Tag Archives: dueling

A Brief Primer on Dueling Weapons and Rituals

Hi I have just stumbled upon your blog and it is amazing 😀 Thank you for all the effort you put in every question it is really helpful as a writer having a guide in things some may not know about 🙂 Hoping to not bother you Could I ask you which kind of swords were generally used in medieval and later on in 1800 ; which kind of reason there could be for a duel in medieval times and how it will be executed? All of of my questions concern particularly France for a WIP I am working on thank you for keeping up such an interesting blog Have a nice day : )

Starting with the question of, “which kinds of swords? That’s a huge swath of weapons, and these weapons changed significantly over time. The Oakeshott typology identifies 13 distinct categories of medieval sword (numbered X through XXII), which saw use between the 11th and 16th centuries, with additional subtypes that are similar to the main 13, but show significant variations.

(Incidentally, if you’re looking at older posts, and wondering why the number went from 12 to 13… it’s because I screwed up. I subtracted 10 from 22, and said, “ah, there are 12,” without considering that Type X is one of Oakeshott’s.)

Oakeshott was expanding Jan Petersen’s classification of Viking swords, Petersen defined nine types from, roughly, ninth to eleventh century. (Though, without checking, I think some Knightly Swords or Arming Swords do fit into the Petersen typology.)

The important takeaway here is that there were a lot of variations in swords. Ranging from the one-handed arming swords up through the greatswords.

By 1800 France, you’re looking at two distinct varieties of swords. You had lightweight dueling weapons, like the epee or rapier, and you had military sabers. (Along with a lot of older swords that still existed, and may have been in circulation or on display.)

The Saber came to popularity in military circles in the 17th century (originating with the Polish Hussars), so by the 1800s it had become the primary military sidearm across most of Europe. (It wouldn’t surprise me if there were nations that hadn’t adopted sabers at that point.) So, if you’re looking at early 19th Century France, students from military academies, and military officers would have been using sabers.

The Rapier was a product of continuing development of the longsword. However, unlike the Saber, the Rapier (and other lightweight dueling blades), found a home with civilian users. Specifically, the rapier was an evolution of the side sword, a kind of straight blade intended for use as a sidearm. The earliest rapiers were French blades in the fifteenth century. Lightweight dueling blades were extremely popular among the rising merchant middle class, and they would remain a popular status symbol and self-defense tool into the 19th century. (There’s a technical distinction here, the rapier would be replaced by the small sword, dress sword, and epee, over time, however, these are extremely similar weapons, to the point that distinguishing between them requires knowing what you’re looking at. In the case of the dress sword, it was sometimes used as a pejorative term for these kinds of dueling blades, rather than an actual type of sword.)

Also, “épée” is the French word for, “sword.” It is a specific, lightweight dueling blade, but the name itself is a simple French word.

By the early 19th century, pistols were already becoming a popular dueling weapon. So, it’s quite possible that a duel in the 1800s would have used dueling pistols rather than blades.

As for the cause of a duel? That could be nearly any dispute. If one party was believed to have caused offense to the other, that was enough. In theory there was a complicated ritual, with both duelists designating a trusted friend to function as their Second. The Seconds had an obligation to attempt to avoid bloodshed (at least in theory), and they would handle communication between the duelists. In more formal situations, a lot of these messages would be transmitted in writing, so there’s a fair amount of surviving primary sources if you want to dig up the exact language.

Dueling persisted to some degree up into the 19th century, and there are still cultural remnants of it in some subcultures today. If you’re asking specifically about 18th Century French dueling, I would assume that would be the aggrieved duelist would challenge their foe, probably verbally, with a statement of cause, and then throw down the gauntlet. (In this case, literally taking their glove and throwing it in the path of the individual they were challenging.) At that point, seconds would be designated, and it would be the seconds’ responsibility to schedule the duel, select the weapons (usually we think of swords or pistols, but this could be anything; in one 1843 French duel, the duelists fought using billiard balls), and attempt to prevent the duel entirely if possible (remember, these are the friends of the duelist who they’re representing, and probably not acquainted with one another, so their loyalty is to keeping their friend alive, meaning it’s quite possible they wouldn’t be able to avert the duel.) On the day of the duel, they would need to be present, and oversee the execution of the duel, they would inspect the weapons to ensure there was no foul play by the other party. Then, two people would try to kill each other. My understanding is that the defeated duelist’s second would be responsible for any arrangements related to a corpse, but I’m not sure, and it’s not a topic I’ve seen come up very often.

