Dueling Pistols

18th Century English Dueling Pistols, and a look at the history and culture of dueling.
Duel; Alexander Hamilton versus Raymond Burr

Duels go back at least to 11th century medieval Europe and have gone through some changes. Each culture had their own rules of engagement and customs. While medieval European duels were fought with sabres or swords, the practice of using pistols came about in the 1600s. In the early 1700s, dueling was illegal in parts of Europe, but laws did not seem to diminish the practice. Dueling was not for everyone, but reserved only for those in high standing. You had to be of noble birth, or otherwise be considered a "gentleman" in order to even qualify to settle a dispute or prove/reclaim honor by way of a duel. This generally meant that you had to be either wealthy, powerful, or both. Even in cases where dueling was illegal, there was often no prosecution, the offenders being too high ranking or untouchable to punish. In a duel, each person was accompanied by at least one person, called a "second." Prior to the 1600s, not only did the dueling parties have to duel, but their seconds as well.

In most European societies, it was disallowed for a person of lower class to challenge someone of upper class to a duel, and vice versa. For a nobleman to even consider a duel against a lower-ranking person was a dishonor in itself. Any person of lower standing who had committed offense to a nobleman was usually just beaten with a cane by a nobleman, or one of his servants, and dismissed. The general idea behind dueling was for an offended nobleman to protect his honor by challenging the offender to a duel. Once the duel was fought, the issue was meant to be considered resolved, regardless of the outcome. It was common for a place and time to be agreed upon, usually in some isolated place, away from crowds or prying eyes. Especially in cases where the practice was banned by the local government. Going back through the ages, there were many different rules of engagement and forms of etiquette. Since 17th century European culture, it had standardized into the duels that most people are now familiar with.

After a slight, insult or dishonor (real or imagined) the offended party would challenge the offender to a duel. This could be communicated verbally, or by removing a gauntlet (glove) and throwing it at the offender's feet or in other ways. If the challenged picked up the gauntlet, that was taken to mean that they agreed to a duel. This is where we get the term "Throwing down the gauntlet." There were also cases of slapping the offender across the face with the gauntlet, in particularly bitter cases, but was not common. Unlike what you may have seen in the media, duels were not always to the death. There could be different terms agreed to by both parties. Often, just drawing first blood was enough to satisfy the duel. Or until one party was no longer able to fight. Sometimes, one or even both duelers would intentionally miss, and the issue would be settled without bloodshed. In dueling with pistols, the general rule was one shot each, and only one shot, unless another arrangement was made. In using pistols, the most common method was to have the duelers stand back to back, take a preset number of steps, turn and fire, or have a counting of seconds, then turn and fire. Sometimes the duel was initiated by having a neutral person throw down a handkerchief, signaling the duelers, already facing each other, to fire.

Dueling began to fall out of favor in the 1800s, has declined sharply to the point of extinction, and is illegal almost everywhere.

he most famous duel fought on American soil was undoubtedly that between sitting Vice President Aaron Burr and Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. It was a duel that very likely changed the course of American history.

Aaron Burr was a hero of the American Revolution, a brilliant man and an astute politician, with many friends in high places. Whether or not he carried the 1800 election, it is likely he'd have had a great deal more influence in the course of American affairs, if not for his fateful duel with Alexander Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton was also a Revolutionary hero--co-author of The Federalist Papers and one of the founding fathers of the new republic on the American continent. A senior aide to General Washington, he commanded three battalions at Yorktown. He served in the Continental Congress, was the new country's first Secretary of the Treasury and a signer of the Constitution. He quickly became one of its foremost authorities on constitutional interpretation, possibly the first American constitutional lawyer.

Who can say what contributions these two brilliant and capable men might have made to the new republic, and what path its history might have taken, if not for the fateful duel that ended in the death of one and the disgrace of the other? Either or both of them may well have become president of the republic during their lives.

The two men held such conflicting political views that it was inevitable they would clash, but the enmity between them intensified during the bitterly contested election of 1800. After a tie in the electoral college in which Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received 73 electoral votes, it became the task of the House of Representatives to finally decide--after the casting of thirty-six separate ballots--that Thomas Jefferson would be president, and Aaron Burr Vice President.

