What is a Dueling Pistol?
By Seth Isaacson
The tradition of dueling, particularly with pistols, has been a popular topic of discussion in the last several years due in part to the popularity of the musical Hamilton which naturally includes Alexander Hamilton’s fateful duel with Aaron Burr, but gun collectors have been enamored with these firearms for generations. If you regularly browse around auctions, antique stores, and various websites for collectible antique arms you will invariably find a wide range of muzzle loading pistols of varying ages and designs advertised as dueling pistols/duelling pistols, especially sets of two pistols together in a case. The vast majority of the firearms advertised as dueling pistols simply are not quite what they claim to be, and one cannot really blame small outfits and individuals without expertise for getting them wrong. After all, there are a wide variety of muzzle loading pistols and even collectors and specialists with years of experience with them quibble about exactly how to classify various firearms. Especially given the variety of both period correct and collector terminology for various pistols varieties, not to mention the wide variety of ignition systems which can also be rather confusing (and worthy of being covered in its own post). So what is a dueling pistol? Simply put, dueling pistols are pistols that were purpose built as sets for settling affairs of honor between gentlemen through a “proper” exchange of gunfire.
It was generally required that the weapons for dueling be matching or at least equals of one another, and early dueling pistols were often common pistols used for military service or the types gentleman might own for general use. Even many of the first official dueling pistols might only have a front sight blade and plain stock, but in the late 18th century and early 19th gunmakers in London, Birmingham, Paris, Liege, elsewhere in Europe, and this side of the Atlantic capitalized on the popularity of dueling among their affluent, quick-tempered clients and developed pistols specifically for use in duels which can be identified as separate from other pistols based on their attributes. They also became very ornate in many instances since they were status symbols. It is these pistols that collectors today refer to as dueling pistols, and they helped push forward new improvements in firearms. Top gunmakers such as the Mantons developed and utilized stock architecture, barrel weight and lengths, sights, spurs, light triggers or set triggers (sometimes concealed), improved vents liners and breech plugs, the most advanced ignition systems, and other enhancements that were meant to allow the duelists to quickly, reliably, and accurately fire their weapons at one another. Some, like the “saw-handle” duelers, look strange, but when held in the hand their utility is evident.
Dueling pistols in the United Kingdom and its empire and former colonies, including the U.S., generally speaking were large caliber pistols with smoothbores and fixed sights. The French and other Continental Europeans adopted rifling as it became more popular in firearms in general and considered it unmanly to use less accurate smoothbores. They too preferred large caliber pistols. Rifling was not preferred by the British and their subjects as it was considered unnecessary by many since the distances were usually short and the point of a duel wasn’t actually supposed to be to kill one another as much as it was to show you would be willing to kill or die in defense of your honor or that of another such as woman. It was seen as taking away some of the chance or role of “Providence” in the affair. Some high end English dueling pistols, however, do have subtle “scratch” rifling that is nearly impossible to see without close inspection and tools such as bore lights that were not available when the weapons were actually in use.
The sights on dueling pistols were generally designed to be quick to align in conjunction with naturally pointing stocks though many duelists probably never even saw their front sights before they pulled the trigger. Firing quickly as you could by bringing your pistol to eye height and firing was preferable both because it meant you stood a good chance of getting a shot off before having a chance to be hit and because a rapid exchange of shots was less likely to result in the death of either party. Thus taking deliberate aim was considered “murderous” by most genteel folk, and taking your time to shoot naturally also risked your life if your opponent was quicker to drive a shot home. Under some varieties of dueling arrangements, the second man was allowed to take his time if the other man’s shot missed and he hadn’t fired. In other exchanges it was pre-determined which man would fire first and second. Nonetheless, staring down the barrel for an extended period of time to take careful aim at your opponent’s forehead or chest was frowned upon. The sights on dueling pistols are also traditionally fixed so that they could not be adjusted to ensure a fair exchange. This is one manner in determining whether a set was meant for dueling or target shooting as Continental dueling and target pistol sets were often very similar but target pistols often have finer sights that are adjustable.
Cutting-edge locks or ignition types were particularly desirable given a flash in the pan or other misfire counted as a shot and could easily spell serious injury or death, but the improved versions of flintlocks from the early 19th century remained popular with many gentlemen even after percussion caps came into use, and percussion pistols remained essentially standard well-after metallic cartridges were en vogue for other firearms. Though by that time dueling itself was less common outside of Continental Europe where swords were more common.