By the 19th century, duels were falling out of favor among the general population. French royal decree had outlawed dueling in 1626, but this hadn’t ended the practice. While it was illegal in the 1800s, the legal penalties were slight.

Dueling in the Medieval era was a little different. Depending on exactly when you’re talking about, it was a legally recognized, judicial practice. You can think of this like a modern court case, except the method of dispute resolution was violence. The last judicial duel in France was in 1386, though there were legally sanctioned duels into the sixteenth century. I’m not familiar with the specific legal procedures for a fourteenth century French judicial dual. I know there was a degree of very specific ceremony involved, but anything beyond that is a little outside my area of expertise. The Last Duel by Eric Jager covers this in more detail, if you really want to get into the historical context.

One thing that makes this a little tricky is that the medieval era is roughly 5th to 15th century. Early modern is 15th to 18th. Modern is 18th to present. I’m not completely certain what you’re asking for in medieval dueling. Depending on your definition, this could include things like Viking Holmgangs, and while I’m not aware of any that occurred in France, I’d be genuinely shocked if there were no Holmgangs in tenth and eleventh century Normandy.

So, this is a question about roughly a thousand years of history, and it leaks forward into the modern era. This does make it a little difficult to pin down exactly what you’re looking for. These processes and rituals changed dramatically over time.


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Q&A: Duel Structure and Weapons

I had this idea about having a rule for certain duals in my world being use your opponent’s weapon/skill (with agreed time for practise). A recent post you had was talking about how no one can be experts at everything, which means unless all are impossible experts like that, one may be severely disadvantageous or both look like sloppy amateurs who can’t fully use the weapon/skill especially if it’s very different. So.. is my idea good or not?

No, not as stated. Let’s talk about why, because there is something adjacent that, the best of my recollection, was a practice.

In real history (and in your world) dueling was a highly ritualized activity. There was an entire process that was necessary to “legitimize,” a duel. The exact steps varied through history and between cultures. The goal was to provide a form of dispute resolution, but the rituals evolved to minimize the risk of bloodshed without taking the option entirely off the table. If the process was skipped, then you just had two people trying to murder each other.

Generally speaking, you do not want someone planning to kill you handling your weapon. There are far too many ways to covertly sabotage it when you have it in hand, and are appearing to, “practice.” If you’re not above poison, you could even booby trap your foe’s weapon if given the opportunity.

There’s a few things about dueling worth discussing.

First are the seconds. The second was a personal friend who served a critical role in dueling process. I’m unsure exactly when the process started, though it was well established by the 19th century.

Seconds had a number of responsibilities, including: Coordinating the duel’s schedule (usually the duelist who accepted the challenge could dictate this, within reason, and it fell to the seconds to lock down the details.) Making any necessary preparations. Procuring, inspecting, and providing the weapons. (Depending on the culture, this might include examining In the case of pistol duels, the seconds were responsible for loading their duelist’s weapon. Finally, they were tasked with talking their friends out of killing each other.

Dueling sometimes had very specific rules regarding the kind of weapons used. This changes based on when and where you are. In some cases, the duelists would have some freedom, (as with the location, if there was a choice, the responding duelist would usually be allowed to make this decision, within reason.)

The important takeaway is, while one of your duelists may have a significant skill advantage, their weapons should be evenly matched, if not outright identical. There’d be no benefit to, “practicing,” with your foe’s weapon, because you already, effectively, have a copy.

All of this is distinct from, “dueling,” in narrative. This has nothing to do with dueling rituals; dueling in fiction refers to a specific, small scale (usually one on one), combat cadence. The fight occurs with alternating flurries of violence, interspersed with quiet lulls. In some cases, those lulls will include dialog, where the characters verbally spar, though in others, it will feature downtime while the characters reposition, or while the focus cuts away to other characters. This structure works very well on film, and is extremely popular in screenwriting.

