Deloping

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Delope (French for "throwing away") is the practice of throwing away one's first fire in a pistol duel, in an attempt to abort the conflict. According to most traditions, the deloper must first allow his opponent the opportunity to fire after the command ("present") is issued by the second, without hinting at his intentions. The Irish code duello forbids the practice of deloping explicitly.

The delope could be attempted for practical reasons, such as if one duelist thought their opponent was superior in skill, so as not to provoke a fatal return shot. Deloping could also be done for moral reasons if the duelist had objections to attempting to kill his opponent or if he were so skilled a marksman as to make the exchange unfair. Deloping in a duel, for whatever reason, could be a risky strategy whether or not the delope was obvious to all present. Deloping with a near miss, in order to save one's honor without killing, could backfire if the opponent believed the effort to be genuine and responded with a fatal shot. Also, regardless of whether the delope was near or wide, the opponent might infer that he was being insulted as "not worth shooting" (an unworthy opponent) and either take care to aim his own shot to kill or insist on a second exchange.

However, for the opponent to insist upon a second shot after a delope was considered bloodthirsty and unbecoming. Often, it would fall to the seconds to end the duel immediately after a delope had been observed.

The term delope is specific to the use of firearms in a duel which, historically speaking, were typically flintlock pistols. These pistols were notorious for their lack of accuracy at long distances and a particularly skilled marksman might attempt to delope unnoticed with a well-placed "near-miss." The distance between the two combatants had to be great enough that all others present would assume that any miss was due to this inherent inaccuracy and not intentional. This way the shooter could avoid killing his opponent and, if accused of deloping, claim he had made a genuine effort. Also, the opponent might recognize the "near-miss" as a delope but understand that it was meant for the benefit of any witnesses present and, if the opponent was not insulted, also delope. Both parties could then claim they had each tried to shoot the other and the duel would end without any fatalities.

Notable uses[edit]

  • Alexander Hamilton, a 19th-century American politician, is thought to have attempted to delope during his infamous duel on July 11, 1804 with Aaron Burr, then the sitting Vice President of the United States. Rather than firing into the ground (as was customary for deloping), Hamilton fired into the air over Burr's head; Burr, perhaps misunderstanding his opponent's intent, fired directly at Hamilton, mortally wounding him. However, Burr's animosity towards Hamilton was such that it is not out of the question that Burr understood what Hamilton was doing and intentionally shot to kill, or at least draw blood. Other historians have proposed that Burr shot first and the wounded Hamilton reflexively pulled the trigger, which would not be an instance of delope. Ron Chernow's 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton gives this version. According to his account, the shots were all but simultaneous, with Burr's coming first according to one of the two witnesses (however, the other witness claimed Hamilton fired first, and Burr waited several seconds for the smoke to clear before firing back). Chernow does note that Hamilton claimed, in a note he left behind should he die, that he intended to throw away his first shot — a claim that Burr would later call "contemptible, if true." Regardless of its accuracy, Burr certainly had no way of knowing that.
  • William Pitt the Younger, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, chose to delope to indicate "moral superiority", having been forced into a duel with another Member of Parliament.[1]
  • On 21 March 1829, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, Prime Minister of Great Britain from 22 January 1828 to 16 November 1830, fought a duel with the Earl of Winchilsea. Wellington fired wide and later stated he deloped. Supporters of his opponent claimed he had aimed to kill, and Winchilsea was saved by Wellington's poor marksmanship. Winchilsea didn’t fire at all.
  • Joseph Howe, Nova Scotian journalist, politician, and public servant, deloped during a duel in 1840.

In fiction[edit]

  • In the 1975 film Barry Lyndon, the title character is challenged to a duel by his stepson Sir Charles, Lord Bullingdon. A preliminary coin flip gives Lord Bullingdon the privilege of first shot, only to prematurely misfire. Barry fires into the ground honorably and hopefully, but Bullingdon demands a second round, whereby Barry's leg is critically shot and requires amputation below the knee.
  • In Flashman, by George MacDonald Fraser, title character and scoundrel Harry Paget Flashman gets into a duel with a fellow officer over a woman. He promises a huge bribe to the officer responsible for loading the pistols to ensure that his opponent's pistol will have gunpowder but no bullet. When his opponent appears to miss, Flashman makes a great show of deloping and in doing so, accidentally shoots the top off of an attending doctor's brandy bottle, winning renown as a crack shot as well as a gentleman. When his opponent angrily accuses Flashman of mocking him by deloping, he responds "I didn't presume to tell you where to aim your shot; don't tell me where I should have aimed mine." He later blithely refuses to pay the bribe, noting that the loader cannot publicly complain of bad faith without admitting to a capital crime.
  • In Episode 3, of Book 1 of the television miniseries North and South, the character Charles Main fights a duel in which his opponent fires first and misses, then collapses in fear while waiting for Main's return shot. Main delopes and is surprised when the spectators applaud him - they view his conduct as both courageous and generous as he has refrained from killing his opponent, who had shown himself to be a coward.
  • In AMC's Turn: Washington Spies Season 1 Episode 7 "Mercy Moment Murder Measure," John Simcoe delopes after Abraham Woodhull misses and Anna Strong and Judge Woodhull try to intervene. Woodhull then demands a reload (thus clearly showing his bloodlust), but the duel is halted.

In game theory[edit]

Deloping may be the best strategy for a duelist with lower accuracy than both his opponents in a truel (against rational opponents) when he is given first fire. Both opponents will recognize each other as the biggest threat and take each other out, leaving the deloping shooter unharmed.

References[edit]

  • Flemming, Thomas (1999). The Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America. New York: Perseus Books. pp. 8–9. ISBN 0-465-01736-3. 

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Reilly, Robin. William Pitt the Younger. New York, 1978: 358-359.