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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > General Interest Books


British Duelling Pistols

Atkinson, John A. British Duelling Pistols. Museum Restoration Services. 112 pages. ISBN# 0919316727. $24.95.

Gunmakers highlighted by Atkinson include Robert Wogdon, H.W. Mortimer, the Mantons, John Twigg, Durs Egg, Henry Nock, Joseph Griffin and James Purdey. In addition to London gunmakers, those of Edinburgh, Birmingham, Liverpool and, especially, Dublin (where gentlemen showed a "singular passion ... for fighting each other" and one of the first questions asked of a potential son-in-law was "Did he blaze?"). Henry Nock, of volley gun fame, was also a maker of fine dueling pistols. Manton's pistols featured an almost invisible rifling, a bit of a cheat on the accepted rules of the duel.

Atkinson traces the development of the British dueling pistol with specific examples of the art, describing them in detail. Also discussed is the molding of bullets, making of cases for pairs of pistols, the manufacture of stocks locks and gunbarrels, powder and flints. As Atkinson points out, on "the best dueling pistols there was lavished the talent[s] of the wood carver, metal worker and engraver and sometimes the art of the silversmith and goldsmith as well. Dueling pistols were generally long and slender, and of comparatively light weight. They might be engraved with floral designs, with silver mountings, decorated with pineapples, clamshells and acorns, and given elegant chequering. Barrels for dueling pistols were often made from stub iron, iron recycled from old horseshoe nails collected from country farmers or collected from the streets. Percussion systems were first experimented with by the start of the nineteenth century. The British Army tested a cap-lock in 1820. Dueling pistols began to adopt the system soon after. Flintlock pistols were often converted to cap ignition by their owners.

Dueling practices and rituals were codified in the Code Duello of 1777 which set forth rules describing all aspects of an "affair of honor," from the time of day during which challenges could be received to the number of shots or wounds required for satisfaction of honor. For gentlemen the law "offered no redress for insults" he might be subject to from rivals and enemies. Shooting a fellow officer in a duel "gave a sharp edge to one's reputation, earned congratulations in the regimental mess, and brought admiring glances from the ladies.... higher military authorities...regarded dueling as a proof test of courage..." Although theoretically banned by British Army regulations, refusing a challenge was likely to result in an officer having to leave his regiment, for the same rules that banned dueling forbade an officer from submitting to "opprobrious expressions" or "any conduct from another that should degrade him, or, in the smallest way impeach his courage."

Some dueling pistols were even made for taking on campaign. An example by the gunmaker Durs Egg (a presentation multiple barreled pistol, a Durs Egg specialty, given to Napoleon by a British admirer was recently auctioned) with a detachable shoulder stock and an extra carbine barrel is shown. A engraving of Sir Sidney Smith at Acre with such a pistol with a detachable stock exists.

The mere passing of a ban was not likely to halt the practice of dueling, only a gradual disapproval by society was effective. In 1802 North Carolina had made it illegal to send "a challenge or fight a duel or to aid or abet in doing either..." though passage did not end dueling in the state. The governor of South Carolina John Lyde Wilson produced his American Code in 1838. South Carolina only passed an anti-dueling law in 1880.

In 1798 William Pitt accused opposition politician George Tierney of a "desire to obstruct the defence of the country." When Tierney demanded that the accusation be withdrawn the Prime Minister repeated it. In response George Tierney sent the Prime Minister a challenge to a duel. As hard as it is for us today to believe the Prime Minister accepted. The two men met on Putney Heath, where in 1809 Lord Castlereagh and George Canning also met in a duel (Canning was injured). After the first shots were exchanged, with the slim Pitt missing the rotund Tierney, Pitt fired his second shot in the air (a procedure known as delopement). One of the seconds stopped the proceedings declaring that honor had been vindicated.

The Duke of Wellington, while Prime Minister, fought a duel, over the issue of Catholic Emancipation. Winchilsea accused the Iron Duke, according to one biographer, of "insidious designs for the infringement of our liberties and the introduction of Popery into every department of State.") against the Earl of Winchilsea in March of 1829 on the commons at Battersea Fields. Winchilsea stood firm and took the Duke's shot, which missedwhether intentionally or through poor shooting is a matter of opinion. Winchilsea, seeing the difficulties that would be involved in killing a national hero, discharged his pistol harmlessly in the air. A picture of a pair of pretty, saw-handled pistols presented to Wellington by the East India Company in included in the book, though in this duel the Duke used a pair of pistols borrowed from his physician.

From the middle of the eighteenth century the dueling pistol replaced the sword as the chief weapon in affairs of honor. In London the first duel involving the use of pistols took place in 1711 on Tothill Fields. After 1785 the pistol became the primary weapon of choice, in part because the carrying of swords, except by military men, became less common and due to a decline in fencing skills. The lack of training in the use of the sword gave rise to what was considered a "base" inequality in duels with blades.

The pistol was the "great equalizer"; a combatant could master the technical aspects of dueling with a pistol in a relatively short time. "Firearms," one commentator noted, "leave no inequality between combatants, but [that] of intrepidity." Oddly enough, it turned out, pistols were also safer for both parties. While a fifth of those involved in duels with swords died, only six and a half percent of those who chose pistols died as a result of their encounter (though a third were injured as a result).

