AskDefine | Define duel

Dictionary Definition



1 a prearranged fight with deadly weapons by two people (accompanied by seconds) in order to settle a quarrel over a point of honor [syn: affaire d'honneur]
2 any struggle between two skillful opponents (individuals or groups) v : fight a duel, as over one's honor or a woman; "In the 19th century, men often dueled over small matters" [also: duelling, duelled]

User Contributed Dictionary



duellum (fight between two men, under influence from duo) < Old duellum (=bellum, war) < base *dāu-, *deu- (to injure, destroy, burn). Cognate with δύη (misery, pain) and with Duellona (goddess of war).


  • SAMPA: /dju:@l/
  • Rhymes: -ʊəl


  1. Combat between two persons, primarily over a matter of personal honor.
  2. A struggle between two contending persons, groups or ideas.


combat between two persons
  • Finnish: kaksintaistelu
  • German: Duell, Zweikampf
struggle between two parties
  • Finnish: kaksinkamppailu
  • German: Duell, Zweikampf
checktrans-top ]]


  1. To engage in a duel.


engage in a duel

Extensive Definition

As practised from the 11th to 20th centuries in Western societies, a duel was and is an engagement in combat between two individuals, with matched weapons in accordance with their combat doctrines. In the modern application the term is applied to air combat between fighter pilots.
The Romanticism depiction of medieval duels was based on either a pretext of defence of honor, usually accompanied by a trusted representative (who might themselves fight), often in contravention of the duelling conventions, or as a matter of challenge of the champion which developed out of the desire of one party (the challenger) to redress a perceived insult to his or his sovereign's honor. The goal of the honourable duel was often not so much to kill the opponent as to gain "satisfaction", that is, to restore one's honor by demonstrating a willingness to risk one's life for it.
Duels may be distinguished from trials by combat, in that duels were not used to determine guilt or innocence, nor were they official procedures. Indeed, from early 19th century duels were often illegal in Europe, though in most societies where duelling was socially accepted, participants in a fair duel were not prosecuted, or if they were, were not convicted. Only gentlemen were considered to have honor, and therefore only they were qualified to duel. If a gentleman was insulted by a person of lower class, he would not duel him, but would beat him with a cane, riding crop, a whip or have his servants do so. Duelling is now illegal in all but a few countries around the world.


