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I'm aware of a history of duelling in European cultures over a number of centuries. Usually the result of one or other party being insulted and it seems to only 'count' as a duel if there's a good chance of someone dying.

It seems to have been common-place to duel with swords, and later with pistols. Was there ever a recorded instance of people duelling with bows? If not, why not?

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3 Answers 3

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Yes, bows have been used to fight a duel, according to this

...seems to have occurred in 1791 when two gentlemen fought a duel with bows and arrows at Edinburgh shooting three arrows each without damaging each other

from the book Archery. It doesn't mention how much alcohol had been consumed first (brings back images from Highlander)...

Tracing the references ends with Scottish journal of topography, antiquities, traditions, etc. etc. etc., vol. I, 1847, p. 96:

enter image description here enter image description here

So the event occurred on the 10th of February of 1791, in the Meadows, Edinburgh, with seconds. Hence a proper duel. The report is of an event from half a century earlier -- perhaps the newspapers of the day reveal more details!

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  • Thanks for the update, Peter! I seen the original source, but never dreamed it would be available also.
    – justCal
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 20:47
  • Good answer! I suppose I was imprecise, this answer is correct in that there is a recorded example. Of course, other answers are also correct to say it hasn't been commonplace, and why.
    – AJFaraday
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 23:16
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    Seems curious that the bow and arrow is referred to as "Indian artillery" in the article. Does this mean that the bows used were not traditional British longbows, or that they had simply become more familiar as (American?) Indian weapons?
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 5:09
  • That phrase confused me for a bit also. I guess when the article was written in 1847 the association was stronger to the American Indians.
    – justCal
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 12:07
  • @SteveBird My interpretation, for what it's worth: The article pokes fun at the idea of bows and arrows as dueling weapons, implying that it's unlikely anyone would actually be injured and quipping that the seconds might be in more danger (from errant shots) than the principals. The phrase "Indian artillery" would then be a derogatory way of calling bows and arrows uncouth, technologically backward, and ineffective. Presumably, the author believed civilized men should shoot each other with guns instead. :P
    – DLosc
    Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 15:25
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Negativa non sunt probanda. If really bow duelling never occurs, it is very hard to find out an inherent evidence.

In my knowledge of Italian crime law, the more lightly punished "delitti cavallereschi" (crime law offenses related to cavalry customs, and so somehow perceived as less heavy) were possible only if duellers had used specified "cavalry-fair weapons", which surely didn't include bows.

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The point of a duel is to defend one's reputation against an insufferable insult. The duel demonstrates that the individuals in question are gentlemen with courage and conviction and that each values his reputation more than his life.

Swords and pistols serve that purpose very well. Both effectively require that one face one's opponent and demonstrate courage. Each party (and their seconds) can see that the other stands firm and does blink or flinch.

Bows don't provide that; I suppose it is possible to use a bow at a range close enough to see whether the opponent blinks, but if you are at that range, then swords or pistols are a better choice.

In comments above, we got drawn off into a side discussion of whether bows were used by the nobility; while there were cases where nobles used bows, I'd wager the bow was never the weapon of choice for a noble. The defining weapon of the noble class is the sword, and if the goal is to demonstrate one's right to the title of gentleman, then the logical weapon is the sword. [A much longer answer would justify that assertion, and discuss the role of the lance and the pistol; I'm going to leave that to someone else to document]

As @Filipof says, it is impossible to prove a negative, but I'd be very surprised to discover a duel fought with a bow.

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  • Pistols are as cowardly as it can possibly get in my opinion, given the exaggerated efficiency of that weapon.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 19:49
  • @Bregalad A lot of historical duels were fought using manually loaded, one-shot pistols. Not exactly the most efficient weapon in history. Also, whatever the weapon, the other combatant has one, too. The weapon lends the same strength to the other guy.
    – AJFaraday
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 20:06
  • Duels are fought by gentlemen; nobility is head and shoulders higher up in the social hierarchy. Every lowly ensign in the Navy is technically "an officer and a gentleman". Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 23:17

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