August 10, 2022
By Seth Isaacson
Share this post:
In the late 18th century and early 19th century in Europe as well as America, if a gentleman, or in rare cases a lady, or someone close to them faced an insult, they were expected to demand a proper apology or “satisfaction.”
To refuse or decline a challenge risked their reputation and being posted as a “poltroon” (an utter coward). If the matter could not be resolved through formal correspondence, the conflict would most commonly be settled with a formal exchange of shots from proper dueling pistols: a “Wogdon affair.”
Robert Wogdon (1734-1813) is arguably the best known and most respected maker of flintlock dueling pistols. The Mantons, Griffin & Tow, H.W. Mortimer, and many other talented English gunmakers certainly manufactured incredibly fine dueling pistols and helped create new innovations in their designs over time, but Wogdon truly specialized in them. As John Norris writes in “Pistols at Dawn: A History of Duelling,” Wogdon’s “name has unarguably become more closely associated with dueling pistols than any other gunsmith of the period, and has come to epitomize these specialized firearms.
During his lifetime Wogdon’s pistols were considered to be of unsurpassed quality and reliability, to the point that they were even sold to clients in North America.” Wogdon apprenticed to Edward Newton in 1748, according to Howard Blackmore in “Gunmakers of London, 1350-1850.” After he finished his apprenticeship, he ran his own shop and then partnered with John Barton in 1795 and retired in 1803. He died in 1813, and by that time hundreds of men are believed to have been injured or killed by his pistols in duels.
His pistols were so well known that "Stanzas on Duelling Inscribed to Wogdon, the Celebrated Pistol-Maker" from 1782 starts with the lines "Hail Wogdon! Patron of that Leaden death!" The poem later references him again and notes, "This death we lay not, Wogdon to thy blame; Cullum must have his fame as well as you. But you had never gained so great a name, In England had your pistols killed as few." A discussion of the poem in “The Critical Review; or, Annals of Literature” from 1782 notes, "The artist to whom these stanzas are inscribed is famous for his skill in making pistols, whose aim is remarkably true..." and notes the lines, "No one can tell how short he shall remain, If honour calls and Wogdon bids him die" as among the best in the poem.
The poem alludes to fate but suggests a duelist’s destiny lay in Wogdon’s hand. Fate or divine intervention was a key aspect of the origins of dueling. They go back centuries to trial by combat, also known as the judicial duel. This was a legal proceeding in which a person’s guilt or innocence was determined by the outcome of a fight. This is famously represented in the book and film The Last Duel. The victor is presumed to be the just party in the case because the divine would have chosen the winner. While that is the origin, people clearly had misgivings about whether God would come to their aid in a duel both back in the Middle Ages and in the early modern era. For example, if God was sure to choose the innocent, then he could guide a ball to the proper target no matter how inaccurate the pistol, but duelists sought out pistols by gunmakers known for reliability and accuracy, and some practiced shooting at targets to ensure their aim was true. When it came down to staring down an opponent, many men put their trust in gunmakers like Robert Wogdon rather than divine intervention. Wogdon’s guns were designed to be aimed quickly, reliably fire, and shoot true.
There was not just a single form for a proper duel. Swords or dueling pistols were standard, but rifles and other firearms were also used in rarer instances, and, in theory, duels could be fought with any agreed upon weapons under just about any terms, even in hot air balloons with blunderbusses over Paris. Nonetheless, smoothbore dueling pistols, generally around 28 bore (.54 caliber), were the weapons of choice by the late 18th century. Often the duelists would each select one pistol from a cased pair, but in some duels they would each use one of their own, and if a second round of fire was demanded they could use the other. When Charles Lee and John Laurens dueled during the American Revolution, they each brought a pair.
