How to Win a Duel

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So you’ve been challenged to a duel? Don’t worry—you’re in good company. Anybody who’s anybody has dueled once or twice, from presidents like Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln to artists like Edouard Manet and Miguel Cervantes. For centuries, duels were the ideal way to defend your honor after an insult, but in the present day, shooting a rival is considered terrible form, which is why instead of being the deadliest man in your duel, you should work on being the cleverest. The last thing you want to do is actually fight a duel, so use your brain to get out of the situation with your honor intact.

1) Mind Your Manners

One of the reasons dueling remained popular late into the 19th century was because people believed it made society more civilized. The 1937 manual The Art of Dueling argues that the risk of a duel made everyone act nicer: “The great gentleness and complacency of modern manners . . . must be ascribed, in some degree to this absurd custom.” Of course, another way to act nicer is to not shoot people over arguments.

2) But Don’t Say No

If challenged to a duel, accept it. A refusal will stain your reputation, especially since according to dueling etiquette the challenger is entitled to walk the nearest newspaper and print an article accusing you of cowardice. For politicians, bad press like that was career suicide. That’s why so many officeholders in the 18th and 19th centuries dueled—reputations were on the line.

3) Get Caught Up In The Rules

Okay, so you’ve accepted the duel. The key now is to get out of this pickle without getting injured or hurting your rival. So use the rulebook to your advantage. The most popular dueling rulebook, Code Duello, was written in 1777, and its 25 rules were meant to be complex. Follow them, and you and your challenger may become so bogged down discussing logistics that cooler heads may prevail. In fact, that’s exactly why the code was written: to decrease injuries and increase the chances for apologies.

4) Order Seconds

After a challenge, ask your most obsessive-compulsive friend to be your second. A second acts as a witness and part-time referee, making sure all the rules are followed. It’s also the second’s job to defuse the situation, sweet-talking both sides into apologizing. Just ask Mark Twain.

When publisher James Laird challenged the author to a duel, Twain’s second, Steve Gillis, took the author out target shooting. Twain was an awful shot. So before the duel, a quick-thinking Gillis grabbed a chicken and blasted its head off. When Twain’s challenger saw the bird, Gillis convinced him that Twain did it. It scared Laird so much he called off the duel.

5) Choose Your Weapons

There’s a big advantage to being the one who gets challenged: You get to pick the weapon. You are allowed to pick anything—so choose wisely. In the 1860s, German statesman Otto von Bismarck challenged doctor Rudolf Virchow to a duel. Weighing his options, Virchow supposedly skipped the rapier and pistol and chose to arm himself with sausage. He challenged Bismarck to eat two pork sausages, one of which was infected with the roundworm Trichinella. Bismark bowed out.

6) Pick Your Spots

As the challenged, you also get to pick the location. When James Shields challenged Abraham Lincoln in 1842, Abe decided to host the duel in a pit near the Mississippi River. Lincoln divided the pit with a board and declared that neither man could cross it. Dueling with broadswords, Shields realized that lanky Lincoln had a far longer reach. The two quickly made peace.
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If you’ve followed these steps, you should have defused any tensions with your rival and exchanged apologies. Want to really bury the hatchet? Buy him a cold Dos Equis. Who could stay mad at someone who buys such a refreshing beer?