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10 Famous Duels

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Duels have a long and colorful—though sometimes tragic—history. The origins of dueling are uncertain, but by the 16th century duels had become a popular means of settling real or imagined slights. Despite efforts to ban them, duels remained widespread for several centuries; the last one in France reportedly took place in 1967. Of the thousands of duels on record, we’ve selected 10 that are particularly notable.

  • Bring an oar to a sword fight

    Legendary Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi tasted defeat once in the year 1600 and was thereby reduced to a masterless samurai (rōnin). He would not endure failure again, and the painter-writer-warrior reportedly went on to win each of his more than 60 duels. In what would be his final match before retiring, Musashi faced his rival Sasaki Kojirō, whose skill with a blade was believed to be equal to that of Musashi. On the way to the duel’s location on the small Japanese island of Ganryū-jima in 1612, Musashi carved a wooden sword out of an oar. With this makeshift weapon, Musashi went on to win the duel by fatally striking Kojirō in a counterattack. The event is commemorated by two statues that depict Kojirō and Musashi eternally locked in their battle—complete with the oar.

  • Mighty steeds

    On January 18, 1593, King Naresuan of Siam (now Thailand) led forces against those under Crown Prince Mingyi Swa of Myanmar (Burma) in a battle that would confirm Siam’s independence. Myanmar had conquered Siam in 1569. Naresuan renounced vassalage to Myanmar in 1584 and withstood several offensives during the following nine years. While there are numerous conflicting accounts of the historic battle of 1593, the most famous retelling involves a spectacular duel between the two leaders—atop elephants. The deadly encounter, involving the massive beasts and a team of men riding each, ended with Naresuan killing the crown prince. Left without a leader, the Myanmar army dispersed, and peace ensued between the two powers for 150 years. January 18 is celebrated as Royal Thai Armed Forces Day in honor of the victory.

  • Andrew Jackson versus everyone

    A military hero and the seventh U.S. president, Andrew Jackson was also something of a hothead. He was involved in numerous duels—some accounts estimate 100—and many of them were in defense of his wife, Rachel, who was a frequent object of ridicule and malicious rumors. Her abusive first husband, Lewis Robards, falsely accused her of adultery, and in 1791 she married Jackson after mistakenly believing that her divorce from Robards had been finalized, thus earning the label of bigamist. In 1806 Jackson challenged Charles Dickinson to a duel in part because he had impugned Rachel’s reputation. Dickinson was an accomplished duelist, and he shot Jackson in the chest. The wound, however, was not fatal, and Jackson returned fire, fatally striking Dickinson.

  • The petticoat duel

    Duels were not just limited to men. In 1792 Lady Almeria Braddock took offense at a comment a Mrs. Elphinstone made about her age: according to some reports, Braddock claimed to be not yet 30, while Elphinstone said that she was actually more than 60. The women opted to resolve the spat by dueling in London’s Hyde Park. Both women fired their pistols but missed. The duel could have ended at that point, but the women decided to try their hands at swords. After receiving a wound to her arm, Elphinstone said that she would write a letter of apology.

  • Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr

    Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr had a long and acrimonious relationship. The former treasury secretary openly disliked Burr, and on numerous occasions Hamilton had tried to thwart his political aspirations. Things came to a head in 1804, when Hamilton campaigned against Burr while running for governor of New York. After Hamilton was said to hold a “despicable opinion” of his adversary, Burr, who was then vice president, challenged Hamilton to a duel. Although Hamilton opposed the practice—his eldest son had died in a duel three years earlier—he accepted. The two faced off in Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton was shot in the abdomen and died the following day. His death caused outrage, and Burr’s political career was effectively over.

  • “Avert your eyes, you lustful wretches”

    One hundred years after the petticoat duel, Princess Pauline Metternich and Countess Kielmannsegg had an argument over floral arrangements at a musical exhibition. Understandably, the women decided to duel. Topless. The reason? Any clothing pushed into a wound could cause an infection. The potential injury from a sword was oddly overlooked. With women serving as the seconds and Baroness Lubinska presiding, it was the first “emancipated duel.” After the men had turned their backs, the women began fighting with swords, and each received wounds. As they cried out, the men attempted to provide aid. However, Baroness Lubinska beat them with her umbrella and called them “lustful wretches,” thinking their motives weren’t entirely altruistic.

  • Bard versus berserker

    Egill Skallagrímsson had a larger-than-life persona: a 10th-century Icelandic skaldic poet who was quick to trade verses or blows. As the subject of Egils saga (c. 1220; translated in The Sagas of Icelanders), he is presented as something of an antihero. However, in one tale, the warrior-poet faces off against a true villain. The saga tells that Skallagrímsson was visiting with a friend’s family when he learned that a Swedish berserker and fiend named Ljot the Pale had challenged one of the family members, Fridgeir, to a duel to the death. Fridgeir was young and inexperienced, so Skallagrímsson baited Ljot into fighting him instead. Mocking him with poetry all the while, Skallagrímsson pushed his enemy to exhaustion before separating his leg from his body with a cut of a sword. Fridgeir was spared, the brute vanquished, and Skallagrímsson inherited his opponent’s property as winnings.

  • From horseback to the silver screen

    In the late 1300s Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris went from good friends to bitter enemies, and de Carrouges’s wife, Marguerite, later accused Le Gris of raping her. After months of investigation and a court trial, the two French knights agreed on a duel to settle the score and seek God’s judgment. Should Le Gris be victorious and slay de Carrouges, Marguerite would be executed for her false claim. The combatants faced each other on horseback, and several sources state that Le Gris drew first blood, but de Carrouges rebounded to knock Le Gris to the ground. He gave Le Gris several chances to confess, all of which were denied. De Carrouges killed his enemy with a sword, redeeming both his and his wife’s honor. Marguerite’s side of the story takes center stage in the 2021 film The Last Duel, with Jodie Comer playing the noblewoman alongside Matt Damon and Adam Driver as her husband and the couple’s adversary, respectively.

  • ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib and ʿAmr ibn ʿAbd Wadd

    In March 627 Muhammad and his Muslim forces were once again assailed by a Meccan army, some two years after being defeated at Uḥud. Ten thousand men, both Meccans and Bedouins, gathered outside the Muslim community in Medina. In defense, Muhammad commanded his army to dig a trench around the settlement, preventing the enemy horsemen from launching a strong attack. According to Islamic tradition, ʿAmr ibn ʿAbd Wadd led a group of Arabs across the ditch and then challenged the Muslims to a duel. ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib accepted, and his cousin Muhammad provided his blessing. Although he was wounded, ʿAlī ultimately killed ʿAmr. Some say he struck ʿAmr so severely that his body split in two. The Muslims won the Battle of the Ditch thanks to ʿAlī and their superior strategy.

  • Marta Duran and Juana Luna

    In May 1900 Marta Duran entered a ball in Mexico with her beau Rafael Riquelme. His eye drifted one too many times toward another eligible woman at the party, Juana Luna. Before long the two women began arguing and eventually proposed a duel. The group took two carriages to Romita, where the sword combat took place. It wasn’t a quick affair, lasting three rounds. Both sides took hits, but Luna eventually won by injuring Duran’s chest and sword-carrying arm. Duran renounced Riquelme, and a surgeon was called to see to her serious wounds. Since she needed medical attention, the authorities became involved, and both women and their seconds were arrested. In the end neither Duran nor Luna stayed with Riquelme.