British made Pistols
Atkinson, John A. British Duelling Pistols. Museum Restoration Services. 112 pages. ISBN# . $24.95.
Gunmakers highlighted by Atkinson include Robert Wogdon, H.W. Mortimer, the Mantons, John Twigg, Durs Egg, Henry Nock, Joseph Griffin and James Purdey. In addition to London gunmakers, those of Edinburgh, Birmingham, Liverpool and, especially, Dublin (where gentlemen showed a "singular passion ... for fighting each other" and one of the first questions asked of a potential son-in-law was "Did he blaze?"). Henry Nock, of volley gun fame, was also a maker of fine dueling pistols. Manton's pistols featured an almost invisible rifling, a bit of a cheat on the accepted rules of the duel.
Atkinson traces the development of the British dueling pistol with specific examples of the art, describing them in detail. Also discussed is the molding of bullets, making of cases for pairs of pistols, the manufacture of stocks locks and gunbarrels, powder and flints. As Atkinson points out, on "the best dueling pistols there was lavished the talent[s] of the wood carver, metal worker and engraver and sometimes the art of the silversmith and goldsmith as well. Dueling pistols were generally long and slender, and of comparatively light weight. They might be engraved with floral designs, with silver mountings, decorated with pineapples, clamshells and acorns, and given elegant chequering. Barrels for dueling pistols were often made from stub iron, iron recycled from old horseshoe nails collected from country farmers or collected from the streets. Percussion systems were first experimented with by the start of the nineteenth century. The British Army tested a cap-lock in 1820. Dueling pistols began to adopt the system soon after. Flintlock pistols were often converted to cap ignition by their owners.
Dueling practices and rituals were codified in the Code Duello of 1777 which set forth rules describing all aspects of an "affair of honor, " from the time of day during which challenges could be received to the number of shots or wounds required for satisfaction of honor. For gentlemen the law "offered no redress for insults" he might be subject to from rivals and enemies. Shooting a fellow officer in a duel "gave a sharp edge to one's reputation, earned congratulations in the regimental mess, and brought admiring glances from the ladies. higher military authorities...regarded dueling as a proof test of courage..." Although theoretically banned by British Army regulations, refusing a challenge was likely to result in an officer having to leave his regiment, for the same rules that banned dueling forbade an officer from submitting to "opprobrious expressions" or "any conduct from another that should degrade him, or, in the smallest way impeach his courage."
Some dueling pistols were even made for taking on campaign. An example by the gunmaker Durs Egg (a presentation multiple barreled pistol, a Durs Egg specialty, given to Napoleon by a British admirer was recently auctioned) with a detachable shoulder stock and an extra carbine barrel is shown. A engraving of Sir Sidney Smith at Acre with such a pistol with a detachable stock exists.
The mere passing of a ban was not likely to halt the practice of dueling, only a gradual disapproval by society was effective. In 1802 North Carolina had made it illegal to send "a challenge or fight a duel or to aid or abet in doing either..." though passage did not end dueling in the state. The governor of South Carolina John Lyde Wilson produced his American Code in 1838. South Carolina only passed an anti-dueling law in 1880.
In 1798 William Pitt accused opposition politician George Tierney of a "desire to obstruct the defence of the country." When Tierney demanded that the accusation be withdrawn the Prime Minister repeated it. In response George Tierney sent the Prime Minister a challenge to a duel. As hard as it is for us today to believe the Prime Minister accepted. The two men met on Putney Heath, where in 1809 Lord Castlereagh and George Canning also met in a duel (Canning was injured). After the first shots were exchanged, with the slim Pitt missing the rotund Tierney, Pitt fired his second shot in the air (a procedure known as delopement). One of the seconds stopped the proceedings declaring that honor had been vindicated.
The Duke of Wellington, while Prime Minister, fought a duel, over the issue of Catholic Emancipation. Winchilsea accused the Iron Duke, according to one biographer, of "insidious designs for the infringement of our liberties and the introduction of Popery into every department of State.") against the Earl of Winchilsea in March of 1829 on the commons at Battersea Fields. Winchilsea stood firm and took the Duke's shot, which missedwhether intentionally or through poor shooting is a matter of opinion. Winchilsea, seeing the difficulties that would be involved in killing a national hero, discharged his pistol harmlessly in the air. A picture of a pair of pretty, saw-handled pistols presented to Wellington by the East India Company in included in the book, though in this duel the Duke used a pair of pistols borrowed from his physician.
From the middle of the eighteenth century the dueling pistol replaced the sword as the chief weapon in affairs of honor. In London the first duel involving the use of pistols took place in 1711 on Tothill Fields. After 1785 the pistol became the primary weapon of choice, in part because the carrying of swords, except by military men, became less common and due to a decline in fencing skills. The lack of training in the use of the sword gave rise to what was considered a "base" inequality in duels with blades.
The pistol was the "great equalizer"; a combatant could master the technical aspects of dueling with a pistol in a relatively short time. "Firearms, " one commentator noted, "leave no inequality between combatants, but [that] of intrepidity." Oddly enough, it turned out, pistols were also safer for both parties. While a fifth of those involved in duels with swords died, only six and a half percent of those who chose pistols died as a result of their encounter (though a third were injured as a result).
At first rifled barrels and sights were considered unsporting, as was careful aiming and practicing beforehand. One duelist opined that when a duelist took the time to aim carefully, even a poor shot had a one in five chance of hitting his target. One duelist complained after an encounter that his opponent "took full aim at him." The pistols used in the Burr/Hamilton duel had had secret hair triggers (and hidden rifling). Hair triggers enjoyed some popularity but premature discharges and accidents involving wounded seconds and spectators made them fall into disrepute. One Abraham...
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