Duelling with swords can be traced back as far as the Roman period, however as time passed firearms slowly but surely became the weapon of choice
Duelling with firearms quickly became the weapon of choice in the 18th century.
Last month we talked about the ancient practice of duelling with swords, in particular rapiers. In the 17th and 18th centuries, duelling for honour was by no way a new thing; the Vikings had perfected the art with rigorously enforced rules over 1,000 years earlier, and indeed one could call the Roman gladiatorial engagements duels of a kind, even if they were often a bit one-sided and honour a little absent!
However, as time passed, firearms slowly but surely became the weapon of choice, especially in Britain. There were two main reasons for this. The first was that you had to be well trained and physically fit to stand any chance of winning a duel with swords; a requisite sadly lacking in Georgian society. Secondly, and possibly even more importantly, firearms had become reliable, especially when loaded and shot at leisure rather than in haste.
Matched pairs of duelling pistols started appearing around 1770. Almost all followed a similar style, no matter who the maker was. They would be plain flintlock smooth-bore weapons with approximately nine to 10-inch barrels of 24 to 28-bore, rudimentary sights or no sights at all, full stocked (i.e. the fore-end wood would end at the muzzle) and they invariably came cased together with a full complement of accessories to load and maintain the weapons.
Before this time very few were supplied in purpose-made cases or boxes, with pistols in particular usually being supplied in draw string bags of various materials. The better gunmakers quickly sought ways to improve the accuracy of duelling pistol. Rifling the barrel was considered extremely unsporting and generally bad form, so a true duelling pistol should never be rifled. Duelling pistols that have been rifled are more correctly described as “target pistols” by collectors, and tend to be of smaller bore.
Most improvements centred around reducing the “lock-time”, a term used to describe the time taken from depressing the trigger to the discharge of the ball. It makes a lot of sense that the faster a pistol discharges once aimed, the less time there is for “wobble”. Makers such as Durs Egg; H. Mortimer; H. Nock and, of course, the two Mantons among others, developed superb high-speed locks and by 1800 the duelling pistol had been perfected.
The stock was now half-length for better balance, bearings operated on nearly every aspect of the lock-work and the lock-time was almost as fast as the percussion guns that were to follow in around 30 years or so. Set or “hair triggers” were fitted to some, but were also frowned upon and considered the preserve of target pistols by the purists. Some makers, in particular Mortimer, actually went as far as to fit a type of early anatomical grip known as a saw-handle, which allowed the pistol to sit lower in the hand and increase pointability, a grip type that was to reappear some 150 years later, admittedly in a more sophisticated form, on 20th century target pistols.
Despite repeated legislation preventing it, the practice of duelling continued to the 1840s, with the last recorded fatality in 1845. In the end it was public opinion, not the courts, that caused the practice to stop.
“In the end it was public opinion, not the courts, that caused duelling to stop”
Matched pairs of duelling pistols started appearing around 1770