Missouri Digital Heritage :: Education :: Crack of the Pistol :: Origins and Traditions of Dueling

Crack of the Pistol:
Dueling in 19th Century Missouri

Origins and Traditions of Dueling

The Code of Honor and the Code Duello

For years, dueling was a deep-rooted practice in American culture and flourished in nineteenth century Missouri.  Like many early American customs, the original practice was imported from the European continent.  Dueling traditions trace back to the Middle Ages when European nobles and knights defended their honor in man-to-man combat.  As in Europe, dueling in America became associated with a broad code of honor outlining behavior appropriate for aristocrats and gentlemen.  Obedience to this code, including dueling etiquette, was crucial to gaining and maintaining status as a member of the dominant social class.

 In 1777, delegates from five counties in Ireland devised a code to regulate affairs of honor in a document called the Code Duello.   This famous code became known as “the twenty-six commandments” and Irish gentlemen were required to keep a copy in their pistol cases.  The document contained a set of 26 specific rules which determined why, how, and between whom duels were to be fought.  It was an indispensable document which attempted to insure fairness, order, and even the opportunity for the duel to be avoided in an honorable fashion.  An Americanized version of the Code, written by South Carolina governor John Lyde Wilson, appeared in 1838 and became known as the Wilson Code.   A combination of these two codes provided rules of engagement on Missouri’s dueling grounds.          

To Duel or Not to Duel

The duel usually developed out of the desire of a gentleman to rectify a perceived insult to his honor.  It was thought better to die respectably in a duel over an insult than to live on without honor.  The goal of the duel was not necessarily to kill the opponent, as much as it was to gain satisfaction.  This meant restoring one’s honor by demonstrating a willingness to face death. Duels began as a way to settle personal disagreements outside of a court of law.  A gentleman did not go to the courts with a personal issue, but took care of it himself.

Only gentlemen were thought to have honor, and therefore eligible to duel.  To maintain status and social standing a gentleman had to be willing to take his chances on the field of honor.  On the other hand, the Code Duellofrowned upon men of unequal social class settling their differences by dueling.  If a gentleman was insulted by a person of lower class he would not duel him, but might proceed with a caning or cowhiding to humiliate his opponent.

However, any man who refused to duel could be “posted,” in an attempt to goad him into accepting a challenge.  The dueling tradition of posting was unique to the United States. A statement or accusation of cowardice would be hung in public places or be published as a handbill or appear in a newspaper.  Tame language by today’s standards, such slurs as rascal, scoundrel, liar, coward, and puppy were considered extremely disrespectful and were sure to prompt a duel.

  • Tharp posting   In accordance with the Code Duello, the gentleman William Smith refused to duel with William Tharp, a working man. Tharp retaliated by "posting" Smith.

Anatomy of a Duel

In a typical duel, each participant, known as a principal, acted through a trusted representative called a second. The offended individual sent a written challenge through his second.  It was the second’s initial responsibility to try for a reconciliation without violence.  A second who possessed diplomacy could sometimes mediate the situation and bring about an honorable solution without a duel.  If the recipient apologized satisfactorily, the problem was resolved. However, if the recipient decided to fight, he chose the weapons, the time and the place for the duel.  Up until the time the duel began, apologies could be accepted and the duel stopped.

Every detail of the duel was carefully plotted by the appointed seconds.  A suitable field of honor with the chief criterion being isolation was selected and agreed upon.  Dueling was a serious event and needed to be free of interruptions and free from interference by the law.  The large number of islands in the Mississippi River over which no territory or state clearly held jurisdiction made them ideal dueling grounds.  To insure even more privacy, duels were traditionally held at dawn shrouded by the morning mist.

Seconds loaded the pistols, paced the distance, and gave the signal to fire.  The customary nineteenth century dueling weapon was a large caliber single-shot flintlock pistol.  In earlier times, the sword had been the weapon used on the field of honor, but later guns became the weapon of choice.  First developed in the mid-1500s, flintlocks remained popular until the mid-1800s when replaced by the percussion-cap lock.  Fortunately, flintlocks often misfired and accuracy was difficult, so bloodshed was not guaranteed.  Each participant was allowed to have a surgeon in attendance to judge the extent of an injury, provide treatment, or pronounce death.  After the duel began, it could be ended at any time after honor had been satisfied according to the Code.

Based on the severity of the offense, the rules limited the number of shots fired and required the duel to end at first injury thereby reducing the probability of a fatality.  However, one or both parties could purposely miss or delope and intentionally fire a shot in the air to satisfy the conditions of the duel without causing loss of life or honor.  Though choosing to do so might be considered highly offensive and imply that your opponent was not worth shooting.  The Code Duello specifically prohibited this practice as dishonorable.

In nineteenth century Missouri, owning a brace of dueling pistols became a hallmark of status and privilege.  Challenges had to be answered.  Those who refused to duel risked being shunned by society.  A gentleman could honorably refuse if the challenger was of lower social class, the insult was considered trivial, the challenged was the sole family support, or if either or both participants were “in wine” (drunk).  It was not necessary to win the duel, it was only necessary to fight the duel.  The duel conferred honor on both winner and loser.