At first rifled barrels and sights were considered unsporting, as was careful aiming and practicing beforehand. One duelist opined that when a duelist took the time to aim carefully, even a poor shot had a one in five chance of hitting his target. One duelist complained after an encounter that his opponent "took full aim at him." The pistols used in the Burr/Hamilton duel had had secret hair triggers (and hidden rifling). Hair triggers enjoyed some popularity but premature discharges and accidents involving wounded seconds and spectators made them fall into disrepute. One Abraham Bosquet describes an incident where a duelist shot himself in the foot while awaiting a duel to commence due to a pistol with a hair trigger. Though rifling was considered bad form, Lord Cardigan used a rifled pistol in his 1840 duel and was censured for it. Various strategies were employed to prevent injuring including standing sideways to make a slimmer target, though Charles James Fox replied, "Why man, I'm as thick one way as the other!" when his second suggested it in his duel in Hyde Park in 1779. Fox was injured in the duel.

At first duelists used the procedure of "cool, alternate firing" with the challenger, as the aggrieved party, often given the advantage of the first shot. Surely coolness would be necessary with such a procedure. Later the more familiar firing upon an agreed signal became the common practice, with both parties firing at the same time. Distances at first were "murderously" closeonly four or six yards. Later common distances were ten, twelve or fourteen paces (a pace was general counted as about sixty inches), though the Decatur/Barron duel was fought at eight. Generally one or two shot were enough to end a duel and satisfy the party's honor one way or the other.

In the duel between the Count Rice and the vicomte du Barri at Bath in 1778, as reported by Charles Mackay in his Memoirs of the Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Rice shot du Barri in the chest, but the two men went on firing until at last they attacked each other with swords. Du Barri was mortally wounded and Rice suffered injury also in what was more a brawl than an affair of honor. In one instance when four shots were fired it was considered contrary to the customary rules. In 1798, in the duel between the Prime Minister William Pitt and George Tierney, both fired twice, with Pitt's second shot aimed in the air.

One of the most famous duels in United States history took place on July 11, 1804 between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton at Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton, the former Treasury secretary died as a result of his wound, former Vice President Burr was indicted for murder but not prosecuted. Three years earlier Alexander Hamilton's son had been killed in duel at the same spot using the same set of tricked-out .544 caliber English-made Wogdon pistols. The pistols, which belonged to James Barker Church, Hamilton's brother-in-law, had also been used in a duel between Burr and Church in 1799 (Church may have earlier been forced to flee Britain due to a duel). Legend has it this pair of pistols took the lives of eleven men.

American naval hero Stephen Decatur was killed and his opponent wounded in a duel in March 1820 at Bladensburg, Maryland, in a case where both opponents had aimed, at close range, to wound the other. Decatur's brother-in-law, a Marine captain was also killed in a duel in April 1802. The son of Francis Scott Key, writer of the "Star-Spangled Banner", died on the same dueling grounds in March 1836. United States President Andrew Jackson fought more than a dozen duels in his life (though rumor has it the number was closer to a hundred).

In Britain dueling was prohibited in 1819 and in the Army in 1844. The last duel in Britain reportedly occurred in 1852 at Priest Hill in Surrey. It was fought by two Frenchmen. Cournet, a naval captain, fired and missed and his opponent Bartlemey's pistol misfired. When Bartlemey's pistol misfired a second time, Cournet gallantly offered his weapon to his opponent, who took it and mortally wounded the brave but foolhardy Cournet. The classic Western gunfight can be seen as a more savage version of the duel. In 1916 Chicago two Irishmen, Michael McDonough and Frank Carney fought a deadly "pistol duel" in a crowded tavern.

variste Galois (18111832), a mathematical prodigy who died in a duel at the tender age of 20. Rothman identified serious difficulties with the political enemies scenario. Instead, he posited that there truly was a duel, fought over a woman17-year-old Stphanie-Felicie Poterin du Motel. According to Rothman, Galois' opponent was Ernest Armand Duchtelet, a student and friend of Galois. In Rothman's view, the evidence points to two friends falling in love with the same woman and settling the issue in a game of Russian roulette.

The end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth however was the golden age of the duel. There was a change from snap shooting to slow, aimed firing, despite the fact that the author of a British Code of Duel thought taking careful aim unfair and should be forbidden. This change in dueling styles brought about a change in dueling pistols from the light, elegant pistols of the earlier era to new heavier weapons. Along with the change in shooting style came a fashion for target practice. According to Atkinson, fore and rear sights were eventually fitted on virtually all dueling pistols. Gentlemen would regularly practice snuffing a candle, shattering the stem of a wine glass or hitting a wafer at ten to twenty yards. Perhaps these changes helped hasten the end of dueling as the practice took on the aspects of assassination.

The golden era of the dueling pistol in Britain lasted from around 1770 to 1850. By 1780 it was stated that "pistols are the weapons now generally made use of." Robert Wogdon was the most celebrated of the manufacturers of flintlock dueling pistols, whose object was to make a nicely balanced, fine handling, accurate and often intentionally beautiful pistol. Wogdon began working as a gunmaker in London in 1765 and opened a shop in the fashionable Haymarket at the end of 1774. Atkinson estimates the number of lives claimed by Wogdon pistols in the "many hundreds," earning Wogdon the sobriquet of the "patron of that leaden death."

The British Dueling Pistol includes black and white photographs of the exquisite products of the gunmaker's art. The reader has to remind himself that though these are works of art, they were also technical devices made expressly for killing men. Atkinson presents generous quotes from contemporary memoirs on dueling and the gunmaker's art.

Online, books from Museum Restoration Service can be found at: Museum Restoration Service

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2006