Bang! Bang! You're Dead

Dueling at the drop of a hat was as European as truffles, and as American as mom's apple pie

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Young men from all over Europe slipped off to Italy to learn the art of fencing at the flourishing schools there. It was in Italy that the first essential manual on dueling, Flos duellatorum, was published in 1410, and every medieval gentleman studied it closely. Traveling fencing masters spread out and founded their own schools. By 1480 in Germany such schools, called Fechtschulen, enjoyed privileges conferred by the emperor himself, establishing a tradition beloved by the military and students in dueling clubs until well into the 20th century—perhaps, it’s hinted, even today.

In 1527 Charles V, overlord of the Holy Roman Empire, declared that Francis I of France had broken a treaty and was, as Charles would have it, “a stranger to honor and integrity becoming a gentleman.” Francis challenged him. Charles accepted. Their duel, like so many, fizzled away in preliminary negotiations. It was finally canceled, but news of the plans between the two most powerful men in Europe sparked fresh enthusiasm all over the continent. Dueling was plainly the socially correct thing to do.

Their first shots went wild, but in the second round Lady de Nestle was badly wounded.


Battles of honor with various sharp instruments became a favorite pastime in England, Scotland, Spain, Italy, Austria and Germany. For Irish laddies, dueling became an essential rite of passage. In France, swordplay developed into such an obsession that Henry IV was alarmed enough to outlaw it in 1599. His subjects paid no attention. Even though an apology or a few drops of blood often ended such matters, it has been claimed that during a peak 180-year period, 40,000 Frenchmen died of dueling wounds. The figure does not seem so preposterous when you learn that in just one decade under Henry IV, as many as 6,000 dueling deaths occurred. Even women joined in. In 1721, a Lady de Nestle met the Countess de Polignac with pistols in the gardens of Versailles over the handsome Duc de Richelieu. Their first shots went wild, but in the second round de Nestle was badly wounded. In the reign of Louis XIV, Madame de St. Belmont, dressed as a man, met a cavalry officer on the designated field and promptly disarmed him with her sword. It is by no coincidence that the Three Musketeers, who never parted from their swords, are French national heroes—along with Cyrano de Bergerac who outpointed 100 assailants at a time, presumably while composing and reciting his own verse.

By the 1700s dueling textbooks were less concerned with the fine points of swordplay than with the fine points of personal honor, the etiquette involved in exactly when a challenge was required, how to deliver it, how to accept it, and how to emerge, dead or alive, washed clean of the disrespectful look, word or gesture. The semiofficial Code Duello was adopted in Ireland in 1777 and spread rapidly. Its 36 rules laid out the proper conditions for upper-class combat, the wording of challenges, and the right of the challenged to choose the place and weapons. The rules were paramount; if they were broken, it wasn’t a duel at all, merely an unseemly brawl.

The rules of swordplay had long been established, but when guns took over the field, the seconds had more leeway in negotiating matters like distance, the number of shots to be fired, and when. Sometimes a second would call “Ready?” and the duelists, back-to-back, their weapons at their sides, would march forward to the count of paces, wheel and fire. More usually, the seconds measured off the distance and drew their marks. The principals often stood sideways to each other, sucking in their stomachs to narrow the target. One of the seconds counted, “Fire, one, two, three”; it was bad form to fire before “one” or after “three.”

Only another gentleman could meet a gentleman. If a churl insulted a gentleman, the gentleman might have him flogged, but there was no way he could honorably avenge himself face-to-face. Not that it mattered: a peasant’s insult was no insult at all. Among the elite, however slight a slight might be, it could not decently go unchallenged and no challenge could decently go unmet.

Like bungee jumping, rock climbing and other dangerous customs, duels were popular because they were exciting. They offered the restless young an outlet for natural aggressions. With this in mind when he ran for mayor of New York, Norman Mailer called for real jousting in Central Park. Duels spiked the testosterone; they provided the heady rush of risk without the large-scale cost and inconvenience of going to war. They impressed fair ladies. They impressed one’s peers. They impressed those who might grant advancement at court or in the military, illegal or not. In short, they looked good on the résumé.

Alexandre Dumas (Smithsonian, July 1996), writing in the mid-19th century of the glory days of the 17th, gave the world the merrily fearless Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan, parents of dozens of rousing movies. (One of Dumas’s Musketeers at least was based on a real firebrand, Armand de Sillègue, Lord of Athos, who died by the sword in 1643.) As the young hero, d’Artagnan, sets forth to seek his fortune, his father lectures him: “. . . never tolerate the slightest affront from anyone except the cardinal or the king. . . . Fight duels at the drop of a hat, especially since duels are forbidden: that means it takes twice as much courage to fight one.”


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