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The title page for a book the discusses the rules of dueling.
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.

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

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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.

The title page of "The Code of Honor."
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?

Page 28 of "The Codes of Honor" listing Articles 16-22.
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.

Page 37 of "The Code of Honor" which depicts a diagram of a dueling field with instructions.
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.”

Page 38 of "The Code of Honor" containing general advice for during and after a duel.
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.


Comments (33)

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

    • 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.

  2. Rules? In a knife fight? No rules!

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

    • 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.

  4. when was the law passed that made it illegal to duel

  5. 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?

    • Thank you for your comment. Here is a print held by the Library of Congress depicting the Hamilton-Burr duel.
      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.

  6. Any plan to make this fully readable on the internet?

  7. 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?


  8. 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.

  9. If you were to be struck or shot by your opponent, is that the end of the duel? If you were to only be grazed, would you continue the duel or would it be over? Also, if your antagonist shoots you and you live, are they considered the victor, and would you still save face for defending yourself in duel?

  10. Would the winner of a duel be obligated to pay the new widow of his opponent a fine if some sort?

  11. There is more than one type of duel. The author of the article, and the author of this library of congress piece are both neglecting of First Blood Fencing duels. In such a duel the duelists first choose the melee weapon of choice. They then proceed to fight one on one with their weapons as per the treatise of their desire. The first to draw blood wins the duel. Some may have died, back in those times, however, today there would be no reason at all for one to lose their life in such a duel, as every person has access to antibiotics and other such medicines. The biggest risk in a first blood duel to a modern man, would be a stain that is terribly hard to remove, on their clothing.

  12. If you were to challenge a to a friendly duel, would it have to be to the death?

  13. So, is it still legal?

  14. What if i challange someone and they refuse and walk away? Also does this all apply if the weapon of choice are our hands not weapons?

    • The reason that a gentleman would participate in a duel was to vindicate his sense of “honor” after it had been insulted. For that reason, he would not walk away from a duel, because doing so would likely brand him a coward.

  15. The book that you chose for information was very helpful. It has answered all of the questions that I needed to be answered. I had no idea that dueling was so complicated. Thank you.

  16. In [Russian] literature, duels with pistols seem to take place just after dawn. Wasn’t that when Burr and Hamilton fought? That time would mean that, if a surgeon is needed, he will be well rested and have the benefit of daylight.

  17. The most common rules of a duel stipulate that the one being challenged gets choice of weapons.

    There are also degrees of dueling. Not all of them were ‘to the death’. Many times a challenge was posed, the chosen weapons were swords, and both parties agree to only go to ‘First Blood’. This means the first one to get cut loses, honor is satisfied and everyone goes home. Others would go to ‘First Man Down’ rules which meant exactly as it says. The first man down on the ground loses and honor is satisfied. This could mean the challenger or challenged party could literally lay down on the ground and that would end it. The party who did simply lie on the ground lost by default and was considered a coward. Doing such was considered the height of dishonor.

  18. What happened if someone came in between a duel? I’m writing a paper on Romeo and Juliet and am trying to make the argument that Tybalt was at fault for the tragic results of the fight in act 3 scene 1 because he stabbed Mercutio despite Romeo getting in the way.

  19. Thank you for writing this, this helped me a lot in my policy debate at school on the topic of legalizing duels to the death and I was affirmative, so thanks a lot

  20. What happened if a participant of the duel fired before the determined count or determined sign to begin had come into play?

  21. Question: what would happen if you just…didn’t show up? Would you be forced to come? Would they break down your door? Would they just leave you alone?

    • Thanks for your comment. No, refusing to fight a duel after a challenge was issued would likely just brand a person with a reputation for being a “coward,” which would impair their ability to command respect in public life.

  22. If a duelist takes a first shot and then withdraws, what would be the consequences other than being branded a coward? Could he be hunted and shot down with little fear of legal consequences for the other duelist?

  23. What would happen if both parties were hit and killed during a duel? Would the seconds then carry on the duel and take the place of the primaries or would all debts be considered paid in full?

    • Thanks for your question, James. There’s nothing in this set of rules that discusses this circumstance, but I have come across previous examples of duels where both combatants were killed in the duel, and that was the end of the duel. The seconds did not continue the duel.

  24. Was it called a second in 15th century Austria? It’s for a novel I’m writing.

    • Hello. Please send your question to our Ask A Librarian Service and it will be assigned to a reference librarian.

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