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Pistol, n: A small firearm designed to be held in one hand; Etymon: French, pistole. 



Though recorded to have been used in Britain as early as the 13th century, during the 18th century firearms and ballistic technology advanced greatly. Eclipsing in efficiency and accuracy the previous matchlock and wheelock designs, the invention and distribution of the flintlock pistol marked the transition from slow and ineffective medieval firearms to the weapons more familiar to us today. Unlike bayonets or muskets, flintlock pistols could be easily used and subtly carried due to their smaller size and simplified firing mechanism. For this reason, flintlock pistols were used by both active military personnel as well as civilians, outlaws and even some women. Pistols therefore swiftly became an integral object in 18th century life. Towards the end of the century, the development of the duelling pistol would have a prolific effect on societal ideals concerning morality and masculinity, and firearms would play a large part in the numerous wars that took place in Europe and America during this period. 

The literature in which pistols are mentioned in the 18th century suggests that in British society and culture, civilians' use of pistols were generally viewed in a negative light; a lot of the literature produced at this time mainly discussed the destructive nature of the weapon and the barbaric practices of using it. Today’s debates surrounding the use of handguns in North America hark back to conversations already begun in the 18th century regarding firearm technology. However, as a military arm or tool of husbandry, the 18th century flintlock was useful and more effective than previous tools. The pistol could be seen as both a deadly weapon and as part of a gentleman’s costume. Despite their violent purposes, pistols were not exempt from the widespread fetishisation of objects that took place 18th century culture. Often imported from abroad, pistols were also valuable commodities, beautified with intricate carvings and designs.


Fig. 1 - Graph depicting use of the terms "pistol" and "duel" in texts from the long 18th century (1660-1830)

 As shown by the above graph (Fig. 1), the term "pistol" was evidently long in use. However, it saw a steady incline from the 1740s onwards. This rise is most likely a result of the fact that murders, robberies and duels, assisted by the use of pistols, were being increasingly reported. This trend in turn sparked conversation and debate about the civilian use or misuse of pistols, which permeated into the literature of the later 18th century. As can be seen on the graph, there is a distinct correlation between the words "pistol" and "duel". The upward trend of both words reflects how pistol duelling was in vogue mostly between the 1740s to the 1780s before gradually levelling out. 


Manufacture and Distribution of Flintlock Pistols


Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert's French Encyclopaedia, published from 1751 onwards, credits France with the invention of firearms. The invention of the flintlock mechanism has been generally attributed to Frenchman Martin Le Bourgeoys as early as the 1620s.  However, flintlocks really only became the choice of weapon in Britain over a century later. In England, the main centres for gun making in the 17th and 18th centuries were London and Birmingham; the "Gun Quarter" district of Birmingham city got its name during this period due to the high proportion of gunsmiths operating in and distributing from the area. There were no factories as such for producing pistols at this time, but rather independent, family owned businesses. A newspaper advertisement (Fig. 2, below) from Adam's Weekly Courant is an informative example of the pistol-making industry in 18th century Britain. According to tradition, Haywood is carrying on a family trade, "having for a long Time past, been principally employed in executing the business of his brother, Mr. Henry Haywood"From the advertisement one can also see that guns could be relatively cheaply bought; Haywood charges only 2s. 6d., per gun, equivalent to £10.76 in 2018. However, this is only one example and the price surely fluctuated between different manufacturers across the country. Haywood used a similar method of advertisement later in 1788 when his business moved to a different location. This second advertisement clarifies that Haywood was carrying on the gun-making business form his brother, as Henry Haywood encourages his previous clients to use his brother's service. It was very normal in the 18th century for families to be involved in the continuation of the business for many generations, and gunsmiths were evidently no exception. Fascinatingly, even the pistol-maker himself in the above advert acknowledges the inefficiency of 18th century pistols: "NB. Guns bored to carry Shot well, tho' ever so defective".  

 Flintlock Pistol barrels were usually made of steel (often imported from the Netherlands), with walnut handles as this wood was not likely to shatter. Bullets were made of either iron or lead.


Fig. 2 - Advertisement from Adam's Weekly Courant. Chester, 1780 



Firing a Flintlock


Loading and firing a flintlock pistol was a lengthy process. First, a small amount of gunpowder was dispersed into the priming pan. The guns were then “charged” with gunpowder, and bullets were pushed into the barrel with a ramrod. Bullets were wrapped in a patch of cloth or leather before being loaded into the gun. The flintlock mechanism, as depicted in Fig. 3, meant that when the trigger of the pistol was pulled back, a piece of flint on the hammer or cock would scrape the frizzen, making sparks which would ignite the powder in the pan and thenceforth the rest of the gunpowder, discharging the bullet. Flintlock pistols were used for close range fighting and as a supporting arm to other weaponry.


Fig. 3 - Flintlock firing mechanism

Flintlock ignition animation

Pistols were evidently useful items, even if they were as cheap as advertisement by Haywood. The Old Bailey reports from this period frequently recounted highway robberies which included the theft of a pistol and its accessories, suggesting that they were coveted items either for their monetary/resale value or for the protection and use they could provide the owner. These reports also give an indication that when travelling, men tended to carry their pistols to protect both themselves and their companions from harm, particularly from the threat of highwaymen

Though not comparable to today's handguns, the use of 18th century pistols could result in severe injury and even death. The types of wounds generally recorded from pistol bullets, and how to treat them, can be found in The Surgical Works of the Late John Jones M.D (1795), compiled by James Mease M.D. In this work, there is a section dedicated to the treatment of gunshot wounds. It is recommended that the ball/bullet is removed from the body by dilating the entry wound and using forceps (Mease 136) to retrieve the foreign body. It suggests that blood is drawn from the gunshot victim, as well as laxatives and purgatives given to them, in order to reduce swelling or evacuate any potential poison. Mease notes that when large joints were damaged by a pistol ball, an amputation usually had to take place (138). 


