Challenged to a Duel? What are the Rules? cover

Challenged to a Duel? What are the Rules?

By ,

So, you’ve been challenged to a duel. What are the rules?
Duels always make for fascinating reading. Did you know they came with their own rulebook?!
Illustration: "Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. After the painting by J. Mund." The duel took place in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804. Note: possibly due to artistic license and the problems of perspective and canvas size etc, the duellists are standing at an unusually short distance from each other. However, it is known that some duels did indeed take place at very short distances such as this, though most were fought where the opponents were standing approximately 50 feet apart.
The protagonists are dressed in anachronistic 18th century dress, not the common fashion of the early 19th century.
Illustrator not identified. From a painting by J. Mund. July 11, 1804
Library of Congres Blogs

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars on 2 reviews

"Good read." 5 stars by

NoteStream NoteStream

NoteStreams are readable online but they’re even better in the free App!

The NoteStream™ app is for learning about things that interest you: from music to history, to classic literature or cocktails. NoteStreams are truly easy to read on your smartphone—so you can learn more about the world around you and start a fresh conversation.

For a list of all authors on NoteStream, click here.

Read the NoteStream below, or download the app and read it on the go!

Save to App

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?

--Photograph by Robert Brammer.

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 Southron.

It 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.

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. 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.”

Photograph by Robert Brammer.

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.

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

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.