With dueling pistols, Hollywood loves to show to adversaries starting back to back and walking off a set number of paces before turning to fire. That may have been one option, but it doesn’t appear to have been common. One of the most common varieties was having a set number of paces walked off and the positions marked in advance. The duelists would take their allotted place and then fire upon a signal from one of the seconds such as the dropping of a handkerchief with a set amount of time to fire after the signal had been given. After one man had fired, the other could fire within the remaining allotted time. Taking “deliberate aim,” was considered vicious and discouraged. Instead, the duelists should fire quickly. Often if one duelist had not fired around the same time, they would not even return fire unless they were seriously at odds with their opponent. For example, when the Duke of York was challenged by his nephew Charles Lennox when they were serving in the Coldstream Guards, Lennox’s Wogdon pistols from 12 paces at Wimbledon Common was chosen, and they were to fire upon the signal. Lennox grazed the Duke’s curls, and the Duke held his fire.
Alternatively, the duelists might exchange shots in turn instead of firing at the same time as was the case in the Laurens-Grimké duel in 1775. This could certainly be a risky proposition if you didn’t get to shoot first. There were also varieties of “barrier duels” in which the duelist started a set number of paces apart with a barrier in the center. Upon the signal, they could advance towards one another and choose when to fire. Once one man fired, he was generally expected to stand at that spot and await his opponent’s shot within the remaining time and before crossing the barrier. In some situations, the duelist who had already fired was also supposed to keep advancing until the opponent had fired. Thus, firing too early might make you more likely to miss and have to risk being shot at from a shorter range. Of course if you could hit your opponent first, you might not have to be fired upon at all. In the Lee-Laurens duel mentioned above, the two men resolved to walk towards one another and fire at will and exchanged shots at just five or six paces. Surprisingly, Lee was only lightly wounded and the affair ultimately ended without another exchange, in part due to Alexander Hamilton’s role as Laurens’s second.
Lot 81: This historic pair of silver mounted H.W. Mortimer & Son dueling pistols was presented by the Prince Regent to Spanish rebel Francisco Sayus in 1811 and was later owned by Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory. Their "saw handle" stocks are one of just many designs English gunmakers experimented with in their efforts to create deadly accurate dueling pistols. While the design looks a bit odd, the author has found most sawhandle pistols point very naturally. The hooks or spurs on the trigger guard can be used with your middle finger to help steady the pistol.
One particularly deadly option for a serious dispute was to have both men stand a set number of paces apart, cock and raise their pistols upon command, take aim at another command, and then fire simultaneously upon the final command. Given both men had time to take deliberate aim, neither may walk away unscathed, and the chance of death was high.
Generally, if both duelists fired without effect, the challenger could declare himself satisfied or demand another exchange. In some instances multiple rounds were fired without injury. If either party was injured at all, the seconds were generally expected to work to declare the duel was over. However, in some duels where the parties truly despised one another and the insults had been particularly serious, the adversaries agreed to duel until one of them was too injured to go on or killed.
Lot 231: Cased pair of H. Bales flintlock dueling pistols. Dueling pistol makers continued to innovate through the end of the flintlock era and into the percussion era. Many later pistols have heavier barrels and half-stocks while the early pistols are lighter and full-stocked.
A pair of duels in the early 19th century in America have done much to fix Wogdon’s name in American memory. They resulted in the deaths of two men from an illustrious American family just a few years apart. In 1801, young Philip Hamilton, son of founding father Alexander Hamilton, and his friend and theater manager Stephen Price challenged New York City attorney George Eacker to a duel after confronting Eacker about a Independence Day speech he had given critical of Alexander Hamilton. Eacker had called the two young men “damned rascals.”
Price and Eacker exchanged shots multiple times the following day without injury and considered their affair settled. The next day it was Hamilton’s turn to face Eacker at ten paces. His father told him to fire to miss, known as deloping, rather than take a man’s life. Initially, both men refused to fire. Then Eacker raised his pistol and shot Hamilton above the hip. Hamilton’s pistol went off and struck the ground. He died early the next morning. The pistols used in this duel are believed to have been the Wogdon & Barton pistols owned by John Barker Church, Alexander Hamilton’s brother-in-law.