Military use of the Pistol


The 18th century witnessed monumental military conflict which required the use of pistols for warfare. Britain was engaged in the Seven Years War (1756–1763) the American Revolution (1775-1783) and, within the long 18th century, the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). The Board of Ordnance, headquartered in the Tower of London, was responsible for the storage and distribution of military arms during the 18th century. Military pistols such as those in Fig. 4, were generally larger, with a barrel length ranging between eight and 13 inches.


Fig. 4 - Flintlock military pistol - Light Cavalry model (1744), Royal Armouries



As depicted in the 1743 picture by George Bickham the Younger (Fig. 5, below), armed cavalrymen were regarded as gallant and brave. The "Valiant Dragoon" sitting atop his rearing steed is seen as a courageous young man, his face scarred from previous battles. The flintlock pistol was a vital part of the militia uniform and was understood as a means for the army to defend themselves and consequently their country. This significance is accentuated in the image by the two prominent objects carried by the dragoon; he bears both a pistol and the Royal Standard. 


Fig. 5 - Thomas Brown the Valiant Dragoon, by George Bickham the Younger, c.1743.



Although triggering a flintlock pistol was probably quicker to learn than the art of swordsmanship, military men still needed instruction on how to use this modern weapon. For the cavalry in particular, the use of pistol required practice and skill as loading and firing a flintlock while controlling a horse was not the simplest of tasks. The methodology for firing a pistol on horseback and how to practice doing so is outlined in a 1797 manual Instructions for the Armed Yeomanry by Sir William Young, 2nd Baronet.

The Yeomanry, who were the cavalry members of the British Volunteer Corps, were armed with both a sword and a pistol; an 18th century flintlock pistol was certainly not efficient enough to be used on its own. The text stresses the importance of keeping pistols clean; this was necessary both for appearances and to help the smooth functioning of the mechanisms. The importance of this rule is emphasised by its placement in the text as the first rule of conduct for Yeomen: "the first requisite is, that each Yeoman of the troop keep his sword and pistol clean, and in bright and serviceable order" (Young 8).

The Yeomen were instructed to hold the pistol in their left hand or rein hand, while using their right to load and fire. (Young 16-17). The Instructions also details the routines performed by the Yeomanry when engaged in fighting. Young instructs that, when in battle, the line of skirmish should separate into two ranks; the front rank would fire pistols, then be overtaken by the rear rank brandishing swords. In this manner, the two ranks would alternate between firing and fencing (Young 41-42). This practice effectively meant that the cavalry were always on the offensive despite the time needed to reload pistols. As is outlined in the Instructions, Yeomen were encouraged to train their horses not to spook at the sound of the pistol. This could be achieved during training by firing nearby the horse, starting at a distance of forty or fifty yards, and also loading and firing their pistols while on horseback (Young 9). The process of firing a flintlock on horseback can be seen depicted in the 1793 engraving below by George Noble (Fig. 6). The stages are as follows; 1. To Horse, 2. Upon your Pistol, 3. Draw your Pistol, 4. Order your Pistol, 5. Span your Pistol, 6. Prime your Pistol, 7. Shut your Pan, 8. Cast about your Pistol. 


Fig. 6 - English Horse Exercise by George Noble.1793 



Duelling Pistol


Towards the latter part of the century, it became a trend to use flintlock pistols for duels as opposed to swords. Sets of two matching pistols, sometimes with intricate designs and carvings, were sold with all of the accessories, including materials for gun owners to make their own bullets. Pocket pistols and duelling pistols could have a barrel length between two to four inches. The pistol pictured below (Fig. 7) is one of a pair, currently stored at the Royal Armouries at the Tower of London. The pistol, dated 1780, is petite in size, has intricate floral designs on the handle and butt and is engraved either side with the manufacturer (Richard Wilson) and the location of its manufacture (London).


Fig. 7 - Flintlock pocket pistol (1780), Royal Armouries Collections




Though the firing technology of pistols had been simplified and improved in the 18th  century, this did not mean that it was much easier to achieve an accurate shot. Numerous strictly observed rules for duelling, in conjunction with the inaccuracy of 18th century gun mechanisms, meant that a fatality was not always the result of duels. It was not the preferred result either. Ultimately, the objective of the duel was not to kill your opponent but rather to display your honour and bravery. Although duels were popular, they were still illegal, so many took place outside of the metropolis. The most popular location for duels in London was Hyde Park. 


Rules of the Duel

The pistol duel in the 18th century differed from previous forms of fighting in a number of ways, not least in the very manner in which it was begun. As Shoemaker notes in his essay "The Taming of the Duel": "In comparison to the sword duel, pistol duels were more likely to take place after a delay; typically, after a quarrel had taken place and a challenge had been issued, the participants fought their duel early the next morning." (532). A man could be challenged to a duel for the most trivial of offences, but the most common causes were a physical blow or a “lie direct”. Generally, the offended party could select the choice of weapon. 

For duels fought by pistol, the graveness of the offence could also determine how many feet the duellers, known as Principals, stood from each other when firing. By the end of the 18th century, general practice for duels was that the two opponents fired simultaneously “at random” using a signal such as the dropping of a handkerchief. This technique was adopted to prevent death or serious injury, as it meant that hitting the target was even more difficult.