It was rumored at the time that Hamilton had more than a little to do with Burr's being denied the Presidency, actively working behind the scenes to ensure his defeat. It was certainly no secret that Hamilton reg a rded Burr as a dangerous fanatic whose views on monetary policy and government were little short of lunacy. But it wasn't until 1804, just before Burr was defeated in his bid to become governor of New York, that a New York newspaper quoted Hamilton as saying that Burr was ". . . a dangerous man . . . who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government."

18th Century Dueling Pistols

Burr sent Hamilton a letter demanding he apologize and retract his remarks, and there followed an acrimonious correspondence in which Hamilton refused, after which Burr challenged him to a duel, and Hamilton felt honor-bound to accept. Since dueling had been outlawed in New York, the Burr and Hamilton parties rowed across the Hudson River in separate boats to a site known as the Heights of Weehawken, a river landing beneath the New Jersey Palisades which had become a popular dueling site of the day. The pistols were transported inside a traveling case, and the oarsmen instructed to stand with their backs to the duelers, so they could say under oath, if called upon to testify, that they had seen no pistols--precautions that were probably for naught, given the outcome and the prominence of the duelers.

Some scholars have said Burr was homicidal for issuing the challenge, others that Hamilton must have been suicidal for agreeing to the duel. Still others have said both arguments were true.

The duel was fought with a pair of matched flintlock pistols made by London gunsmiths Wogden and Barton. By a bizarre coincidence, the same pistols had been used in several previous duels, including another involving Aaron Burr, and, more significantly, one in which Hamilton's oldest son, Phillip, had been killed in 1801. In an eerie foreshadowing of his father's death to come, Phillip had been fatally wounded after declining to fire on his opponent, reportedly due to regret for the part he played in provoking the duel.

Did Hamilton, upon seeing the pistols to be used in the duel with Burr, recognize them as the same matched pair that had led to the death of his son? If so, surely the realization would have made it difficult for him to pick one of them up, deliberately aim and hold it steady enough to have any hope of hitting his target. Or did the memory of how his son died so cloud his mind that he was unable to adequately defend himself? History does not record the answers to those questions, but it is likely that Phillip's death was strongly on his mind that day, and may well have been a factor in Hamilton's fatally odd behavior during the duel with Burr.

Hamilton fired first, but his shot went high in the air, leaving Burr untouched. Some accounts claim the pistol he used had a "hair" trigger that caused the weapon to discharge prematurely, spoiling his aim. Others suggested that Hamilton resolved in advance to deliberately "throw" (miss) his shot, giving Burr a chance to pause and reconsider, and that he did so because of his own religious convictions against taking a life. A letter he wrote to his wife before the duel affirmed that he would rather have died than to live with the guilt of taking another’s life.

When it was Burr's turn to fire, however, he exhibited no such qualms. Taking deadly aim at Alexander Hamilton, he pulled the trigger, striking his opponent in the stomach. Hamilton was carried to a friend’s house on Manhattan Island with the ball from Burr's pistol still lodged in his spine. He suffered agonizing pain before dying of the wound a day later.

Burr was charged with murder in New York, where he lived, and in New Jersey where the duel took place, but neither charge was ever brought to trial. He completed his term as vice president, but his reputation never recovered. His political career in ruins, he migrated west. Scandal continued to follow him until his death in 1836.

Flintlock firearms have a slight but noticeable delay between pulling the trigger and the actual firing. In a duel, it was required for each party to have the exact same weapon, with the exact advantages or disadvantages, in order to offer the involved parties a fair duel. Since a duel required a fair and perfectly matched set of weapons, the pistols were made in matched sets of two, to exacting standards of accuracy. The pistols used in the fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Raymond Burr were the British-built models by the London gunsmith firm of Wogdon & Barton. The pistols used in the duel still survive today. They changed hands several times before being purchased by the Chase Manhattan Bank in 1930, and today remain on display in a Manhattan branch of J.P. Morgan Chase and Company.

Firearm Type: Flintlock Dueling Pistol (matched pair)
Nation Of Manufacture: Britain, United States
Period of Use : 1600s-1850s
Variations: Various. Matched sets of 2 pistols
Ammunition: Lead Ball (Various calibers)
Wars: 2 Gentlemen in high standing, Each defending their honor
Recent Prices at Auction for Originals: US $5,000-$20,000 (Rare)

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