Ten paces, turn, and fire

Dueling Pistols

A brace of authentic flintlock dueling pistols. Photo from http://www.claysmithguns.com

Dueling may not be the perfect solution, but why not give it a try? We are killing about 25 people each day with handguns anyway, so why not structure, regulate and conduct all that mayhem and slaughter in a way that would be socially acceptable, even honorable, and probably taxable?

Ten paces, turn, and fire

A pair of dueling pistols on display in New Orleans’ French Market inspired a thought: Congress could solve many of America’s current problems by repealing the 1859 laws that prohibit dueling.

Those replica flintlock pistols offered for sale in the historic open-air market, a featured landmark of downtown New Orleans, were not genuine. Nestled in a felt-lined faux-walnut display case, the muzzle-loader pistols were cheap coffee table décor with chromed plastic barrels, pot metal actions, and teak stocks – picturesque and quaintly charming but completely non-functional. Nevertheless, they spoke to me of an age when social disputes were resolved in a more direct and conclusive manner that eliminated much of the petty bickering, recurring arguments, nuisance litigation, and political umbrage that are the plagues of our social discourse today.

In a long-past era of America’s turbulent history, dueling also served as a court of final appeal that required no expensive, obstructive and pettifogging legal counsel. Through the first two hundred years of its history New Orleans had laws and ordinances that barred lawyers from practicing their convoluted trade, and until dueling fell out of favor the unruly denizens of the Crescent City seemed to effectively settle their disputes, both le petit and le grande, without the interference of barristers. I assume there was a corresponding increase in the demand for morticians’ services, but death and burial in NOLA is a whole other convoluted topic.

By the way, I heartily recommend Nawrlins, La., as a late winter vacation destination. If you go, plan to spend at least week exploring the city, its jumble of wards and districts, historic neighborhoods, back street restaurants and bars, the waterfront, and the many modern attractions. Ride the trolley cars. Enjoy watching the performance artists on the street corners. Do not dance with the aging and much-painted Gypsy woman; she is not a woman. Probably not a real Gypsy, either.

The World War II Museum alone is worth a two-day visit. If you sign-on for any bus or walking tour you will be coerced into spending much time roaming the city’s expansive cemeteries; not a bad thing and quite educational. Do not go during Mardi Gras week, however, unless you are more bold and daring than I. And avoid Harrah’s casino at all costs.

My beautiful blonde wife and I traveled to the fabled grande ville dans le marais, sited below sea level in the reclaimed swamps of the Mississippi River delta, via Amtrak’s City of New Orleans train, exchanging for eight days the frigid subarctic weather of the North Country for the balmy subtropics of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. As an escape from winter the trip was a great success; as an adventure in new cultural and social experiences it was an even greater success.

We learned much about the city’s history, geography, economy, social structure, politics, education system, and of course its fabulous culinary diversity. A highlight of the trip was being invited to a crawfish boil with a family that has centuries-old roots in the city. We also learned the difference between Cajun cuisine and Creole. (No, I’m not going to tell you; go there and find out for yourself.) An unexpected benefit was the discovery the city supports dozens of breweries, large and small, that turn out fifty or more types of beers. Alas, I did not have time to sample them all.

When you go, do much unguided and random sight-seeing on your own and at your own pace (afoot; do not attempt to drive a motor vehicle in central New Orleans). Wandering around the city with no specific intent beyond seeing first-hand some of the parishes that are still rebuilding after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and visiting historic Jackson Square, we came upon the French Market, a touristy but still fascinating place. An unwary shopper can buy most anything there: authentic Native American garb made in Indonesia, bayou alligator-foot back-scratchers made in Honduras, a French renaissance-style marble chess set made in India, a pair of cased dueling pistol replicas made in Taiwan…

…which returns us to the subject at hand.


Reproduction of painting of Victorian Era pistol duel from  http://www.katetattersall.com

Dueling is interwoven into the historic fabric of Louisiana – of all the South, for that matter – as a recourse for gentlemen to seek “satisfaction” in affaires d’honneur, although in my cursory reading about the practice I was struck by the frequency that affairs of honor overlapped with affaires d’argent (money), affaires d’propriété (property), affaires d’enterprise (business), affaires du vin (wine), and just plain old affaires. Well, we Americans are free to define honor in whatever terms we choose and fight to defend it. We are not so free to choose our social status. Traditionally, duels could be arranged between “gentlemen” only – men of the wealthy and propertied classes. Les petit gens, the common people, had to engage in simple fisticuffs, knife fights, cudgel assaults, and barroom shoot-outs. All de rigueur of the poor and uncultured elements of society: my ancestors, for example.

Typical of all leisure pursuits of the propertied class, dueling evolved into a complicated practice governed by a set of rules written in 1777 and known as the Code Duello. The code was intended to make pistol dueling more civilized, and this 26-point document included guidelines on the various degrees of insults and how each should be brought to satisfaction. I have read the code twice, and frankly its wording is so ambiguous and confusing that interpreting the rules would require each party to bring a lawyer to the duel, which defeats the central purpose of restoring dueling as the preferred method of settling disputes: definitive resolution of an issue without litigation.

If we could develop a simpler set of dueling regulations, is it not time to restore this once respected practice? In this age of contentious political and social issues virtually everyone is offended by the slightest affront or insult, and dueling seems to be the most promising way to persuade people who would otherwise not consider, let alone accept, a viewpoint or opinion counter to their own. Now that the President of the United States has declared that anyone can create “alternate facts” and stand by them unmoved in the face of reality, a clash of conflicting views will be factually decided when one, or both, parties in the dispute can no longer stand.

Think of the other advantages: a huge reduction in the case loads of our courts, and subsequently the number of attorneys, judges, bailiffs, prisons, guards, halfway houses, parole officers, and other facilities and personnel of the judicial and penal systems. Health care costs would plummet as fewer and fewer citizens would attain the elderly age when people are most beset by illness and infirmity. The country’s overpopulation and surplus work force problems could also be solved. Not to mention term limits for elected officials. Televised duels between celebrities would be a cash cow for the entertainment industry.

Historically only the elite propertied class could engage in duels, but in this more enlightened and democratic era I think any upright citizen and most of the degenerate ones should be granted the freedom to participate. As in olden days, every man would be expected to own a brace of dueling pistols, and the NRA will certainly compel its vest-pocket legislators to legalize dueling so that gun sales can rebound after their recent alarming slump. During the golden age of dueling smooth-bore flintlock pistols were used, weapons that were notoriously inaccurate at dueling distances and frequently misfired, but today a tricked-out pair of semi-automatic pistols with 15-round magazines would be more appropriate and certainly more effective.

I predict a huge surge in the popularity of dueling in a few short years, along with mushroom growth of supporting organizations and agencies. I myself am not interested in engaging in duels (when we reach a certain age we find our honor is not easily offended) but I would explore the possibility of operating a boutique business that provides a dueling arena, judges, seconds, emergency medical technicians, a priest or pastor, and transportation to a mortuary. All for a very reasonable price.

Dueling may not be the perfect solution, but why not give it a try? We are killing about 25 people each day with handguns anyway, most in disputes over affaires d’honneur (and/or money, property, business, territory, alcohol, drugs) so why not structure, regulate and conduct all that mayhem and slaughter in a way that would be socially acceptable, even honorable, and probably taxable?

A revival of pistol dueling could restore a sense of order, tolerance, and responsible behavior in this country that has not been seen since… well, since the serene and peaceful days of New Orleans in the 17th century.


More stories about life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays and two novels, all available through my Author Page on Amazon.com Jerry Johnson Author Page

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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