A Second was employed for both opponents – this was a right hand man who would assist with the loading of the gun. In the 18th century, the role of the Second was important as a mediator – after each shot was fired, they would attempt to intervene, convincing the Principals to be satisfied and prevent further shooting. The importance of this role and the many rules that had to be followed are highlighted in the 1793 text Advice to Seconds (Fig. 8).  


Fig. 8 - Frontispiece to Advice to Seconds, 1793 


In this handbook, the author gives his opinion on the manner in which duels should be conducted, repeating throughout the publication that he does not encourage duelling. He opens the work with the following apology: "Had either the laws of our country or the mild precepts of our blessed religion, been properly obeyed, there had been no inducement to have offered the world a publication on so very new and extraordinary a subject; but when these are every day so glaringly violated by a most unwarrantable practice and the laws concerning it so seldom put in force; it may be considered as a growing evil, which cannot be surmounted, and must abide its own fatal consequences. The practice alluded to is that of DUELLING" (xi)

Some of the rules that the author mentions include: the preferred distance between opponents (10 yards, 12 for trivial disputes), the preference of pistols over swords, the necessity to fire simultaneously on a signal rather than alternate firing, and the necessity for the Second to attempt to reconcile the parties involved. Previously, the Second was usually someone who supported and engaged with fighting alongside the Principal. The change of this role during the 18th century, noted in Advice to Seconds, indicates a change in attitudes towards the practice of duelling and corporal violence in general.

Interestingly, the author seems to imply that pistols are less dangerous and a welcome alternative to the former sword duel: "As for the weapons, it is a fortunate circumstance, for gentlemen who come to such decisions, that the sword is so often laid aside, and pistols made use of. The objections to the former are well founded. Every swordsman knows how rarely the parties are of equal skill, and if it should be so, what a number of wounds may be received on both sides before the conflict is ended " (21-22). The author confirms the notion that not everyone knew how to fence or wanted to. Fencing was considered a practice more for the upper classes, and as Shoemaker notes, "Whereas the small sword required long practice in order to master it, one could learn quickly how to fire a pistol" (529). Evidently, in the 18th century, the pistol was seen as part of a hierarchy of defensive means. For men of the lower classes, Shoemaker suggests some disputes were alternatively settled by boxing

Fig. 9 is a a cartoon by George Cruikshank, depicting a gentleman practicing his shot. Generally, it was considered bad form and bloody to practise your aim in preparation for a duel. In the sketch, Cruikshank appears to be satirising the gentleman's poor shot; his target is a lifeless goose which he is standing very close to and his eyes even appear to be closed. The reason the gentleman is holding two pistols (with a third provided by the man behind him) is probably so that he can shoot multiple times without having to pause to reload in between. The scene is depicted in a country setting; although duels frequently took place in the city, this gentleman appears to be practicing on a country estate, indicated by the vernal background, and the presence of the dead fowl.  


Fig. 9 - Preparing for a Duel by George Cruikshank, 1824



Anyone who participated in the illegal activity of duelling, including Seconds, could be severely punished. Duellers who killed their opponent, if caught, could be charged with murder and hanged. This unfortunate turn of events is documented in a newspaper from 1808, which recounts the case of a duel between Major. A Campbell and Captain A. Boyd in Ireland. The reason for the duel was not mentioned, but Major Campbell's shot killed Captain Boyd. In the article it is suggested that many members of jury asked for clemency for Campbell due to his excellent character. However, he was ultimately hanged for the murder of Boyd, it is implied, in order to serve as an example to other duellists. The article also strengthens the notion that any kind of man could find himself engaged in a duel:  "The unfortunate catastrophe which produced such an awful result to Major Campbell, it is to be hoped, will not fail of leaving a lesson to mankind of salutary influence. Both of the parties were gentlemen, eminent in their profession, of high character and honour, who had long lived on terms of mutual friendship and esteem. The unfortunate irritation of a moment at once deprived society of one of the best of men, and left a widow and infant family to mourn their irreparable loss". Duellers could be men of the most upstanding calibre, but regardless of status or character, the punishment was unfortunately the same for all, if caught. 

The negative sentiments expressed towards pistol duels in the Campbell article were echoed throughout 18th century journalism. James Plume in an article from The Times states: "The barbarous custom of prostituting the word honour to the purposes of deliberate murder, is become so frequent, that scarce a week passes without appeal to the bullet on some frivolous deception or some ridiculous point of etiquette and which we fear that it will everyday become more general." Plume then goes on to recount the pistol duel that occurred between a Count Fig and Mr. Eyebright. In May 1801, Henry Frances penned his opinion on the matter and his article echoed the tone of Plume's: "in a country where the greatest refinement and polished manners obtain, is it not matter equally of astonishment and regret, that duelling, a practice so savage and inhuman should prevail?" (244). Clearly Plume and Frances did not think pistols duels a reasonable way in which men should settle their differences. This opposition to the practice is interesting to observe, and poses the question of whether, in the 18th century, the pistol was seen more as a villainous weapon or as a means for a gentleman to defend his honour. 


