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Code duello

A code duello is a set of rules for a one-on-one combat, or duel.

Code duellos regulate "fair fights" and thus help prevent vendettas between families and other social factions. They assure that nonviolent means of reaching agreement have been exhausted, that harm is limited by both limiting the terms of engagement, and providing medical care. Finally, they assure that the proceedings have a number of witnesses. The witnesses both assure grieving members of factions of the fairness of the fight, and help provide testimony if legal authorities become involved.

Renaissance France A morally-aceptable duel would start with the challenger issuing a traditional, public, personal insult, based on his grievance, directly to the single person who offended the challenger.

The challenged person had the choice of a public apology or other restitution, or choosing the weapons for the duel. The challenger would then propose a place for the "field of honor," and the challenged man must either accept or propose an alternate. The location had to be a place where the opponents could duel without being arrested. It was common for the guardia to set aside such places and times and spread the information, so "honest people can avoid unpatrolled places."

At the field of honor, each side would bring a doctor and seconds. The seconds would try to reconcile the parties by acting as go-betweens to attempt to settle the dispute with an apology or restitution. If reconciliation succeeded, all parties considered the dispute to be honorably settled, and went home.

The number of seconds was traditionally three, but never less than one.

If one party failed to appear, he was accounted a coward. The appearing party would win by default. The seconds and sometimes the doctor would bear witness of the cowardice.

If reconciliation failed, the seconds would help their friend prepare for the duel, and keep alert for cheating and the authorities. Cheating would cause the cheater to be shot (usually) out of hand. Honorable seconds sometimes shot their own friend if they found him cheating.

Swords were the typical weapon of the time, although guns and more unusual items have been selected.

The two parties would start on opposite sides of a square twenty paces wide. Usually the square was marked at the corners with dropped handkerchiefs. Leaving the square was accounted cowardice.

The opponents agreed to duel to an agreed condition, most often 'first blood,' in which any wound was considered a loss. Duels over women, land or large sums of money could be to the death. Duels to the death were rare, as all parties involved could be indicted for murder in most countries.

When the condition was achieved, the matter was considered settled with the winner proving his point and the loser keeping his reputation for courage.

Irish Code Duello Dueling with firearms grew in popularity in the 18th century, especially with the adoption of the Irish Code Duello, "adopted at the Clonmel Summer Assizes, 1777, for the government of duellists, by the gentlemen of Tipperary, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Roscommon, and prescribed for general adoption throughout Ireland." This proved especially popular in America. The basics were similar to the renaissance french method.

Typical weapons were cased dueling pistols which were tuned for identical appearance, reliability and accuracy. In America, the Irish code eventually supplanted the usual method of brutal hand to hand combat, and gave the combat a respectable feel. However, since the combatants could not control guns as precisely as swords, gun duels had a greater chance of being fatal.

Some duels miscarried because the starting signal was not be heard or seen by both opponents. Agreeing to a signal was helpful.

A custom had grown before the Irish code of "deloping," discharging one's fire-arm in the air (usually to one side) when two friends had quarreled and one wished to end the duel without any harming his friend. Far too often, this custom resulted in accidents. It was thus forbidden by the Irish Duello.

Here is the text of the code, in its entirety.


