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article number 81
article date 11-29-2011
copyright 2011 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The Age of Dueling with Pistols plus, the Vice President Shoots Hamilton
by James M. Triggs

From May, 1956, Young Men Magazine. Original article title: Pistols for Two.

In the days of yore a shady glen was the court room, the handkerchief a summons, an ornate pair of pistols, judge and jury.

French percussion lock dueling pistols. This picture is the property of Wikimedia user: Nfutvol

Dueling originated sometime during the Middle Ages as a means of settling disputes through a knightly encounter usually performed before one’s king or his agents. These early brannigans were not confined solely to combat between individuals. Often an entire clan would join in the fray leaving a gory battlefield when the affair had been settled. These formal “trials by combat” resulted from a theory that the affair was an appeal for divine intervention and that the just party was the one who emerged victorious.

Fighting in Privacy

By 1500 formal duels, until then the universal method of settling a quarrel, were forbidden in most European countries. This ban only encouraged the would-be combatants to arrange the matter in some secluded spot. Principals commonly brought one or two friends to insure that all was fair and square and often the bloody end of the duel found not only the principals but the seconds fighting as well. These early affairs of honor were fought with rapier, short-bladed swords or stilettos.

By the tail-end of the 17th century, the weapon had been pretty much narrowed down to the rapier alone. At this time the art became more formalized. Previously carried out with little attention to the niceties of decorum, dueling took on some of the rules of fencing. The epée and fencing saber developed thereafter.

During the mid-l8th century dueling with firearms attained prominence. Since huge pistols in use were clumsy and inaccurate and many of the earliest pistol duels were fought from horseback, the casualty rate attending such encounters was generally low.

During the American Revolutionary era, special types of dueling pistols began to evolve. Smooth-bore pistols were found to be quite adequate and accurate at the close ranges at which they were most usually employed. By the close of the 18th century a cased set of fine dueling pistols was as much a part of the gentleman’s equipment as his horse or his trousers! These early dueling arms were the ultimate in the gunmaker’s art, the last word in design and construction.

The Pistol Case

This type of gun was generally kept with its mate in a case complete with all of the accessories and tools needed. Not only were the pistols works of art, but the cases were perfection, too. English oak, walnut, cherry, mahogany and rosewood were used to make these fine boxes; they were often inlaid with pearl and ivory or precious metals. Very often the owner’s name can be found engraved on a brass or silver plate attached to the lid. Interiors were finished with the care and upholstery usually associated with the lining of a fine coffin.

Late model English dueling pistols fired by a percussion camp. This picture is the property of Wikimedia user: Rama.

Partitions within the box held the pistols and accessories in place. Included were usually a powder flask, percussion caps (or flints, if the arm was a flintlock), powder measure, ramrod, cleaning tools, bullet mold and partitions or containers for cast bullets and patches.

The pistols themselves ranged in caliber from .45 to .60 or .70. Needless to mention, a .60 caliber ball at close range was definitely injurious to health and well-being. All of these early types of dueling arms were smooth-bore but, led by the master French gunmakers, the practice of rifling pistol barrels for increased range and accuracy came into being. By the mid1800s the percussion ignition had almost entirely supplanted the earlier flintlock types in dueling pistols. EDITOR’S NOTE: For those not familiar with the measurement term ‘caliber’, it is the same as inches. A .60 caliber ball is .6 inches in diameter.

Shots in Weehawken

All through recorded history, there have been repeated attempts made to stop or limit the business of dueling—with little or no success other than making the usual duel a secret affair. Dueling in the United States was as common during Revolutionary times and until the Civil War as it had been earlier in Europe.

Probably the most famous duel on record in American history was that between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton at Weehawken, New Jersey, in 1804. This one resulted in the fatal wounding of Hamilton and an increase in public opinion against dueling. Strictly speaking, of course, the duel has been illegal in the United States since the earliest times.

Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were political adversaries since Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law in the 1791 New York Senate race. Hamilton’s intense dislike of Burr grew as political differences added to their personal, mutual hatred. As a result of Hamilton’s attack on Burr’s character and stubbornness by both parties to resolve their differences, their feud reached the dueling level. Burr’s shot struck Hamilton while Hamilton’s bullet missed Burr. Alexander Hamilton died the next day.

On July 11, 1804 Vice President, Aaron Burr and former Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton dueled at Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton died a day later.
Wogdon & Barton flintlock dueling pistols used in the Burr-Hamilton duel.

With Samuel Colt’s development of the revolver, dueling with firearms became an ever-increasing and ever more deadly business. During the 1800s in America, several so-called “Codes of Honor” to govern the conduct of duelists were published in attempts to regulate this particular type of slaughter.

Enter the Gunfighter

By the close of the Civil War, most Eastern lawmakers had succeeded in greatly curtailing the activity. During the latter half of the 19th century dueling gradually died out in the United States with the exception of certain informal encounters which were taking place in some communities west of the Mississippi.

In the growing West a new and distinctly American form of the old duel had evolved without benefit of the “Code Duello” or “Rules of Honor” to guide to contestants. This, of course, was gunfighting pure and simple and the victor was almost always that party who was successful in getting his shooting iron clear of the holster first.

By 1900, even this kind of duel was pretty well dead in America, but the older, more formal “affaires d’honneur” were still carried out in parts of Europe until a few years after the first World War. The American gunfight too has virtually disappeared.

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