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For an account of the Steven Spielberg film, see Duel (film).
For an article about the UK band, see Duels (band).

A duel or duel of honour is a formalised type of armed combat in which two individuals participate. Duels represent a contrived combat situation designed to maximise fairness of combat. They usually develop out of a desire for one party (the challenger) to redress an insult to his honour. Typically, duels have been fought between members of the same social class; they are regarded as especially noteworthy when those partaking are of the upper class but occur at all social strata. In the modern United States, duels occur rarely but duel-like gunfights occur mostly among the urban lower class.

Dueling is defined as combat between two people with the possibility that at least one of the two die.[1] In the original laws of northern Europe it was the appeal of last resort in dispute processing. It is now illegal in all but a few countries around the world.

Alexander Hamilton fights his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.
Alexander Hamilton fights his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.



Duels could be fought with some sort of sword or, from the 18th Century on, [2] with pistols. For this end special sets of duelling pistols were crafted for the wealthiest of noblemen.

After the offence, whether real or imagined, the offended party would demand "satisfaction" [3] from the offender, signalling this demand with an inescapably insulting gesture, such as hitting the offender in the face with a glove, or throwing the glove before him, hence the phrase "throwing down the gauntlet". This originates from medieval times, when a knight was knighted. A would-be knight would receive a ritual slap in the face, said to be the last one he ever had to accept without retaliating tenfold. Therefore anyone being slapped with a glove, was considered, like a knight, to accept the challenge, or be dishonoured. Both parties would name a trusted representative (a Second) who would, between them, determine a suitable "field of honour", the chief criterion being isolation from interruptions. Duels traditionally took place at dawn, for this very reason. It was also the duty of each party's second to check that the weapons were equal and that the duel was fair.

At the choice of the offended party, the duel could be:

  • at first blood, in which case the first man to bleed would lose;
  • till one man was heavily wounded and unable to physically continue the duel;
  • to the death, in which case there would be no satisfaction until the other party was mortally wounded;
  • or, in the case of pistol duels, each party would agree to fire one shot each, after which the duel would be declared over.

Under the latter conditions, one or both parties could intentionally miss in order to fulfil the conditions of the duel, without loss of either life or honour. Practices varied, however, and many pistol duels were to first blood or death. The offended party could stop the duel at any time if he deemed his honour satisfied.

For a pistol duel, the parties would be placed back to back with loaded weapons in hand and walk a set number of paces, turn to face the opponent, and shoot. Typically, the graver the insult, the fewer the paces agreed upon. Alternately, a pre-agreed length of ground would be measured out by the seconds and marked, often with swords stuck in the ground. At a given signal, often the dropping of a handkerchief, the principals could advance to the marker and fire at will. This latter system reduced the possibility of cheating, as neither principal had to trust the other not to turn too soon. Another system involved alternate shots being taken - the challenged firing first.

Many historical duels were prevented by the difficulty of arranging the "methodus pugnandi." In the instance of Dr. Brocklesby, the number of paces could not be agreed upon; and in the affair between Akenside and Ballow, one had determined never to fight in the morning, and the other that he would never fight in the afternoon. John Wilkes, who did not stand upon ceremony in these little affairs, when asked by Lord Talbot how many times they were to fire, replied, "just as often as your Lordship pleases; I have brought a bag of bullets and a flask of gunpowder."


In English, the word duel is attested from the latter half of the 15th century. It derives from Old Latin duellum "war", in Middle Latin associated with duo "two" by popular etymology, shifting its meaning to "one-to-one combat". The word is ultimately from a PIE root *deh2v "to burn, to destroy", cognate to Old English teona "damage".

Physical confrontations related to insults and social standing pre-date human society, but the formal concept of a duel, in Western society, developed out of medieval judicial duel and older pre-Christian practices such as the Viking Age Holmganga. In 1459 (MS Thott 290 2), Hans Talhoffer reports that even though duelling was prohibited in Franconia, there were still seven capital crimes that were still commonly accepted to be settled by a judicial duel: murder, treason, heresy, infidelity towards one's lord, blasphemy, forgery and rape. Most societies did not condemn duelling, and the victor of a duel was regarded not as a murderer but as a hero, his social status often increased. During the early Renaissance, duelling established the status of a respectable and accepted manner for gentlemen to resolve disputes. Duelling in such societies was seen as an alternative to less regulated conflict.

