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The Code Duello

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue.


The Code Duello developed from almost the earliest days of organized society, as a means to enforce a rough form of justice without instigating feud or vendetta. Fundamentally, the idea behind a duel is to allow the wronged to call the offender to account, and exact justice – or vengeance – in a context where there was no other way to achieve it.

While there are at least as many Codes Duello as there are societies for them to exist in, there are certain general features that are essentially universal:

  1. The duel is witnessed. This is an important part of the mechanism for enforcement of any particular rules, especially those rules agreed to as a means of ensuring that neither party has an inherent advantage or disadvantage under the rules. In some cases, the witnesses may also be “enforcers”, where if one of the participants attempts to act to end the duel outside the rules, he may be stopped (often by lethal means) by the witnesses.
  2. The duel is conducted under rules that are intended to make the contest fair, according to societal mores. This is not to say that, for example, that each participant must be allowed to use his own choice of weapon, at which he is most competent – but it does mean that both participants must be given weapons as nearly identical as possible. Relative difference in skill is not generally considered a matter of fairness – but this, too, may depend on societal mores.
  3. The outcome of the duel represents an ending of issue between the dueling parties and between their heirs or assigns. The recognition of this principle is of critical importance; without it, the duel has no real significance, as the outcome can be used to justify feud or vendetta – which defeats the whole point of the formal duel.

Formal duels were often considered matters of honor, and this contributed to the perception that allowing the duel to be a cause for feud or vendetta was something to be avoided (or was itself dishonorable).

Societal mores play a large part in how the duel is structured – that is, who may duel, what weapons are permitted, what rules are permitted, who may (or must) witness, and so on. Often, formal dueling is limited to the upper strata of society – those who have “inherent” honor, and can be trusted to act honorably. That doesn’t stop the “lower orders” from “aping their betters” and developing their own codes that reflect many of the same fundamental ideas.

As societies evolve toward governments of laws, rather than governments of men, dueling often falls out of favor, except clandestinely, as it becomes more and more accepted that the law – and the resulting trial, and the eventual penalty – are more about what you did than who you are. Dueling often winds up prohibited in such societies – but some of the “ethos” of the duel may be preserved in an adversarial court system. Even where dueling is not prohibited, it may be frowned upon, and have social consequences for the participants. Other social remnants of a dueling tradition may exist, such as “calling out” another member of one’s work, school, or other social circle for a perceived insult or other dispute, usually to be settled by a weaponless fight. If the insult or dispute is over personal relative skill in some activity the two have in common, the “calling out” may instead be for a “head to head” contest in the activity, if practical.

Progress of a Duel

While it is common to treat the duel as starting when the participants face each other on the ‘field of honor’, it can be said to start at the time the challenge is issued. Customs vary from place to place, but it is common for a duel to be initiated with a verbal challenge, sometimes accompanied by a physical gesture, such as slapping the challenged person with a glove. The challenge should state the cause, and is often delivered in an insulting manner. This is normally followed by a written statement providing the details of the cause for challenge; again, the wording of the statement is normally itself insulting. This actually provides an opening to resolve the challenge without an actual meeting and without either party losing ‘face’ or honor (because if it is desired to avoid the meeting, an exchange of apologies for offenses can be arranged, rather than the initially-offending party losing face by being the sole apologiser).

Once the challenge is delivered, it is generally considered improper for the participants to interact with each other until the meeting, or until some other resolution can be arranged. Each participant will name one or more representatives – three is a common number – who will meet with the other participant’s representatives to negotiate the terms of the meeting, or to arrange some other mutually satisfactory resolution to the dispute. If no alternative to the meeting can be arranged, the terms of the meeting will be negotiated, subject to any formal codes or conventions that may be in effect. This includes such things as time and place of the meeting, weapons to be used, limitations on such use, witnesses, officiants, and so on. Some of these may be defined by convention or formal codes in effect; rarely do such codes and conventions specify all of the necessary details. (Some sample conventions follow later in this article.)

