While frequently forbidden by law, the tradition of duelling to resolve personal differences or restore honor was well established in both Europe and America of the 1800s. In the United States, duelling was a publicly declaimed, yet clandestinely observed activity that involved many Presidents, Senators and other statesmen or military officers. Not until 1883 did Congress pass a bill banning duelling within the District of Columbia.
The arm of choice in Great Britain and American was the muzzleloading single-shot pistol, presented as identical pairs, and cased with a variety of specialized loading and cleaning accoutrements. Handcrafted for superb balance, these smoothbore pistols were made by some of the world's finest gunsmiths. Seconds in a duel would prepare the firearms for the confrontation of the principals. The choice of a site depended on geography with many duels being fought on isolated sandbars or islands where maximum privacy was possible.
A formal duel was a carefully choreographed affair, with a series of steps (the code duello) followed by the parties. In addition to the principals and seconds, a surgeon was also required to be in attendance. After the initial exchange of shots at ten paces without effect, both parties could elect to move closer or end the affair with honor upheld.
This special pair of duelling pistols is attributed to the 1813 duel and subsequent fight that pitted Colonel Thomas Hart Benton and his brother Jesse Benton against General Andrew Jackson and Colonel John Coffee. In this September 1st Nashville, TN fight, Jackson was wounded in his left shoulder by Thomas Hart Benton with one of these pistols, while Jesse Benton received a wound in the buttocks. The cause of this fight was the written reprimand Thomas Benton sent Jackson for standing as second for William Carroll in the initial duel against his brother.
A temporary exhibit in the galleries of the National Firearms Museum now offers visitors the rare opportunity to see duelling pistols from many renowned British and Continental armsmakers. Located in the museum's new lobby exhibition area, Code Duello offers 32 flintlock, percussion, and pill-lock arms from noted gunmakers including Durs Egg, John and Joseph Manton, Charles Moore, Gastinne Renette, John Twigg, and Robert Wogdon.