How to win a duel

When honour was at stake, a gentleman’s only option was to cross swords

For centuries, settling a dispute through armed combat was not only customary, it was a highly respected ritual reserved for the upper class. These fights, known as duels, would occur when a man’s honour was questioned or brazenly offended. For a proud gentleman, personal or family honour was worth more than gold, and although duels usually ended when the first blood was drawn, some were fought to the death.

Duels were carefully organised and followed a code of conduct, which separated them from medieval trials of combat and ancient forms of contest. They became a cultural norm throughout Europe during the Renaissance era, when the nobility commonly carried razor sharp rapiers as a symbol of their wealth and status, as well as for protection.

Blades remained the primary weapon of choice for duels until the development of pistols saw combatants aim gunshots at one another instead of sword blows. In these arguably deadlier duels, men would often try not to kill their opponent, shooting wide of the target. However, one of the most notorious duels in US history saw politician Alexander Hamilton shot dead by Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804.

Duelling eventually became outlawed in many countries, but the practice continued in secret up until the early 20th century. As one historian put it, the First World War was “a duel that virtually ended duelling”.

A gentleman’s guide to restoring his honour through swordplay

1. Issue a formal challenge

If a fellow gentleman makes a rude remark about your wife (or worse) challenge him to a duel. Write down your grievances in a letter and demand satisfaction. In the unlikely event the rapscallion refuses, call him a coward.

2. Arrange a time and place

Choose a friend to be your ‘second’. He will meet with your enemy’s second and the pair will do their best to reach a compromise. If bloodshed is unavoidable, they will arrange a time and place for the duel and prepare the weapons.

3. Abide by etiquette

When gentlemen fight they follow the Code Duello, or ‘code of duelling’, which sets out the rules for dignifi ed duelling behaviour. These can vary, but usually the challenged party has the right to choose the weapon.

4. Prepare to fight

The challenged party gets to choose the location, but your second will scour the ground in search of unfair advantages. The duellists must also prove they’re not wearing any protection. It’s a sensible idea to have a doctor present.

5. Keep calm in combat

Get into position by standing the agreed number of paces apart and only begin duelling once the signal has been given. To uphold your reputation you must show courage at all times during the duel.

6. Honour is restored

The duel is over when blood is drawn and honour is restored. Of course, it’s not always the offended party that declares victory, and sometimes it’s the opponent who gets to add injury to insult.

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 105, written by Jodie Tyley 

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