The actual meeting, if it occurs, will determine the outcome of the dispute between the participants. Some conventions will allow for one last opportunity to resolve the issue without actually fighting the duel; usually, however, this is pro forma and the meeting will proceed. One participant or the other will be deemed to be fully at fault, and an apology issued by the loser (or the loser’s estate, in the case of duels to the death) to the winner. Once the apology is issued – and in most cases, it is expected to be done promptly and formally – the matter is considered over and done with, and no further enmity over the matter should be tolerated by either party.

Codes and Conventions

A Code Duello is a set of rules that govern the conduct of duels. Generally, they are not rigid, and do not specify all the details, but will specify such things as whether the challenge and statement of cause must be made in writing, what weapons may (or may not) be used, which ‘bloods’ (see below) are permitted or prohibited, and sometimes other details of the meeting – but never in such detail as to make negotiation between representatives unnecessary.

Conventions are generally less specific than Codes, and may offer a set of choices where a Code might not specify. If, during the negotiating process, the representatives agree on a particular Convention, it is read as a “shortcut” for negotiating (and agreeing to) all of the limits or requirements that the Convention lists.


Historically, duels might have been to “First”, “Second”, or “Third Blood”. “First Blood” is to the first injury that draws blood. “Second Blood” occurs when one participant is unable to continue. “Third Blood” occurs at the death of either participant. The use of the “Blood” terms, other than “First Blood”, has largely fallen out of use; “Second Blood” is generally replaced by its description above, and “Third Blood” replaced by “to the death” or the French term l’outrance (‘to the limit’).

List of Conventions in Fiction

The Conventions (sometimes called Protocols) listed here have appeared in fiction. The descriptions are what the fiction defined; they are not necessarily a complete set of rules. The format is as follows:

Name [Source]: Description

Names in italics are not given in the fiction, but are arbitrarily-defined names for convenience. Note that this is nowhere near a complete list.

Thrallian Code
[Lensman series, E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith]: The superior decides the location and weapon, regardless of who issues the challenge.
Manticoran Code
[Honor Harrington series, David Weber]: Illegal to challenge over an existing litigation matter; illegal to hire (or be hired as) a professional duelist. Journalists immune from challenge for what they write.
Royal Manticoran Navy Protocol
[Honor Harrington series, David Weber]: Duels between RMN personnel permitted only with specific permission of superior officer (presumably uninvolved and in chain of command of participants). No permission required for Naval Officer to duel with civilian.
Dreyfus Protocol
[Honor Harrington series, David Weber]: Pistol magazines limited to five rounds, no more than one round per exchange, first blood. Duelist start at center of field, walk 30 paces on command, turn on command and fire. If honor not satisfied and no blood drawn, walk two paces forward on command and fire again, repeat until honor satisfied, blood drawn, or magazines exhausted.
Ellington Protocol
[Honor Harrington series, David Weber]: Duelists stand 40m apart, ten rounds in magazine, no limit on rounds fired at one time. Duel is to death or surrender (by dropping weapon).
New Belfast Protocol
[The Wheels of If, L. Sprague de Camp]: Participants fight stripped to waist, tied together at the waist, armed with a long knife in the right hand. Duel is to the death, no seconds, no negotiation. Note that even when the duel is justified, the victor may be sued for wergild by the loser’s estate, regardless of who provoked or challenged.
[“Amok Time”, Theodore Sturgeon, Star Trek (TOS, s2e1)]: Challenge issued by female in Vulcan marriage/challenge ceremony. If she does not want the male as mate, she issues the challenge and chooses a champion. Duel is to the death, first with lirpa, a polearm with a fan-shaped blade at one end and a heavy weight usable as a club at the other; if both participants survive the lirpa (by disarming the opponent), combat continues with the ahn woon, a strip of leather with weights on the end, usable as a sling, bola, garrote, etc.
Akor-Neb Code
[“Last Enemy”, H. Beam Piper]: Challenged chooses weapons, challenger then decides term of meeting (e.g., how participants will dress, number of rounds in pistols, whether parrying weapons/defenses are allowed, etc.). The code says that satisfaction should be rendered as quickly as practicable; this provision is apparently ignored or viewed as flexible enough to allow for negotiation of time and place if both parties are willing.