The Practice Of Firing A Purposefully Inaccurate Shot In A Pistol Duel Is Known As?
Although pistol duels might seem like fodder for cartoons and over-the-top historical fiction, there was a period in history—starting in the 18th century and extending well into the 19th century—when pistol duels were a staple of conflict resolution among aristocratic men.
Not only were the rules of dueling rather formal, but there were even subtle levels of etiquette in the dueling process. Among those, though rarely formally acknowledged by the participants, was the practice of “deloping”. To “delope”, French for “throwing away”, was the practice of purposely firing an inaccurate initial shot during the duel. Why would you throw away what might be, potentially, your only chance at surviving the duel?
Although the results of duels were often deadly, they shared more in common with posturing in the animal kingdom than in actual fatal combat in most instances. Often times, neither participant in the duel actually wanted to die (or to kill) and the act of deloping allowed the participants to go through the motions of the duel without actually fully engaging in the duel. Typically, the lesser marksman among the two would delope, which would send a subtle signal to the other marksman that he wasn’t a threat and didn’t wish to actually bring the dual to a bloody closure.
There is much historical debate as to whether or not the fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, depicted here, was an example of deloping. While many historians have argued that Hamilton’s shot over Burr’s head was a form of deloping (atypical, as most deloping gestures involved firing towards the ground, but arguably a deloping one none-the-less), others have argued that Hamilton would have known the rituals inside and out and not aimed as he did if he intended to delope. Whether Burr interpreted this as such or otherwise, he returned a fatal shot.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress/Philadelphia, National Pub Co.