Duels could be fought with some sort of sword or, from the 18th century on, with pistols. For this end special sets of duelling pistols were crafted for the wealthiest of noblemen.
The traditional situation that led to a duel often went something like this. After the offense, whether real or imagined, one party would demand "satisfaction" from the offender, signaling this demand with an inescapably insulting gesture, such as throwing his glove before him, hence the phrase "throwing down the gauntlet". This originates from medieval times, when a knight was knighted. The knight-to-be would receive a ritual slap in the face, said to be the last one he ever had to accept without retaliating tenfold. Therefore anyone being slapped with a glove was considered like a knight, to accept the challenge or be dishonored. Contrary to popular belief, hitting one in the face with a glove was not a challenge, but could be done after the glove had been thrown down as a response to the one issuing the challenge. Each party would name a trusted representative (a second) who would, between them, determine a suitable "field of honor", the chief criterion being isolation from interruptions. Duels traditionally took place at dawn, for this very reason. It was also the duty of each party's second to check that the weapons were equal and that the duel was fair.
At the choice of the offended party, the duel could be
  • to first blood, in which case the duel would be ended as soon as one man was wounded, even if the wound was minor:
  • until one man was so severely wounded as to be physically unable to continue the duel;
  • to the death, in which case there would be no satisfaction until the other party was mortally wounded;
  • or, in the case of pistol duels, each party would fire one shot. Even if neither man had been hit, if the challenger stated that he was satisfied, the duel would be declared over. A pistol duel could continue until one man was wounded or killed, but to have more than three exchanges of fire was considered barbaric, and somewhat ridiculous if no hits were achieved.
Under the latter conditions, one or both parties could intentionally miss in order to fulfill the conditions of the duel, without loss of either life or honor. However, to do so, "to delope", could imply that your opponent was not worth shooting. This practice occurred despite being expressly banned by the Code Duello of 1777. Rule 13 stated: "No dumb shooting or firing in the air is admissible in any case... therefore children's play must be dishonorable on one side or the other, and is accordingly prohibited." Practices varied, however, and many pistol duels were to first blood or death. The offended party could stop the duel at any time if he deemed his honor satisfied. In some duels there were seconds (stand-ins) who in the event of the primary dueler was not able to finish the duel would then take his place. This was usually done in duels with swords, where one's expertise was sometimes limited. The second would also act as a witness.
For a pistol duel, the parties would be placed back to back with loaded weapons in hand and walk a set number of paces, turn to face the opponent, and shoot. Typically, the graver the insult, the fewer the paces agreed upon. Alternately, a pre-agreed length of ground would be measured out by the seconds and marked, often with swords stuck in the ground (referred to as "points"). At a given signal, often the dropping of a handkerchief, the principals could advance and fire at will. This latter system reduced the possibility of cheating, as neither principal had to trust the other not to turn too soon. Another system involved alternate shots being taken—the challenged firing first.
Many historical duels were prevented by the difficulty of arranging the "methodus pugnandi". In the instance of Dr. Richard Brocklesby, the number of paces could not be agreed upon; and in the affair between Mark Akenside and Ballow, one had determined never to fight in the morning, and the other that he would never fight in the afternoon. John Wilkes, who did not stand upon ceremony in these little affairs, when asked by Lord Talbot how many times they were to fire, replied, "just as often as your Lordship pleases; I have brought a bag of bullets and a flask of gunpowder."


Physical confrontations related to insults and social standing pre-date human society, but the formal concept of a duel, in Western society, developed out of medieval judicial duel and older pre-Christian practices such as the Viking Age Holmganga. Judicial duels were deprecated by the Lateran Council of 1215, but in 1459 (MS Thott 290 2), Hans Talhoffer reports that in spite of this, there were still seven capital crimes that were still commonly accepted to be settled by a judicial duel. Most societies did not condemn dueling, and the victor of a duel was regarded not as a murderer but as a hero, his social status often increased. During the early Renaissance, dueling established the status of a respectable gentleman, and was an accepted manner to resolve disputes. Dueling in such societies was seen as an alternative to less regulated conflict.
The first published code duello, or "code of dueling", appeared in Renaissance Italy; however, it had many antecedents, ranging back to old Germanic law. The first formalized national code was France's, during the Renaissance. In 1777, Ireland developed a code duello, which was indeed the most influential in American dueling culture.

Prominent duels

To decline a challenge was often equated to defeat by forfeiture, and was sometimes even regarded as dishonorable. Prominent and famous individuals were especially at risk for being challenged.
The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin prophetically described a number of duels in his works, notably Onegin's duel with Lensky in Eugene Onegin. The poet was mortally wounded in a controversial duel with Georges d'Anthès, a French officer rumored to be his wife's lover. D'Anthès, who was accused of cheating in this duel, married Pushkin's sister-in-law and went on to become French minister and senator. The whole affair was instigated by anonymous letters, apparently written by two homosexual princes in order to avenge d'Anthès for his homosexual affair with the Ambassador of Holland.
In 1598 the English playwright Ben Jonson fought a duel with an actor by the name of Gabriel Spencer. Spencer was mortally wounded. In 1798 HRH The Duke of York, well known as "The Grand Old Duke of York", fought a duel with Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Lennox. The Duke of York was grazed by a bullet along his hairline. In 1840 the 7th Earl of Cardigan, The officer in charge of the now infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, fought a duel with a British army officer by the name of Captain Tuckett. Tuckett was wounded in the engagement but not fatally.
In 1864, American writer Mark Twain—then editor of the New York Sunday Mercury—narrowly avoided fighting a duel with a rival newspaper editor, apparently through the quick thinking of his second, who exaggerated Twain's prowess with a pistol.
The most famous American duel was the Burr-Hamilton duel, in which notable Federalist Alexander Hamilton was fatally wounded by his political rival, the sitting Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr.
The last fatal duel in Canada, in 1833, saw Robert Lyon challenge John Wilson to a pistol duel after a quarrel over remarks made about a local schoolteacher whom Wilson ended up marrying after Lyon was killed in the duel. The last fatal duel in England took place on Priest Hill near Windsor in 1852.

