Dueling was a practice requiring, as a matter of honor, a man to fight to the death anyone who challenged him. The challenge to a duel would typically arise from a perceived injury to one’s reputation, business, or personal life. An insult to one’s girlfriend or wife was also a common spark for dueling.
By tradition the person challenged to a duel had the choice of weapons. Until the eighteenth century swords were the weapon of choice but were replaced with duelling pistols which were often fabricated in matched pairs. Even so, swords remained popular in Prussia until relatively recently. Rather than fighting to the death, in Prussian duelling it was often sufficient to scar the face of the opponent; the facially scarred aristocratic German now being something of a cliché.
Although dueling was strictly prohibited by the Catholic Church, it was common elsewhere in Europe and the United States until around the time of the American Civil War. Prosecutions for murder of persons victorious in duels are credited with ending the practice, and duelling is now illegal in most of the world.
Participants in duels include:
- Stephen Decatur, died shortly after a duel with James Barron.
- Evariste Galois, a brilliant mathematician killed at age 20 in his duel.
- Alexander Hamilton, who refused to shoot at Aaron Burr and was killed by him.
- Alexander Hamilton’s son, who died in a duel before his father did.
- Andrew Jackson, who won several duels by killing his opponents, but was lambasted for wearing large coats that concealed his body.
- Stonewall Jackson refused to duel a military academy student who challenged him.
- Abraham Lincoln, who selected swords as the weapon and deliberately fought to a draw.