Dueling pistol sets reflected on their owners’ means, status and were meant to be used in affairs that often stemmed from the same issues, therefore many of these sets were incredibly ornate, and they were also given as gifts and presented to important businessmen, politicians, and military officers. High quality engraving, gold and silver accents, ornate furniture, and other embellishments are certainly not uncommon, though many remained relatively plain as an unnecessarily lustrous aspect could be distracting. The loading accessories in the case could also be quite elaborate and generally included ramrods, cleaning rods, mallets for driving tightly fitted balls down the barrels, bullet molds for crafting the lead balls, powder flasks and measures, oilers, and other tools that aided in maintenance or loading. Because the loading tools were contained within the cases, many dueling pistols are not designed to carry ramrods on board.
While other pistols were also made in matched sets of large caliber, smoothbore pistols such as officers’ pistols, holster pistols, travelers’ pistols, belt pistols, pocket pistols, etc. were also often produced as matching cased sets with accessories, they can usually be differentiated from dueling pistols based on features that were useful for use in informal combat but not necessary or even detrimental while dueling. For example, pistols for use by officers, guards, and for self-defense are generally built more ruggedly and have components like large pommel caps to protect their stocks. They also often lack rear sights, and have ramrods fitted to the pistols themselves. Trigger spurs, heavy barrels, and similar dueling features were not suitable for guns meant to be carried as they added unnecessary weight, bulk, and potential for snags. While many of these pistols were no doubt used in duels, they are not considered dueling pistols because that wasn’t their main intended purpose.
Leading up to a Duel
Duels between men erupted because of political disagreements, slights (both overt and perceived), family feuds, competition for the affections of women, and just about any other issue that two men of means might quarrel over. Military officers and politicians dueled frequently. In fact, dueling among military officers was a serious issue because it robbed their respective governments of leaders for often absurd and petty disagreements. “Posting” a man to get him to challenge you was fairly common. This entailed taking an advertisement in the local press insulting your adversary. Liar, poltroon, coward, and scoundrel were popular affronts and were often strung together. A gentleman could hardly ignore the attack since refusing to challenge the offender was seen as demonstrating cowardice and could destroy his reputation. On the other hand, instigating duels without just cause could also get a man labeled as ill-tempered and ruthless.
The person who received the challenge, the offender, under most “codes duello” usually received the opportunity to choose the weapons and location or “ground.” Isolated locations just outside cities where the authorities and bystanders were less prone to interfere became popular dueling grounds. The challenger got to choose other terms such as the distance and the seconds worked out the finer details if reconciliation could not be reached without a fight. Technically speaking, a duel could be fought with any agreed upon weapons and agreed upon rules which resulted in duels arranged in a wide variety of formats with a wide array of weapons aside from purpose built dueling pistols, but actual dueling pistols were preferred and could be borrowed from other gentlemen if a suitable pair was not at hand as was the case in the Burr-Hamilton fight.
While standing and exchanging shots at a predetermined distance upon a signal is the most well-known arrangement, a wide variety of formats emerged such as barrier duels, walking/marching duels, and directly facing each other with guns aimed until the signal was given. The distances and type of duel could be altered given the seriousness of the offenses or the men’s hatred for one another. The result of the rather flexible rules was sometimes shots exchanged under conditions that were plain ridiculous. The most absurd duel might well be the 1808 duel fought over Paris in hot air balloons with blunderbusses. Not surprisingly, the loser and his second, plummeted to their deaths after a hole was shot in their balloon. Others are known to have been fought with Kentucky rifles, and duels could be arranged with a myriad of agreed upon formats and conditions that are simply too wide ranging for our discussion here. What is relevant is that most duels in the 18th and 19th centuries in the U.S. and the U.K. were fought with specially made smoothbore pistols. Rifled pistols, often fairly similar to target pistols but designed for dueling, were popular in mainland Europe when pistols were the weapon of choice.
For more information on the history of dueling, including some fascinating tales, my personal favorite book on the subject is Gentlemen’s Blood: A History of Dueling from Swords at Dawn to Pistols at Dusk by Barbara Holland. Duels and Duelling and A Polite Exchange of Bullets both by Stephen Banks are also highly recommended. There are also a variety of other publications covering the pistols themselves, including a section in Flayderman’s Guide to Antique Firearms and Their Values by the late Norm Flayderman, The British Duelling Pistol and other publications by John A. Atkinson, and London Gunmakers and the English Duelling Pistol, 1770-1830 by Keith. Dill.
Rock Island Auction Company has had the pleasure of selling some absolutely incredible sets over the years. They can be found at a range of price points that will suit many collectors, and some of the finest sets have been among the most expensive muzzle loading firearms we have ever sold. Given their connection to tradition, mythical battles, influential politicians, military leaders, and politicians; and their general overall high quality, high condition dueling pistols by well-known gunmakers have proven to be sound investments, and collectors can find exceptional pairs in almost every one of our premiere firearms auctions including the upcoming event of September 7-9.
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Rock Island, Illinois 61201