This is the first of many articles exploring the Victorian world steampunk novels are based on. Enjoy!
For hundreds of years, one of the key markers of social privilege and good breeding was was the right to defend personal honor with deadly force. To most of us today, the idea of exchanging gunfire over accusations of cheating at cards or the assertion that someone has lied seems ridiculous, but for those who aspired to the status of “gentlemen,” these accusations could become matters of life and death.
Aristocrats in Europe fought duels for hundreds of years, but the type of formal combat of most interest to steampunk enthusiasts is the pistol duels of the early 19th century. In England and the United States, these were generally conducted under some local variation of the Irish Code Duello, which was promulgated in 1777, at about the time that pistols began to replace swords as the most common weapon on the field of honor.
The code consists of 25 rules, many of which are designed to defuse the dispute. The Code lays out several point at which an “apology” or “explanation” may be honorably offered and accepted. Special emphasis is given the role of the seconds, the trusted assistants to the principal parties of the duel. Rule 21 states: Seconds are bound to attempt a reconciliation before the meeting takes place, or after sufficient firing or hits, as specified.
The Code gives the challenged the right to choose the weapon and the ground, while the challenger chooses his distance, and the seconds fix the time and terms of firing.
The weapons were generally large-caliber, smooth-bore muzzle-loading pistols. Dueling pistols were often works of art in their own right, but not very accurate or reliable by modern standards. The lack of rifling — which causes the bullet to spin for stability — combined with the uneven quality of black powder and the unreliability of flintlock and percussion cap firing mechanisms limited the lethality of these weapons. Most codes took advantage of these defects to lower the lethality even further, limiting the number of shots that could be fired (typically to three) and counting a misfire as one of those shots.
The main concerns with choosing a dueling ground were picking a place where there would be no interference from the law. Even though dueling was widely accepted in this era, it was often illegal. River islands were popular dueling fields, because there was frequently some uncertainty about which state the island was in, and the jurisdictional issue could give a prosecutor an excuse not to act. Maryland hosted many of the politically-motivated duels originating in Washington, DC because the practice was legal in Maryland but banned in the nation’s capital.
The code does not specify a standard distance, but sources describe a typical separation between participants as 30 to 40 feet.
Dawn is the traditional time of day for a duel. The low light and mist of the early morning hours aid in concealing the activity, and waiting for at least a day gives all the participants a chance to sleep on their decisions.
Terms of firing could vary. The duelists could stand at the agreed-upon distance and fire upon an agreed-upon signal. They could also fire “at pleasure,” leaving each participant to work out their own trade-off between firing accurately and firing rapidly. There are even some cases where the duelists agree to take turns firing at each other. Given the accuracy and reliability of the pistols involved, this probably wasn’t completely irrational, but it seems like it would be terrifying.
Depending on the code being used, the seriousness of the offense, and the agreement of the parties, the duel could end in many ways. A simple exchange of shots with no one being hit was considered sufficient in many cases, giving each man a chance to prove their seriousness and courage. Other duels might end when at least one participant was hit, or it might continue until one of the participants was disabled. In some cases, the dispute might not be considered settled until one participant was dead.
Dueling’s popularity declined sharply during the latter part of the 19th century. In England, removing the privilege of dueling from the aristocracy was part of a movement against aristocratic privilege in general. Some sources also suggest that boxing began to substitute for dueling at about this time. In the United States, dueling’s decline is often attributed to a reaction against the mass death of the Civil War, and the defeat of the Southern planter class. The increasing reliability and accuracy of firearms probably also played a role.
Like many aspects of the 19th century, dueling will not be missed by most people. However, it does survive in steampunk circles today as the sport of tea dueling.