Last month we discussed the principles of duelling and how social class distinction rendered it the exclusive right of the aristocracy in Britain and Europe. The purpose of duelling was to defend personal, family and regimental honour, obtaining satisfaction on one side and giving it on the other. It was justified on the same basis as war, which, when all else failed, was an accepted method of settling international dispute.
Challenges were usually issued on the spot, after which the arrangements were left to the individuals’ ‘seconds’ whose primary role was to ensure fair play. Procedure varied widely, and I am obliged here to generalise.
The initial task of the seconds was to try to obtain satisfaction for the offended party without bloodshed – preferably by an apology. Offences were categorised by seriousness: impertinence, insult or implication of cheating or other dishonourable act, or the delivery of a blow. The first category might be settled by an apology, but a physical blow was regarded as the most serious offence – apologies were not accepted.
Choice of weapons was the prerogative of the one challenged. The category of the offence might also entitle him to choose the procedure and the shooting distance. Otherwise, these details were agreed upon by the seconds; likewise the time and place – usually an isolated spot, since duelling was widely outlawed. When possible, a surgeon was present. They might also engage a gunsmith to ensure that the pistols were identical, and to clear the flash holes, inspect the flints, and load and prime the pieces in the presence of both seconds to ensure absolute equality for each duellist. He would then seal the pistols in their case, to be opened on the site, witnessed by both seconds. Failing this, the seconds loaded the pistols.
No universal duelling procedure was ever settled on, and records show many and diverse alternatives. The Brits generally fought their duels at closer range than the French, their minimum being 10 paces of not less than 30 inches (i.e. 7.6 metres) with a maximum of 14 paces, and they chose simpler procedures. A signal to fire was agreed upon – a command or a dropped handkerchief. On the signal, each opponent was expected to raise his pistol and fire without delay. It was “not done” to take careful and deliberate aim. The procedure popularly shown in Hollywood movies, where the opponents stand back to back, then pace away from one another before turning to fire, was probably used least of all.
Read the full article in the July 2017 issue of Magnum.