The Pistol and Modern Masculinity


It would appear that in the 18th century, few gentlemen were exempt from owning a flintlock pistol or the possibility of engaging in a duel. Men of the upper classes, military officers and particularly those involved in public life, such as politicians, were known to have duelled with pistols. As is seen in the obituary of Lord Campbell, men of very reputable status were known to duel with pistols as a means of settling their differences; it was not only drunken debauches in the city who duelled. In Britain, notable individuals involved in pistols duels included Whig MP Charles Fox in 1779, Prince Frederick Duke of York and Albany in 1789, and Tory MP William Pitt the Younger in 1798. Over in the United States, one of the most famous duels by pistol occurred just after the turn of the century in 1804, between Founding Fathers Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. At the time, Burr was the current Vice-President and the duel resulted in General Hamilton's death. As was detailed in the Caledonian Mercury on 20 August of that year, Hamilton was challenged to duel as a result of defamatory pieces he had written about Burr and they shot at a distance of "ten full spaces". True to duelling tradition, the affair was settled, Hamilton stating in his will that he possessed no ill feelings to Burr, only disagreement over political differences.  

In the 18th century, some believed that duels encouraged refinement and politeness. It was thought that the fear of death by duel would prevent gentlemen from unnecessarily causing one another offence. Moreover, the duellers' adherence to rules showed that they were reasonable, cultured men defending their honour, as opposed to the reckless barbarians that Plume and Frances seem to suggest. Charles Moore in his earlier work A full Inquiry into the Subject of Suicide., To which are added two Treatises on Duelling and Gaming, (1743) tracks the duel's history as a chivalric custom. Although he criticises the practice, regarding it as equivalent to self-murder, Moore acknowledges that duelling is now considered a part of polite society, calling it: "a custom of such fashionable and honourable report [...] established in the circles of polite association" (218).  

Fig. 10 is a sketch depicting a pistol duel, complete with Seconds. The men's wigs and clothing indicate that they are members of the upper classes. the title of the sketch, "Modern Honour" is suggestive; it implies that a gentleman's repute could be validated by taking part in a pistol duel. That it is "modern" honour indicates either that the respect for duels in the 18th century was a modern phenomenon, or , more likely, it could simply be referring to the use of a modern weapon (the flintlock) as opposed to a sword. Fig. 11 is a drawing of a country sportsman using a pistol. Pistols of course could also also be used for hunting and husbandry. The use of pistols in such a context suggests them to be possessions of the refined gentility that resided in the country. 


Fig. 10 - Matthew Darly, Modern Honour, 1777 Fig. 11 - The Juvenile Sportsman by Anonymous,  c. 1800s-1850s 


A poem printed in the Morning Chronicle in 1801 solidifies the relationship between pistols, masculinity and honour in 18th century British culture. The poem, "Epistle from the Right Honourable G.C to Lord G.G" is very flattering towards the intended recipient, and in lines 5-8 mentions his ability to command a pistol as one of his good qualities: 


But he, the best natured and kindest of men,

The ablest to wield both the pistol and pen,

(How steady his hand when at Battersea fighting!

How rapid, official dispatches inditing!) 


In these lines, the pistol and pen - symbols of war and education - are seen as equally weighted. Lord G's ability to fight with a pistol is here presented as a positive attribute, as useful and powerful as his education. That his wielding of the pistol is shown to exemplify the kindness and good nature of Lord G provides us with an insight to 18th century perspectives on pistols and what their use meant for men of honour. 


Women and Pistols


On rare occasions, women were known to have engaged in duels by pistol. These incidents were named “petticoat duels”. Fig. 12 is an image produced for Carlton-House Magazine in 1792 of a supposed duel between Lady Almeria Braddock and Mrs. Elphinstone in Hyde Park of that same year. The artist's emphasis on the flowing ribbons of their garments accentuates the contrast between their feminine, constricting clothing and the masculine activity they are attempting to perform. The term "petticoat duelists" highlights the oxymoronic nature of this act, perhaps also sexualising it to a degree by a reference to an intimate part of a woman's wardrobe. By referring to the act as a "petticoat duel" the situation is also seen as a more trivial, ridiculous occurrence.


Fig. 12 - The Petticoat Duelists" by Anonymous 1792


A similar term is used to describe a female highway robber (Fig. 13) in a sketch by Isaac Cruikshank, named "The Modern Hannibal or Petty-Coat Valour" (1791). Again, in this image the woman's elegant clothing, in particular the elaborate feathered hat, contrasts with her aggressive actions, highlighting how violence was seen as not concordant with 18th century perceptions of women and their roles. The apparent fear of the gentlemen (two of which, according to their dress, appear to be military men) is also somewhat amusing. 

Whether the event shown above between the two British ladies actually took place, is questionable. However, another duel between women earlier in the century was recorded by the German Christoph Meiner, in Volume III of his work The History of the Female Sex (Fig. 14). This volume covers a detailed history of women's conduct, fashion and political and social influence throughout Europe, from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Although published in 1808, Meiner places the event in the chapter "Of the Condition of the Female Sex under the Regency of the Duke of Orleans", implying therefore that the incident took place anywhere between 1715 and 1723. Oftentimes, duels were fought between men over women, however in this situation, it was the reverse: "The duke de Richelieu was the cause of an unprecedented duel between two women, Madame de Polignac and and Madame de Nesle, who disputed the possession of him" (Meiner 339-340).  The duke de Richelieu is described by Meiner as a total Rake, and Madame de Polignac as a haughty woman driven mad by jealousy. As was often the case with pistol duels, the participants were not fatally wounded; Madame de Nesle took a shot to the shoulder but apparently survived. This example is used by Meiner to portray the "great and general corruption of manners among the ladies of the court"(341-342) under the Duke of Orleans' influence. Meiner's story was reprinted the same year in a London magazine: Le Belle Assemblée, or, Bell's Court and Fashionable Magazine Addressed Particularly to the Ladies. Taken out of context, the extract seems less derogatory and moralistic, and instead seemingly intends to excite the reader. No opinions are given on the act of duelling between either men or women, the writer merely mentions the frequency of duels in the 18th century and the uniqueness of the case between the two women in the French Court. 


