Sometimes history classes fail to mention important details — like when an Illinois attorney challenged future-president Abraham Lincoln to a gun duel, and Lincoln demanded they fight with broadswords "of the largest size."

The five, ten and twenty dollar bills are living records that depict the historical relevance of duels in American society.

Some of America's founding fathers were ready to throw down the gauntlet at a moment's notice.

But beyond historic impact, duels have directly and indirectly affected today's laws. On a day to day basis, their impact has in some shape or form touched the general public.

Here's a rundown on how much duels mattered in American society and what their influence is on gun owners today, from public brawls to public offices.

Are Duels Legal, and How Are They Referenced in Laws Today?

18th Century Gun Dueling

Are duels are legal? Well, yes, in a way, but it depends on the pretense and state.

Before you get any further, this is not legal advice. The last thing a court's judge wants to hear is that you read a blog post suggesting dueling is legally protected.

Mutual combat is referenced in laws throughout the U.S.

Cities like Seattle have consensual physical altercation ordinances — "take it outside" language. However, within Washington state the only reference to dueling with deadly weapons is in the Washington State Guard under RCW 38.38.768RCW 38.38.768
[Art. 114] Dueling.
Any person subject to this code who fights or promotes, or is concerned in or connives at fighting a duel, or who, having knowledge of a challenge sent or about to be sent, fails to report the fact promptly to the proper authority, shall be punished as a court martial may direct.
, which will result in both parties "punished as a court martial may direct," according to the King County Bar Association.

There is similar language for federal military justice within the U.S. Code, according to 10 U.S. Code § 914 - Art. 114. DuelingAny person subject to this chapter who fights or promotes, or is concerned in or connives at fighting a duel, or who, having knowledge of a challenge sent or about to be sent, fails to report the facts promptly to the proper authority, shall be punished as a court-martial may direct..

Mutual combat is a defense to an aggravated assault offense under Texas penal code, according to Texas Penal Code (2011) Title 5 Chapter 22 Sec. 22.06 Sec. 22.06. CONSENT AS DEFENSE TO ASSAULTIVE CONDUCT. [Mutual combat]
(a) The victim’s effective consent or the actor’s reasonable belief that the victim consented to the actor’s conduct is a defense to prosecution under Section 22.01 (Assault), 22.02 (Aggravated Assault), or 22.05 (Deadly Conduct) if:
(1) the conduct did not threaten or inflict serious bodily injury; or
(2) the victim knew the conduct was a risk of:
(A) his occupation;
(B) recognized medical treatment; or
(C) a scientific experiment conducted by recognized methods.
(b) The defense to prosecution provided by Subsection (a) is not available to a defendant who commits an offense described by Subsection (a) as a condition of the defendant’s or the victim’s initiation or continued membership in a criminal street gang, as defined by Section 71.01.
. California Criminal Law 3471 dictates mutual combat is a self-defense protection under three criteria, with a deadly force element.

Other states have similar provisions. But is this restricted to fisticuffs? Are deadly weapons or death referenced in any case law?


Mutual combat has been played out in courts. Take a look at Donaldson v. The State in the Supreme Court of Georgia. Justice Clarke stated, "Mutual combat is not a mere fight or scuffle. It generally involves deadly weapons and the mutual intention of using them."

Hover your mouse over the slide to pause it!

Dueling was a way to resolve political arguments, and there was a failed amendment to the U.S. Constitution proposed in 1838.
The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution
The Burr-Hamilton duel and the Jackson-Dickinson duel were two well-known disagreements that ended with pistols.
Burr v Hamilton duel
The last fatal duel in Ontario was in Perth, in 1833, when Robert Lyon challenged John Wilson to a pistol duel over comments about a local school teacher.
Robert Lyon v John Wilson in Ontario
The last fatal duel in England was on Priest Hill in 1852 between two French political exiles
Grasslands in Priest Hill, Surrey, UK
USMC Noncommissioned officer's sword
By World War I, dueling was a dead social construct. It had also been removed from the military because it led to undue leadership and financial strain.

In People v Thompson, Justice Gordon of the Appellate Court of Illinois referenced their state's supreme court definition of mutual combat as "a fight or struggle which both parties enter willingly or where two persons, upon a sudden quarrel and in hot blood, mutually fight upon equal terms and where death results from the combat."