The first published code duello, or "code of dueliing", appeared in Renaissance Italy; however, it had many antecedents, ranging back to old Germanic law. The first formalised national code was France's, during the Renaissance. In 1777, Ireland developed a code duello, which was indeed the most influential in American duelling culture.

Prominent duels

To decline a challenge was often equated to defeat by forfeiture, and was sometimes even regarded as dishonourable. Prominent and famous individuals ran an especial risk of being challenged for duels.

Among the most famous duels are the American HamiltonBurr duel, in which notable Federalist Alexander Hamilton was fatally wounded, and the duel between Duke of Wellington and the 10th Earl of Winchilsea, wherein both participants intentionally missed the other.

The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin prophetically described a number of duels in his works, notably Onegin's duel with Lensky in Eugene Onegin. The poet was mortally wounded in a controversial duel with Georges d'Anthès, a French officer rumoured to be his wife's lover. d'Anthès, who was accused of cheating in this duel, married Pushkin's sister-in-law and went on to become French minister and senator. The whole affair was instigated by anonymous letters, apparently written by two homosexual princes in order to revenge d'Anthès for his homosexual affair with the Ambassador of Holland.

The last fatal duel in Canada saw Robert Lyon challenge John Wilson to a pistol duel after a quarrel over remarks made about a local schoolteacher whom Wilson ended up marrying after Lyon was killed in the duel.

In 1864, American writer Mark Twain - then editor of the New York Sunday Mercury - narrowly avoided fighting a duel with a rival newspaper editor, apparently through the quick thinking of his second, who exaggerated Twain's prowess with a pistol. [4] [5] [6]

(See also: List of famous duels)

Opposition to duelling

The Catholic Church and many political leaders like King James I of Britain, usually denounced duelling throughout Europe's history, though some authorities tacitly allowed it, believing it to relieve long-standing familial and social tensions.

Duelling began to fall out of favour in America in the 18th century. Benjamin Franklin denounced the practice as uselessly violent, and George Washington encouraged his officers to refuse challenges during the American Revolutionary War because he believed that the death by duelling of officers would have threatened the success of the war effort.

Furthermore, duelling was often used as a façade for legalised murder. In 1806, Andrew Jackson—later to become a U.S. President—shot an opponent after the duel had technically ended. By the end of the 19th century, legalised duelling was almost extinct in most of the world. Some American states have laws which establish procedures for legal duelling, but it is unlikely that they would be upheld in court.

High level bans

Many jurisdictions have very high level bans laid against duelling, with stiff penalties for violation. Several United States state constitutions ban the practice, the most common penality is disenfranchisement and/or disqualification from all offices.