Fig. 13 -  The Modern Hannibals or Petty Coat Valour by Isaac Cruikshank, 1791 

Fig. 14 - Frontispiece to History of the Female Sex by Christoph Meiner, 1808 


Differing Attitudes


While in Britain there was a clear rhetoric of opposition to pistols and criticism of their destructive nature, this was not the case everywhere. Over in the United States, the freedom to own self-defensive weapons, such as pistols, was felt to be a integral part of life for Americans. Citizens’ rights to firearms were ultimately protected by James Madison's proposed amendments to the United States Constitution. Passed under the presidency of George Washington in 1789, the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution (Fig. 15) was officially adopted on December 15, 1791. Found in the Bill of Rights, The Amendment states: "[...] the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”. 


Fig. 15 - 2nd Amendment to the United States Constitution, 1789



This attitude contrasted greatly with the anti-duel and anti-pistol debates happening around this time in the UK. Parts of the UK actually saw a gradual introduction of restrictive measures concerning firearms, such as an Act in 1973 which prevented the importation of ballistic weaponry and gunpowder into Ireland. This Act meant that any individual in possession of unlicensed pistols, ammunition, gunpowder etc., could have their valuables seized and then find themselves charged with a rather high fine of £500. According to the historical currency converter, today this would amount to approximately £38,380.55 - a very severe punishment indeed. Captains found importing such paraphernalia on their ships could also suffer a slightly reduced fine of £200. This Act would have been intended to significantly reduce how many foreign pistols were in circulation and who was able to possess them. The introduction of this law could be seen merely as a means of protecting the local Irish gun-makers livelihood. However, considering how prolific gun crime was in the UK at this time and how pistols were generally viewed by the public, it is easy to read it as a means to reduce gun ownership and the general violence, including the homicides and suicides that often resulted from the use of pistols. The text even alludes to some public misdemeanours on the first page, referring to some "Tumultuous risings [which] have of late happened in some parts of the Kingdom" (3-4), insinuating that this law has been passed in order to keep order and peace. The contrasting natures between these two laws, introduced within a few years of one another, indicates that opinions to firearms, specifically civilian use of pistols, evidently differed across cultures and countries in the 18th century. 


Pistols in 18th century Plays and Novels


John Gay, The Beggar's Opera (1728) 

Although pistols were more popular as a weapon during the latter part of the 18th century, Gay's opera is useful for noting as early as 1728 that pistols were carried and used by men of all classes. This play also supports the negative connotations associated with pistols which appear to be more fervent in later texts; even among bandits, the use of pistol is seen as undignified, as displayed by Macheath and Matt's interaction in Act II Scene I. Matt brusquely threatens to "shoot him [Peachum] through the Head", to which Macheath responds: "I beg you, Gentlemen, act with with Conduct and Discretion. A pistol is your last resort" (Gay 15). However, this discussion is shortly followed by Matt's song which rouses his gang to arms:


 Let us take the Road.

Hark! I hear the Sound of Coaches!

The Hour of Attack approaches,

To your Arms, brave Boys, and load.

See the Ball I hold!

Let the Chymists toil like Asses,

Our Fire their Fire surpasses,

And turns all our Lead to Gold.


The song ends with the physical act of the actors loading their pistols: "The Gang, rang’d in the Front of the Stage, load their Pistols, and stick them under their Girdles; then go off singing the first Part in Chorus" (Gay 15). In the song, Matt's attention to the "the sound of coaches" indicates that the gang are preparing themselves for the highway robbery of a coach or carriage. The second stanza of the song suggests the fatal effects of firearms; supposedly Matt is commenting on the inadequacy of 18th century chemists and men of medicine when asked to deal with gunshot wounds. Lead of course was the material used to make pistol bullets; Matt's likening it to gold conveys the power and riches that the use of pistols as a threat to their victims endows the gang with. The suggested use of drums and trumpets to accompany the song communicates the aggressiveness and danger associated with the use of pistols; the loud sound of drums could also be used in this song to emulate the noise of pistol fire. This instrumental would have worked well in conjunction with the plosive and sibilant sounds of the song to convey the intimidating noises created by pistols and their violent effects.  

Later in Scene IV, Jenny makes some interesting comments regarding Macheath's pistols. She states; "A Man of Courage should never put anything to Risque but his Life. These are the Tools of a Man of Honour" (Gay 18). Gay's stage direction immediately following these lines ("she takes up his Pistol. Tawdry takes up the other") indicates that the "tools" Jenny refers to are evidently his pistols. Jenny's lines show an alternative attitude towards pistols; rather than being seen simply as a destructive device, Jenny refers to the pistols as symbols of male virility and bravery. These lines therefore indicate 18th century ideas regarding masculinity and what constitutes male honour; the fact that the lines are spoken by a female character further heightens this effect and the gendered/sexually charged connotations of the pistol. In a performance of The Beggar's Opera, the appearance of pistols onstage would have helped create excitement and tension among the audience.