Because of their structure, duels can extend far beyond a single scene. While you can have a simple single fight duel, like Obi-Wan and Vader in A New Hope, you can also drag this out over an extended period of time, moving between different environments, such as Luke’s duel with Vader in The Empire Strikes Back.

Narrative duels can also extend beyond a single character. Many nautical novels include dueling ships. Each ship is (functionally) a single participant in the overall combat. Science Fiction often takes inspiration from nautical sources, alternately patterning starship combat off of sea combat, submarines, or, sometimes, modern aircraft support. For example of this, the majority of Wrath of Khan can be described as a protracted duel between the Enterprise and the Reliant (or between Kirk and Khan as the respective captains), while drawing heavy influence from both submarine combat and the Horatio Hornblower novels.

The identifying characteristic to identify a duel like this is if the combatants remain under threat of immediate violence from one another, even when they’re moving through different spaces. I realize this is a little subjective. If you want a more definitive set of thresholds, if either character is defeated or fully escapes, the duel is over.

If you’re working within the narrative structure, it’s entirely possible that one character will end up with the other’s weapon via some means. They may have simply disarmed their foe and are now pursuing with both weapons in hand. As far as tension goes, this is a good idea, as it forces your character to find a replacement under pressure.


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Q&A: House Rules

I looked but didn’t find if you answered this before, but how would I write the very start of a “proper” fist fight? Like writing the character’s entering fighting stances without sounding awkward or just writing “they raise their fists”

I’m not sure what you mean by, “proper.”

If characters are engaging in a duel, there’s going to be societal expectations for how will be conducted. This includes a brawl between a couple kids on the playground. They’ll have rules they understand (implicitly), and grasp the idea that violating those rules is unfair (whether that will influence their behavior is another matter.)

So, if your characters are going to duel, then they have a ritual they’ll follow. This could be as simple as a round of insults followed by them squaring up, or it could be far more elaborate. This really depends on their culture. Also, if those cultures don’t match, it’s entirely possible for one of the participants to botch the ritual elements, offending their opponent.

I’m going to step back and define some terms, in case it’s not clear.

A duel is combat between two participants as a form of dispute resolution. This can range from armed combatants (which is the context you’re probably thinking of) down to bare knuckle boxing. This is culturally sanctioned by the participants and their peers, though society at large may not agree, and may punish them for their behavior. Duels have set resolution points. These can range from coercing submission to death, with any number of potential other acceptable stopping points between.

Ritual just means that there an established social process. Again, if you’re thinking of an elaborate ceremony, that’s possible, but you could just be looking at something like a round of insults followed by violence.

In general terms, the more culturally acceptable a duel is, the more elaborate the ceremony will be. A society that permits dueling to the death will have a fairly elaborate ritual process to initiating a duel.

European dueling is an example: it required multiple non-participating witnesses, and a specific process of shuttling messages between the duelists well in advance of the actual fight. Failing to do that meant it wasn’t legally recognized as a duel, and didn’t enjoy the legal protections. As society evolved, the practice of sanctioning duels legally fell by the wayside, but the actual ritual was preserved for centuries.

If you wanted to twist it around, you could categorize the entirety of prize fighting as duels, and you wouldn’t be completely wrong. They are examples of ritualized combat, with extensive rules.

So, if your characters are having a proper brawl, they’re going to have rules they need to follow, even if they never think of them as rules.

Now, if this isn’t a factor, the answer is far simpler: the fight starts when someone attacks.

The danger of approaching combat as a ritualized exercise is assuming everyone will play by your rules. Violence, even unarmed violence, is dangerous. If the goal is to neutralize your opponent, there’s no prize for good sportsmanship. There is no, “proper, upstanding,” combat, only the living and the dead.

Mistaking live combat for a more ritualized exercise happens to people. It gets them killed. There’s comfort in ritual. It affirms that the world you live in is not so random and uncaring. It helps you define your place in the world. Many people have made the mistake of thinking combat works this way; that there are rules we do not make for ourselves.

