Duels are arranged engagements in combat between two individuals, with matched weapons in accordance with agreed-upon rules. They were chiefly practiced in Early Modern Europe, with precedents in the medieval code of chivalry, and continued into the modern period (19th to early 20th centuries) especially among military officers. During the 17th and 18th centuries (and earlier), duels were mostly fought with swords (the rapier, later the smallsword, and finally the French foil), but beginning in the late 18th century and during the 19th century, duels were more commonly fought using pistols, but fencing and pistol duels continued to co-exist throughout the 19th century. The code of the honorable duel surrounded the notion of honor. Duels were fought 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, and as such the tradition of dueling was reserved to the male members of nobility, in the modern era extended to those of the upper classes more generally. From the early 17th century duels were often illegal in Europe, though in most societies where dueling was socially accepted, participants in a fair duel were not prosecuted, or if they were, not convicted.
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- It has a strange, quick jar upon the ear,
That cocking of a pistol, when you know
A moment more will bring the sight to bear
Upon your person, twelve yards off or so.
- Dueling was very much a public matter. Insults, and the challenges to duel that followed, traveled via newspaper editorials, word of mouth and plain old gossip. They also reached a widespread public with "postings" at street corners and taverns.
Few men could resist such a public challenge. Even Abraham Lincoln was called to duel: he had referred to one man as a "smelly, foolish liar" in a newspaper editorial. Lincoln chose swords over pistols, in the hope that his long arms would offer an advantage. He eventually apologized and avoided the duel altogether.
Newspapers at the time were factionalized and expressed very distinct viewpoints. Editors were constantly being challenged and were known to carry sidearms at all times—even in the office—in case an irate reader should wish to dispute an editorial.
- Some fiery fop, with new commission vain,
Who sleeps on brambles till he kills his man;
Some frolic drunkard, reeling from a feast,
Provokes a broil, and stabs you for a jest.
- My knowledge of pain, learned with the sabre, taught me not to be afraid. And just as in dueling when you must concentrate on your enemy's cheek, so, too, in war. You cannot waste time on feinting and sidestepping. You must decide on your target and go in.
- Otto Skorzeny, comparing his dueling days with commando tactics, as quoted in Skorzeny (1972) by Charles Whiting, p. 17.