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774)

In Goethe's hugely popular epistolary novel, the protagonist uses his friend's pistols to shoot himself. The passage describing Werther's death pays great attention to detail, emphasising the painfulness and grotesqueness of fatalities by pistol in the 18th century. Moreover, the length of the passage accentuates the drawn-out nature of the death; oftentimes the ineffective power or inaccuracy of a flintlock meant that decease was not instantaneous, but could occur hours after the shooting. In the case of Werther, he shoots himself at midnight but only dies 12 hours later, at midday. The vivid description and mentions of the profuse amount of blood produced evoke a sense of discomfort: "He had shot himself above the right eye, blowing out his brains. [...] from the blood on the back-rest of the chair it could be deduced that that he committed the deed sitting at his desk, then sank to the floor, thrashing convulsively about the chair. He was found lying on his back near the window, all strength gone, fully clothed, wearing his boots and buff waistcoat" (Goethe 134). The surgeon who is called to attend to Werther realises nothing can be done, and there is a sense of painful anxiety as the group present await his death: "Werther had been laid on his bed, his head bandaged, his face already deathlike; he could not move his limbs. His lungs still produced a fearful death-rattle" (Goethe 134). Critics have made the connection between Goethe's work and the real life suicide of Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem which took place in 1772.

Werther was a literary phenomenon and, as has been suggested, may have been responsible for various "copy-cat suicides" which occurred after its publication. As a result, the novel and the style of dress associated with Werther - the buff waistcoat, blue frock coat and boots - were apparently banned in Leipzig, the place of its publication, and various other European cities during the 1770s. The cover art for the 1989 Penguin edition of the novel (Fig. 16) alludes to the protagonist's iconic/offending outfit.  

Charles Moore's 1790 work, A full Inquiry into the Subject of Suicide. To which are added two Treatises on Duelling and Gaming, directly responded to Goethe's novel and it's handling of the theme of suicide by pistol. Moore, taking the novel as a true story, condemns its publication as a work which promotes suicide: “a man can scarce do a more extensive injury to society, than by publishing an interesting and affecting tale, which, when sifted to the bottom, is found to be full of irreligious and dangerous principles of conduct” (144). Moore also notes that the book has been banned in Geneva because of its content, further criticising the apparent affect that the portrayal of Werther's suicide has had on readers: “an editor, not desirous of encouraging or seeming to approve of suicide, should not have exposed such a scene to the public eye, without mature deliberation on its probable consequences […] many a wretched self-victim to his passions has been found groping with equal avidity in the awful moment his sword and these Sorrows: and many a deluded female has been discovered in the hour of her self-destruction, to have reclined her aching head(s) on this poisonous tale” (146-147). Although Moore suggests that these suicides have been aided with the use of a sword, he may have simply used the word for its symbolic and alliterative purposes. Werther inspired suicides often followed the novel's example of using a pistol. An extract from a 1798 Morning Post newspaper (Fig. 17) links a pistol suicide with the deceased's affiliation with Goethe's work, describing a "German Gentleman who lately shot himself at his lodgings in the City Road, was a very great admirer, and in many respects a copyist of his countryman Werter".  These texts all observe therefore, an unfortunate association with the pistol and suicide in the 18th century; the image of the pistol in Goethe's work is inevitably seen as part of its larger effect as a mechanism of suicide. 


Fig. 16 - Cover art for Penguin's 1989 The Sorrows of Young Werther

Fig. 17 - News Article from The Morning Post, 1798 


Elizabeth Inchbald, A Simple Story (1791)

Inchbald in her novel provides an intriguing insight into 18th century culture and society, exploring the themes of class and status, and how this would have determined the appropriate conduct for men and women at the time. In Volume I, Chapters 13-16, the characters of Dorriforth and Lord Frederick become engaged in a duel as a result of Dorriforth’s hitting Lord Frederick, who has acted in a forward manner towards Miss Milner. Inchbald writes: “His lordship brought her [Miss Milner’s] hand to his lips and began to devour it with kisses, when Dorriforth with an instantaneous impulse, rushed forward, and struck him a blow in the face” (61). Dorriforth's almost immediate remorse for his volatile actions accentuates his transgression of accepted behavioural norms according to the society in which he finds himself, and conveys the indignity of a physical blow to an upper class gentleman in the 18th century. After this incident, Lord Frederick rides off, but sends an officer to Dorriforth's place with a challenge to a duel the next morning. Dorriforth selects Lord Elmwood as his Second. Sandford’s opinion of the duel reflects 18th century attitudes towards this “libertine” (Inchbald 68) activity: “Sandford […] was enraged at Dorriforth for the cause of this challenge, but was still more enraged at his wickedness in accepting it” (Inchbald 66). Sandford intends on intervening and “saving not only the blood of his friend, but of preventing the scandal of his being engaged in a duel” (Inchbald 66). The attitudes expressed in this section of the text reflect contemporary thoughts towards the practice of duelling in the 18th century, and also how the act of a duel took place and the traditions it required. In this instance, the disagreement and ensuing violence are over a man's advances towards a woman; indeed, such incidents were not at all uncommon and a majority of the reported duels were between two men fighting over a woman. In the novel, the incident of Dorriforth’s offence is settled by his being wounded by Lord Frederick, but luckily his wound is not fatal. Dorriforth informs Miss Milner: “I have the pleasure to assure you Lord Frederick is safe […] the disgrace of his blow washed entirely away, by a few drops of blood from this arm” (Inchbald 77). Dorriforth's calm and brief explanation quoted here reflects a number of ideas regarding the act of duelling with pistols; firstly, that it was a fairly normal and common practice for gentlemen, secondly that it was an effective means of acquitting an offence and finally, his tone and demeanour in the delivery of this statement reflect a hint of masculine pride in his having been wounded and being able to withstand the pain it has caused. Inchbald goes on to describe the physical aftermath of the fight, accentuating the severity of the situation: “She [Miss Milner] cast her eyes there, and seeing where the ball had entered the coat sleeve, she gave an involuntary scream” (77). By describing graphically how the bullet can be seen as having entered Dorriforth's arm, Inchbald ensures that the duel in A Simple Story is not seen just as an act of romantic masculine courage and honour, but as responsible for grievous bodily harm and a danger to life. 