  • Alabama 's Constitution (Articel IV, Section 86):
    • "The Legislature shall pass such penal laws as it may deem expident to suppress the evil practice of duelling.
  • Tennessee 's Constitution (Articel IX, Section 3):
    • Any person who shall, after the adoption of this Constitution, fight a duel, or knowingly be the bearer of a challenge to fight a duel, or send or accept a challenge for that purpose, or be an aider or abettor in fighting a duel, shall be deprived of the the right to hold any office of honor or profit in this state, and shall be punished otherwise, in such manner as the Legislature may prescribe.
    • , California, and Texas have provisions providing for punishments and/or loss of right to vote and stand for office for engaging in or being a second in a duel, provisions held over from the 19th Century.
  • Mississippi 's Constitution (Articel 3, Section 19):
    • Human life shall not be imperiled by the practice of dueling; and any citizen of this state who shall hereafter fight a duel, or assist in the same as second, or send, accept, or knowingly carry a challenge therefor, whether such an act be done in the state, or out of it, or who shall go out of the state to fight a duel, or to assist in the same as second, or to send, accept, or carry a challenge, shall be disqualified from holding any office under this Constitution, and shall be disenfranchised.
  • Kentucky 's Constitution (Section 228 and 239):
    • Members of the General Assembly and all officers, before they enter upon the execution of the duties of their respective offices, and all members of the bar, before they enter upon the practice of their profession, shall take the following oath or affirmation: I do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth, and be faithful and true to the Commonwealth of Kentucky so long as I continue a citizen thereof, and that I will faithfully execute, to the best of my ability, the office of .... according to law; and I do further solemnly swear (or affirm) that since the adoption of the present Constitution, I, being a citizen of this State, have not fought a duel with deadly weapons within this State nor out of it, nor have I sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have I acted as second in carrying a challenge, nor aided or assisted any person thus offending, so help me God.
    • Any person who shall, after the adoption of this Constitution, either directly or indirectly, give, accept or knowingly carry a challenge to any person or persons to fight in single combat, with a citizen of this State, with a deadly weapon, either in or out of the State, shall be deprived of the right to hold any office of honor or profit in this Commonwealth; and if said acts, or any of them, be committed within this State, the person or persons so committing them shall be further punished in such manner as the General Assembly may prescribe by law.
  • The Uniform Code of Military Justice (Articel 114):
    • Any person subject to this chapter who fights or promotes, or is concerned in or connives at fighting a duel, or who, having knowledge of a challenge sent or about to be sent, fails to report the facts promptly to the proper authority, shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.

Modern duels

Duelling still continues to occur, albeit not with regularity. In May of 2005, twelve youths aged between fifteen and seventeen were arrested in Japan and charged with violating a duelling law that came into effect in 1889. Six other youths were also arrested on the same charges in March [7].

Game-theoretic aspects of duelling

Duelling is a scenario sometimes used in discussions of games and game theory.

One example is a duelling-type scenario with 3 participants, each with different levels of skill as a marksman. Shooter A has a 95% rate of accuracy, shooter B has 75%, and C has 5%. The shooters take positions on an equilateral triangle; each chooses a target and (if alive) fires one shot. The question is: Which participant is in the best position, assuming each shooter is rational and acts accordingly?

If the shots are fired simultaneously, it is best to be shooter A. Simultaneous shots mean that there is no survival-related advantage in targeting the more accurate shooter, since his shot will have already been fired by the time he is eliminated. Therefore, it is best to be A, since he has the least competent opposition.

If the shots are not to be fired simultaneously (as occurs in real life) it is best to be shooter C. Shooters A and B, operating rationally, will target the more competent opponent hoping to prevent said opponent's shot from ever being issued. This means that shooter C is in little danger of being killed himself.

Replacements for duelling

Duelling has been replaced, in modern times, with other sports and games that are generally much safer than duelling itself. On occasion, these sports occur with the honor and feud rhetoric associated with duels (see: grudge match) but normally they are pursued as recreation and carry little of the cultural weight associated with duels. Often, indeed, the participants of the mock duel will be acquaintances or friends outside of the "duel".

  • Boxing, a sport wherein participants engage in a controlled fistfight, is believed to be a replacement for duelling developed by the English. As late as the 1960s, some U.S. municipalities encouraged adolescents, instead of fighting in private, to pursue their confrontations in a boxing ring.
  • Fencing is a sport which simulates a sword fight, but with weapons unlikely to cause serious harm.
  • Laser Tag
  • Some martial arts are recreational sports derived, frequently, from more deadly combat practices.
  • Some video games allow duelling-type scenarios. One popular genre is the fighting game, in which two player-controlled characters engage in hand-to-hand combat against each other.

See also

In the world of cinema, duelling has provided themes for such motion pictures as Stanley Kubrick's 1975 Barry Lyndon, an adaptation of a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray from 1844, and Ridley Scott's 1977 The Duellists, which adapted Joseph Conrad's 1908 short story The Duel. [8] [9]


  • The Duel: A history of duelling by Robert Baldrick
  • Duelling in America by Ben Truman (1992).... the original was The Field of Honor (1884)

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