Unusual duels

In 1808, two Frenchmen are said to have fought in balloons over Paris, each attempting to shoot and puncture the other's balloon; one duelist is said to have been shot down and killed with his second.
Thirty-five years later (1843), two men are said to have fought a duel by means of throwing billiard balls at each other.
Some participants in a duel, given the choice of weapons, are said to have deliberately chosen ridiculous weapons such as howitzers, sledgehammer, or forkfuls of pig dung, in order to show their disdain for duelling.
  • Arkansas - See Constitution above; specifically prohibited for personnel of the state national guard
  • California - California Penal Code Sections 225 through 232
  • Colorado - C.R.S. 18-13-104
  • Connecticut - No statutory dueling prohibition for civilians; prohibited for personnel of the state national guard
  • Delaware - No statutory dueling prohibition
  • Florida - See Constitution above
  • District of Columbia - D.C. Code 22-1302
  • Georgia - No statutory dueling prohibition for civilians; prohibited for personnel of the state national guard
  • Hawaii - No statutory dueling prohibition for civilians; prohibited for personnel of the state national guard
  • Idaho - Idaho Code 19-303
  • Illinois - No statutory dueling prohibition
  • Indiana - No statutory dueling prohibition
  • Iowa - No statutory dueling prohibition for civilians; prohibited for personnel of the state national guard
  • Kansas - No statutory dueling prohibition for civilians; prohibited for personnel of the state national guard
  • Kentucky - K.R.S. 437.030
  • Louisiana - No statutory dueling prohibition
  • Maine - No statutory dueling prohibition
  • Maryland - No statutory dueling prohibition
  • Massachusetts - G.L.Mass. ch. 265, sections 3-4
  • Michigan - M.C.L.S. 750.171-750.173a; M.C.L.S. 750.319 and 750.320
  • Minnesota - No statutory dueling prohibition
  • Mississippi - Miss. Code Ann. Title 97, Chapter 39
  • Missouri - No statutory dueling prohibition for civilians; prohibited for personnel of the state national guard
  • Montana - No statutory dueling prohibition
  • Nebraska - No statutory dueling prohibition
  • Nevada - Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. 200.430 through 200.450
  • New Hampshire - No statutory dueling prohibition
  • New Jersey - No statutory dueling prohibition
  • New Mexico - N.M. Stat. Ann. 30-20-11
  • New York - No statutory dueling prohibition for civilians; prohibited for personnel of the state national guard
  • North Carolina - No statutory dueling prohibition
  • North Dakota - N.D. Cent. Code 29-03-02
  • Ohio - No statutory dueling prohibition for civilians; prohibited for personnel of the state national guard
  • Oklahoma - 21 Okl. St., Chapter 22
  • Oregon - See Constitution above; also specifically prohibited for personnel of the state national guard
  • Pennsylvania - No statutory dueling prohibition for civilians; prohibited for personnel of the state national guard
  • Puerto Rico - 33 L.P.R.A. 4035
  • Rhode Island - R.I. Gen. Laws, Title 11, Chapter 12
  • South Carolina - See Constitution above; 16 S.C. Code Ann., Chapter 3, Article 5
  • South Dakota - No statutory dueling prohibition
  • Tennessee - See Constitution above
  • Texas - No statutory dueling prohibition
  • Utah - Utah Code Ann. 76-5-104 (homicide includes dueling and other "consensual altercations")
  • Vermont - No statutory dueling prohibition
  • Virginia - No statutory dueling prohibition
  • Washington - No statutory dueling prohibition for civilians; prohibited for personnel of the state national guard
  • West Virginia - See Constitution above; W.Va. Code 61-2-18 through 61-2-25
  • Wisconsin - No statutory dueling prohibition
  • Wyoming - No statutory dueling prohibition

Modern duels

Dueling still continues to occur, albeit not with regularity.

