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

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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.

Sim­i­lar style

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

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