  • I. The first offence requires the first apology, though the retort may have been more offensive than the insult. Example: A tells B he is impertinent, etc. B retorts that he lies; yet A must make the first apology, because he gave the first offence, and (after one fire) B may explain away the retort by subsequent apology.
  • II. But if the parties would rather fight on, then, after two shots each (but in no case before), B may explain first and A apologize afterwards. N.B. The above rules apply to all cases of offences in retort not of a stronger class than the example.
  • III. If a doubt exists who gave the first offence, the decision rests with the seconds. If they will not decide or cannot agree, the matter must proceed to two shots, or to a hit if the challenger requires it.
  • IV. When the lie direct is the first offence, the agressor must either beg pardon in express terms, exchange two shots previous to apology, or three shots followed by explanation, or fire on till a severe hit be received by one party or the other.
  • V. As a blow is strictly prohibited under any circumstances among gentlemen, no verbal apology can be received for such an insult. The alternatives, therefore, are: The offender handing a cane to the injured party to be used on his back, at the same time begging pardon, firing until one or both are disabled; or exchanging three shots and then begging pardon without the proffer of the cane. N.B. If swords are used, the parties engage until one is well blooded, disabled, or disarmed, or until, after receiving a wound and blood being drawn, the aggressor begs pardon.
  • VI. If A gives B the lie and B retorts by a blow (being the two greatest offences), no reconciliation can take place till after two discharges each or a severe hit, after which B may beg A's pardon for the blow, and then A may explain simply for the lie, because a blow is never allowable, and the offence of the lie, therefore, merges in it. (See preceding rule.) N.B. Challenges for undivulged causes may be conciliated on the ground after one shot. An explanation or the slightest hit should be sufficient in such cases, because no personal offence transpired.
  • VII. But no apology can be received in any case after the parties have actually taken their ground without exchange of shots.
  • VIII. In the above case no challenger is obliged to divulge his cause of challenge (if private) unless required by the challenged so to do before their meeting.
  • IX. All imputations of cheating at play, races, etc., are to be considered equivalent to a blow, but may be reconciled after one shot, on admitting their falsehood and begging pardon publicly.
  • X. Any insult to a lady under a gentleman's care or protection is to be considered as by one degree a greater offence than if given to the gentleman personally, and to be regarded accordingly.
  • XI. Offences originating or accruing from the support of ladies' reputations are to be considered as less unjustifiable than any others of the same class, and as admitting of slighter apologies by the aggressor. This is to be determined by the circumstances of the case, but always favourably to the lady.
  • XII. No dumb firing or firing in the air is admissible in any case. The challenger ought not to have challenged without receiving offence, and the challenged ought, if he gave offence, to have made an apology before he came on the ground; therefore children's play must be dishonourable on one side or the other, and is accordingly prohibited.
  • XIII. Seconds are to be of equal rank in society with the principals they attend, inasmuch as a second may either choose or chance to become a principal and equality is indispensable.
  • XIV. Challenges are never to be delivered at night, unless the party to be challenged intends leaving the place of offence before morning; for it is desirable to avoid all hot-headed proceedings.
  • XV. The challenged has the right to choose his own weapons unless the challenger gives his honour that he is no swordsman, after which, however, he cannot decline any second species of weapon proposed by the challenged.
  • XVI. The challenged chooses his ground, the challenger chooses his distance, and the seconds fix the time and terms of firing.
  • XVII. The seconds load in the presence of each other, unless they give their mutual honours that they have charged smooth [ball] and single [shot], which shall be held sufficient.
  • XVIII. Firing may be regulated, first, by signal; secondly by word of command; or, thirdly at pleasure, as may be agreeable to the parties. In the latter case, the parties may fire at their reasonable leisure, but second presents and rests are strictly prohibited.
  • XIX. In all cases a misfire is equivalent to a shot, and a snap or a non-cock is to be considered a misfire.
  • XX. Seconds are bound to attempt a reconciliation before the meeting takes place or after sufficient firing or hits as specified.
  • XXI. Any wound sufficient to agitate the nerves and necessarily make the hand shake must end the business for that day.
  • XXII. If the cause of meeting be of such a nature that no apology or explanation can or will be received, the challenged takes his ground and calls on the challenger to proceed as he chooses. In such cases firing at pleasure is the usual practice, but may be varied by agreement.
  • XXIII. In slight cases the second hands his principal but one pistol, but in gross cases two, holding another case ready charged in reserve.
  • XXIV. When the seconds disagree and resolve to exchange shots themselves, it must be at the same time and at right angles with their principals. If with swords, side by side, with five paces' interval.
  • XXV. No party can be allowed to bend his knee or cover his side with his left hand, but may present at any level from the hip to the eye.
  • XXVI. None can either advance or retreat if the ground is measured. If no ground be measured, either party may advance at his pleasure, even to the touch of muzzles, but neither can advance on his adversary after the fire, unless the adversary steps forward on him. N.B. The seconds on both sides stand responsible for this last rule being strictly observed, bad cases having occurred from neglecting it.
  • N.B. All matters and doubts not herein mentioned will be explained and cleared up by application to the Committee, who meet alternately at Clonmel and Galway at the quarter sessions for that purpose.

CROW RYAN, President.


This text is not original, but dates from 1777 and is obviously in the public domain.

Marquess of Queensberry

After just a few years, many persons wrote, rather forcefully, that the Irish Code was far too deadly for the necessary business of discovering social positions among the military gentry. Those objecting to the Code Duello included such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, Queen Victoria and the Pope.

People began to seek practical alternatives.

English pugilism had been growing in popularity and technique since 1615, when a London armsmaster began offering public lessons in fisticuffs to the gentry. After many years, and several attempts by other men to write acceptable rules, John Graham Chambers[?] wrote the the Marquis of Queensbury Rules[?] in 1865. They were published in 1867.

He intended them solely for amateur matches, a thinly veiled reference to bouts of fisticuffs between gentlemen. The authorities began to allow prize matches and amateur boxing under this new rule system when John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry endorsed its use.

The new rules had three minute limits on rounds, required gloves, and forbade grappling and wrestling. The rules prevented permanent mutilation: No punches were permitted to the temples, neck or below the belt. Grappeling, kicking, biting and eye-gouging were forbidden as well.

The result was a viscerally satisfying fight with far less actual hazard than either a sword or gun fight. In other words, it became a nearly perfect vehicle for addressing matters of pride and insult.

As a practical matter, the perfectly legal sport of pugilism replaced dueling for most English gentlemen near this time. Only the involved gentlemen need ever know the points of honor at stake.

Dueling thereby moved underground, to 'sport' and has stayed there. As late as 1960, small town police forces in the U.S. would often take fighting youths to a public square, hand them boxing gloves, and referee the fight.



  • "The Duel: A History of Duelling", Robert Baldick, Chapman and Hall Ltd., London, 1965; Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd., London, 1970. ISBN 0 600 32837 6

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