The rules we make for ourselves define us. You’ll go this far, but no farther, and that is how you know you still have some humanity. This isn’t a bad thing. Like I said, it’s how you know you’re still human, and not a monster. The problem is when you assume the people you’re fighting will follow those same rules. In a duel, they (probably) will, but in an actual fight? Who knows?

So, how does a fight start? When someone attacks. Probably without declaring, as calling out your attacks is a phenomenally stupid idea.

How will a duel start? However it’s supposed to. The final stages of the ritual play out, and then the participants will engage.

So, in answer to your question, it depends on your characters and the world they live in.


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Q&A: 19th Century Dueling

Any advice for wiring a 1865 duel scene where someone gets shot in the hand, or for a scene of the same period where someone gets shot in the ear through a window? I really love the blog btw

In both cases, post injury infection is a real risk. And, your characters would run a very real risk of dying.

Not that anyone in your setting would know, but; the bullets themselves are clean, the gunshot generates enough heat to sterilize the bullet. However, the bandages used on the wound wouldn’t, and, historically, these were a common vector for bacterial infection.

Hilariously enough, in both cases, medical treatment would actually be more dangerous than the wounds themselves. But, again, and I can’t stress this enough, your characters would not know this.

Alcohol was viewed as an emergency anesthetic, not an antiseptic.

Also, without access to modern surgical techniques, getting shot through the hand could easily result in a permanent crippling injury.

Now, intentionally shooting someone in the hand, with weapons from that era, wouldn’t be impossible, but it would require an improbable degree of marksmanship.

Even with highly accurate, modern handguns, “disabling shots” like that aren’t really viable in combat. The amount of focus and precision required just aren’t available while someone is fighting through an adrenaline rush.


Do you have any tips on writing scenes with swords involved?

If you’ve got a local renaissance fair, your best bet would be to actually find the people using swords and seeing what they’d be willing to teach you. Most of the renfair participants I’ve known, have been more than happy to explain what they know.

There’s that old cliche about writing what you know, but if you can get hands on experience, it’ll go a lot further than anything I can offer you.

Beyond that, I’d recommend spending a little time familiarizing yourself with German school fencing.

The general idea with German School fencing is to maximize the efficiency of blade movement. Most guards are kept across the body, to aid with parrying. Most hews (strikes) focus on very narrow blade arcs.

For an experienced fighter, their blade will feel like a natural extension of the arm. I know it sounds corny, but it’s also true. They’ll know exactly where the blade is at all times. The weight and balance of the weapon will have been completely internalized, to the point where they’re probably not even actively aware of them anymore. If they’ve trained on multiple blades (which is very likely), then they should be able to acclimate to a new sword fairly quickly (which is usually what those test swings you’ll see in fiction are for).

Obviously, there’s a bit more difference if you’re moving from a shortsword to a longsword or from a saber to a claymore, but so long as your character is using a sword that’s similar to the one they’re familiar with, acclimation should be fairly easy.

Also, it’s worth pointing out, German School fencing is specifically intended for European longswords, you can use an arming sword, Viking sword or bastard sword, but it won’t be a perfect fit. Additionally if your character is using something like a scimitar or a greatsword, those all encompass different styles.

Ironically, the original Star Wars trilogy isn’t a bad visual reference for German school fencing. There’s more blade on blade combat then you’d like in a real combat scenario, but a lot of the techniques and stances are there.

Michi would be irked if I didn’t recommend the Errol Flynn films as visual references. Just keep in mind that the actors are fighting very conservatively, because they’d been given live blades, and, for the most part, are trained in Italian School fencing, which evolved to use lighter blades.

If you’re talking about using swords in mass combat, as opposed to dueling, then I’d be tempted to suggest Aragorn and Boromir from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films. I’m not as familiar with mass combat forms, but what they’re doing looks close to what I’d expect.

I keep saying this, but look at Robert E. Howard’s Conan. One of the necessary parts of being a writer is finding someone else who went before you and seeing what they did. When it comes to sword combat, and accessibility, Robert E. Howard is probably the best source I can suggest. There’s a fairly cheap three volume paperback set that’s in print, and, because it’s public domain, most of it is available through Project Gutenberg.