by Alan Brooks
Pistol duels have largely gone out of style in the United States. The modern version of “Sir, I demand satisfaction!” is now “You’ll be hearing from my lawyer.” And that’s probably for the best. By the end of the 19th century, advances in firearms technology had made pistol duels unsporting. Machined, multi-shot guns with rifled barrels and reliable cartridges meant that both parties in a duel stood a good chance of dying. During the heyday of duels in the United States (the 18th and early 19th centuries) dueling pistols were handmade and generally smoothbore, single-shot, black powder, flint-lock devices that were “sporting” at the typical 30-40 foot distance at which most duels were fought . . .
Often, the duelers didn’t even fire their pistols at each other. A shot into the air or the ground frequently sufficed to show that both parties had the courage to duel…but also the good sense not to. This may have been what Alexander Hamilton expected to happen when he fought his infamous and fatal duel with Vice President Aaron Burr.
Some accounts say that Hamilton fired into the trees behind Burr who misinterpreted the gesture and killed Hamilton. The pistols Hamilton used (which actually belonged to his brother-in-law) seem to support this hypothesis. They were made by a British gunsmith named Robert Wogdon and they were rigged.
The triggers were fairly heavy, but pushing the trigger forward before firing (setting it) reduced the pull to only a few ounces. Hamilton knew this and told his second that he didn’t plan to use the secret advantage that fateful day. Other dueling pistols of the period were designed to be either more or less accurate depending on the vindictiveness and/or sanity of the owners. Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson, one of the most famous and prolific duelists of the 19th century, (which was largely a result of him marrying another man’s wife) owned several sets of dueling pistols of varying styles and calibers that he used in his many duels (in which he was only shot twice).
Today it’s hard to imagine anyone crazy enough to duel with modern pistols. GLOCK 17s at 10 paces would likely be suicide for both parties and, with modern manufacturing techniques and powders, even flintlock pistols today are quite accurate and reliable, if a bit expensive.