In 2010 Justice Ternus of the Supreme Court of Iowa said in State of Iowa v Christopher Spates, "From our review of the authorities, we conclude 'mutual combat' is more than 'a reciprocal exchange of blows.' It requires 'a mutual intention, consent, or agreement preceding the initiation of hostilities.' 'A charge on mutual combat "is warranted only when the combatants are armed with deadly weapons and mutually agree to fight." 'Thus, an express or tacit agreement to engage in violence, while sufficient, is not required; it is enough that 'there was a concurrent or mutual expectation that a street battle would ensue.'"

In 1839, Congress created a stipulation that members of the House of Representatives and the Senate would be guilty of felony charges if they were in any way affiliated with dueling.

It's even a stipulation when Kentucky notaries are taking an oath of office. They must swear that "I, being a citizen of this State, have not fought a duel with deadly weapons within this State, nor out of it, nor have I sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have I acted as second in carrying a challenge, nor aided or assisted any person thus offending, so help me God."

Take those definitions of mutual combat as you will, but public opinion has more or less done away with the concept of dueling as it once was.

How Much Early America Relied Upon Pistol Duels

Pistol duels were a staple of American society, particularly the South, as a way to protect social standing.

Men in prominent, public positions (attorneys, newspaper editors, politicians and so on) would defend their reputation by challenging those who made derogatory remarks about them. They would dispatch their "second" to issue the challenge to the offender.

The second's job would be to deliver the message and, importantly, act as a diplomat to resolve bad blood before it had to be spilled.

The Duelist's Code of Honor

Were there rules? Yep. Was there an established method of dueling? You bet.

John Lyde Wilson wrote an informative guide with rules explaining dueling etiquette. It was titled The Code of Honor: Or, Rules for the Government of Principals and Seconds in Duelling.

As an example, rule 3 for the Principal states, "When you believe yourself aggrieved, be silent on the subject, speak to no one about the matter, and see your friend, who is to act for you, as soon as possible."

Rule 2 for the Second states, "Use every effort to soothe and tranquilize your principal; do not see things in the same aggravated light in which he views them; extenuate the conduct of his adversary whenever you see clearly an opportunity to do so, without doing violence to your friend's irritated mind. Endeavor to persuade him that there must have been some misunderstanding in the matter. Check him if uses opprobrious epithet (editor's note: abusive and disgraceful language) towards his adversary, and never permit improper or insulting words in the note you carry."

When it came time to duel with pistols, the two parties would stand a specified amount of paces from one another and take turns shooting until one or another deemed their honor was satisfied, according to one report. Taking more than a few seconds to fire was dishonorable, and a misfire counted as a shot.

The founding fathers of this nation were heavily involved with dueling.

Andrew Jackson was well known for his temper and the duels that resulted from that. He dueled a man named Charles Dickinson over a disagreement on a horse race bet. He misfired after one of Dickinson's bullets nearly pierced his heart, but he re-cocked the gun and fired again. Although dishonorable, he went on to fill two terms as U.S. President.

Allen says flip it over!
Set of dueling pistols
Box of dueling pistols

Alexander Hamilton was killed from a mortal wound in a duel with Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson's vice president. Lincoln, as was previously mentioned, was challenged, but the two parties came to a peaceful understanding.

That guy on the $100 bill, Benjamin Franklin, was publically against the idea of dueling, having said in a 1784 letter to Thomas Percival, "It is astonishing that the murderous Practice of Duelling, which you so justly condemn, should continue so long in vogue … How can such miserable sinners as we are entertain so much Pride, as to conceit that every Offence against our imagined Honour merits Death?"

Dueling was used to defend slanderous and libelous public remarks that evoked a defamation of character. These days, not even the First Amendment protects these remarks.

The First Amendment Does Not Protect All Speech

Today, this sort of inflammatory speech that incites action isn't defended even by the First Amendment. Gentlemen in early America would issue a challenge, but these days these matters are settled legally.

This is because of the Fighting Words Doctrine established in the 1942 U.S. Supreme Court case Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire.

Chaplinski was a Jehovah's Witness who was publicly calling organized religion a "racket." He then loudly, publicly called a police officer profane names.

The Court found that this sort of language in a public place was not protected by the First Amendment when it had the possibility of breaching the peace.

gun blog writer jake smith

About The Author

Jake Smith (@notjakesmith) is a copywriter and photographer based in the pacific northwest. He graduated from the University of Idaho with degrees in public relations and apparel.