Pistols and Duels


Part of the allure of the English Regency is that it’s an era for swords, horses, and flintlocks. Everything to buckle the perfect swash. Dueling–and a lady’s muff pistol–became part of my novel, Barely Proper.  The dueling information came from research, but the lady’s muff pistol, complete with safety latch to prevent accidental shots, came courtesy of my uncle, Eric Ericson, who collects flintlocks.

Part of the allure of the English Regency is that it’s an era for swords, horses, and flintlocks. Everything to buckle the perfect swash. Dueling–and a lady’s muff pistol–became part of Barely Proper.  The dueling information came from research, but the lady’s muff pistol, complete with safety latch to prevent accidental shots, came courtesy of my uncle, Eric Ericson, who collects flintlocks.

Barely ProperActually, by the mid 1800’s, the duel had become extinct in England. Queen Victoria, and the British government, had taken steps to end duels in the army–it was, after all, difficult enough to lose officers to battle, let alone, losing them to each other’s bullets. However, in Regency England, gentlemen could settle any disagreement with pistols, and might well be acquitted by a jury of any murder charge.

The notion of a duel of honor first appeared in England in the early 1600’s. The duel between Sir George Wharton and Sir James Stewart was recorded in 1609.  Prior to that time, an Englishman could settle slights and quarrels by hiring a gang of assassins to avenge any slight. Through the 1700’s, duels tended to be fought with swords. This was due, in part, to technology.

Hand guns date back to the late 1300’s in Italy and appeared in England around 1375. These used gunpowder, a mixture of potassium nitrate, saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal.  It would take another half century, however, for a mechanical device to appear to actually fire a hand gun. The standard flintlock gun came then came about in the early 1600’s, and by 1690 flintlocks has become standard issue for the English army.

The flintlock had been developed in France as a more reliable improvement upon matchlocks and wheel locks. The principal was simple–a trigger released a lock that held a flint which would then strike a spark in the priming pan. This pan held a small amount of gunpowder. When ignited, it then would ignite the main gunpowder charge in the barrel, firing a lead ball.

In contrast, the older match lock had used a “matchcord,” a braided cord of hemp or flax soaked in a saltpeter and dried. The slow-burning matchcord would then be lit. Pulling the trigger caused the lit matchcord to be pressed onto the flashpan causing ignition. The wheel lock improved on the matchlock with a system that worked rather like a cigarette lighter. Pulling the trigger caused a rough-edged steel wheel to strike a piece of pyrite held in a metal arm called a dog head.

Misfires with matchlock and wheel locks had been common. And the effort to reload consumed time. While flintlocks still loaded the main gunpowder charge and ball from the front, the only addition work was to then pour a little gunpowder into the flash pan.

Around the 1750’s, the practice of carrying a small sword or dress sword also died out, and with the advances in gun making, pistols became the standard for duels. Dueling pistols developed into matched weapons with a nine or ten inch barrel. Most were smooth bore flintlocks.

However, pistols could be as individual as the maker, or the owner. Jean-Baptiste Gribeauval made a pistol for Napoleon Bonaparte around 1806 that had a twelve inch long barrel. And a set of dueling pistols made around 1815 by W. A Jones and given to Duke of Wellington by the East India Company boasted saw-handled butts, which made it easier to steady the pistols, as well as “figured half stocks, checkered grips, engraved silver and blued steel furnishings.”

By the mid-1700’s London was well-known for its excellent gunsmiths. George Washington patronized a London gunsmith named Hawkins (a family name in my lineage, as this was my grandmother’s maiden name). As with many of the pistols from this era it offers silver decoration.

Dueling PistolsIn the late 1700’s, and during the Regency, Joseph Manton became one of the best and most fashionable gunmakers. Manton’s shooting gallery on Davis Street was where a gentleman went to practice before he might use one of Manton’s pistols in a duel. And an apprentice of Manton’s left in 1814 to strike out on his own with a business in Oxford Street. James Purdey’s company is still renown for its shotguns. Part of Manton’s success came from his first patent, taken out in 1777.  Manton went on to open his shop in 1793 and was soon known for shotguns and pistols. His fame came from guns that “were light, trim, well balanced, fast handling, and impeccably fit and finished. Stocks were slender and of fine English walnut with a hand rubbed oil finish.”

In the early 1800’s, a new development came along when a Scotsman named Forsyth patented the percussion lock.  This did away with the flashpan and flint.  Instead, an explosive cap was used, so that when the cap was struck by the pistol’s hammer, the flames from the exploding fulminate of mercury in the cap move into the gun barrel and ignite the main charge of powder.

