The Duel
or: Actually, That IS a Gun in My Pocket, and I am NOT just Happy to See You

We have all seen the gauntlets thrown down, metaphorically and literally, in films, literature, and plays. We have seen rapiers, broadswords,cutlasses, pistols, and lightsabers, combatants choosing their weapons, saluting, and trying to kill each other like civilized people. The duel is honorable, chivalrous, and noble. Bear that in mind while you're bleeding to death all over your best clothes.

Them's Fightin' Words

Dueling was at the height of its popularity in Europe during the 16th Century, though it evolved over a few hundred years, and the weapons of choice differed depending on the country in which your honor had been insulted. The rapier, the most familiar of dueling swords, probably originated in Italy or Spain, but was eventually taken on by French and English duellists.

As with the Euro, the English for some time eschewed the long, thin blade for the good old-fashioned short sword. Elizabeth I actually ordered her London gatekeepers to break all blades over a yard in length, but if your opponent can kill you from three feet away, and you need to get within two, it becomes fairly clear which option you're going to take.

Pistols became the item of the day as soon as they were available and accurate enough to give a man a chance of actually hitting something. If you think about what ten paces actually looks like, it doesn't seem much, but to a solid ball coming from a smooth-bore pistol, it's plenty of room to stray.

There were general sets of rules and regulations--more on those in a moment--but it wasn't until 1777 that a plucky group of Irishman decided that it would be rather a capital idea to regularize them, so that one could kill a man in Dublin the same way as he did in Belfast. The twenty-five points became known as the Irish Code Duello, and if you didn't follow the Ten Commandments, you'd likely end up following these.

Now then.

The Judicial Duel

Very formal, irksome, but legal as far as the King was concerned. It started with the calling out--remember your Spaghetti Western lingo--of the offending party, usually with the throwing of a glove, a dagger, or a favor at his feet. The dagger seems like the coolest one of these options, as it's no good getting your gloves dirty and a favor just doesn't seem particularly tough. This practice was eventually given up for the less dramatic spoken or written challenge, which is a shame, as angrily storming into a tavern and giving someone a letter cannot possibly be as satisfying as tossing a blade at them.

Presuming you've done this in front of friends of his, he'll feel a right chump for backing down, and so you're off to petition the Crown for a field. The Crown, which loves a good show, will likely grant it's royal thunbs-up and you're off to the races.

You Can't Buy Publicity Like This

Judicial duels had the endorsement of the Crown, and as such, were offically announced and typically well attended. Friends, family, and the court could all be relied upon to attend your death, if not the subsequent funeral.

No Blood, No Foul

Each combatant had a grandfather on hand to make sure you had a good, clean fight. They were responsible for weapons checks, armoring terms, and the removal of all hidden weapons and items of magical properties, defensive or otherwise. There were also judges for these events, so if your opponent killed you unfairly, you can rest (in peace) assured he'd be severely reprimanded.

That's All, Folks

A duel could end in any of the following ways:
  • One Party is Killed
  • Both Parties are Killed (well, obviously)
  • First Blood is Drawn
  • Sunset
  • Royal Order
Happily, then, both one's honor and one's body could leave the field in tact.

Extra-Judicial Duel

Dangerous, private, and illegal--so a lot better looking on film. They were not announced, and hence did not tend to draw a crowd. In the 17th Century the Catholic Church condemned private duels, making one wonder whether the Vatican at the time was getting a percentage of the judicial duel box-office (anyway, it's the concessions that really make the money). Private duellists were threatened with excommunication, and denied the advantage of burial in hallowed ground, though this was largely unenforced.

Otherwise, the etiquette was largely the same, except the duel could end in a few less life-preserving ways. Private fights meant private rules, and personal vendettas. It's a more dangerous man who doesn't care about the public's opinion of his honor.

Why Danny Zuko Drove for Kenickie at the End of Grease

Danny was acting as his second, a huge responsibility to take on, so you'd best know what you're getting into.

The first duty of the second was, wherever possible, to prevent the spilling of blood. It is a service something akin to the modern practice of leading your drunk friend out of the bar to the tune of 'he didn't mean it' and 'he's not usually like this.' A duel could thus usually be prevented by a simple apology; however, men being what they are, it usually came down to 'you and me, outside, buddy,' at which point your duties as second changed dramatically.

Once the field is taken, you could very well find yourself with sword or gun in hand (two guns were sometimes allowed, but the practice was largely considered vulgar) fighting the friend of your friend's enemy. Clear? A proper duel means equal numbers on both sides, so there's a whole other guy over there with your name on him.

A Few Good Duels

Of course they are countless, but here is a short list of a few of my favorite on-screen duels: I know there are many more, but I can't think of them just now. View them well.

Du"el*ing, n.

e act or practice of fighting in single combat. Also adj.

[Written also duelling.]


© Webster 1913.

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