Recently I read about Charles Dickinson, and his death on a duel with Andrew Jackson (then a general, later a US President). According to this link, Jackson killed him in a breach of dueling etiquette

Jackson received Dickinson's first bullet in the chest next to his heart. Jackson put his hand over the wound to staunch the flow of blood and stayed standing long enough to fire his gun. Dickinson's seconds claimed Jackson's first shot misfired, which would have meant the duel was over, but, in a breach of etiquette, Jackson re-cocked the gun and shot again, this time killing his opponent.

from May 30, 1806: Andrew Jackson kills Charles Dickinson in duel

While according to Wikipedia it is generally acceptable, although the locals didn't like this:

Locals were outraged that Dickinson had to stand defenseless while Jackson re-cocked and shot him, even though it was acceptable behavior in a duel (my emphasis). Jackson could have shot in the air or shot only to injure Dickinson; this would have been considered sufficient satisfaction under dueling rules.

Wikipedia: Charles Dickinson (historical figure)

Was this an acceptable behaviour according to duelling customs at that time? If yes, why did the locals complain about it? If no, why didn't Dickinson's second do something about it?

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    The second quote makes little sense, I think. Jackson's pistol had a misfire. Had the dueling rules said that a misfire counts as an actual shot, that would have been unfair but dura lex - but the rules do allow one an extra shot if the pistol misfired. In which case I don't see why the person whose gun misfired and who is allowed by the rules to shoot again (this being his effectively only one chance to hit the opponent) is supposed to shoot in the air instead of hitting the opponent. How is that fair? Nov 23, 2013 at 8:38
  • Answer is in the question. The act was acceptable according to the customs of the times. However Dickinson's friends were judging the action by non-objective criteria.
    – MCW
    Nov 26, 2013 at 17:37

1 Answer 1


First, Jackson was within his rights. My recollection (of a piece I read years ago) was that when Jackson's pistol misfired, it was Dickinson's second who forced Dickinson to stand for Jackson's second shot, which Jackson was allowed, under the rules.

My further understanding is that both Dickinson and Jackson violated the "unwritten" rules; that in a duel, the need to preserve one's honor required one only to shoot to wound, not kill. (And even firing in the air was acceptable, especially if it was "close.") Dickinson violated that "rule" by shooting close enough to Jackson's heart to kill, and missing by a fraction of an inch.

After this, Jackson was not inclined to grant Dickinson any mercy, especially since the duel was fought over Dickinson insulting Jackson's wife. But pro Dickinson people (the majority in this group of "locals"_ were understandably mad that Jackson shot to kill, even though Dickinson had done the same.

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    H.W. Brands, in his Jackson biography, notes that Dickinson's second subsequently defended Jackson in the press. Brands argues that the animus directed at Jackson after this incident had less to do with a breach of dueling etiquette than with the fact that Jackson was dueling in the first place: a man of his age and eminence was expected to be above this.
    – two sheds
    Nov 12, 2014 at 17:37
  • @twosheds: Jackson was a much older man, who "out" for the blood of the younger Dickinson for insulting his wife. I won't incur Jackson's wrath by repeating what Dickinson said, except that it alluded to the fact that wife was not well thought of in "society."
    – Tom Au
    Nov 12, 2014 at 21:04
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    Agreed. I think all of the sources linked to by OP overestimate the acceptability of dueling by the early 19th century. James Robertson, a founder of Nashville and friend of Jackson's, counseled Jackson (Brands p.134): "[I] do hear the false honor of dueling ridiculed by most thinking persons . . . You will have more than ten to one which will applaud your prudence in avoiding a duel." After the duel, 72 prominent residents of Nashville petitioned the city's papers to "drape their pages in mourning for Dickinson" (139).
    – two sheds
    Nov 12, 2014 at 21:28

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