Church’s dueling pistols were originally similar to the Wogdon & Barton pair in our next auction but at some point had brass forends fitted to them. Both sets of pistols have single set triggers. Church’s pair supposedly had “concealed” set triggers, but in reality, set triggers were a standard feature of these pistols rather than a secret designed to give one duelist an advantage over the other, and that pair simply did not have a visible adjustment screw. All the shooter has to do to set the trigger is press it forward, something readily found in examination by anyone knowledgeable with dueling pistols, and a feature I would expect the seconds to explain if one or both duelists was inexperienced. Many of Wogdon’s pistols have “bent” barrels. David S. Weaver covered this for the “American Society of Arms Collectors,”but in short, Wodgon’s barrels were bent downwards slightly. Gunmaker John Rigby indicated this was done by Wogdon to try to remedy the fact that duelists often fired high and missed their mark, but in reality bending the bore down would not have helped, and shooting high could have been more easily remedied by different height sights.
Church’s Wogdon & Barton pistols were used on July 11, 1804, close to where the young Hamilton had been mortally wounded. This time by his father and Vice President Aaron Burr. Again, the affair began with politics. Hamilton had opposed Burr’s political campaigns since the 1790s, and letters were published indicating Hamilton at a dinner expressed his opposition to Burr politically, called him a “dangerous man,” and held “a still more despicable opinion” of Burr. Burr, with his political prospects already fading, demanded an explanation of what Hamilton had said about him, and a series of notes were exchanged. Hamilton did not elaborate but indicated his remarks were political, not personal, which would imply that Burr’s honor had not been drawn into question. Nonetheless, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel to repair his reputation.
As the challenged party, Hamilton selected Church’s pistols as the weapons. Church himself had fought a bloodless duel with Burr a few years earlier. Hamilton, Burr, their seconds, and a doctor met at Heights of Weehawken in New Jersey, a popular but secluded dueling ground, on that fateful July morning. Exactly what happened next has been debated and veiled in mystery ever since. The seconds turned their backs, so they could deny being credible witnesses to what transpired should they be drawn into court. Hamilton was morally and religiously opposed to dueling and is widely believed to have intended to delope (throw away his shot) rather than aim at Burr. Deloping was technically against most dueling codes as it implied the matter was not actually serious enough for an exchange of gunfire, but it wasn’t uncommon. Instead of firing into the sky or the ground, aiming for a near miss would show seriousness and would appear to any witnesses to have been a legitimate attempt but avoid taking a life. Burr appears to have had no such qualms and had been practicing his marksmanship.
Two shots are believed to have rung out almost simultaneously. As the smoke cleared, Alexander Hamilton lay mortally wounded. Burr’s shot had struck him in the ribs and caused serious damage to his organs and left him paralyzed. Some say Hamilton threw away his shot on purpose as he had declared he intended to do privately and then Burr fired, while others suggest Hamilton fired reflexively after being shot. Burr was unharmed but stood in shock before being rushed away from the scene as was customary. Hamilton languished until 2 p.m. on July 12, 1804.
Lot 1278: Cased pair of Walter Adams percussion dueling pistols. This pair is rifled, something forbidden by the 18th century dueling codes but that became more accepted in the 19th century, especially in continental Europe where it became standard.
Burr was never tried for Hamilton’s death, but rather than revive his political career, the duel was its death knell. He went on to become one of the most infamous traitors in American history for conspiring to steal by force territory acquired for the United States by Thomas Jefferson as well as land in Mexico to create his own western empire. The plot was foiled, but he was acquitted. He then fled to Europe where he continued to conspire to steal land in the West. He returned shortly before the War of 1812. When his second wife divorced him in 1834, Alexander Hamilton Jr. served as her lawyer. He died on September 14, 1836, a poor and broken man, on the same day that the divorce was finalized.
These shots were fired at 25 yards with rapid “dueling” style aim rather than carefully “deliberate” aim. As you can see, hitting a man-sized target with a muzzleloading pistol wouldn’t have been particularly difficult. The hard part would have been shooting both accurately and quickly with your life on the line. You can safely challenge a friend to a duel with muzzleloading pistols today by using modern “dueling” targets that leave only bragging rights on the line.
Dueling as a way to protect one's reputation has long faded from acceptable behavior, but these paired and cased dueling pistols for sale in Rock Island Auction Company's Aug. 26-28 Premier Auction are a fascinating way to recall a different time and a different way of personal conduct.
Please login to post a comment.