South America

In much of South America duels were common during the 20th century, although generally illegal.


  • In May of 2005, twelve youths aged between fifteen and seventeen were arrested in Japan and charged with violating a dueling law that came into effect in 1889. Six other youths were also arrested on the same charges in March.

See also

In the world of cinema, dueling has provided themes for such motion pictures as Stanley Kubrick's 1975 Barry Lyndon (an adaptation of a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray from 1844) and Ridley Scott's 1977 The Duellists, which adapted Joseph Conrad's 1908 short story The Duel. The 1943 film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp shows the two main characters becoming friends after fighting a duel, the preparations for which are shown in great detail.



  • Baldick, Robert. The Duel: A History of Duelling. London: Chapman & Hall, 1965.
  • Cramer, Clayton. Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform
  • Freeman, Joanne B. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001; paperback ed., 2002)
  • Freeman, Joanne B. “Dueling as Politics: Reinterpreting the Burr-Hamilton Duel.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3d series, 53 (April 1996): 289-318.
  • Frevert, Ute. "Men of Honour: A Social and Cultural History of the Duel." trans. Anthony Williams Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995.
  • Greenberg, Kenneth S. “The Nose, the Lie, and the Duel in the Antebellum South.” American Historical Review 95 (February 1990): 57-73.
  • James Kelly. That Damn'd Thing Called Honour: Duelling in Ireland 1570-1860" (1995)
  • Kevin McAleer. Dueling: The Cult of Honor in Fin-de-Siecle Germany (1994)
  • Morgan, Cecilia. "'In Search of the Phantom Misnamed Honour': Duelling in Upper Canada." Canadian Historical Review'' 1995 76(4): 529-562.
  • Rorabaugh, W. J. “The Political Duel in the Early Republic: Burr v. Hamilton.” Journal of the Early Republic 15 (Spring 1995): 1-23.
  • Schwartz, Warren F., Keith Baxter and David Ryan. “The Duel: Can these Gentlemen be Acting Efficiently?.” The Journal of Legal Studies 13 (June 1984): 321-355.
  • Steward, Dick. Duels and the Roots of Violence in Missouri (2000),
  • Williams, Jack K. Dueling in the Old South: Vignettes of Social History (1980) (1999),
  • Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Honor and Violence in the Old South (1986)
  • Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (1982),

Popular works

External links

duel in Arabic: مبارزة
duel in Bulgarian: Дуел
duel in Catalan: Duel
duel in Czech: Souboj
duel in German: Duell
duel in Spanish: Duelo
duel in Esperanto: Duelo
duel in French: Duel (combat)
duel in Icelandic: Einvígi
duel in Italian: Duello
duel in Hebrew: דו-קרב
duel in Hungarian: Párbaj
duel in Dutch: Tweegevecht
duel in Japanese: 決闘
duel in Norwegian: Duell
duel in Polish: Pojedynek
duel in Portuguese: Duelo
duel in Russian: Дуэль
duel in Simple English: Duel
duel in Finnish: Kaksintaistelu
duel in Swedish: Duell
duel in Turkish: Düello
duel in Yiddish: דועל
duel in Chinese: 決鬥

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

affair of honor, battle, box, brawl, broil, buck, clash, close, collide, combat, come to blows, contend, contest, cut and thrust, dispute, exchange blows, fence, feud, fight, fight a duel, give and take, give satisfaction, grapple, grapple with, jostle, joust, mix it up, monomachy, oppose, quarrel, rassle, repel, riot, run a tilt, satisfaction, scramble, scuffle, single combat, skirmish, spar, strive, struggle, thrust and parry, tilt, tourney, traverse, tussle, wage war, war, withstand, wrestle
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