What killed the duel?

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

Eric Raymond considers himself an expert on the history of the duel of honor:

First, the undisputed facts: dueling began a steep decline in the early 1840s and was effectively extinct in English-speaking countries by 1870, with a partial exception for American frontier regions where it lasted two decades longer. Elsewhere in Europe the code duello retained some social force until World War I.

This was actually a rather swift end for a body of custom that had emerged in its modern form around 1500 but had roots in the judicial duels of the Dark Ages a thousand years before. The conventional accounts attribute it to a mix of two causes: (a) a broad change in moral sentiments about violence and civilized behavior, and (b) increasing assertion of a state monopoly on legal violence.

I don’t think these factors were entirely negligible, but I think there was something else going on that was at least as important, if not more so, and has been entirely missed by (other) historians. I first got to it when I noticed that the date of the early-Victorian law forbidding dueling by British military officers – 1844 – almost coincided with (following by perhaps a year or two) the general availability of percussion-cap pistols.

The dominant weapons of the “modern” duel of honor, as it emerged in the Renaissance from judicial and chivalric dueling, had always been swords and pistols. To get why percussion-cap pistols were a big deal, you have to understand that loose-powder pistols were terribly unreliable in damp weather and had a serious charge-containment problem that limited the amount of oomph they could put behind the ball.

This is why early-modern swashbucklers carried both swords and pistols; your danged pistol might very well simply not fire after exposure to damp northern European weather. It’s also why percussion-cap pistols, which seal the powder priming charge inside a brass cap, were first developed for naval use, the prototype being Sea Service pistols of the Napoleonic era. But there was a serious cost issue with those: each cap had to be made by hand at eye-watering expense.

Then, in the early 1840s, enterprising gunsmiths figured out how to mass-produce percussion caps with machines. And this, I believe, is what actually killed the duel. Here’s how it happened…

First, the availability of all-weather pistols put an end to practical swordfighting almost immediately. One sidearm would do rather than two. Second, dueling pistols suddenly became tremendously more reliable and somewhat more lethal. When smokeless powder became generally available in the 1880s they took another jump upwards in lethality.

Moral sentiments and state power may have been causes, but I am pretty convinced that they had room to operate because a duel of honor in 1889 was a far more dangerous proposition than it had been in 1839. Swords were effectively out of play by the latter date, pistols no longer sputtered in bad weather (allowing seconds to declare that “honor had been satisfied”) and the expected lethality of a bullet hit had gone way up due to the increased velocity of smokeless-powder rounds.

I’m not sure that’s a new idea.


  1. Wilbur Hassenfus says:

    I’ve always heard it as a truism that dueling began its decline around the early 19th century as pistols began to displace swords as the fashionable weapon. With swords, you could often satisfy honor with first blood. Pistols were much more binary.

    I don’t have a source for this; I probably first heard it decades ago. Couldn’t say where. I believe Patrick O’Brian may mention it. That doesn’t mean it’s true; O’Brian was pretty creative sometimes. But he said it long before Raymond congratulated himself for saying it first.

  2. Phil B. says:

    No, flintlock pistols, if properly adjusted, are very reliable. The top quality flintlock duelling pistols were extremely reliable, and as they had little use would have been in fine order.

    Here is me thinking that the reason people carried swords and pistols was because pistols (regardless if flint or percussion lock) were slow and impractical to reload in the middle of a battle.

    You live and learn …

  3. Reliable and also accurate, something that comes as a surprise to some.

    Smoothbore black-powder weapons firing ball could be quite accurate, something true of the arquebuses common in the pike-and-shot era, and dueling pistols for the entire time they were in common use. Military muskets grew less accurate as time went on because under conditions of combat stress rate of fire tended to win out over theoretical accuracy. That is, the accuracy of the muskets was far greater than that of the men firing them in battle. from the 1700s on, windage was progressively increased to make them faster and easier to load.

  4. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    The history is interesting, but the pressing problem is, how can flabby, obese moderns be motivated to revive their individual capacities for fighting?

    With no dueling culture and very little martial arts practice, moderns are degenerating into post-mammalian blobs of flab.

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