Primary Sources 

"Advertisements and Notices".  Adam's Weekly Courant. Chester, October 3, 1780. Gale Primary Sources. Accessed 22 March 2018. 

"Advertisements and Notices". Adam's Weekly Courant. Chester, June 30 1778. Gale Primary Sources. Accessed 22 March 2018. 

These two advertisements were useful as they provided me with a price for 18th century firearms and a gave a small insight into the gun-making business. I thought it was very interesting that even the gunsmith himself acknowledged the inefficiency of his own weapons in the advert.  


Advice to Seconds: General Rules and Instructions for all Seconds in Duels., By a Late Captain in the Army. London: John Ware, 1793. Google Books. Accessed 22 March 2018. 

Not only was this text incredibly useful for understanding duelling rituals and rules, but the infusion of the writer's opinions on the matter help to build an idea of how the practice was regarded in 18th century society. 


An Act to Prevent the Importation of Arms and Gunpowder, and Ammunition into this Kingdom; and the removing and keeping of Gunpowder, Arms, and Ammunition without Licence. Dublin: George Grierson, 1793. Historical Texts. Accessed 22 March 2018. 

There was not much regulation of personal firearms during the 18th century so I was surprised to find a law which was imposed by such an astoundingly severe fine. I'm not entirely sure whether this Act was introduced as a means of reducing pistol crimes or whether it was meant to protect the Irish gun-making industry. I interpreted it as the former simply because there seemed to be a loudly resounding voice of complaint against pistols and duels towards the end of the 18th century, which the publication of this Act coincides with.


Amendment II to the United States Constitution. Bill of Rights. New York: Bankson, Benjamin and William Lambert, 1789. Web. National Archives: America's Founding Documents. Accessed 25 March 2018.  

This Amendment has been frequently quoted in recent times as anti-gun debates have become increasingly heated. Seeing as it falls within the 18th century I thought it would be interesting to consider this law within its historical context. 


"Duelling". Hull Packet. Hull, September 6, 1808. Gale Primary Sources. Accessed 22 March 2018.

The story of Campbell was intriguing; it indicated that no man was exempt from the law and reminded the reader of the illegality of duelling. The newspaper flatters Campbell and evokes sympathy for him and his wife. This article reinforced the notion that many men engaged in pistol duels, including those considered to be of responsible disposition. It is a shame that the reason for the duel was not documented - As such well loved individuals, one can only hope that Campbell and Boyd did not die in vain! 


"Epistle from the Right Honourable G.C to Lord G.G". Morning Chronicle. London, 1801. Gale Primary Sources. Accessed 22 March 2018.

This poem provided a more positive and lighthearted take on the use of the pistol. I felt it also illuminated the relationship between masculinity, honour and the pistol. 


"Extraordinary Female Duel". Le Belle Assemblée, or, Bell's Court and Fashionable Magazine Addressed Particularly to the Ladies. London, Thursday September 1, 1808. Gale Primary Sources. Accessed 22 March 2018.

This article was a reprint from Meiner's work, but interesting because it appeared in a woman's magazine. It seemed to lift the tone of the piece quite dramatically by removing Meiner's condemnations of the two women's behaviour.


 Frances, Henry."On Duelling". The Lady's Magazine Vol., 32. London, 1801, pp.244-246. Web. Defining Gender. Accessed 22 March 2018. 

An excellent example of anti-duel rhetoric, the language used is particularly suggestive. I was interested to see that this article was placed in a woman's magazine; evidently the anti-duel debate was integrated into all spheres of society. 


Gay, John. The Beggar's Opera (1728). Infomotions inc., 2001. web. ebook central Proquest. Accessed 22 March 2018. 

Various scenes in the opera reinforce the association between bandits, crime and pistols which was a part of 18th century life. 


"General Hamillton and the Vice President Burr". Caledonian Mercury. Edinburgh, 1804. Gale Primary Sources. Accessed 22 March 2018.

A reprint from a New York paper. The fact that this was being reported in Scotland indicates that it was an event of global renown and suggests that the journalism/news industry of the 18th century was not quite as slow paced and uninformed as one might think from today's perspective. I was pleased to see that the "ten full paces" distance of the duel was listed in the article and this was a motivation for including the excerpt in the project. 


Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), trans. Michael Hulse. London: Penguin, 1989. Print. 

Goethe's novel was hugely popular and it's graphic and potentially sympathetic depiction of suicide made it a source of controversy. This literary work helped to communicate the painful and slow death that could result from suicide by pistol. 


Inchbald, Elizabeth. A Simple Story (1791) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print. 

Inchbald effectively communicated contemporary attitudes to duels through the characters, such as Sandford. I felt that the addition of the duel emphasised the principals' masculinity and honour, making them all the more appealing as romantic heroes. 


"Love and Suicide". Morning Post. London, January 16 1798. Gale Primary Sources. Accessed 22 March 2018. 

One of the many examples of copy-cat suicides resulting from the publication of Werther - the writer implies that the similarities between the victim and Werther are related to the fact that they are both German - the article has a very sensational tone. 


Mease, James. The Surgical Works of the Late John Jones M.D., 3rd Edition. Philadelphia: Wrigley and Berriman, 1795. Web. Historical Texts. Accessed 22 March 2018. 

This work gave detailed descriptions of firearm wounds and how 18th century medicine was used to treat them. Although the work mostly focused on wounds caused by musket balls as opposed to pistol bullets, one can infer the similarities. 


