Dueling Pistols: The Pre-History Every Fan Needs to Know About

dueling pistols set

Dueling, in Europe, was a privilege of the upper class. Laws and customs required that officers and gentleman defend their honorable status. In the 1760s social pressures had pushed the sword out of fashionable dress attire. The sword had been the weapon of choice, on the field of honor, before that time. The use of pistols became more popular, and by 1770 gun makers in Europe were producing custom sets of pistols designed exclusively for dueling.

Dueling was, after all, conducted with exquisite politeness, according to a code that was honorable and fair. Society treated it as a private matter, allowed only among the countries elite the “upper strata’ men with unquestionable honor, those that by there very social standing had earned the right to take the life of another. Intellectuals rationalized it, Poets romanticized it, Politicians defended it, and so it flourished for 70 years across all of Europe and North America.

The foundation for justifying dueling goes way back to laws from A.D. 501. The basic presumptions were:

  • 1) Brave men did not deserve to suffer,
  • 2) Cowards did not deserve to live,
  • 3) God would protect the party whose quarrel was just.

duelThe Judicial Duel was the universal way disputes were resolved in Europe. In the era of Knights, there were small wars where teams were sent against each other, in one “no death” event 60 people died. There was a lot to gain by besting someone; their clothes, horse, weapons, rings, home, wife. There is a little question if you talk about formal dueling in general that the French were “ The Fathers”. This article focuses on Dueling Pistols and their reign as the weapon of choice. As time went by the monarchs of Europe established many guidelines, but one of importance to the justification of dueling was “The Rules and Articles of War”. This document was designed to cover how countries would interact when in conflict. It was also specific about an officer’s behavior. An officer that submitted to insults or was involved in behavior unbecoming to a gentleman could be court marshaled. In order to maintain your status, rank, and social standing you had to be willing and able to duel.

Dueling

A set of dueling pistols in your home became the statement of the upper class. Its mere presence said you were in the class and would be allowed to duel. The guns made everyone aware that you were a man of honor and had the courage to defend your family honor. Officers and Gentlemen were the social police of the era. The bad boys of the day had to watch their consumption, interactions, contacts with females, statements, etc. Specific actions could generate an immediate challenge. Officers were court marshaled and gentlemen lost there social standing for not acting as “a gentleman was expected to act”. This included third party issues where the officer or gentleman was merely present and it was felt they should have challenged the actions of a third party to the first party. Fighting a duel was in fashion, and the young blood-seeking notoriety was anxious to have an opportunity to display their skills. Kings, Presidents, Senators, Supreme Court Justices, all participated in duels, Andrew Jackson is said to have fought in 14 duels.

In order to discourage dueling among his officers “Fredric the Great” built a gallows on the field of honor to hang the survivor. By the 1830s factors began to exert a negative influence on dueling in England. Many people had died, too many gentlemen seemed ready to defend their honor. Public opinion was turning in England. By 1837 Queen Victoria had coerced the military into disavowing dueling. By 1844 “The Rules and Articles of War” were amended, officers could give and accept apologies and remain perfectly honorable. Officers would actually be court marshaled for not taking active measures to prevent a duel. And the duel quickly fell from social grace in England, Canada, and the Northern States of America. In New Orleans, site of the famous “Duelling Oaks – where up to 12 duels were fought in one day”, the police began to enforce the laws against dueling in 1855. Dueling continued in the Southern States of America until the Civil War. In France and Germany, dueling was commonplace until WWI. Major bloody wars with mass deaths impacted societies’ views on individual dispute resolution, the mindset that justified dueling also justified wars, and society had seen enough of blood-based solutions to disputes.

dueling pistols

This list is not inclusive. There are many more gun makers from many more countries. This list is intended to provide only the very best makers whose reputation by itself increases the value of the guns:

ENGLISHFamous for:  Setting the Duelling Pistol standards
Durs EggLongest in the trade, Progressive, Quality, Employed under Twigg, 3 Patents
Joseph EggQuality, Copper percussion cap, Nephew to Durs, 5 Patents
Joseph GriffinMajor transitional contributions, Quality, Employed under John Maton
John MantonDominated trade for a cycle, Innovative, Quality, Employed under Twigg, Heavier barrels, Platinum touch holes, Spur on the trigger guard, Scratch rifling, 4 Patents
Joseph MantonDominated trade for a cycle, Innovative, Quality, Financial difficulties, Employed under John Manton, Platinum touch holes, Scratch rifling, 12 Patents
H.W. MortimerVolume, Quality, Saw-handle style, introduced trade labels
Henry NockPatent breech, Nocksform barrel, Quality, 2 Patents
James PurdeyQuality, Final target pistol style, Employed under Joseph Maton, 1 Patent
John Twigg“Father”, Curved slab butt, Octagonal barrel, Half stock, Quality
Robert WogdonTransitional contribution, Unique barrel designs, Quality, Never used label
FRENCHFamous for:  Setting Duelling standards, beautiful sets
Gastinne RenetteParis, Quality, very elaborate sets, finely engraved
LePageParis, Quality, very ornate sets, sets that delighted Napoleon
Nicolas BoutetVersailles, Quality, last word in elegance
GERMAN
Kuchenreuter FamilyQuality, Regensburg
Andreas SchmidtQuality, Berlin
AMERICA
Simeon NorthQuality, Middletown, Connecticut
J LomasterQuality, York, Pennsylvania
James HaslettQuality, Baltimore, Ohio
Gilbert ForbesGilbert Forbes
BELGIUM
Augustus FrancotteQuality
PRAGUE
LebedaQuality
VIENNA
ContrinerQuality
NowotnyQuality
PirkoQuality

dueling pistols set

Many things are personal opinion; I have reached the following conclusions. In the dueling pistol trade, the English were “The Fathers”. They made the first sets; had major innovation that improved design, handling qualities, and accuracy. The English clearly lead the way. The French were “The Fathers of the Duel” from the beginning and went design crazy with cased gun sets. They produced very elaborate sets that were beautiful pieces of art. Actual duels in France evolved to social showmanship, in some years hundreds of duels were fought and no deaths. They had a purpose; they made a clear public statement that the two individuals (or the parties they represented) disagreed. The potential for loss of life was minimized, but the romance of the duel survived in France. The Germans were the unique holdout in Europe. Some say it was a statement of Germany’s evolution away from the rest of Europe. Germans fought duels right up to World War I. The duels were deadly, someone usually died. Other places are known for having first-class makers of Duelling Pistol Sets; Belgium, Prague, Vienna, and America.

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