With the advent of the percussion cap, guns with revolving chambers became reliable weapons. The revolving principle for a gun had been around for as long as the invention itself. “…There were repeating matchlocks as early as 1550, some capable of firing as many as eight shots with multiple barrels, each fired by a separate flash pan and operated by a sliding trigger mechanism…Both French and Italian gun makers as early as 1650 had developed magazine-fed muskets.” The “pepperbox pistol” had between two to six barrels that revolved upon a central axis.

Examples of such pistols that still exist include a double-barreled turn-over flintlock pistol, a six-shot flintlock had been made in France in the late 1700’s, a three-shot Venetian pepperbox dates back to the mid 1500’s, and Twigg of London had even made a 7-barrel flintlock pepperbox in 1790. A three- barrel design made by Lorenzo some time in the 1680’s exists that carries the Medici Arms upon it. However, the pepperbox pistol was notorious for the mechanism jamming. Or worse, all the charges in the barrels might be ignited at once time by a flint strike, resulting in the entire pistol discharging at once–or blowing up in your hand. The first accurate chambered weapons date from the latter part of the Regency, around 1810 to 1820. Multiple shot pistols, however, were not allowed in any duel.

The elegant matched sets of pistols manufactured for a gentleman might boast silver filigree or gold inlay. Their balance was paramount, for a pistol that could not be easily held up at arm’s length might mean an inaccurate aim and shot. Also, the “hair trigger” or a trigger that responded to the slightest touch could mean the difference in being the first to get off a shot.

In the early 1800’s duels might be fought for honor, as in the case of a duel fought in Hyde Park in March 1803 between two officers, and reported to have been held to avenge a sister’s dishonor. Or it might be an absurd affair, as in the duel fought in London on April 6 that same year. This second affair involved Lieutenant-Colonel Montgomery of the 9th Regiment of Foot and Captain Macnamara of the Royal Navy, and was reported to have started when the two men, both riding in the park and each followed by a Newfoundland dog, had their dogs start to fight. This led Montgomery to exclaim, “Whose dog is that? I will knock him down.”  That set off an argument that resulted in a meeting at seven that evening near Primrose Hill. Even the Duke of Wellington fought a duel.

Taking AimDuring the Peninsular War, Wellington had been known to frown on dueling among his officers.  However, in 1829, Wellington’s support of the Catholic Relief Bill angered the Earl of Winchilsea, who then made public a letter that disparaged the duke accusing him of having, “…insidious designs for the infringement of our liberties, and the introduction of Popery into every department of the state.”  Wellington pushed for reparations, and would be satisfied with nothing less than a meeting over pistols at Battersea Fields. “At the word ‘fire,’ the Duke raised his pistol, but hesitated a moment, as he saw that Lord Winchilsea had kept his pistol pointed to the ground.”  Wellington then fired at random, as did the earl. The press did not approve and reported, “…all this wickedness was to be perpetrated–merely because a noble lord, in a fit of anger, wrote a pettish letter…Truly it is no wonder that the multitude should break the law when we thus see the law-makers themselves, the great, the powerful, and the renowned, setting them at open defiance.”

Illegal as they were, duels were numerous, and were often not prosecuted unless proven fatal.

In the duel between Macnamara and Montgomery fought over their dogs, both were wounded, Montgomery fatally so. Macnamara recovered and was tried for murder, and his arguments for his motives being that of “proper feelings of a gentleman” carried enough weight that the jury returned a not-guilty verdict, even though the judge asked them to find Macnamara guilty of manslaughter.

Times and sentiment changed, however and in 1838 when a Mr. Eliot shot and killed a Mr. Mirfin in a duel, the jury returned a verdict of willful murder. The trial smacked of class prejudice, for in 1841 when Lord Cardigan was tried in the by his peers in the House of Lords for dueling, he was found not guilty.

By 1843, an Anti-Dueling Association had been formed and by 1844, Queen Victoria was discussing with Sir Robert Peel how to restrict duels in the army by “repealing an article of the Mutiny Act, which cashiered officers for not redeeming their honor by duel.” The Regency by then had long passed, and so had the era of pistols for two at dawn to settle affairs of honor, and so had the art of the elegant and deadly dueling pistol.

To read more on dueling pistols, try:

Antique Guns by Hank Bowman, Arco Publishing Co, Inc.

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Firearms by Ian V. Hogg, New Burlington Books

Gunmakers of London 1350-1850 by Howard L. Blackmore, George Shumway Pub

The Duel: A History by Robert Baldick, Barnes & Nobel

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