe it was a slight made in haste or a heated argument over who has the better mastery of classical languages and the gauntlet was thrown. Before accepting the challenge, you might want to consider that dueling is illegal, with some states having specific prohibitions against it. Kentucky’s oath of office even requires public officials—including notaries—to refrain from dueling. Then there’s the not insignificant fact that you would be submitting yourself to stand like a stone in front of someone who is shooting directly at you, and that the practice has ended badly for some combatants.  If you’re going ahead in spite of all of this, you’re going to need to know the rules. But where would you find the rules governing a duel? The Library of Congress Rare Books and Special Collections Division may have some answers in the form of The code of honor or, The thirty-nine articles; with an appendix, showing the whole manner in which the duel is to be conducted; with amusing anecdotes, illustrative of duelling; to which is prefixed a dissertation on the origin and progress of the duello, by a SouthronIt is interesting to note that the author is anonymous. A possible motivation for his anonymity is if one of his “amusing anecdotes” gave offense, he may have found himself challenged to a duel.

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The code of honor or, The thirty-nine articles; with an appendix, showing the whole manner in which the duel is to be conducted; with amusing anecdotes, illustrative of duelling; to which is prefixed a dissertation on the origin and progress of the duello, by a Southron. Photograph by Robert Brammer.

What distinguished a duel from a casual bar room brawl or a street fight is that it was considered a rule-bound affair of honor among men of equal social standing. To receive a challenge to duel was actually a confirmation by the person issuing the challenge that they considered you a gentleman. If they had not, they probably would have just attacked you with a whip or a cane. So, what are the rules?

Articles 18 and 19 illustrate that dueling was a means of resolving differences between gentlemen of equal social standing.

Articles 18 and 19 illustrate that dueling was a means of resolving differences between gentlemen of equal social standing. Photograph by Robert Brammer.

The initial articles provide appropriate responses to various types of insults, counseling an apology or a lawsuit where appropriate. For example, Article 16 counsels that “should a gentleman strike another for a verbal offence, he cannot afterward require an apology for the offense. But should the blow be returned, and he is injured or overpowered in the contest, an appeal will lie to the duel.”

Avoiding a duel by means of an apology or a lawsuit was not deemed appropriate in all situations. Article 21 illustrates that there are some instances where offering an apology is unacceptable because it would be interpreted as cowardice, stating that “no apology can be made while a challenge is present, a previous withdrawal of the challenge being necessary for that purpose, otherwise, the apology would seem to have been extorted by fear.”

If the duel cannot be avoided by means that allow the combatants to save face, the appendix provides a diagram of the field of battle, designating the location of the principals and seconds.

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A diagram of the field of battle, indicating the placement of principals and seconds. Photograph by Robert Brammer.

Trash talking your opponent on the field of battle is explicitly discouraged. Similarly, if you miss your mark, you could ask for another round of fire, but item 28 in the appendix counsels you not to use disparaging language toward your opponent because “if you did not hit him, it was not his fault.”

If you missed, take it in stride.

Remember all of those speeches your little league coach gave you about good sportsmanship? It also applies to dueling. Photograph by Robert Brammer.

The best course of action is to avoid giving the kind of offense that lands you in a duel in the first place. For an example of the kind of insult that might instigate a challenge, the author provides an anecdote of a duel where a Frenchman named Genet tried to seduce an American woman with a couplet lifted from the song “Sweet Kitty Clover.” It read, “Your face is round and red and fat, Like pulpit cushions, or redder than that.” The Frenchman soon found himself challenged to a duel by the woman’s brother. The seconds, believing that the subject of the duel was ridiculous, conspired to save the lives of the combatants by loading the guns with powder, but without ball. The combatants fired away for three rounds until they believed their honor had been satisfied. Suggesting that no good deed goes unpunished, someone let it slip that the guns were not loaded. Outraged by the deception, the woman’s brother then challenged and killed his own second in a subsequent duel.

 

12 Comments

  1. geri caruso
    June 2, 2016 at 9:22 am

    Facinating….Did the same rules apply to duels fought with swords?

  2. Robert Brammer
    June 2, 2016 at 1:12 pm

    Thanks for your question. The author never specifies a choice of weapon, leaving that to the combatants, so it seems as though the same general rules of engagement could govern a duel with swords or knives.

  3. Harvey Logan
    June 3, 2016 at 3:26 pm

    Rules? In a knife fight? No rules!

  4. Pat
    June 4, 2016 at 3:29 pm

    Is there a time listed? Seems the old westerns had High Noon?

  5. Perry Williams
    June 4, 2016 at 6:49 pm

    when was the law passed that made it illegal to duel

  6. Sarah Peden
    June 6, 2016 at 7:24 am

    I really expected there to be some discussion from the Hamilton fandom down here. So I will represent.
    These articles have a copyright of 1847… 43 years after the Burr/Hamilton duel. Are there evidence of any rules of this sort dating back earlier?

  7. Matthew Joyce
    June 7, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    Any plan to make this fully readable on the internet?

  8. Robert Brammer
    June 8, 2016 at 11:42 am

    I do not remember seeing a time listed, though the book seems to assume the duel will be fought during daylight hours. The time may be a detail, like the choice of weapon, that is worked out through out by the combatants through their seconds.

  9. Robert Brammer
    June 8, 2016 at 11:45 am

    Thank you for your question. Different states passed laws against dueling at different times. This act applies to Washington, D.C., and dates back to 1839. //memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=005/llsl005.db&recNum=355

  10. Robert Brammer
    June 8, 2016 at 11:48 am

    Thank you for your comment. Here is a print held by the Library of Congress depicting the Hamilton-Burr duel. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002698061/
    There are definitely books that provide the customary rules of dueling that are older than this one, including ones that specifically address the customary rules of duels conducted with knives and swords.

  11. Valerie L
    August 24, 2016 at 4:02 pm

    What happened if a participant of the duel fired before the determined count or determined sign to begin had come into play? Example, if you were agreed to fire at the end of a count to ten and your opponent shot you at 6 or 7, were there any consequences for that?

    Thanks!

  12. Dave P
    March 24, 2017 at 3:14 pm

    In “official” duels there’s usually a Master of Arms who makes sure that protocol is followed. Otherwise, the seconds for the two people dueling is also armed. Any deviation from the rules of the duel usually meant that either the Master of Arms or the Seconds got to shoot the person cheating. Plus they get to smear your reputation as a coward and a cheat for shooting a man in the back once you’re dead.

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