Meiner, Christoph. The History of the Female Sex: A View of the Habits, Manners and Influence of Women, among all Nations, from the earliest Ages to the Present Times, Vol. III. London: Henry Colburn, 1808. Internet Archive. Accessed 22 March 2018. 

One cannot be certain whether the alleged duel between the two french women actually took place, but Meiner's work is detailed and informative, and considering that the volume benefits from extensive research one can assume that the legendary duel was probably real. Meiner expresses very unfavourable opinions towards the french court and the behaviour of the courtiers which made for an interesting read. 


Moore, Charles. A full Inquiry into the Subject of Suicide., To which are added two Treatises on Duelling and GamingLondon: J.F and C Rivington, 1790. Historical Texts. Accessed 22 March 2018.

Moore's opinions on Werther were by no means a surprise and confirmed the scandalous reputation that Goethe's text received after publication. 


Plume, James."Pistol Duel"  The Times. London, Jul. 17, 1789. Gale Primary Sources. Accessed 22 March 2018.

I felt compelled to include this mostly due to the palpably infuriated tone of the writer. This article also gave a very detailed account of how and, importantly, why the duel took place. 


Young, Sir William. Instructions for the Armed Yeomanry. Oxford: R. Slatter, 1798. Historical Texts. Google Books. Accessed 22 March 2018.

Young's instruction manual was a fascinating read, particularly the sections which explained how the Yeomanry coped with the awkwardness of 18th flintlock pistols when fighting. The directions in this manual also help to clarify the process for loading a flintlock which was by no means a simple task. It made me think about how different war was in the 18th century compared to today as a result of the development of weaponry. 


Secondary Sources: 

Byam, Michèle. Arms & Armour. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2011.  

I bought this book while visiting the Royal Armouries collection at the Tower of London. This was one of the first books I looked at it in order to gather a basic understanding of flintlocks. 


Lenk, Torsten. The Flintlock: Its Origin, Development and Use, trans. G.A. Urquart. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2007. 

This work was useful for bibliography sources as well as giving a general introduction to the history of firearms. Lenk included a lot of images of antique guns, which showed the great variation in engraving styles and how elaborate or simple an individual's pistol design could be. The diagrams included in the work also helped me to visually understand how the flintlock functioned. 


Shoemaker, Robert B. The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth-Century England. London: London and Hambledon, 2004. Google Books. Accessed 21 March 2018 

Shoemaker, Robert B. The Taming of the Duel: Masculinity, Honour and Ritual Violence in London, 1660-1800.” The Historical Journal, vol. 45, no. 3, 2002, pp. 525–545. JSTOR. Accessed 21 March 2018.

Shoemaker has written extensively on life in 18th century London. His work on violence in the city, specifically duels, was incredibly detailed; it helped me understand the duel as a cultural custom and what the duel meant in terms of masculinity and honour for British citizens. Shoemaker's work was also useful as it referenced a lot of primary sources and gave some helpful statistics on the subject as well.  



Fig. 1. Graph depicting use of the terms "pistol" and "duel" in texts from 1660-1830. Google Books Ngram Viewer. Accessed 25 March 2018.

Fig. 2. "Advertisements and Notices".  Adam's Weekly Courant. Chester, October 3, 1780. Gale Primary Sources. Accessed 22 March 2018.

Fig. 3. Animation of flintlock firing. Wikipedia: created by BBODO, 6 November 2012. Accessed 26 March 2018. 

Fig. 4. Flintlock military pistol - Light Cavalry model (1744), Royal Armouries. Accessed 22 March 2018.

Fig. 5. Bickham, George. Thomas Brown the Valiant Dragoon, c.1743. The British Museum Collection Online. Accessed 22 March 2018. 

Fig. 6.  Noble, George. English Horse Exercise, 1793. The British Museum Collection Online. Accessed 22 March 2018.

Fig. 7. Flintlock pocket pistol (1780), Royal Armouries Collections. Accessed 22 March 2018.

Fig. 8.  Advice to Seconds: General Rules and Instructions for all Seconds in Duels., By a Late Captain in the ArmyLondon: John Ware, 1793. Google Books. Accessed 22 March 2018. 

Fig. 9. Cruikshank, George. Preparing for a Duel, 1824. The British Museum Collection Online. Accessed 22 March 2018.

Fig. 10. Darly, Matthew. Modern Honour, 1777. British Museum Collection Online. Accessed 22 March 2018.

Fig. 11.  Anon. The Juvenile Sportsman, c. 1800s-1850s. British Museum Collection Online. Accessed 22 March 2018.

Fig. 12. Anon. The Petticoat Duelists. Carlton-House Magazine. London: W&J Stratfords, 1792. Yale University Library Digital Collections. Accessed 22 March 2018.
Fig. 13. Cruikshank, Isaac. 
The Modern Hannibals or Petty Coat Valour, 1791. The British Museum Collection Online. Accessed 22 March 2018.

Fig. 14. Meiner, Christoph. The History of the Female Sex: A View of the Habits, Manners and Influence of Women, among all Nations, from the earliest Ages to the Present Times, Vol. III. London: Henry Colburn, 1808. Internet Archive. Accessed 22 March 2018.

Fig. 15. Amendment II to the United States Constitution. Bill of Rights. New York: Bankson, Benjamin and William Lambert, 1789. Web. National Archives. Accessed 25 March 2018.  

Fig. 16. Runge, Philipp Otto. Self Portrait, 1805. 

Fig. 17. "News". Morning Post. London, January 16 1798. Gale Primary Sources. Accessed 22 March 2018.

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